Online Abuse: A Self-Defence Guide

Online abuse and harassment come in many forms, from borderline incivility all the way up to systematic attacks that are engineered to inflict real psychological harm. This guide offers some thoughts on managing their potential impact. 

Online abuse and harassment come in many forms, from borderline incivility all the way up to systematic attacks that are engineered to inflict real psychological harm. Usually, it is women and those from minority groups who bear the brunt of such attacks. The standard journalist-to-journalist advice — “don’t engage, and don’t take it personally” — is usually good counsel but may only get one so far. Many journalists depend on social media for story ideas and sources, and at times may feel compelled to wade into the fray in order to correct false accusations and defend their credibility. For content moderators, working with online negativity is built into the role.

This guide offers some thoughts on managing the potential impact. The Dart Centre has separate resources for working with traumatic imagery, and other organisations offer important advice on digital security measures for protecting one’s online identity against hackers and trolls. (See the Rory Peck Trust Digital Security Guide for freelance journalists, for example.)

Being clear about what you are up against

Online harassment is more than just unpleasant; it is potentially hazardous to journalists’ mental wellbeing. There are two principal dimensions to online abuse: 

  1. The severity of the content. The body’s biological defence systems are likely to fire up when confronted with material that contains threats of physical harm or that references sexual violence or traumatic imagery. The most virulent trolls are skilled at increasing the perceptions of threat. They may allude to attacks against friends or family; or coordinate with others to multiply attacking voices. They may also use manipulative ruses to create situations where their attacks have real life consequences, for example through identity theft (doxxing) or swatting – a practice that involves reporting fake crimes to law enforcement agencies, in a bid to get armed response teams turning up at the journalist’s address. Journalists are good at digesting distressing material, but malevolent communications can clearly increase the trauma loading. Anonymous threats are notoriously hard to calibrate; it is hard to take an appropriate perspective when you don’t have concrete knowledge of where the harassment is coming from.
  2. The volume one has to process. The issue here is not so much the toxicity of the content, but its aggregate volume, even if relatively mild. Posts, tweets and comments that insult the journalist, pour scorn on the content of their work, or argue in bad faith can demoralise without ever being violently abusive. No matter how robust one generally is to criticism, being constantly under the hammer and harried by an audience one is seeking to serve can lead to a phenomenon which experts call moral injury, one that is associated with a sense of betrayal or loss of faith in others.[1] Journalists at the sharpest end of this include those who are investigating disinformation, monitoring social media for long stretches of time or who are just routinely inundated by trolling attacks. They are at increased risk of burnout and such mental health related conditions as depression and anxiety. The more one works with material that is hate-filled, crass or attacking in some way, the greater the risks.

Thoughts that are invoked by fear are more tenacious than others and have a habit of squeezing out other freer ways of thinking. High volumes may also start to bite because of how human memory works. To put the science at its simplest, thoughts and associations get stored according to their “affect-type”. The brain lays down stronger connections between negative experiences than it does between negative and happy. In other words, think of something unhappy, and statistically, the next thought one reaches for is also likely to be unhappy. Thus, it is not uncommon for journalists exposed to heavy volumes of online abuse - or other kinds of negative newsflows - to find that their thinking turns to dredging up negative past experiences, feelings of inadequacy or self-attacking thoughts. People may become acutely down on themselves without being clear quite where it is coming from. The more relentless external attacks are, the greater the danger of tipping over into a downward spiral (a “negative cascade” in the jargon).[2]

Understanding troll ecology and how abuse works

Often, people who get tagged as trolls are better understood as angry and alienated people who have difficulty in communicating. The line between what counts as passionate criticism and destructive incivility can be a thin one, and many social media users have trouble policing their impulses. True, nefarious trolls, on the other hand, have little or no interest in genuine dialogue or public understanding, and often derive personal pleasure from inflicting psychological pain.

