Tech News

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.

But internet safety is a work in progress, and in the meantime it’s on us to decide how we want to respond. Many of the accounts spamming me were obvious trolls. They had incendiary usernames and profile pictures. Looking at their comments, which were antagonistic at best, I knew I wouldn’t change their minds by responding. Nothing I could write would make them consider my point of view.

So I followed the American Psychological Association’s advice and let the storm pass. I logged off social media and routed the nasty emails into a special folder, out of sight. I spent my energy on things I enjoyed instead, no trolls involved.

Or Maybe Do Respond

Walking away isn’t the best option for everyone. If you choose to respond, there are both indirect and direct ways to address harassment. The former could include muting threads or blocking accounts. You could also report comments or users for behaviors that breach community standards, such as hate speech, threats, and bullying (which most platforms claim to prohibit). These options may prevent the same trolls from harassing you, or another user, in the future.

If you feel safe and want to respond directly, consider counterspeech, a strategy that addresses and undermines hate by redirecting the conversation in a constructive way. Some choose to reclaim hashtags, such as the K-pop stans who in 2020 flooded the #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag with K-pop videos.

Others create larger discussions around hateful posts, typically focusing not on the troll but on the content of their argument (so, not “You’re sexist” but “Saying XYZ is problematic because …”). This is exactly what I did, some six months after my experience, when I wrote about hate mail for HuffPost, focusing on sexism and the importance of dismantling it. Reframing the conversation helped me feel less powerless.

Though organizations like the United Nations recommend counterspeech, some research has suggested that it may be ineffective: While a 2021 study on anti-Asian hate found that counterspeech discouraged hate, another study on racism and homophobia saw mixed results.

Do Something You Enjoy

Whether or not you respond, give yourself time to work through your feelings. Do something you enjoy, like going to the gym, meditating, or playing your favorite video game. Anything goes!

Social support, in particular, is important for processing your experiences. This is because one of the goals of online harassment is to make you feel isolated; intentionally enjoying time with loved ones can combat this. An older 2014 study noted that social support can come from anyone in your life, ranging from your peers to your family. More recently, a 2020 study listed the myriad benefits of social support for those experiencing bullying, including increased confidence and decreased anxiety.

So text your friends and coworkers. Make dinner plans with family. Rant to your partner—or ask for a distraction. Any and all of these can help you feel less alone. You can also seek professional advice via a therapist or a cyberbullying hotline.

If you decide to take an extended break from the internet, ask a friend you trust to keep an eye on your social accounts. They can continue to take screenshots of new harassment and notify you if the frequency of incidents increases.

If the Harassment Escalates

If rude comments turn into stalking, hacking, doxing, or death threats, it’s time to contact the authorities and get legal assistance. Continue to document everything; you’ll want a body of proof to ensure you’re taken seriously. If you’re in immediate danger, call emergency services.

Practicing good cyber hygiene can help you protect your information. To deter hackers, use strong passwords, which are longer than 16 characters and include numbers and special characters. Don’t reuse passwords, and set up multifactor authentication to ensure that you’re notified if someone tries to log in to your account.

To deter doxing, stalking, and further harassment, adjust your privacy settings on social media. If possible, set your accounts to private until the storm passes. Also, depending on the platform, you should be able to limit the ability to reply to your posts so that only people you follow can republish your posts or leave comments. You can also just disallow comments entirely. If you have both professional and personal accounts, keep them separate so that work-related harassment is less likely to follow you home.

You may want to limit who can see your location data on social media, since many platforms tag every post with geolocation data unless you opt out. This is usually something you can turn off in your profiles’ privacy settings. Additionally, browser extensions like Privacy Party can help you keep your privacy settings on social media up to date automatically, so you don’t have to think about it.

If things get so bad that you feel it’s safest to minimize or erase your digital footprint, paid services like Delete Me can remove identifying information like your address, phone number, and social media activity from hundreds of online databases and data brokers. This makes it much harder for people to uncover this information in web searches. Services like Tweet Delete can automatically delete years worth of social media posts, replies, and likes—either wholesale or within a specific range—from your accounts.

Online harassment can be isolating and terrifying, but with a plan, you’ll be prepared to respond—and to mitigate its impacts on your life.