- Acknowledge, as an institution, that online harassment is a real problem with real consequences.
Too often, online harassment is dismissed as not being a “real” problem. Targets are told to toughen up and made to feel foolish and irrational, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to online abuse. The fact is, online harassment can negatively impact one’s professional life, personal life, and health. (To learn more about the impact of online harassment on writers and journalists in particular, see the results of PEN America’s 2017 Online Harassment Survey and read through the real-life stories in this Field Manual.)
It is especially important that executive and senior leadership fully comprehend the impact of online harassment. Their knowledge of the issue will have the most impact on company policy and culture. If your institution is not yet ready to tackle this issue through formal policy and documentation, then, as a first step, request that your executive and senior teams become well versed in what online harassment is and the forms it can take. PEN America’s Defining “Online Harassment” is a good place to start.
- Assess the scope of the problem inside your own newsroom/company/publication.
Conduct an internal, anonymous, company-wide survey to generate important data about how online harassment impacts your organization. Include not just your editorial employees, but also those who work in marketing, human resources, accounting, etc. You may be surprised to learn just how many lives are impacted by online harassment. The survey should seek to cover a variety of topics, including:
- The frequency with which online harassment occurs.
- The emotional, psychological, personal, and professional impact on targeted individuals.
- Examples of the kind of online harassment your employee experience.
- The ways in which your employees think your institution can and should help.
Once this data has been processed and analyzed, it will give you a sense of the scope and severity of online harassment. Equipped with this information, your institution can then strategize how best to implement practices and policies that will help your employees both preempt and respond to certain kinds of online abuse.
- Draft a set of internal policies and practices that address the concerns raised in your survey.
These policies are likely to cover some combination (if not all) of the following categories:
- Social Media Usage Policy: As writers/journalists, it’s likely your employees are expected (if not required) to engage in online discourse and/or maintain a social media presence. Having thoughtful policies in place can help ensure safe social media usage while also taking your employees’ needs into consideration. Newsrooms dedicated to remaining impartial on the topics they cover tend to be especially mindful of how their employees interact on social media. Social media policies generally address the following:
- The code of conduct for safe and appropriate work-related social media usage.
- Policies regarding an employee’s public disclosure of personal views on social networking platforms, especially their political views.
- Policies on retweeting or sharing another user’s work.
- Policies regarding how employees respond to ad hominem attacks versus legitimate criticisms issued over social media.
In addition to the general usage policies outlined above, your social media policy should also encompass a variety of resources and responses that can be invoked during episodes of online abuse. Possibilities include:
- Inviting targeted employees to disengage from social media for a period of time.
- Inviting or encouraging targeted employees to employ blocking and muting tools against abusive users.
- Appointing a department head or designated coworker to monitor a targeted employee’s social media accounts so that the target can take a break from the abuse.
- Providing targeted employee access to a security officer or member of personnel trained in online security who can help with the following:
- Assessing that the target has effective cyber-safety measures in place, including but not limited to appropriate privacy settings and encryption security (when necessary.)
- Determining whether or not threats made over social media should be escalated to law enforcement (with the target’s permission). See more information on safety and security below.
Note to Newsrooms
When it comes to social media use, some newsrooms have strict policies about the ways in which journalists express their views and respond to online attacks. The AP’s social media policy, for example, encourages staffers “to be active participants in social networks while upholding our fundamental value that staffers should not express personal opinions on controversial issues of the day.” NPR has a strict de-escalation policy with regards to how its employees communicate via social media: ”We shouldn’t SHOUT IN ALL CAPS when we’re angry. We shouldn’t take the bait from trolls and sink to their level.” These policies are meant to encourage employees to “think before they tweet,” which in certain scenarios may help to de-escalate online harassment before it goes too far.
- Online Safety and Security Policy: Establishing a cyber-safety handbook for employees can be an extremely valuable tool for preventing and mitigating certain kinds of online harassment. Your handbook might include information about:
- Physical Security: In rare situations, a writer or journalist facing online harassment could be at risk of physical harm. If your institution has security personnel, there should be a security officer designated to handle issues of online safety from a physical security standpoint. This individual can be enlisted to help targeted writers and senior leadership assess whether or not an online threat is “true” and determine a plan of action to support and protect targeted writers. In some scenarios, a security officer may determine that a threat should be escalated to law enforcement, or that the company should hire a private security detail for a period of time. Targeted writers who have the support of their institutions are more likely to be taken seriously by law enforcement. Always involve targeted writers in every decision being made in regard to their security, as some individuals may have legitimate reasons for not wanting to involve law enforcement.
If your institution doesn’t have security personnel, consider training a member of senior leadership in issues of online safety, who can be called upon to help assess an online threat. In the rare instance in which a targeted employee doesn’t feel that it’s safe to go home, your institution should assist in securing safe housing for the targeted employee and/or pay for said employee to spend the night in a hotel.