State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

How to Defend Yourself and Others Against Online Attacks

Four people in a Zoom box discussing online harassment
In a Thriving Online webcast last summer, Viktorya Vilk of PEN America discussed methods for withstanding online harassment with climate scientists Kate Marvel of Columbia and Jacquelyn Gill of the University of Maine, as well as the pandemic-focused virologist Angela Rasmussen, who moved from Columbia to Georgetown University this year.

The natural world is in crisis. Biodiversity is being lost at unprecedented rates, eliminating genes and species that will never be recovered. The world’s climate is changing rapidly in ways that will make life on the planet less tolerable. There is no more important time for scientists to share their knowledge with policy makers and the public as we work to reverse these trends.

In today’s world, social media is an important tool in information dissemination. So, with data underpinning almost every issue in the headlines these days, and a turbulent “infodemic” all too often muddying public discourse, ever more scientists and scholars are plunging into social media — some propelled by personal passion, others tugged by a sense of service.

While this information is critical for public discourse, taking such a public stance can also open people up to online hate and harassment, especially for those who identify as women, LGBTQIA+, and/or BIPOC. And efforts online to intimidate, discredit and silence voices is only getting worse.

Jessikka Aro is a Finnish investigative journalist who was subjected to cyber mob attacks for investigating pro-Russian troll factories in September 2014. Her contact information and whereabouts were released online coupled with stories about her filled with misinformation.

The intention behind the online harassment Aro fell victim to was to damage her image. For example, neo-Nazi websites published stories about her being a conspiracy theorist, all the while she was being stalked online to inform harassers about her location. In addition, a fake video was produced with a look-alike actress trying to discredit her.

To help prevent this kind of thing from happening at Columbia, the university recently sponsored a two-day workshop with Pen America and Hollaback! to offer tools that can help people stay safe online, and to become advocates for others who face abuse.

These training sessions grew out of a remarkable public discussion of online harassment hosted last summer by the Earth Institute’s Initiative on Communication and Sustainability. Viktorya Vilk is the program director for Digital Safety and Free Expression at Pen America. In that webcast, she explored challenges and strategies with the Columbia climate scientist Kate Marvel, Columbia virologist Angela Rasmussen (who has since moved to Georgetown University) and Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist at the University of Maine. All have built active, effective presences on Twitter (@drkatemarvel, @angie_rasmussen, @jacquelyngill) and suffered frequent attacks as a result.

Vilk says combating online harassment goes hand in hand with creating a shared language about it. She defines online harassment as “pervasive or severe targeting of an individual or group online through harmful behavior.” Tactics might include cyber mob attacks (also known as dogpiling), doxing (the releasing of personal information online), hate speech, online impersonation, Zoom bombings, and more. Some of these techniques are well-known to many researchers, including those in attendance. Some participants had first-hand experience with online harassment, while all had seen friends or colleagues subjected to it, especially hate speech and cyber mob attacks. Academia is becoming all too familiar with these tactics.

A graphic showing how to deal with online abuse
Caption: The authors’ organization PEN America offers training in how to withstand online harassment and abuse. These are the categories in its Online Harassment Field Manual.
Credit: PEN America

Through a series of tips and exercises, Vilk taught us how to lock down our own cyber security in order to defend ourselves from online harassment. As a participant in the workshop, I was surprised by how vulnerable I was to online harassment. Information brokers gather personal information and sell it online, making your personal contact information available to anyone for a small price. Much to my surprise, I found two of my previous home addresses, as well as my phone number and family living in the U.S. That’s when it hit home. Online harassment can quickly turn into physical harassment. If my personal information was published online in the middle of an attack, people could have harassed or threatened me, even at home.

Thankfully, there are ways to erase your information from information brokers. Vilk suggests setting up two-step verification on your accounts, where you are prompted after you submit your password to confirm it is indeed you signing into your account. She also emphasized the need to use truly unique and complex passwords, and going to the website of information brokers, where they have procedures you can use to have your personal information removed.

Deciding what to do with all of this, of course, is a personal choice. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in responding to online harassment. While reaching out to law enforcement may be preferred to some, recent events have highlighted the fact that not everyone looks to law enforcement for safety. Other options include seeking a supportive online community, professional mental health care, taking some time away from social media, or responding.

Online harassment comes in all shapes and sizes. It can come from a familiar face or strangers; it can be targeted or random; and its impacts vary from person to person. Online harassment’s shift-shaping form makes it hard to address, especially with platforms being overwhelmed and under-prepared to address reported issues.  Regardless of the platform, documenting online harassment (as a receiver or bystander) is critically important — it may be used as evidence if harassment grows to become life-threatening.

