Istockphoto.com/Meriel Jane Waissman
Social media attacks can terrify and paralyze us. Aggressors aim to silence, shame, humiliate, bully, intimidate, threaten, terrorize and virtually destroy their human target. They wield weapons like rumors, innuendo, lies, hate speech and violent imagery. A Pew Research Center Survey found 41 percent of adults in the United States report having been harassed online, and 62 percent consider it a major problem.
Attacks often target women, racial and religious minoritized groups, members of the LGBTQ community, and young people. Social media attacks have contributed to adolescents killing themselves, while targeted adults often live in fear of venturing out in public and may have trouble eating, sleeping or being with others.
We’d like to recommend some steps that may be helpful for those who are targeted in social media attacks, particularly if you are a member of a marginalized group.
Don’t worry alone. Social media aggressors want to single you out, isolate you and cut you off from allies. Don’t let them. Reach out to people you trust -- those who will listen, validate, respect and support you.
Don’t fan the flames. Digital lynch mobs want to feel their power and see you jump. Whatever you say will reward them and feed the attack. They did not target you because they wanted to reason with, understand or respect you. Their goal is to shame, condemn and terrorize you. They want you to live in fear and silence your voice. Refuse to engage or even acknowledge them.
Create a safety plan. If social media attacks threaten your safety or privacy, ask people you trust to monitor any threats you might have missed, and work with them to develop a plan to keep yourself safe. A safety plan can include:
- removing personal information (e.g., addresses, phone numbers, email addresses) from public sites;
- making your social media profiles private;
- blocking aggressors;
- becoming aware of your surroundings; and
- making sure you are accompanied in public.
Try to put yourself in the shoes of an attacker: What areas of vulnerability do you see? A good plan will address those vulnerabilities.
Ask for support from organizations. Digital lynch mobs can try to get you fired from your job, expelled by your college or university, or thrown out of other organizations. Explain to those in your university or other organization what is happening, ask for their help and find out what specific steps they are willing to take to support you.
Take care of your body, mind and spirit. Social media attacks can make it hard to sleep, eat, think clearly, relax or “be yourself.” Find ways to take care of your health. Sometimes just talking about it with a special friend or group of friends will help. Some people find help in prayer, meditation and other spiritual traditions. Others talk with psychologists, psychotherapists, counselors or other mental health professionals. If you like animals, spending time with pets can be healing. If your housing doesn’t allow pets, consider visiting a dog or cat at a shelter -- often these vulnerable creatures are lonely and scared, and spending a little time with them may make you both feel better.
Document, document, document. Keep documents that provide evidence of the digital aggression. Take screenshots of content in the event the situation escalates -- perpetrators may later delete their attacks. Evidence of harassment or threats can be crucial when explaining the situation to your university or other employer, contacting the police or other law enforcement agencies, filing a civil lawsuit, or lodging another type of formal complaint. Make a backup copy of your documents and store it in a safe place. Consider giving a copy to a trusted friend, professor or co-worker.
Speak up for others. Social media bullies count on our shared human tendencies to stay back, avoid trouble and not get involved. If we allow ourselves to do nothing when someone is under attack, we become passive enablers. Ask the targeted person how you can help. We are stronger when we are together.
Just listening supportively to someone who is under attack may be a first step in helping turn the situation around. You can also express your public support for the person being targeted or threatened. In cases where the digital lynch mobs are trying to jeopardize a person’s employment, allies have collectively responded by creating petitions and writing letters in support of the person being targeted.
We encourage you to visit other websites that offer resources on: a) ways for people of color to survive and resist hate and b) the best practices for the use of technology among survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.
Social media has become an integral part of our modern daily lives. It can help us stay connected with our loved ones, find jobs and purchase goods, but it can also be used to inflict pain, suffering and terror. Learning and creating ways to build online communities where people can protect one another is a vital step toward social justice and a better world for all of us.