9 Ways to Dodge Trolls:
A Feminist’s Guide to Digital Security
Anita Sarkeesian, the feminist and culture critic who created the Tropes vs. Women video series, is the target of more death threats this week, but this time it seems to actually be making it all the way to mainstream media, even getting calls to name it terrorism.
Sarkeesian, who apparently had the gall to have an opinion AND share it online, has reached that pinnacle position among feminists who apparently ruin mens lives. Like many others in that elite group, she’s become a target of Gamergate (more here), which seems like a legion of 4chan trolls who make lots of rape threats, among other gender-based violent acts.
While Sarkeesian’s case is appalling, it’s not an isolated incident. I’m tired of seeing this shit over and over again. I’m not gonna stand for it anymore, and neither should you. But let’s not be naive — if we poke this beast, we need to protect ourselves and our personal lives.
I thus offer to those feminists or allies who dare to publish any troll-life-ruining content a few ways to protect yourselves. Based on what I’ve read, your threat model looks a lot like mine when I worked on Mexican drug cartels and wanted to hide my location for fear of physical reprisals — against which I had little to no legal or political recourse. (Ahem, USU/FBI/Utah state legislators.)
Appalling, but nothing new.
While much of the GG BS started in August of this year, it’s hardly new. Just a week or two ago, Kathy Sierra, an OG blogger / thinker / programmer and no stranger to online abuse, left Twitter for good because she was “afraid to leave my yard.” In August, Jezebel pleaded with its parent company Gawker to change their comments system so its employees would no longer have to manually take down the dozens-to-hundreds of rape gifs posted daily.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. But to maintain sanity — yours and mine — I’ll stop there. Nonetheless, as a free speech advocate, what I find most troubling about this online terrorism is that the very specter of their threats are shutting down responses and denouncements. I just came across a tweet that made this moment feel like I was doing my usual CommunityRED work with journalists in China/Mexico/Turkmenistan/you-name-it-oppressive-state:
Was just told by someone who works at a big site that they’re not running an editorial denouncing GG because the staff is afraid of attacks.
— Frank Cifaldi (@frankcifaldi)
Disgusting, but understandable. I’d heard that claim before from women techies and journalists alike, here in the US. No one wants to be doxxed, their intimate conversations and photos exposed for all the world to ogle. Or worse, threatened with rape and murder — theirs and their loved ones — in their own homes.
Below’s a guide on how to protect your personal information from the trolls. It’s okay to do this in stages, pick and choose what is most appropriate for you, and to take breaks. If you follow these steps, you can bury much of the information that would lead someone to your doorstep.
First, know what’s out there about you and get rid of it.
- Do a google search of your name in quotes i.e., “Joanna Smith”. Carefully go through the results. For example, if your bio is posted, what does it reveal about you, your habits, your connections? Do you name your alma mater? Does its alumni site keep your address on file?
- Check out how much about you, as a matter of public record, is out there. Hit Zabasearch.com, Pipl.com, and Spokeo.com. Happily, it seems these sites are not nearly as free or thorough as they were a few years ago, but partial addresses or phone numbers, email addresses or handles will likely still show up. Here are instructions and links for OPTING OUT of those sites.
- Stay aware. Set up a Google alert of your name / handle / company name / address to ping you any time anything is posted about you on the web. Make it specific to social sites using advanced tools, e.g., site:twitter.com #hashtag.
Next, make it tough to find your house.
- Own your own home? Of course you do, you baller. But as a matter of public record, that information can easily be online or accessed. So create a privacy trust. While somewhat complex, there’s a lot of info out there to help. And you can do it yourself or pay a discount service like LegalZoom.
- Then, set up a PO box and submit your change of address form. From that moment forward, no longer use your home address.
- If mail for your partner or family living in your house still comes there, or any other mail for you still arrives at the house, shred it. Shredders aren’t expensive, but if the pile gets too large too quickly, many cities have a bulk shredding program you can take your documents to. Don’t let anything with your address leave your house — not even if it’s recyclable.
Finally, step your phone number back.
- Calls to your phone feel like the next scariest thing to someone showing up at your home. If you haven’t already, set up a Google phone number. To make it more secure, you can set it up through a dummy account (which you will likely want anyway) or turn two-factor authentication on for your current account. OR do both.
- Forward calls made to your new Google number to your phone.
- Stop using your old number, except for those you trust. If that still doesn’t feel safe, change your number and give out that number selectively. Don’t write it in emails or share it with social media or email accounts for authentication purposes.
A smattering of final do’s and don’ts and some key resources.
- Your mobile phone is literally a homing device. When you carry it, you’re giving up your location. Make it a little harder for the trolls by turning off location services (especially for photos), bluetooth, even wifi unless you need them.
- Don’t give up your locations — current AND habitual. Don’t check in on Swarm or Foursquare, don’t login to Google Maps (does it need to know your home address?!) and don’t reveal your location on anything social — no posts, tweets, or photos — while you’re still there. That goes whether you’re at the park down the street or on vacation.
- Put strong passcodes on your phone and computer. Passphrases are the strongest and easiest to remember. Use the QWERTY keyboard on an iPhone or the really complex thingie on Android.
For more on your security as a woman online, check out Violet Blue’s Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy. It’s a quick read and pretty comprehensive. For more advanced security-fu, check out Tactical Tech Coalition’s Security in a Box, with guides and explanations about tools and strategies in numerous languages. Finally, listen: This shit is horrifying and traumatic. Learning about trauma, resilience, and self-care is absolute must. Check some resources here, here and here.
Is it fair that you have to do all this while trolls get to run free? Hell no. But by taking these steps, you take back a little more of the Internet and are a little less at their mercy. Because fuck that shit. Check it: http://fuckthisshitmovement.tumblr.com/