What do you do when you’ve witnessed an out-of-line comment in a social media post or a tweet filled with hate directed at someone you follow?
You might want to support the person targeted, but it’s not helpful if you end up putting yourself in danger, so:
First: Assess the safety risk
Just as airlines advise you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others, it’s smart to assess how vulnerable you are to being attacked, too.
What investments have you made in protecting your own cybersecurity? Are you vulnerable to being doxxed, hacked or impersonated? If you have any concerns about putting yourself at risk, assess the threats and trust your instincts.
Second: Consider the nature of the abuse
What is the nature of the attack? Does it involve insults, vulgar comments or explicit threats? Does it contain personal information about the victim?
PEN America provides a great manual on combating the different types of online harassment. Check it out here.
Third: Reach out to the person being targeted
If you can, connect with them directly and ask what kind of support they need.
While some might want help drawing attention to the situation, responding to the abuse or enlisting the police, others might prefer to starve the harasser of the oxygen of a response, aiming to allow the matter to fade away.
If the person is overwhelmed or unsure, you might just offer to listen.
You can also point them to resources like this Toxic Hush Action Kit.
Fourth: Consider Hollaback’s “Five D’s” of Bystander Intervention
Not all means of support require direct intervention. Hollaback has developed and tested the following approaches — all of them valuable — for its in-person bystander program.
The following suggestions are aimed at adapting this program to online contexts, and countering the cyber-abusers efforts to silence and isolate.
This strategy involves ignoring the abuser (whose intimidation is designed to silence), and focusing on supporting the person being attacked. Try one or more of the following:
- “Like” or re-share the content the target originally posted
- Pull focus away from the abuse by responding with irrelevant content or visual humour such as pet pictures or gifs
- Report the abusive content and the perpetrator to the platform itself. Although that won’t necessarily result in action, it’s still important to register the abuse.
If a target has asked for assistance, you can post messages or send emails to your network aimed at rallying a community of online supporters to join you in the actions described above under “Distract”.
It’s re-traumatizing for a person being targeted to review the attacks, so another valuable way to assist is to monitor how and when the targeted person has been mentioned, so they don’t have to.
Take screen captures, save hyperlinks and store them in a folder. Let the target know you have the material to bolster any reporting they might want to do later.
And as part of our Toxic Hush campaign, we’ll be launching an app to make it easy for people targeted to contribute to the collection of data measuring the impact of online abuse. So you can let them know about that, too. (Sign up here to be notified of the app’s release.)
The “Delay” response is one you employ after the attack, by looping back to see how the person being targeted is faring. This can include actions to:
- Listen without judgment
- Offer emotional support
- Reinforce the message that what’s happening to them is not OK, and it isn’t their fault.
- Let them know about helpful resources, including this Toxic Hush action kit
Whether you’re wanting to disrupt harassment that’s happening in person, or intervene to support someone being targeted online, doing so has risks. You want to avoid becoming a target yourself, making it harder for you to offer support.
So — as noted above — it’s smart to assess your own vulnerabilities and prioritize your own safety. Once you’ve done that, if you’re comfortable intervening directly, you can:
- Post positive and affirming messages and hashtags that support the target and help counter the abuse
- Call out the abuse for what it is, be explicit about why it’s wrong and encourage others to join you in rejecting it
- Fact-check misinformation or a false claim
- If possible, use humor as previously suggested