Depending on the extent of online harassment, many participants said they have reduced their contact with the abusers through the social media platforms. These efforts include muting, blocking and restricting users. Understanding the vulnerability of these three options is becoming increasingly important. For example, when you block an abusive user you are not able to see the content they are posting. This means that they could continue disseminating false information online without your knowledge. If you are worried or anxious of this happening, Vilk suggests asking a person you trust to monitor their account, and notify you if they see anything troubling.

When deciding how to respond, Vilk emphasized the importance of taking care of yourself first. Once you have identified and prioritized self-care, you can approach the harassment in a way that is supportive to yourself.

On the second day, Vilk was joined by Emily May, the co-founder and executive director at Hollaback! May re-emphasized the importance of first protecting your information, and then responding.

We were trained in responding to online harassment as bystanders by using the five Ds: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay and Direct. These are different methods in which we can support someone that is being harassed, as well as demonstrate to others that they also have the power to make our communities safer.

The five Ds are a good guide for helping someone as a bystander. We learned what method to pursue based on our preferences of engagement. Distracting focuses on derailing the attack by interrupting it and ignoring the harasser, while delegating focuses on asking a third party for support. On the other hand, documenting involves collecting evidence for the person being attacked. They can use it if they wish and it reduces their work of collecting it. Delaying means checking in on the person being harassed, letting them know they are not alone in what they experienced. Finally, you can directly confront the harasser. But first, assess if the situation is safe for you and the person being harassed, if the situation is likely to escalate and if the person being harassed seems to want to speak up.

Vilk and May took us through a series of exercises based on actual experiences of online harassment. Hearing these real-life examples of online abuse sent shivers down my spine, but it was through this exercise that we practiced being supportive bystanders. Although many instances of online abuse come from unknown perpetrators, we often forget to consider that we can also find familiar faces among these abusers.

Francesco Fiondella is the director of communications for the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at the Earth Institute. He maintains and oversees an engaged online presence for IRI, and he says he’s always felt a responsibility to protect himself, his staff and colleagues from online harassment. But he says he didn’t have the tools to do so until he attended the two-day workshop. “The guidance and the resources they gave us were spot on — practical and instantly useful,” he said. “Because of the training, I know I am better prepared to confront online harassment as well as offer guidance to my coworkers.”

Online harassment is not exclusive to scientists or journalists. The accessibility of the internet makes us all both targets and agents of change. It’s important to learn how to stay safe while online.


Related news stories:

Deutsche Welle: Making Space for Female Scientists’ Voices, Online, in the Media, and in Person

Nature: Real Life Stories of Harassment, and How Scientists Got Through It

The Lancet: Cyber Harassment of Female Scientists Will Not be the New Norm 

Science Daily: Cyberbullying

Pew Research Center: What Counts as Online Harassment?

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1 year ago

I merely posted a question on a reddit advice group about getting my 12-year-old grandson gifts on his upcoming birthday. I was hurt and shocked, because my DIL said he was “sad” about the gifts I gave him for Christmas, that he wanted toys for much younger kids. I knew this wasn’t true as he had been overjoyed about his Christmas gifts. I wanted advice about how to deal with the situation.

A few were kind and understanding, but I got viciously attacked by numerous people, telling me I didn’t care about what he wanted, was “entitled” and “narcissistic” and you name it. When I tried to politely explain or defend myself, it just got worse. They begin to fictionalize my life, said I hated my DIL, which isn’t true–we actually get along very well and have never argued. Many jumped to the conclusion that I didn’t honor her boundaries, which is ludicrous. I’ve always treated her with the utmost respect and keep my opinions to myself.

One poster even started digging up my old posts in other groups and found one about a conflict I’d had with my son a year earlier, and posted selective parts of it–a situation that had been resolved but brought back a lot of hurt to me. The group went crazy, started saying I was a terrible MIL, mother, and grandmother. It just got insane! I think some of them were taking out some mother, MIL, or grandmother issue on me.

I started feeling so depressed and traumatized from the attack.

I was especially alarmed about the bully who’d dug up more information about me online. Then more bullies started posting. So I blocked these bullies, deleted my every comment in the thread and the original post, hoping it would all just go away. I looked at my profile and old posts and deleted anything, including photos, that I thought could give them a clue about my real identity or give them more fodder, including the advice I’d sought about the conflict with my son months earlier.

I think one place where I went wrong was trying to defend myself or explain. Nothing I said mattered to them and seemed to only fuel the flames. For whatever reason, the mob just wanted to attack me. And I’m not sure it’s all over yet.