How to deal with online harassment

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When pandemic stay-at-home orders came into effect two years ago, internet use soared around the world. Millions of Americans suddenly relied on their phones and computers as lifelines for remote jobs, classes, now-distant family and friends, food and grocery deliveries, and a fire hose to understand the novel coronavirus.

As our lives moved largely online, so did unwelcome harassment. At a Pew Research Center survey published last year, Americans reported more serious encounters, such as physical threats, harassment, sustained harassment, and sexual harassment, compared to pre-pandemic levels. According to the Pew poll and a GLAAD reporta gay rights organization.

While advocates have called on tech companies to do more to combat online abuse and protect vulnerable users, there are things people can do to protect themselves.

Here are expert tips for identifying your online risk, maintaining online boundaries, responding to threats and more.

1. Make sure you have good digital hygiene

It’s especially important that people take steps to protect themselves from potential attacks online, say experts who study online abuse. The most fundamental of these proactive measures is good digital hygiene – in other words, making it difficult for hackers to gain access to your online accounts.

“It’s important to know that this can happen to anyone,” said Viktorya Vilk, director of the digital safety and free speech program at Pen America, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of speech. expression. “Going forward, you’ll thank the current one for everything you can do proactively.”

The first step is simple: use complex and unique passwords for each online account. Recovering a compromised account is much easier than having to deal with several simultaneously.

One of the easiest ways to keep track of your passwords is to use a password manager app. April Glaser, a fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, recommends 1Password and Last pass, both of which have free and premium versions. Each service generates unique passwords to secure accounts.

You should also check your privacy settings and enable two-factor authentication on every service that allows it. This forces users to have two ways to prove they are the owners of the accounts they are trying to access. For example, a user may need both a password and a one-time code sent via SMS to log in with two-factor authentication.

These measures may seem simple, but preventive damage control is essential, said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group.

“It’s better to do it in advance,” she said. “When you’re harassed, it’s a stressful time to batten down the hatches.”

It might sound weird, but it can be worth thinking about how you’re trolling yourself, experts say. This means finding out what information about you is publicly available. Google yourself, your phone number, and your address to see what pops up. Is there any personal information linked to you? Is it in places where you can ask for it to be removed?

“Think like someone trying to dox you,” Vilk said, referring to the practice of revealing someone’s real name, home address or other private information, published with the intent embarrass them, frighten them or endanger them.

An easy way to keep track of new information that may surface about you online is to configure Google alerts, says Vilk. The service notifies users by email whenever Google’s crawlers find new results mentioning specific words. In this case, you would want to define the keywords as your name.

But you can find your information in places you wouldn’t expect. Data brokers take loads of information from other sites to sell. Tracy Chou, founder and CEO of anti-harassment app Block Party, suggests services like Delete mewhich costs $129 per year for one user and will regularly check data broker sites and delete the information they have about you. Kanari performs a similar service for $89.99 per year.

You can do it yourself for free, although it will take you a lot longer, Glaser said. She recommends manually research each data broker site and make individual withdrawal requests. Vilk suggests you do this at least once a year, as brokers often repopulate their databases even after you delete your information.

3. Be aware of what you post

Experts agree that if you want to build an online presence, the best way to do it is to be authentic. But that doesn’t mean posting everything about yourself for the public to see.

“Be really thoughtful [about] what platform you use for what purpose,” Vilk said. “If you use Twitter almost exclusively for business, you can make your Twitter setting more public. But then… don’t post private personal information.

Double-check what you put on your social media profiles and personal websites, as well as which of these details are public. And if you post photos, pay attention to what’s in the background. Is your address visible? Do you mark your location? Is this a regular place where you can be found?

Glaser also said you might want to consider whether you identify who is linked to you on your social media accounts and posts. Facebook, for example, lets you include family members and spouses in the “About Me” section of your profile. But linking people to you also gives trolls other people to target as a way to harass you. The same is true if you choose to post or tag your loved ones in public photos on social media.

“Your sister or your brother could be bullied, and that’s definitely not what you want,” Glaser said.

4. Protect your sanity

If you find yourself the target of harassment, it’s easy to panic. But experts advise victims to remember that they have ways to fight back. And a big part of that includes measures to protect you from mental harm from online abuse.

“Feeling like you have a certain agency can be really empowering,” Chou said. “You can assert your power where you have it.”

Take advantage of all the tools offered by social media services. Mute, block, or filter users and chats that attack you. Use reporting tools to report abusive comments or posts to businesses.

Third-party apps and services can also help. cabbage block party allows users to choose which groups of people they want to receive notifications from; notifications from all other users go into a separate folder for later review. And big poppy helps businesses protect their employees from online harassment with safeguards, incident response, and follow-up assistance.

If you’re attacked by email, use filters to redirect harassing messages to a separate folder, suggests Glaser. Specifically, you can set filters for emails containing misogynistic, homophobic, or derogatory words.

“You know what words you get the most,” she said. “If someone sends me an email like that, it’s not going to be helpful.”

But you may not want to completely ignore abusive messages, experts say. Some may include threats of physical harm or imminent danger. So how do you protect your sanity without having to read everything? Galperin suggests asking someone you trust to read harassing posts and/or messages.

“Some are quite terrifying and obsessive and may be a sign of escalating harassment,” she said. “You need someone to read all this stuff for you.”

Galperin also says that online support groups like Heart Mob can be a good resource for women experiencing online harassment. The group helps provide resources and connects victims of online abuse to a community for mental health support. Therapy can also help alleviate the stress and emotions of victims resulting from online abuse.

In some cases, harassment may require physical action.

To ensure your safety, experts suggest documenting online harassment, which could be used by tech companies or even the police to investigate threats. You may need to alert authorities, loved ones, or your employer, depending on the threat, your personal situation, and your comfort level. Experts also suggest having a safe relocation plan if you need one.

But regardless of the situation, Vilk said victims of attack should take a moment to breathe, figure out what’s best for them, and seek help.

“Make sure you don’t go alone,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Lance B. Holton