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Digital InclusionDigital Literacy

Digital Detox 2.9: Responding to Online Harassment

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[This post was originally sent as an email newsletter to our Digital Detox participants.]

Written by Renee Wells, Director of Education for Equity and Inclusion, Middlebury

“Knowing how to handle online insults and trolls is so important, because they can really impact mental health.”

Minerva Siegel

While digital spaces enable us to engage and share information with people around the world, that engagement isn’t always informative or civil. According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, “41% of Americans have been personally subjected to harassing behavior online, and an even larger share (66%) has witnessed these behaviors directed at others.” Although such behavior can be prompted by almost anything, the Pew study found that “14% of Americans say they have been harassed online specifically because of their politics, while roughly one-in-ten have been targeted due to their physical appearance (9%), race or ethnicity (8%) or gender (8%).” Dealing with the emotional impact of online harassment, whether targeted at us or something we observe directed at someone else, can be one of the most difficult challenges of digital engagement. So, too, is navigating whether or how to respond to such harassment.

Unfortunately, most of us have encountered online comments that are dismissive, denigrating, or dehumanizing. Sometimes comments are framed as generalizations about entire communities, sometimes they target individuals because of their membership in a community or a social identity they hold; in many cases, they strike home, attacking us personally, cutting to the quick of who we are, and leaving behind pain that is often slow to fade. We might choose to ignore or delete such comments, opting to practice self-care by not performing the emotional labor of educating others or getting drawn into an exchange that we suspect will be unproductive or will lead to additional harm. Increasingly, however, opting out isn’t as easy to do. Online harassment is becoming both a risk and reality associated with almost any type of virtual engagement, both personal and professional.

Take, for example, the online harassment individuals face as a result of their jobs. From plus-sized models to women in politics, gender-based harassment is all too real — and, it’s increasingly impacting women academics. In a 2016 Chronicle of Higher Education article, Dr. Megan Condis argued, “As scholars, we face increasing expectations to publicize our work online and make our research available to people outside of academe. The result: We are all of us dipping our toes into the role of the public intellectual. And there are dangers lurking in those virtual waters — dangers that we all need to keep in mind when we respond to our Facebook friends and Twitter followers.” Those dangers can result from engaging in even the most essential elements of academic research. In a 2017 Feminist Review article, Dr. F. Vera-Gray shared that: “During the course of a weekend, a total of eighty-eight abusive comments about myself, my research and my participants were posted online after the recruitment call for a research project I was conducting into women’s experiences of men’s intrusion in public (commonly termed ‘street harassment’) was posted on a men’s rights Facebook group.”

Such abusive comments have led to what Vera-Gray refers to as “safety work” — the labor that “forms an invisible backdrop to the methodological decisions of many feminist researchers.” And, threats to academics aren’t limited to women or to research related to gender; according to a 2018 All Things Considered episode, “Across the country, in the past year and a half, at least 250 university professors…have been targeted via right-wing online campaigns because of their research, their teaching or their social media posts,” including Albert Ponce, assistant professor of Political Science and co-director of Social Justice Studies at Diablo Valley College, and Laurie Rubel, a professor of education at Brooklyn College.

The consequences of online harassment for faculty can be far greater than its emotional impact: the All Things Considered episode notes that some faculty “have lost their jobs, and others say they fear for their families’ safety.” How can you respond to online harassment in your digital spaces? Choosing whether or how to respond to online harassment may well depend on context, whether personal or professional. See below for share strategies to use in each context.

Take Action

Personal/non-professional context

  • Practice self-care:
    •  Yes. You can delete harassing comments people post on your Facebook page (or other virtual space), whether it’s targeted at you or not. It’s your online environment; you have every right to keep it free of toxicity.
    • Yes. You can block harassing people. They might be strangers, casual acquaintances, coworkers, neighbors, friends, or even family. If their online engagement causes harm to you or others, you don’t have to hold space for that behavior. (Note: blocking someone online doesn’t mean you have to disengage with them in real life; it just means that you are exerting control over when and how to engage with someone whose behavior you find harmful. You can also choose not to engage with them at all. That’s your choice to make.)
    • Yes. You can engage with online harassment and attempt to educate those who commit it. However, be careful how you use your limited supply of emotional labor and how much of it you choose to do, especially when the online harassment directly targets or impacts you. Education can lead to change, but attempts to educate others in online spaces are less likely to do so, especially when attempts at education originate from a space of experiencing harm.
  • Show up for others:
    • According to the Pew study, “Three-in-ten Americans (30%) say they have intervened in some way after witnessing abusive behavior directed toward others online.” It’s much easier to respond to online harassment when you aren’t the one targeted by it. Being an ally or advocate is about taking action, not merely agreeing or empathizing in your mind. One way to act as an ally is to take on the emotional labor of responding to online harassment so that the targeted individual doesn’t have to. This is especially true when the harassment targets marginalized individuals, such as trans people or people of color, who face such harassment more frequently or who are more frequently asked to perform the emotional labor of educating others.
    • The benefit of responding in online contexts is that your response doesn’t have to be immediate. You can take the time to center yourself, consider your approach, or even do research. Dewitt Campbell III of the National Conference for Community Justice reminds us that online responses provide us with “the opportunity to stop and pause” and to “come up with something that continues the conversation.” The NCCJ recommends a strategy they refer to as LARA: Listen, Affirm, Respond, Add.
    • Take advantage of resources. Are you a white person trying to figure out the best way to respond to online racism? Check out the online resources available on the White Nonsense Roundup site. Are you a person of color who doesn’t want to expend the emotional labor of responding to online racism? Tag the White Nonsense Roundup and one of their volunteers will respond to the harassing comments so you don’t have to.

Professional context

  • Report the harassment: 
    • When harassing comments are made on online platforms such as social media, you can report the user who made the comments. While many platforms are slow to respond or may not always remove or block the content or the user, this can be an effective way to address harassment about you or your work, especially when it appears outside the realm of your personal online pages.
    • Make your department and institution aware, especially if you are being targeted for your research. Some faculty, such as Ponce and his colleagues, are urging their administration to “adopt a resolution in support of academic freedom, making clear that the colleges will stand behind its scholars no matter how provocative their work, as long as they are grounded in research and evidence.”
  • Be proactive in your own defense:
    • While some online harassment limits its aim to emotional harm, faculty are increasingly being targeted by campaigns that seek to get them fired, and what might seem personally focused at first can escalate to a professional threat. Maintaining a digital archive of harassment related to your research can be useful if you need to contextualize the harassment to administrators at your institution.
    • Let your colleagues know what is happening. Being able to leverage the support of your peers can be critical if you need to make a case in support of your work. Rubel, for example, collected “statements of support from colleagues.

Keep Reading!

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