Online harassment is a freedom of expression crisis that needs to be understood and taken very seriously. Online harassment isn’t just threats of violence and defamation, it can also be very subtle and continuous. Constant, low-level aggression from strangers can wear someone down more than many realise.
Over the past year, I’ve been looking into how to deal with online harassment. I’ve studied reports, of which there are very few, and I’ve reached out to journalists and fellow bloggers, and the responses are often the same:
It comes with the territory. You just have to grow a thicker skin.
Online harassment is not something that is widely talked about but it has become part of most people’s day-to-day lives. I believe it’s a subject that should to be covered in schools, at universities, in workshops and by social media platforms such as my own. I believe those who have experienced online harassment should be encouraged to speak out and to help people understand how to identify it and deal with it.
Eight profiles of online harassers
I’d like to begin by breaking down below what I deal with on a daily basis in eight concise profile descriptions. If any of them sound familiar to you, please consider the impact you’re having on the people you’re writing to.
Stays quiet and never comments on anything until there’s a small or potential error that they feel they need to address publicly, more often than not in a patronising way. What I find is that the Discrediter is often wrong. They are never there to be positive and give credit where it’s due, but always there, lurking, ready and poised to be the first to criticise.
Someone who politely explains why they believe the post or article is wrong in as many words as the post or article itself. Reading a 500-1000-word comment is extremely time-consuming, especially when the commenter is inaccurate.
The Defender is someone who returns to what they were told many years ago and explain it as gospel without any research. It’s hard hearing that something you once knew has a darker context that you realised, but it’s okay to read something and let it change your mind.
The Whatabouter responds to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue. They aim to distract from the issue at hand by commenting on how other people, countries, populations, governments and leaders have done bad things too, while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge the issue presented.
The Fake Newser
Quoting false statistics and factually incorrect versions of historical events and fake news is common. Most of the time, it’s a result of the commenter being misinformed, but it’s possible that this can be done deliberately too, which is gaslighting.
The foul-mouthed messages, the subtle threats, the racism, misogyny, hate. Their words are unfounded but personal, designed to undermine and attack. They’re the nastiest of all, but also the easiest to ignore.
Likes comments from harassers, jeers them on, befriends each other over a common enemy and gangs up against the author.
The Anti-Fan will agree with and enjoy everything they read on the blog so far, but then there will be one post that they disagree with or dislike and this can throw their whole version of what they believed the blog to be into the air. To the Anti-Fan, this process may manifest into a feeling of betrayal, and the reaction can be extreme enough for them to shift to one or all of the above profiles, especially in their unfollowing moment, where they will often write “unfollowing” in a comment.
Final points to consider
- Putting oneself out there takes courage. It’s brave to reveal thoughts and opinions to strangers, and especially personal details or images of oneself.
- The volume of comments and messages received can be huge, and many – but not most – are from the above profiles.
- Bloggers are under no obligation to allow comments on posts, or messages in their inbox, or to respond to them, no matter what supposed standards have been imposed on them by followers.
- Someone can be blocked for what seems like no reason, but it’s because they have been identified to be one of the above profiles.
- Blocking someone is for one reason only: protection – protection from burnout, harassment and violence.
It’s time to stand up against online abuse – acute and chronic, threatening and disrespectful. I will continue to be brave and not let anyone force me to retreat, especially as a mixed-race woman of colour.