How to deal with online harassment

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When pandemic stay-at-home orders went into effect two years ago, Internet use skyrocketed worldwide. Millions of Americans suddenly relied on their phones and computers as lifelines for remote jobs, classes, now distant family and friends, food and grocery supplies, and a fire hose of news to understand the new coronavirus.

As our lives largely moved online, so did unwelcome harassment. In a Pew Research Center study published last year, Americans reported more serious encounters, such as physical threats, stalking, persistent harassment, and sexual harassment compared to pre-pandemic levels. Women, coloreds, and LGBTQ people are at particular risk for more extreme forms of online abuse, including sexual harassment, stalking, and hate speech, according to the Pew study and a report by GLAAD, a gay rights organization.

While advocates have urged technology companies to do more to curb online abuse and protect vulnerable users, there are things people can do to protect themselves.

Here are expert tips for identifying your online risk, maintaining online boundaries, responding to threats and more.

1. Ensure good digital hygiene

It is especially important that people take measures to protect themselves from potential online attacks, say experts studying online abuse. The most basic of these proactive measures is good digital hygiene – in other words, making it difficult for hackers to access your online accounts.

“It’s important to know that it can happen to anyone,” said Viktorya Vilk, program director for digital security and free speech at Pen America, a nonprofit organization that advocates free speech. “In the future, you will thank the present you for all you can do proactively.”

The first step is simple: Use complex and unique passwords for each online account. It is much easier to recover one compromised account than it is to have to address several at once.

One of the easiest ways to keep track of your passwords is by using a password management app. April Glaser, a fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy, recommends 1Password and LastPass, both of which have free and premium versions. Each service generates unique passwords to secure accounts.

You should also check your privacy settings and enable two-factor authentication on each service that allows it. This requires users to have two ways of proving that they are actually the owners of the accounts they are trying to access. For example, a user may need both a password and a one-time password sent via SMS to log in with two-factor authentication.

These measures may seem simple, but preventive damage control is critical, said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group for digital rights.

“It’s best to do this in advance,” she said. “When you’re being harassed, it’s a stressful time to knock the hatches down.”

It may seem strange, but it can be helpful to think about how you would troll yourself, experts say. This means that you need to discover what information about you is publicly available. Google yourself, your phone number and your address to see what comes up. Is there personal information attached to you? Are there places where you can request it removed?

“Think like someone trying to dox you,” Vilk said, referring to the practice of revealing a person’s real name, home address or other private information, published with the intent to harass, intimidate or endanger them.

An easy way to track what new information might appear about you online is to set up Google Alerts, Vilk said. The service notifies users via email whenever Google’s crawlers find new results that mention specific words. In this case, you will want to set the keywords as your name.

But you can find your information in places you would not expect. Data brokers scrape lots of information from other sites to sell. Tracy Chou, founder and CEO of the anti-harassment app Block Party, suggests services like DeleteMe, which cost $ 129 a year for one user and will regularly check data broker sites and delete the information they have about you. Kanary performs a similar service for $ 89.99 per year.

You can do it yourself for free, though it will take you a lot more time, Glaser said. She recommends manually searching each data broker site and making individual removal requests. Which suggests that you do it at least once a year because brokers often repopulate their databases even after you delete your information.

Pay attention to what you post

Experts agree that if you want to build an online presence, the best way to do so is to be authentic. But that does not mean you post everything about yourself so the public can see.

“Be really thoughtful [about] which platform you use for what purpose, ”said Vilk. “If you use Twitter almost exclusively professionally, you can make your Twitter setting more public. But then do not publish private personal information.”

Double check what you have posted on your social media profiles and personal sites, as well as which of these details are public. And if you are posting pictures, be aware of what is in the background. Is your address visible? Are you tagging your location? Is it a common place where you can be found?

Glaser also said you may want to consider identifying who is related to you on your social media accounts and posts. For example, Facebook allows you to include family members and spouses in the “About Me” section of your profile. But attaching people to you also gives trolls other people to target as a way to harass you. The same is true if you choose to post or tag your loved ones on public photos on social media.

“Your sister or brother can be harassed, and that’s certainly not what you want,” Glaser said.

4. Protect your mental health

If you find yourself being harassed, it is easy to panic. But experts advise victims to remember that they have ways to fight back. And much of it includes steps to protect yourself from the mental damage of online abuse.

“Feeling you have some leeway can be really empowering,” Chou said. “You can claim power where you have it.”

Take advantage of all the tools that social media services offer. Mute, block or filter users and threads that attack you. Use reporting tools to mark offensive comments or postings to companies.

Third-party apps and services can also help. Chou’s Block Party allows users to choose which groups of people they want to receive messages from; messages from all other users go to a separate folder for later review. And Tall Poppy helps companies protect their employees from online harassment with security measures, incident response and follow-up support.

If you are attacked via email, use filters to redirect harassing messages to a separate folder, Glaser suggests. Specifically, you can set filters for emails that contain misogynistic, homophobic or derogatory words.

“You know what words you get the most,” she said. “If anyone sends me such an email, it will not be helpful.”

But you may not want to ignore offensive messages completely, experts say. Some may include threats of physical harm or imminent danger. So how do you protect your mental health without having to read everything? Galperin suggests that you ask someone you trust to read harassing messages and / or posts.

“Some are quite frightening and compulsive and can be a sign of escalating harassment,” she said. “You need someone to read all these things to you.”

Galperin also says that online support groups like HeartMob can be a great resource for women experiencing online harassment. The group helps raise resources and connects victims of online abuse to a community for mental health. Therapy can also help alleviate victims’ stress and emotions as a result of online abuse.

In some cases, the harassment may require physical action.

To ensure your safety, experts suggest documenting online harassment that can be used by technology companies or even police to investigate threats. You may need to alert authorities, relatives or your employer, depending on the threat and your personal circumstances and comfort level. Experts also suggest having a plan for safe relocation if you need it.

But regardless of the situation, Vilk said that victims under attack should take a moment to breathe, find out what suits them best and reach out for support.

“Make sure you do not go alone,” she said. “Do not be afraid to ask for help.”

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