You Asked: How do I deal with online harassment? How do I help the targets of online harassment?
A German translation of this post is available on kleinerdrei.org
This post covers two similar questions.
I've recently found myself the target of an internet harassment campaign. Do you have any tips for dealing with this?
Dealing with online harassment is emotionally and physically taxing, which is exactly what harassers aim for. You can minimize their impact and protect yourself at the same time in a variety of ways.
As someone who faces this regularly, I opted to create a post to explain how I'd like people to react when they see this happen to me. In conjunction with a keyboard shortcut on my phone and computer (!trollresponse, which expands to that link), I can quickly inform people what I need from them and why, without having to explain it to each person individually during every incident. I also link to this from my contact page and in the footer of my site so it's easily accessible for people who would otherwise be contacting me about those things.
Consider contacting important people in your life to notify them about what's happening to you. Frequently harassers will attempt to get to you by attacking people in your life (family, friends, employer, clients), so minimizing that risk is something to seriously consider. This isn't an option for everyone, as some people need to keep their online identity or work secret from those people in their lives, so do what is best for you. Notifying the people close to you keeps them from inadvertently revealing any information to harassers online or exposing you to additional risk.
You may also want to discuss this with your therapist/other mental health professional or doctor as this adds an incredible amount of stress to your life. The Geek Feminism Wiki has a handy resource for therapists working with geek feminists who regularly see this abuse.
On social media in general, block liberally. Remove the opportunity for people to easily continue to harass you. My personal policy is if I feel my heart rate tick up a notch when I read something someone has sent to me, I immediately block them. We don't owe abusive people our time or attention.
On twitter considering using The Block Bot, which is a service that allows individuals to add people to a shared block list for generalized abuse. If someone says something aggressively sexist, cissexist, transphobic, or otherwise to someone on the network and they add the person to The Block Bot, the person will also be blocked for me. It's a sort of pre-emptive strike against harassers.
On facebook, be sure to regularly check your privacy settings. I have a calendar notification every 2 months that reminds me to take a half hour to make sure they haven't added new features that have chipped away at my privacy.
Consider having someone close to you screen your emails, @replies on twitter, or other messages online for harassing content. Ask them to keep everything private, but to log everything. They can block people, archive emails, and report people for abuse on your behalf (but be aware that on Twitter, reports of abuse can only come from the victim's account :/).
Any threats and harassment you receive should be documented. Know that tweets, facebook posts, etc can all be deleted by the user who sent them (or taken down if the user is suspended), so be sure to take screenshots, record links and text, and any names or aliases the person goes by. If the person escalates, being able to show a pattern of ongoing, excessive behavior may be important.
Take care of yourself. This stuff is hard to deal with even when you're at your best. Talk to people you trust about your concerns, what you need from them, and how they can help. Eat, exercise, and sleep as normally as you otherwise would. Take time for yourself to do things that relax you - read, play games, spend time outside, be with friends.
I know that you and other diversity advocates and activists face a lot of harassment online. When that happens, what can I do to help?
The way that each person would like you to react to their being harassed is different. Unfortunately, being the victim of harassment comes with more than just the obvious risks. Respecting their wishes is the least you can do to not add to the pile of unwelcome contact they're currently receiving. If you don't agree with the way they are handling being harassed, remember that it's not your place and not helpful to tell them they're doing it wrong. Respect what they want and need.
Expose as little of another person's life as possible:
- Ask before taking a picture of someone and if it's okay to post it publicly; tell them where you are posting it. Don't forget to ask if it's okay that you tag them.
- Ask before checking someone in on Foursquare, Facebook, or similar geoloc services. Don't check in at people's homes.
- Don't make private plans publicly. Ask the best way to arrange things with them - email? sms? DMs? phone call?
- When inviting people to small events, provide a way to privately contact you so they can voice any concerns about other possible attendees, the venue, etc.
- Ask each time before sharing private information: phone numbers, email addresses, physical addresses, online identity information, employer, medical information, gender/sexuality/other identity information, etc. When in doubt, offer to share the asker's contact information so the person can choose whether or not they want to share that information with them directly.
- Never make promises on someone else's behalf.
Understand that people facing this kind of harassment may have a variety of emotional reactions - anger, depression, sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, numbness. Don't negate their feelings.
A victim of harassment may also need special consideration when planning social or professional events, so be sure to be aware and sensitive to them.
