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How to Handle Online Harassment When It Happens to You

How to Handle Online Harassment When It Happens to You

In 2022 I wrote an op-ed for NBC News Think about leg hair, of all things. The piece detailed a monthlong experiment during which I stopped shaving. Aside from one paragraph about bodily autonomy and Roe v. Wade, I thought it was a mild article. Boring, even.

The internet disagreed. Within an hour of publication, I started getting angry, all-caps emails. Then it started on Twitter. I was called everything from stupid and self-absorbed to a Sasquatch. I was accused of hating men and pressuring women.

The deluge lasted nearly two weeks. By the end of it, I had dozens of nasty emails, nearly a thousand social media notifications, and zero idea how to handle what I’d experienced.

Unfortunately, these instances of online harassment are becoming more common. In 2021, the Pew Research Center reported that 41 percent of US adults had experienced online harassment; the Anti-Defamation League reported an increase to 52 percent in 2023. Public and semipublic figures are especially at risk, as noted by recent studies on American journalists, Zimbabwean journalists, and female members of parliament in Sweden.

But the truth is, on social media anyone with an account can experience harassment. Here’s what to do if it happens to you.

Document Everything

Knee-deep in hate mail, I reached out to a former thesis adviser who’d written op-eds. How had he handled the trolls?

His reply: Document everything. If you have to report the harassment to a social platform or to law enforcement, you will need a body of evidence that proves the harassment.

Save the nasty emails in a special folder, either manually or by using keywords to filter and route all of the relevant mail automatically.

On social media, screenshot what people say. Doing this gives you lasting digital proof, which is important if the trolling comments disappear later on, either because the trolls deleted them or because someone reported the comments, which led to them being removed. Save all of these screenshots in a folder that can easily be shared with anyone investigating your harassment.

Documenting harassment is common advice, featured in resources ranging from writing-specific organizations like PEN America to wider organizations like the University of Chicago and the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Don’t Respond

Another common piece of advice is “don’t feed the trolls.” In theory, if you don’t react to harassment, the trolls get bored and leave. Some have argued that this advice has failed us, as it puts the onus on the victim to stop the cyberbullying; it suggests that it’s not the trolls who need to stop but rather the victim who needs to turn the other cheek.

This is a fair critique; social media platforms should build better moderation systems and restrict users who breach standards on harassment. Ideally, events like the 2024 child safety hearing before US Congress will lead to changes that make the internet safer for everyone. In a perfect world, the onus is on Big Tech.

How to Handle Online Harassment When It Happens to You

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