How can women protect themselves from online harassment?
OWhen pandemic stay-at-home orders came into effect two years ago, internet use skyrocketed around the world. Millions of Americans suddenly relied on their phones and computers as lifelines for remote jobs, classes, now-distanced family and friends, socially distanced food and grocery deliveries, and a fire hose news in an effort to understand the novel coronavirus.
As our lives moved largely online, so did unwelcome harassment. In a 2021 Pew Research Center poll, Americans reported more serious encounters, such as physical threats, harassment, sustained harassment and sexual harassment, compared to pre-pandemic levels. According to the Pew Poll and a report by Glaad, a gay rights organization, women, people of color and LGBT+ people are particularly at risk of more extreme forms of online abuse, including sexual harassment, harassment and hate speech.
“We know that online abuse has a very sexist nature,” said Seyi Akiwowo, founder and executive director of Glitch, a UK-based nonprofit working to end online abuse. The Washington Post Last year. “We need a language that responds to that.”
While advocates have called on tech companies to do more to combat online abuse and protect vulnerable users, there are things women and gender non-conforming people can do to protect themselves.
Here are some expert tips for identifying your online risk, maintaining online boundaries, responding to threats and more.
1. Make sure you have good digital hygiene
According to experts who study online abuse, it is especially important for women to take steps to protect themselves from potential attacks online. The most fundamental of these proactive measures is good digital hygiene – in other words, preventing hackers from accessing your online accounts.
“It’s important to know that this can happen to anyone,” says Viktorya Vilk, director of the digital safety and free expression program at the nonprofit organization PEN America. “Going forward, you’ll thank the current one for everything you can do proactively.”
The first step is simple: use complex and unique passwords for each online account. Recovering a compromised account is much easier than having to deal with several simultaneously.
One of the easiest ways to keep track of your passwords is to use a password manager app. April Glaser, a fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on 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 every service that allows it. This forces users to have two ways to prove that they are indeed the owner of the accounts they are trying to access. For example, a user might need both a password and a one-time code sent via text message to log in using two-factor authentication.
These measures may seem simple, but preventive damage control is essential, says Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group.
“It’s best to do this in advance,” she says. “When you’re harassed, it’s a stressful time to batten down the hatches.”
2. Research yourself
It might sound weird, but it can be worth thinking about how you’re trolling yourself, experts say. This means finding out what information about you is publicly available. Google yourself, your phone number, and your address to see what pops up. Is there any personal information linked to you? Is it in places where you can request its removal?
“Think like someone trying to dox you,” Vilk says, referring to the practice of publishing someone’s real name, home address or other private information in an attempt to embarrass them. frighten her or endanger her.
An easy way to keep track of new information that may surface about you online is to set up Google Alerts, Vilk says. The service notifies users by email whenever Google’s crawlers find new results mentioning specific words. In this case, you would want to define the keywords as your name.
But you can find your information in places you wouldn’t expect. Data brokers take loads of information from other sites to sell. Tracy Chou, founder and chief executive of anti-harassment app Block Party, suggests services like DeleteMe, which costs $229 (£175) a year and will regularly check data broker sites and delete information they have on you. Kanary performs a similar service for $89.99 (£69) per year.
You can do it yourself for free, although it will take you a lot longer, says Glaser. She recommends manually researching each data broker site and making individual removal requests. Vilk suggests you do this at least once a year, as data brokers often repopulate their databases even after they delete your information.
3. Be aware of what you post
Experts agree that if you want to build an online presence, the best way to do it is to be authentic. But that doesn’t mean posting everything about yourself for the public to see.
“Be really careful about what platform you’re using and for what purpose,” says Vilk. “If you use Twitter almost exclusively for work, you can make your Twitter settings more public. But then… don’t post private personal information.
Double-check what you put on your social media profiles and personal websites, as well as which of these details are public. And if you post photos, pay attention to what’s in the background. Is your address visible? Do you mark your location? Is this a regular place where you can be found?
Glaser also suggests that you may want to consider whether you identify who is linked to you on your social media accounts and posts. Facebook, for example, lets you include family members and spouses in the “About Me” section of your profile. But linking 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 in public photos on social media.
“Your sister or brother could be harassed, and that’s definitely not what you want,” Glaser says.
4. Protect your sanity
If you find yourself the target of harassment, it’s easy to panic. But experts advise victims to remember that they have ways to fight back. And a big part of that includes measures to protect you from mental harm from online abuse.
“Feeling like you have a certain agency can be really empowering,” Chou says. “You can assert your power where you have it.”
Take advantage of all the tools offered by social media services. Mute, block, or filter users and chats that attack you. Use reporting tools to report abusive comments or posts to the companies concerned.
Third-party apps and services can also help. Chou’s Block Party allows users to choose which groups of people they want to receive notifications from; notifications from all other users go into a separate folder for later review. And Tall Poppy helps businesses protect their employees from online harassment with safeguards, incident response, and follow-up support.
If you’re attacked by email, use email filters to redirect harassing messages to a separate folder, suggests Glaser. Specifically, you can set filters for emails containing misogynistic, homophobic, or derogatory words.
“You know which words you get the most,” she says. “If someone sends me an email like that, it’s not going to be helpful.”
But you may not want to completely ignore abusive messages, experts say. Some may include threats of physical harm or imminent danger. So how do you protect your sanity without having to read everything? Galperin suggests asking someone you trust to read harassing posts and/or messages.
“Some are quite terrifying and obsessive and can be a sign of escalating bullying,” she says. “You need someone to read all this stuff for you.”
Galperin also suggests that online support groups like HeartMob can be a good resource for women experiencing online harassment. The group helps provide resources and connects victims of online abuse to a community for mental health support. Therapy can also help alleviate the stress and emotions resulting from online abuse.
5. Act physically
In some cases, harassment may require physical action.
To keep you safe, experts suggest keeping an online harassment registry, which could be used by tech companies or even the police to investigate threats. You may need to alert authorities, loved ones, or your employer, depending on the threat as well as your personal situation and comfort level. Experts also suggest having a safe relocation plan if you need one.
But regardless of the situation, says Vilk, victims of attack need to take a moment to breathe, figure out what’s best for them, and seek help.
“Make sure you don’t go alone,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
© The Washington Post