- The Smart Girl's Guide to Privacy, Violet Blue - a great resource for everyone and it's not gender-specific, no matter what the title tells you
- Mitigating Internet Trollstorms, Geek Feminism Wiki
- Two Factor Auth (2FA) list
- The Block Bot
- Block Together
- Account Killer - how to remove your account and/or data from popular websites
- Resources for Therapists, Geek Feminism Wiki
More on Harassment
- The Risk in Speaking Up
- Cybersexism: Sex, Gender, and Power on the Internet, Laurie Penny
- How the Law is Standing Up to Cyberstalking, Newsweek
- Online Harassment, Defamation, and Hateful Speech: A Primer of the Legal Landscape, Alice E. Marwick and Ross W. Miller
- Harassment, Geek Feminism Wiki
- "Internet Famous": Visibility As Violence on Social Media, Shanley Kane (trigger warnings: violent imagery, discussions of rape threats)
- Abuse by Reddit: Proxy Abuse in Tech, Betsy Haibel
- Abuse by Proxy and Abuse by Stalking, Dr. Sam Vaknin
- Still 'Searching for Safety Online': collective strategies and discursive resistance to trolling and harassment in a feminist network, Frances Shaw
- Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet, Amanda Hess (trigger warnings: violent language and imagery, discussions of rape threats)
- Anita Sarkeesian at TEDxWomen 2012 (video, no transcript/captions)
- The Experience of Being Trolled, PBS Idea Channel (video, no transcript/captions) - "Don't feed the trolls puts the responsibility on the person being trolled, and not the environment hosting the trolling. It says 'those people threatening to kill you hundreds of times a day? Just ignore them!', which after a point might not only be impossible, but also foolish."
- But WHAT CAN BE DONE: Dos and Don’ts To Combat Online Sexism, Leigh Alexander
- Social and Technical Means for Fighting On-Line Harassment, Ellen Spertus
- Curbing Online Abuse isn't Impossible. Here's Where We Start, Wired
- FAQ for Internet Harassers, Samantha Leigh Allen
I'd like to create a list of potential speakers for conference organizers. It seems useful, but fraught with problems. What do you think?
I've seen quite a few people create similar lists that are focused at conference organizers in their communities, so you're not alone here.
Speaker lists can be a helpful tool in communities that are just now approaching the idea of diversifying their conference lineup. When a community hasn't highlighted the work of marginalized people before, it can be difficult to identify who those people in the community might be.
Unfortunately, it can also become a problem. For one, the people who end up on such lists find themselves receiving a lot of requests to speak, so naturally turn down quite a number of opportunities that could go to someone else. Organizers begin to believe that every marginalized person they invite will say no, causing resentment on their part. When someone points out that their event isn't very diverse, it's not unusual to hear organizers say "every person we asked turned us down or canceled!", effectively blaming the very people they're attempting to attract to their event. This attitude isn't going to make marginalized people feel comfortable speaking or attending the event.
Additionally, when organizers begin relying on these lists, we see the same handful of people speaking every time, which isn't helping solve the problem of representation. We should be striving to see lots of new speakers or less-"famous" speakers have opportunities at our events. It's a sociological fact that people tend to know more people like them than not; it's hard work to actively work to correct this. Because organizers can come to rely on these lists (which are quickly dated), they're less likely to do the work that they should be doing to broaden their network: getting to know more people different from themselves, creating initiatives to identify and highlight the important work that's being done in their community by people from all backgrounds.
The community becoming more inclusive and empathetic toward people they haven't otherwise given a chance to - intentionally or otherwise - is the goal. As a conference organizer myself, I know how difficult this can be, but remember that you aren't working on this alone. Reach out to the community and tell them you want to know who the unsung heroes are. Whose blog posts have helped you think about something in a brand new way? Who is doing important documentation work? Who is making a monumental effort to coordinate a re-write of a popular library?
Feigned Shock and Faux Enlightenment
I'm often asked if I believe that things in tech are getting better. Are the efforts to raise awareness, educate, and counteract the effects of rampant sexism, racism, cissexism, homophobia, and ableism, among others, making an impact?
Changes happen at a level hard for us to perceive, something I discussed in a recent talk I gave at Monitorama. That being said, I've been watching a few areas in which to gauge progress.