Research suggests that the most virulent species are shaped by the “dark tetrad” personality traits: sadism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism[3]. Their lines of attack are likely to include overt racism and misogyny. And their online tactics follow similar patterns found in real world bullying and domestic abuse. Typically, those with a controlling intent seek to personalise the argument; cut people off from a supportive community; use disorientation techniques, such as humiliation or gaslighting, and provoke anger in order to unbalance their targets. Attacks may also come from state actors who use well-rehearsed rhetorical routines to discredit a journalist’s work, or even to destabilise the whole journalistic enterprise by waging war on the idea that any kind of truth is ever possible.

Such actors are heavily invested in amplifying fear and creating in- and out-groups, reducing the world to them and us. Authoritarians, domestic abusers and sophisticated trolls deploy similar tactics because they are generally pretty effective, in the absence, that is, of specific counter measures being taken.

Psychological self-defence:

“Don’t feed the Trolls” is excellent advice. But how to stop them from multiplying online is just one line of inquiry. The next one is, what does it take to stop such hostile critical voices from gathering force in one’s own head?

Limit exposure. The less time you spend thinking about user-generated negativity the better. Consider:

  • Having clear times when you avoid looking at social media, particularly late at night, when you are tired and your emotional defences are down
  • Turn off notifications entirely, or alter their parameters so that they sound less regularly
  • Mute or block consistently hostile voices in your twitter feed. (Muting doesn’t tip off trolls, leaving them to howl into thin air and depriving them of the opportunity to come back again under another anonymous ID.)
  • More generally, make sure you carve out free time when you are not thinking about work and follow a self-care plan that helps you manage general stress

Maintain good defences.  Before diving straight into reading a stream of comments that are likely to be hostile, pre-decide what spirit you are going to read them in. Perhaps experiment with the following psychological hack (called “resourcing”): recall a time when you did something which conformed with values you hold deeply, made a positive difference, and which felt “natural” or “right”. Sounds too simple? Evidence suggests that such a strategy can be a surprisingly effective in dealing with intimidation and abuse of all kinds, by giving one a vantage point that makes one less likely to be reactive.[4] A mindfulness practice can develop a similar capacity and make one a fraction more resistant to being triggered.  

Don’t bite the hook. Being ambushed by a hostile comment may leave you feeling hyper-aroused and eager to strike back instantly. Don’t do this. Press the pause button: take a few deep breaths first or, better still, come back to it later.

Make a habit of reminding yourself this is not the audience. Everyone knows that people piling onto social media feeds are not necessarily representative.  But it is, nevertheless, surprisingly easy to lose sight of this when under attack. Perhaps even allow the phrase “you don’t actually know me” or “you are only a fraction of my audience” to subverbally ghost through your head.

Cut the harasser down to size. Without objective information on who online attackers really are, it is easy to invest them with more potency than they are likely to warrant.  Try puncturing the balloon by using any of these reframing techniques that suit your inclinations:

  • Visualise them as somebody you know, either from personal experience or a fictional character, who comically attempts to project forms of strength which they don’t have. Be creative: use humour, whatever works for you.
  • If processing a high volume of adverse comment, you might try deploying other distancing mechanism, such as mentally marking the work on a scale or 1 to 10 for originality, or grammar ability, or psychological deviousness.
  • Picture the sender as somebody who is in pain or not fully in touch with what they are doing. (While the this may sound counter-intuitive, some people do find that cultivating compassion for a bully or aggressor can, if done in a specific way, be an effective method for reducing the hold a harasser has over them.  Be clear, though, that in this context compassion refers to something that is both clear-sighted and hard-edged. It has nothing to do with giving the person the benefit of the doubt or feeling obligated to be nice to them in any sense. In this approach, the perpetrator is still held as responsible for their actions. Somehow, though, seeing the human being beyond the attacker’s mask and acknowledging how weakness may drive ugly actions, can reduce the power of the attack and make it feel less like a purely personal onslaught. Many people find this surprisingly effective.)

Know thy Troll. In deciding whether to engage or not, bear in mind who you are dealing with. There may be value in responding to somebody who is just angry about the issues and possibly confused. If targeted by a government “pro”, it might be worth posting a short refutation or brush-off to act as a record in the exchange. But keep it terse and polite, and don’t get sucked into a prolonged exchange. As for the sadists, there is rarely ever any point in engaging with someone who feeds off other people’s hurt or anger.

