In the middle of a global pandemic, as a wave of anti-racism activism sweeps the nation, conditions are rife for a spike in online hate and harassment. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets to protest police brutality while millions more socially distance at home, anxious and isolated, with eyes glued to phones and computer screens. In this climate of extreme uncertainty and unease, the tensions playing out IRL are sure to reverberate and escalate in the digital realm. We’ve already seen a rise in online attacks against scientists, public health experts, Asians, and Asian Americans, and we will no doubt see increased abuse targeting activists, journalists of color, and anyone commenting or reporting on the protests.
Online abuse—from impersonation accounts to hateful slurs and death threats—began with the advent of the internet itself, but the problem is pervasive and growing. A 2017 study from the Pew Research Center found that more than 40 percent of Americans have experienced online abuse, and more than 60 percent have witnessed it. People of color and LGBTQ+ people are disproportionately targeted, and women are twice as likely as men to experience sexual harassment online.
This abuse poses a direct and pressing threat to free expression, stifling underrepresented voices and intimidating the very experts providing us with the information and guidance we urgently need. At PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to celebrating and defending the written word where I work, we have seen firsthand the nefarious ways it is deployed to censor and silence. We believe that only when we develop a clear understanding of what online abuse looks like and a shared language to describe and condemn it can we strategically fight back.
With that in mind, we have worked with creative and media professionals, lawyers, psychologists, and technologists to develop a digital toolkit, the Online Harassment Field Manual, that offers comprehensive guidance on navigating online abuse in the U.S. If you or someone you know comes under attack, remember that you are not powerless. There are concrete steps you can take to defend yourself and others.
1. Identify the Abuse
Figure out what’s happening to you. Is it a mean-spirited critique? (“You’re the world’s worst writer.”) Is it an insult-riddled comment? (“You’re not only a terrible writer, you’re a moron.”) Or outright abuse containing, for example, gendered or racist slurs and threats? (“Everyone knows **** like you can’t write and deserve to die.”)
Online abuse is defined as the “repeated or severe targeting online of an individual or group through harmful behavior.” Common tactics—albeit ever-evolving and often overlapping—include: hateful speech, sexual harassment, threats of physical and sexual violence, impersonation, doxing, nonconsensual pornography, message bombing, and many more. You can find detailed definitions and examples of these terms here. If you’re being critiqued or insulted, you can choose to refute it or let it go. But if you’re being abused, naming what you’re experiencing not only signals that it’s a tangible problem but can also help you communicate with allies, employers, and law enforcement.
2. Document the Abuse
Keep in mind that if you report online abuse that violates a platform’s terms of service and succeed in getting it taken down, you could lose valuable evidence. That’s why it’s critical to document abuse before reporting it. Save emails, voicemails, and texts. Take screenshots on social media and copy direct links whenever possible. If you’re being abused repeatedly by a specific individual or group, you may want to create a log, which can help you see patterns and build up evidence.
Documentation will be necessary should you decide to engage law enforcement or pursue legal action. It can also be hugely helpful in conversations with an ally, manager, or employer, as repeating abusive comments aloud can be retraumatizing and paraphrasing them can mask their actual severity. Pointing to a screenshot is often less uncomfortable and more impactful.
3. Assess Your Safety
Has the online abuse made you concerned for your physical safety or that of your family or colleagues? The anonymity afforded by the internet, alongside the proliferation of bots and other fake accounts, can make it very hard to judge. Run through some key questions to help you assess the threat, ideally with a close friend or colleague as a sounding board:
• Do you know your abuser, and do they have a history of erratic or violent behavior?
• Is the threat directed and specific? Does it include your name, a time, a place, or a method of attack?
• Does the abuser seem irrational, for example, threatening you using their real name, email, or phone number?
• Has the abuser migrated across platforms or moved offline (e.g., voicemails, physical mail, or packages left at your door or workplace)?
The above are just red flags, but if you’re being made to feel physically unsafe in any way, trust your instincts. You may need to temporarily relocate to a hotel or a friend’s place. And, depending on the circumstances, you may also need to consider reporting to law enforcement. While not all authorities are well-trained in dealing with online abuse, at the very least you are creating a record that could be useful later. If you are not comfortable engaging with law enforcement on your own, consider bringing an ally, enlisting the help of your manager or employer (if the abuse is work-related), or consulting with a lawyer.
