If you’ve ever had a public online presence – such as a website and social media pages for your business, or yourself – then at some point you’ve probably come across people who dislike you. Sometimes they have a reason, such as a bad experience at your establishment. Sometimes there’s no discernible reasons – haters gonna hate. And sometimes, it comes down to a case of misinterpreted words and bad luck. Just ask poor Justine Sacco.
How these people react can range from something as simple as a grumpy, “I hate you” statement, to rude and aggressive messages, to a full-on barrage of posts and tweets from people threatening to kill you or demanding you kill yourself. Hopefully, most of us will never experience that last one, but it can and does happen every day.
So, how should you deal with online harassment?
1. Take your hands away from the keyboard
Of course you want to respond immediately. Perhaps you were misunderstood, or the other person is using a spurious argument, or there’s a valid reason for what you said or did.
It doesn’t matter.
Don’t touch that keyboard. Close the browser window, step away from the computer, and go do something else. Go look at your nice flowers outside, or crochet one. Beat up your punching bag, go for a run, cook some comfort food. Whatever floats your boat.
Then, and only then, come back to the comment or comments. Consider the tone of the comment. Is the person serious about having a dialogue, or do they just want to prove they’re right? If it’s the latter, don’t respond.
If you do decide to respond, by this point you should have calmed down enough to give a less heated, less emotional response. To have a constructive debate, if you will. “But I’m not the kind of person who gets angry!” you say. Perhaps so. Just keep in mind that a lot happens in the unconscious mind, such as your choice of words. Consider, for example, how the phrase “Police fired tear gas” evokes a stronger emotional response than “Police sprayed tear gas”.
So step away from the keyboard, go do something else, then come back later.
2. Do not engage! Repeat: Do not engage!
As mentioned in the previous point, if someone is simply out to prove they’re right, or wants to complain, don’t respond.
When you’re in the maelstrom, it’s highly emotional. Most people’s first instinct is to either defend themselves, or lash back. After all, you’re under attack. But those are two of the worst things you can do, because it encourages your attackers to respond – and the last thing you want is a protracted, emotional debate in the public eye. It puts you, the public figure, in a bad light and gives more people a (bad) reason to attack you as well. It’s why authors, for example, are told that it’s generally a bad idea to respond to negative reviews.
…the last thing you want is a protracted, emotional debate in the public eye
It’s not worth it, and you will never be able to change another person’s mind through an online argument because they’re already convinced they’re right. It’s called Confirmation Bias.
There are also those who deliberately post inflammatory statements to get a response. Whether it’s for attention or for amusement, these “trolls” just want to agitate you and make you angry. There’s a reason one of the most common sayings online is “Don’t feed the trolls”!
And if there’s an online mob out to attack you, responding simply makes you a bigger, better target for them. Anything you say can and will be used against you.
3. Total lockdown
Anyone seriously determined to harass you will also try to get into your email, social media accounts, website, and anywhere else they can dig through your private information and find information and/or pictures that can be used against you.
Lock down all your important accounts. Change your password and security question/answer – and make sure they’re secure! Use a password manager, which generates long, randomised passwords for each site and automatically signs you in – meaning you only need to remember one password. Turn on two-factor authentication, which requires an additional code sent to your mobile or generated by an app, before anyone can log in. Perhaps this sounds like overkill, but if someone is out to get you, gaining access to any of your accounts is like a goldmine for them.
Finally, ensure your personal data is scrubbed from the internet (see this useful guide). It’s not always foolproof and you may not be able to remove everything, but you can make it a lot harder for a stranger to find out where you live and work!
4. Seek support
The “Do not engage” principle doesn’t always work. There are people who, despite your silence, will continue to attack you.
Sometimes, it’s just one nasty comment. Other times, it’s a protracted attack by a particularly determined individual, or a whole segment of the internet. Whatever the case, it can be easy to become stressed and beaten down by the ferocity of the attack.
Don’t try to deal with it alone.
The internet can become a vicious place when you’re a designated target. Just ask anyone who’s experienced more extreme bullying, and they’ll have tales of having their personal details leaked online (doxxing), receiving abusive anonymous calls, violent threats, takeaway sent to their door for payment on delivery, even in some cases having the police called to their property after being tipped off about someone being attacked there. (In America, the standard is calling in a SWAT team, and there’s even a term – swatting.)
It can be overwhelming, so seek support from loved ones and friends. Complain to them offline, out of the public eye. Ask them to help you sort through the nasty messages, because it’s much easier for them to keep an emotional distance. Crash at their place if you feel threatened, or cry on their shoulder.
You can also seek support from communities dedicated to helping people who are being harassed online. Crash Override Network is one such community set up by two online abuse survivors, who have created a network of experts in fields from law enforcement and law to white-hat hacking, PR and counselling. They provide advice for how to prevent attacks, as well as support for those under attack.
And if you ever reach the point where you’re contemplating suicide, please, please reach out to organisations such as BeyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 if you’re in Australia, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1800 273 8255 if you’re in America. Here is a list of suicide hotlines for a number of other countries.
Online harassment can be a stressful, heartbreaking experience. But you can learn to deal with the smaller-scale haters, and survive through the big ones. You are not alone. You don’t have to be.