Police your boundaries. If you discover uncivil behaviour on your own blog, call it out. As a private publisher, you also have the right to moderate or delete posts, as any new organisation does. Anyone who feels you are violating their free speech rights is free to set up their own website. Report abuse to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms.

Don’t get tangled in their version of the story. A well-practiced troll may seek to drag you into rhetorical terrain of their own choosing and away from any clear lines of evidence and argument. It is not unusual for recipients of malicious abuse to start internalising their attackers’ narratives, however flawed, unrepresentative or beside the point they are. If you are going to engage, don’t let them dictate the terms of the conversation.  Watch out, in particular, for astroturfers, professional-grade trolls who pretend to be grassroots activists — and others who first feign openness before turning nasty.

Enlist social support. Validation from friends and colleagues can be a real boon in keeping the negative voices at bay. If under heavy attack, you might want to think about passing over the moderation of blog comments or a social media account over to a colleague, somebody who is less personally exposed. If you are that colleague someone turns to, make sure you don’t minimise the impact or imply that they should not feel the way they do. (Listen and talk it through in an open way. You might try asking them what has helped them handle similar situations in the past.)

Look for the positive. When wading through comment threads, highlight the gems - anything that is constructive, interesting or reaffirms the value of engaging with one’s viewers and readers. Some journalists find printing these out or sharing the comments with colleagues a powerful corrective for online negativity. (And do this outside of work too, embrace anything that feeds your personal enthusiasms.)

Be careful around how you hold your anger.  There is nothing wrong with being angry at people who revile or abuse, but the cold, distanced varieties of anger are likely to serve you better than the hotter kinds. Active hatred is a kind of glue that can bind one more intimately to a harasser or bully. There is a simple test for this: ask yourself whether your anger is increasing your sense of freedom of diminishing it. If you find yourself thinking about the aggressor more and more in a semi-obsessive way, it is likely to be the later. Abusive people are often fishing for just such a reaction.

Extreme situations

In the vast majority of cases, online threats are just talk. It is rare for online attacks to translate into real life, but if there is anything in the circumstances that suggests the threat is credible, for example if you assess that the sender has genuine intent, capability and opportunity to deliver on it, then you should seek expert advice about what physical safety measures to take.  The more threatening the situation, the more important it is to follow good trauma self-care routines. These include:

Looking for a positive locus of control. Spending significant thinking time on worrying about factors that you can’t control is usually counter-productive. It is best to concentrate on aspects of the situation that you can do something about, such as following appropriate, physical safety measures. (These may include changing location, for example.)

Learning to use techniques for dampening down arousal, such as mindfulness meditation and deep breathing exercises.

Any other self-care measures that are useful for working in threatening environments. For more ideas see these resources:

[1] Moral injury is not a condition in itself, rather it is a known catalyst for other issues, including burn-out, depression and potentially even the decision to quit journalism. During the pandemic it has become a particular issue for journalists who have witnessed the medical staff, whose life-saving efforts they have been reporting on, coming under online attack from anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists.

[2] Researchers have even found a ratio for this, suggesting that the optimal ratio of positive and negative feelings is around 3:1. Diehl, M., Hay, E. L., & Berg, K. M. (2011). The Ratio between Positive and Negative Affect and Flourishing Mental Health across Adulthood. Aging & mental health, 15(7), 882-893; Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. Am Psychol, 60(7), 678-686. For a general discussion of affect-type and memory, see: Forgas, J. P., & Wyland, C. L. (2006). Affective Intelligence: Understanding the Role of Affect in Everyday Social Behaviour. In J. Ciarrochi & J. P. E. A. Forgas (Eds.), Emotional Intelligence in Everyday Life. New York: Psychology Press.

[3] Cracker, N., & March, E. (2016). The dark side of Facebook: The Dark Tetrad, negative social potency, and trolling behaviors. Personality and Individual Differences, 102, 79 – 84.

[4] Creswell, J. D., Welch, W. T., Taylor, S. E., Sherman, D. K., Gruenewald, T. L., & Mann, T. (2005). Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses. Psychological Science, 16, 846–851.