The diversity in tech movement is stronger, larger, and louder than I believe it's ever been. Articles in industry publications as well as global magazines and newspapers, blog posts, conference talks, podcasts, and large-scale twitter discussions continually highlight the rampant abuse, harassment, and bias that marginalized people in tech face.
And yet each time these incidents surface, the industry and surrounding publications feign shock. How could this happen at a company a large portion of the industry looks up to? Can you believe a highly respected speaker and author would do that to someone at a conference? How can people be treated unfairly in a meritocracy?
This continued feigned shock that women are treated like shit by men in tech is gettin really fuckin old, y’all.
— ashe dryden (@ashedryden) July 1, 2014
Reactions to these incidents are so unvaried that we can easily map the timeline:
- Incident goes public.
- Feigned shock from the offending group, meanwhile marginalized group are upset that this is happening yet again and nothing has changed.
- Offending group calls incident reporter derogatory names and a liar. Depending on how visible and beloved the offender(s) were, the reporter may also receive sustained harassment, abuse, and threats from the offending group.
- Approximately 1 week elapses.
- Go to 1.
To be shocked by these incidents is to actively avoid reading, hearing, or seeing anything documenting these incidents. As they even show up on Reddit and Hacker News, places famously hostile to marginalized people, I just don't see how it's possible to avoid it.
But here's the thing: the longer they pretend to be shocked and appalled that these things happen, the longer they can keep from evaluating their own actions and those of their colleagues. They can distance themselves from the incident, remarking that they'd never do something like that. There is no critical discussion about what leads to these incidents - what parts of our culture allow these things to go unchecked for so long, how pervasive they are, and how so much of this is rewarded directly or indirectly. All of this means spending a day or two upset and demanding that someone do something!, while waiting for the next thing to come along and distract us from actually contributing to solutions.
It's important to notice what is happening here: by declaring that the people doing these things are others, it removes the need to examine our own actions. The logic assumed that only bad people do these things and we aren't bad people, so we couldn't do something like this. Othering effectively absolves ourselves of any blame.
Along with greater discussions of diversity unfortunately comes faux enlightenment.
This takes a lot of forms and is scary in that it's very difficult to tell who really believes in diversity. I've known a number of very visible, public figures who say one thing in public, but support some heinous things behind closed doors. When these people are conference organizers, programming heroes, and well-known speakers, the risk they pose to harming a lot of people is hard to ignore.
This is also manifested in people and organizations that are largely paying lip service to diversity without understanding what continues to contribute to the lack of diversity and why a lack of diversity hurts us all.
LOL Bros. Will spend 24 hours straight learning latest framework but discrimination? HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO LEARN ABOUT THAT ON MY OWN!?
— Kronda (@kronda) November 12, 2013
Without having invested time or energy into educating themselves about these issues, they're left to mimick what they believe people want to see or hear. For instance, we've seen a number of programming conferences recently announce they've put a code of conduct in place, only to find out it not only doesn't protect victims of harassment, but it puts the onus on the victims themselves to resolve the situation with the person harassing them. Or consider the number of companies declaring that diversity is important because "it'd be nice to have women to look at in the office" (note that in the majority of the discussions they have, diversity is always and only code for women, and often white women).
When the inevitable backlash occurs, it can often be worse than if they'd done nothing at all, and for good reason. By feigning enlightenment, they're intentionally deceiving people who are worried about their safety. The industry is dangerous enough without being tricked into walking down a dark alley. From there, they get defensive ("we tried to do something good!", "nothing is ever good enough for these people!") before having to backpedal and patch things up with the community. They issue a non-apology apology and reaffirm their commitment to diversity by making a donation to a non-profit.
2014 is gonna be the year of tech companies pretending to give a fuck about diversity when they don't give a fuck.
— Shanley (@shanley) June 4, 2014
The assumption being that if they make a sizable donation, it offsets the harm they caused. What it's become is a sort of fine levied upon individuals and businesses that do wrong - a simple speeding ticket to be paid. More often than not, this is a transparent PR tactic to mitigate some of the damage to their reputation. They make no promise to educate themselves or the other people in the organization to understand why what they did was wrong to prevent them from doing it again. Without recognizing the context in which things are problematic and giving them the base level of skills to apply the rules to a variety of situations, they're bound to make the same or similar mistakes in the future, leaving progress locked in time.