4. Block, Mute, Report
Blocking, muting, and reporting abuse on social media platforms are each distinct actions. You can block accounts (so they cannot communicate with or follow you), and you can sometimes mute accounts or even specific posts or words (so you don’t have to see them). You can report abuse that violates terms of service to try to get a post taken down or an account suspended.
While valuable, these tools are imperfect. Blocking can escalate abuse, muting can mask threats you may need to monitor, and reporting mechanisms are not always effective, even when abusive content blatantly violates terms of service. Enlisting allies can help: Trusted friends or colleagues can keep tabs on your mentions while you’re blocking and muting, inform you of any escalation or threats, and report with and for you.
5. Bolster Your Cybersecurity
It can be difficult to find the mental space to tackle your cybersecurity when you’re under attack, but abusive trolls will often try to access and broadcast your private information to humiliate or intimidate you. To protect yourself from hacking and impersonation, start by practicing password hygiene: use long passwords (ideally a string of words and symbols with at least 16 characters), never reuse passwords, invent answers to security questions, and set up two-factor authentication on your key personal and professional accounts (email, social media, banking, etc.). If you’re wondering how you’re going to keep track of all that, consider getting a password manager.
To protect yourself from doxing and other invasions of privacy, take some time to dox yourself (not literally), and establish firm boundaries between your personal and professional presence online.
6. Enlist Allies
While discussing online abuse can elicit feelings of fear and shame, remember that abuse is intended to isolate you. You are not alone. Seek support from friends, family, and colleagues, and deploy your wider cyber community to serve as allies. If you are being abused in retaliation for your work, are concerned about professional ramifications, or feel physically unsafe, seriously consider telling your employer or professional contacts (in writing). Your employer may be able to offer support, from mental health care to legal counsel, and help escalate your concerns to tech companies and law enforcement.
Because not everyone is equally well-versed in what online abuse is, prepare yourself for these conversations by bringing documentation, emphasizing the impact the abuse has had on your livelihood, and being clear about whether you’re asking for a listening ear or specific assistance—like helping you report, document, or assess your safety.
7. Speak Out (With Caveats!)
The standard advice “Don’t feed the trolls” is often sound. Abusers, when confronted, may escalate attacks or try to goad their targets into lashing out to get them in trouble. Speaking out against abuse, however, can also be profoundly empowering. The key is to be careful and deliberate as you decide what will work for you. One way to do this is to practice counterspeech without directly confronting your abuser. Counterspeech could involve forcefully denouncing harassment and hate, defending your reputation, reclaiming an abusive symbol or hashtag, fact-checking disinformation, and enlisting the support of your allies or employer. Some folks have even gotten creative, responding to their abusers by sending puppy photos or telling their mothers about their bad behavior. Basically, do what feels right for you—but be mindful of your employer’s social media policy and avoid resorting to abuse yourself.
8. Practice Self-Care
Remember, this is not your fault. Online abuse can elicit feelings of fear and shame. It is exhausting and demoralizing. It can do real and lasting damage to your mental, emotional, and physical health. Resist the urge to ignore how you’re feeling, and remember that people can be affected differently depending on their race, gender, sexuality, and experience. Make time for self-care. This can include anything from meditation or cooking to listening to music or going for walks. Whatever you choose, it must involve taking regular breaks from your devices.
Seeking professional mental health care can also make a big difference, especially if you get to a point where you feel hopeless or paralyzed by fear, talk about your abuse obsessively, struggle to enjoy things, or have difficulty eating or sleeping. If you do not have access to mental health care benefits through an employer, take a look at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s Guide to Affordable Mental Health Care and check out this advice from a psychologist with her own experience of online abuse.
You don’t have to follow each and every step listed above, let alone in order. In fact, you may end up doing a bunch of these things at the same time, or skipping some and coming back to others when they are most helpful. Remember that, at the individual level, it is exceedingly difficult to prevent people from being abusive online, and at the institutional level, there’s still much work to be done to improve tools for self-defense and mechanisms for accountability. But the above guidance offers a good place for individuals experiencing abuse to start.
Armed with your own wits and resilience, bolstered by concrete guidance and the support of others, you have the power to push back against abuse and protect the space for free expression in the digital realm.
A version of this article also appears on the website of the Harvard Business Review.