If you or someone you know is experiencing online harassment, remember that you are not powerless. There are concrete steps you can take to defend yourself and others. The guidance below will help you decide how to act if you, or one of your colleagues or students, is affected by this.
Last week, a 24 year old man from the Essex market town of Chelmsford, 40 miles east of London, UK was sent to jail after admitting harassing the Professor Chris Whitty, the epidemiologist and Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department of Health & Social Care.
Footage that emerged last year had showed Mr. Jonathan Chew, together with his accomplice, Mr. Lewis Hughes, attacking Whitty, and holding him.
Luckily for the many of us not in the direct limelight, physical attacks such as those on Whitty are relatively rare. But we can relate to online attacks, either directly or on those we know. Online attacks at scientists and academics have become a major issue today, and going by the number of posts online, the signs are that things are not abating.
In a 2021 study by Nature, many scientists reported receiving death threats, hateful slurs, and physical intimidation or threats of sexual violence. Many scientists with a public profile have experienced some form of attack on their credibility or been threatened with violence.
Online abuse is not new-it begun with the arrival of the internet, the difference is that the problem is growing. In the middle of a global pandemic, conditions have become ripe for online conspiracy theories, hate and harassment, fuelled polarisation around vaccines and treatment options.
These attacks pose a direct and critical threat to free expression, and are an attempt to stifle the voice of science, by intimidating experts that provide the public with the information and guidance needed by governments and the public.
Against this background, I spoke with experts and survivors of online harassment to compile a quick list of tips and resources for coping with online abuse without being silenced or forced offline.
If you or someone you know comes under attack, here are some of the steps you can take to protect yourself and others.
Identify the threat
The first step is to make out what’s really happening. Is it simply an unkind remark (“You’re not a good scientist” “Where did you train from?”), a disparaging comment? (“You’re a fool!”) or categorically abusive, for example, gendered or racist?
Online abuse covers many behaviours and technologies. It happens when a person (or bot) acts in a manner that causes distress and harm to another person. It is usually repeated and targeted, but may not always be obvious. Some of the common tactics — albeit ever-evolving and often overlapping — include: hateful speech, sexual harassment, threats of physical and sexual violence, impersonation, doxing, pornography, message bombing, and many more. You can find detailed guidance here.
The bottom line is that if you’re being criticised or insulted, you can choose to refute it or ignore it. If the attack is sinister and you’re being abused, distilling what you’re experiencing not only signals that it’s a tangible problem, but can also help you communicate with family, friends, employers, and authorities.
Document the attacks
What is often overlooked is platforms take down abusive content that violets their terms of service, meaning that any evidence you might have of the abuse is removed. For this reason, it’s necessary to have a separate log of the abuse before you report it. You should aim to save emails, voicemails, and texts. For social media, take screenshots on and copy links, if possible. Where the abuse is coming from one specific individual or group, you should document it as thoroughly as possible as this can help uncover any patterns and shore up evidence.
A record of abuse is indispensable if you chose to engage authorities or take legal action. It can also be hugely helpful in conversations with line managers at work, as it obviates repeating abusive comments aloud, which is often unpleasant. Pointing to a screenshot is often less uncomfortable, and actually more impactful.
Review your personal safety
It is not impossible for online abuse to morph into physical abuse. Therefore, it is important to assess whether online abuse is presents a real danger to your own physical safety or that of your family or colleagues. Granted, online anonymity makes this onerous to figure out. Here are a set of questions to help you assess the significance of a threat, which you can do with a friend or colleague as a sounding board:
- Do you know your abuser? Do they have a history of violent behaviour?
- Is the threat targeted 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)?
These are some of important red flags. They signal it’s time to take steps, particularly if you’re being made to feel physically unsafe in any way. You may need to temporarily relocate, such as a hotel or a friend’s place. You may also need to report the threats to authorities who are best positioned to deal, not just with online threats, but also physical dangers.
Ignore, block, mute, and report
Most bullies, perpetrators of online abuse are in it to get a reaction from you. Don’t play into their hands and get into a fight online. Sometimes, simply ignoring the comments can make the individual move on. You can also consider blocking, muting, and reporting abuse. Platforms offer option that allow you to block or mute accounts or even specific posts (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.
Understandably, while helpful, these actions are temporary and often counterproductive. For instance, blocking an account can escalate abuse or move it offline. Muting can make it hard for you to monitor the scale of threats, and reporting is often ineffective.
Reinforce your online security
Just like physical security, taking time to bolster your online security can ensure trolls don’t get an easy ride accessing and broadcasting your private information. Protect yourself from hacks and intrusion by improving password strength (use long passwords which combine words and symbols with at least 12 characters), never re-use passwords, use invented answers to security questions, and set up two-factor authentication (OTP) on your key personal and professionnal accounts (email, social media, banking, etc.). A password manager is another tool you can use to take care of this.
Speaking out against abuse can be empowering. The key is to be careful and deliberate. There are several strategies you can deploy. One option is to practice counterspeech, which you can read about through this link. Some people use highly creative strategies, such as sending a picture of a kitten or puppy in response to an abusive message, or telling the abuser that their mothers or employers will be notified about their unbecoming behaviour. Do what you’re comfortable with—being mindful of your employer’s social media policy.
Look after your wellbeing
Online abuse often elicits feelings of fear, self-loathing and guilt. It can be exhausting and demotivating, and leaving lasting damage to your mental, emotional, and physical health. The mistake is ignoring how you’re feeling.
Therefore, it’s important to make time for your wellbeing. This can include meditation, cooking, listening to music or going for walks. Whatever you choose, it must involve taking regular breaks from your devices so that you get that crucial mental headspace.
If matters escalate and you’re not coping, seeking professional mental health care can 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.
Every day, scientists in and out of the limelight hate and violent threats, and some of them choose to respond directly in order to refute or undermine it. If you’re affected, you don’t have to follow each every step listed above, let alone in the nominated order. It may well necessitate implementing a number of these in tandem or skipping some and coming back to others when they are most helpful. It is also important to remember that like many other aspects of human behaviour, trolling and online abuse are multifarious, and there is almost no way of predicting what an individual will do, or even prevent it. It is up to organisations, platforms, governments and wider society to recognise this and put into place the correct institutional mechanisms to address this scourge.
What I have suggested here is what you can do at an individual level. I hope that it offers you a good starting place if you’re experiencing abuse. With the right tools, support of others, and confidence in your own self, you can take a stand and push back against online abuse, and protect the voice of science.