Don't get me wrong - I fully believe they should still have to pay the fine, but when you consider the amount of professional, personal, and financial harm they've done to their immediate victim(s), on top of contributing to an already ignorant or actively aggressive anti-diversity community, you can start to see how any amount of money they'd willingly part with as a PR tactic is unlikely to even begin to offset their actions.
And even when they donate money to a diversity in tech non-profit, it's often to one that is furthest from the problem they contributed to. This is especially true of pipeline non-profits, which help two major demographics: children/young adults under 18 (who tech companies cannot hire), or intro classes and developer schools (in an industry that shies away from hiring junior developers at all).
Pipeline organizations play an important role in increasing diversity in tech, but they don't address the problems that currently exist in the industry that contribute to the epidemic of attrition. We need to be forced to examine the problems we create and perpetuate - to tackle the body of the problem, which is the lack of opportunity, advancement, equality, and poor treatment that marginalized people face when trying to succeed in the industry. We need a solution to keep coworkers from making homophobic jokes, to encourage bosses to examine the biases that prevent them from noticing the accomplishments of people of color, to educate conference organizers about taking reports of harassment seriously and act to protect their attendees. We need to change our workplace culture to be inclusive and welcoming. For the people who go through these pipeline organizations and developer schools, they end up struggling to find jobs, be paid fairly, treated decently, and offered advancement.
So how does donating to a pipeline organization help if we want to give new people an actual place in the industry?
OH: we moved away from ruby because that community is less willing to openly hire junior developers.
— Bees on a Plane (@juliepagano) June 26, 2014
Donating to organizations as far from the source of the problem as possible allow us to redirect the blame, with false but regularly accepted statements like we don't have any executives of color because children of color aren't interested in computer science at a young age. We don't have any women speaking at our conference because they're too afraid to speak in front of an audience. Not only does this ignore the number of highly capable marginalized people that are already in the industry, but it puts the blame back on them for not being present. We dismiss our involvement in the problem; how we discourage them from participating through our marketing, our actions and those of our colleagues, and failing to consider how homogeneity-enforcing we've allowed our culture to become.
So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me ‘arch priestess of the sightless,’ ‘wonder woman,’ and a ‘modern miracle.’ But when it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain that it is the result of wrong economics—that the industrial system under which we live is at the root of much of the physical deafness and blindness in the world—that is a different matter! It is laudable to give aid to the handicapped. Superficial charities make smooth the way of the prosperous; but to advocate that all human beings should have leisure and comfort, the decencies and refinements of life, is a Utopian dream, and one who seriously contemplates its realization indeed must be deaf, dumb, and blind.
Helen Keller, letter to Senator Robert La Follette, 1924
By only supporting programs that are as far a reach from the industry as possible, we're passing the responsibility on to the next generation of business owners, conference organizers, and community members. In abandoning the marginalized people that currently work in the industry, we prolong the myriad problems we see today even longer.
What Does This Mean?
So what does all of this mean for diversity in tech? Like everything, it's complicated.
On one hand, attempts are being made on a large scale - concious and otherwise - that artificially limit the speed of change. We see individuals pretending that at every incident of publicized abuse, this is the first they've heard of this behavior happening at companies and conferences. They profess their "committment to diversity" only after they've been caught doing the absolute minimum or worse, creating actively hostile environments. They aim to avoid detection, effectively deceiving people into believing they have invested effort in positive solutions and are deserving of praise.
On the other hand, these conversations are happening. Diversity is becoming a demand in tech. Whether or not companies, conferences, communities, or individuals understand the need for it, they know they can't ignore it anymore. For instance, a tech conference cancelled last month and publicly stated the reason was because they were unable to get any women and/or people of color to speak. That being said, they and other people in the community blamed marginalized people for the lack of diversity in the lineup, but at least the conference knew they couldn't have a homogenous lineup without consequences.
If we're going to see any kind of progress, it's going to mean moving ahead before some people are ready and it's going to be painful.
It also means that people need to stop just nodding their approval at this work and actually get involved. Our roles in this problem don't end at mere agreement. It isn't super helpful that you emphatically agree with those who speak about the lack of diversity in tech on twitter. What is helpful is educating yourself, owning up to your mistakes, and being present in your community working to fix these problems. We can start by not expecting a pat on the back for doing a single good deed - change is made of millions of good deeds done over and over again. A single action isn't nearly as helpful as changing your outlook on these issues and contributing to change every day.