(noun | al·ly) : One that is associated with another as a helper; a person or group that provides assistance and support
(noun | wit·ness): A person who sees something (such as a crime) happen
(noun | in·ter·ven·tion): The act of interfering with the outcome or course, especially of a condition or process (as to prevent harm)
(noun | by·stand·er): One who is present but not taking part in a situation or event
If you’re here, it’s likely because you’ve witnessed hateful or abusive online behavior and aren’t sure what to do about it. There are a lot of people in your position.
When you witness another person being targeted by online hate or harassment, it can be intimidating to intervene. What if you inadvertently make the harassment worse? What if you become the target of such harassment yourself? What if the harassment you’ve witnessed is traumatizing to you in some way, making it difficult for you to remain in the same online space where the incident occurred?
These are important and necessary questions to ask yourself when considering whether or not, and how, to support a person being targeted by online harassment. But if you feel compelled to help, and believe you can do so without great risk to yourself, bystander intervention is one of the most powerful tools we have to speak out against hate on the internet and push back on the culture of impunity that has risen up in our online communities.
If you’re a witness to online harassment and wish to stand as an ally to the writers and journalists (or anyone!) you see being abused, PEN America recommends the following guidelines for intervening effectively and responsibly.
- Prepare yourself to help.
There are a number of ways to prepare yourself to be an effective online ally, including:
- Become familiar with the basic principles of bystander intervention. Hollaback!, an organization that describes itself as a “people-powered movement to end harassment,” offers this Bystander Intervention Training resource outlining the “Five D’s” of bystander intervention: Direct, Distract, Delegate, Delay, and Document. While these principles specifically apply to harassment witnessed in the offline world, they offer a good starting point for anyone who is new to being an active and engaged online ally, and they can be applied in an online context.
- Understand the factors that influence the likelihood of bystander intervention. Nick Brody, a communication studies professor at the University of Puget Sound, has conducted research on bystander intervention and found that three variables play a significant role in determining whether or not bystanders take action: the number of bystanders, anonymity, and closeness with the victim. More bystanders and greater bystander anonymity are both correlated with a lower chance of intervention, while closer ties between the bystander and the victim often indicate a greater willingness to intervene. Being aware of such phenomena can help bystanders gain a heightened sense of self, leading them to better understand their own responses to harassment — both consciously and unconsciously.
- Brush up on your tech literacy, and learn about the different forms of online harassment. Being a useful online ally means possessing a certain level of knowledge about the incidents you witness online. It also means becoming more fluent in certain tech-related lingo, so that if a friend turns to you for support during an episode of online abuse, they’re spared the labor of having to explain every detail of where, why, and how the abuse occurred. Check out this Field Manual’s “Defining Online Harassment” resource to familiarize yourself with different kinds of online abuse.
- Make an honest evaluation of your own relationship to injustice. Keep in mind that the people being targeted might have a history of being exposed to injustices that you haven’t personally encountered. Making an honest evaluation of your own relationship to injustice, or lack thereof, is an important part of being a supporter—not a savior. Check out Melissa Harris-Perry’s guide to being a good ally on Feministing for more tips.
- Remember: The online world is the real world. Don’t diminish someone else’s online experiences by suggesting that what happens to them online doesn’t matter as much as what happens to them offline. What happens on the internet has real consequences for our careers, personal relationships, mental health, and productivity, and can also cross into our offline lives, and vice versa. According to Nick Brody, a communication studies professor at the University of Puget Sound, the online world can exacerbate the effects of harassment and bullying due to the potential enormity of online audiences. An isolated incident in the virtual world, Brody says, can be seen by millions of people and can therefore have an extremely detrimental impact on victims’ mental health as well as their professional lives.
- Identify the kind of abuse taking place.
Understanding what, exactly, you’re witnessing can help you think about how to respond. Is the attacker spewing racial epithets on Facebook that should be publicly condemned? Are the comments sections of your favorite blog being overrun by a misogynistic troll, and are you up for trying to redirect the conversation? Is someone on Twitter issuing threats of violence so specific you feel the need to alert the police in that user’s jurisdiction? Name the kind of abuse that’s taking place, if only in your mind, and begin to think about what you believe could be the most appropriate and effective course of action for you to take.
- Assess the threat level.
If intervening in someone else’s online harassment poses a threat to your own safety, it may not be the right option. Always use your best judgment. For more information about assessing online threats, visit these Guidelines for Safely Confronting Your Online Harasser. If the resources are available to you, consider rallying an online support community to intervene alongside you: There is power in numbers, and an online harasser may be less likely to go after an entire group of interveners than a single individual.
- Assess your relationship with the target.
If you know the person being attacked, reach out directly to offer your support and see if they have any opinions about the manner in which you should intervene. Some people might not want any help, in which case their wishes should be respected. Others might be overwhelmed and not have the first clue about how you can help—in which case, you can offer them a set of options or state your thoughts about the most effective way for you to intervene. Always listen to the target without judgment. Be sure to exercise patience and empathy, and defer to their wishes. If you have a close relationship with the target and know that they are afraid for their safety or the safety of their loved ones, offer them a safe place to stay, such as your home or the home of a mutual friend.
If you don’t know the target well, or if it’s likely they’re too overwhelmed to respond to your outreach, it can still be worthwhile for you to intervene. Calling out discrimination and condemning hate are crucial parts of countering harmful ideologies. You can do so without naming the target or the attacker: Condemn the behavior, not the individual, and set an example for others that such behavior can’t and shouldn’t be tolerated.
- Find the best way to offer support and/or intervene.
This will depend on the kind of online harassment you’re witnessing, the platform on which it takes place, and your relationship with the target. One of the first questions you should ask yourself when deciding how to respond to online harassment is: Should I reach out to the victim directly to offer support, or publicly condemn the harassment?
Hannah Schacter, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Southern California’s Department of Psychology, says public displays of support for a victim can be powerful in that they have the capacity to change norms. However, Schacter also noted that such publicity could create a situation in which the target feels overwhelmed or incompetent. Being aware of the benefits and drawbacks of public intervention can help distinguish between effective and potentially detrimental intervention strategies. Moreover, Schacter suggests that bystanders first consider various contextual factors, such as whether the harassment is a repeated experience and to what extent the victim is socially isolated, before taking action. Victims who feel socially isolated, she explains, may have more difficulty asking for assistance, and it might therefore be important to offer them unsolicited help in a public way. Public displays of support may also help mobilize other online bystanders. On the other hand, some victims may have the self-efficacy to deal with the harassment themselves and/or feel that public displays of support undermine their own coping ability. In these situations, sending a private message to check in with the victim and offer support may be more effective. Schacter cautions, however, that research on this topic remains limited, and further study is needed to determine when, why, and for whom different intervention strategies are more or less effective.