The letters for #MeToo are cut out from a magazine and placed on top of a textured grey concrete background representing online hate and harassment

Dealing with Online Hate and Harassment

Please note that this post contains references to harassment and violence.

Being an intersectional feminist on the Internet can feel like you have a target on your forehead.

Speaking up for social justice threatens the comfort and privilege of people in power.

Right-wing trolls scour the Internet, looking for anyone who represents or promotes social justice and disgorge onto us their fear, anxiety, insecurity, loneliness, pain, yearning for recognition, and desire for control.

Some of these attacks are highly calculated. Online hate and harassment are designed to intimidate and silence, shutting down people who pose threats to the status quo.

In these hateful vendettas, women, LGBTQIA+ folx, people of color, and disabled people are especially vulnerable to abuse. That means challenging hate and harassment is an intersectional issue and requires collective strategies to counteract.

In this post, I’ll first clarify some of the terms and concepts around hate and harassment, before discussing the challenges we’ve seen with attempts to regulate online hate. I’ll talk about the prevalence of hate on social media as well as recognizing the painful effects of being in the line of fire.

At the end of this post, I’ll share some thoughts about the problems with the adage, “don’t feed the trolls” and suggest some other tactics for counteracting hate and harassment online.

Silhouetted hands of someone using a laptop in their living room in front of a large window showing the city outside
Photograph by cottonbro

Defining Hate, Harassment, Cyberbullying, and Abuse

Online hate and harassment are defined as any behavior targeting a person or group based on their membership in a ‘minority’ race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or gender.

These attacks can be intersectional, where for example, a Black woman can face abuse for being both Black and a woman (i.e., ‘misogynoir’).

Related: What is Intersectional Feminism? A Definitive Guide

When the film, Ghostbusters, was rebooted in 2016, one of its leads, Leslie Jones, faced a concerted attack by alt-righters who posted sexist and racist imagery on  social media. Leslie Jones’ website was also hacked and flooded with offensive materials.

I won’t reproduce any of that vitriol here but at the end of this post, I’ll include some links to Leslie Jones’ work that will convince you (if you didn’t know already) that she’s a treasure.

Hate and harassment differ from bullying and abuse more broadly. Bullying and abuse don’t have to relate to the target’s gender, sexuality, race, religion, and other protected identities.

Hostile comments about a majority identification, in other words, being white, male, cisgender, straight, or able-bodied might be considered abuse in certain cases, but aren’t technically harassment.

Reverse sexism and reverse racism can’t, by definition, exist. This is because sexism and racism can only be perpetrated by those in a dominant position of power. Systems of domination and oppression are built into historical and social structures that form the hierarchies in which we currently co-exist.

The myths of reverse sexism and reverse racism imagine an alternate universe where patriarchy and colonialism never happened. They pretend we all exist on a level playing field where women and people of color are seemingly struggling for no good reason.

To date, I’ve never found anyone who explained the fallacy of reverse racism better than Aamer Rahman. I’ve included his poignant, clever, and hilarious explainer below.

According to research from Pew in 2017, 40% of people in the United States have experienced some form of harassment online, while 66% have witnessed these behaviors directed towards others.

Most harassment comes in the form of offensive name-calling and deliberate attempts to embarrass the target, but almost one in five Americans have experienced more severe attacks such as physical threats, sexual harassment, and stalking.

The number of people who have experienced sustained and severe harassment is staggering enough, yet I want to emphasize that it doesn’t mean the less severe forms are considered more tolerable.

Regulating Hate Speech?

Online hate speech has been very difficult to regulate. While many nations around the world have strict laws forbidding hate speech, the United States First Amendment affords protection to those espousing hate from American websites.

The American idea of free speech as encompassing hate speech is very different from ideas about speech in Europe. The Council of Europe signed a legal statement criminalizing online racist and xenophobic hate in 2001 to prevent hate speech from threatening European unity.

This means it’s difficult to regulate hate speech originating from the United States even when it ends up harassing and threatening someone across the other side of the world.

Adding to the anonymity of online identities, many online hate crime offenders have been able to evade legal prosecution.

Tech companies like Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and web hosting firms have in some cases had more success than governments at regulating online hate. They can require its users to agree to Terms of Service or codes of conduct when they sign up.

So hosting companies that forbid its users from hosting racist content, for example, would then have the authority to close down neo-Nazi websites. That being said, many ISPs refuse to ban hate speech in their codes of conduct unless it’s specifically defamation or libel.

A Muslim woman sitting in her living room on a large couch is using her laptop on her coffee table, suggesting the online hatred that is often targeted to people with multiple intersecting marginalities
Photograph by cottonbro

Hate on Social Media

Social media can often become sites of rampant hate.

While platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have clear Terms of Service agreements that prohibit hate, many violations fall through the cracks of their banning process. I often try to make an effort to report hate and harassment I see on social media and might only see half the cases result in a ban.

reporting hate on twitter iphone

Usually, the ban would come a week or two after the incident and by then, the damage has mostly been done.

These bans also don’t stop trolls and harassers from opening up new accounts to continue spreading hate. Some of the most vitriolic attacks I’ve seen on Twitter were new accounts created solely for the purpose of abuse. The accounts would be abandoned as soon as they had fulfilled their aim.

When social media platforms do intervene in high-profile cases of hate speech, such as when Twitter permanently banned an alt-right editor of Breitbart, the alt-right will quickly assume the role of the victim and cry oppression.

As we’ve matured with Internet use, we’ve also developed more creative ways to deal with online hate.

As with the example with Leslie Jones, one tactic has been to counteract hate speech with love speech. In the face of sexist and racist attacks, citizens and celebrities flooded social media with their celebrations of Jones.

Another tactic has been to retain hateful comments on digital platforms but adding commentary to educate and raise awareness about systemic oppression in our culture.

Later in this post, I’ll elaborate on the tactics and strategies we can adopt to fight online hate and harassment, and recreate the Internet as a safer place for everybody.

Effects of Online Hate

With the rise of online hate and harassment alongside the considerable difficulties of regulating them, there’s a risk that we as digital citizens become desensitized to sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist behaviors.

It’s a sad reality that some people believe that hate and harassment are simply the price everybody needs to pay to use the Internet.

Even the “less severe” forms of harassment can have damaging effects. Slurs, slights, and insults online add to the everyday microaggressions experienced by people of color. 

Microaggressions, first coined by psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970, are the subtle but continuous derogatory slights or insults targeted at members of an oppressed group.

While some critics insist that microaggressions are insignificant and benign, research on microaggressions shows that they take a physical and psychological toll on targets and witnesses.

Related: Microaggressions: The Many-Headed Racist/Sexist/Homophobic Hydra

So you don’t even need to be a target of hate and harassment to be harmed by it. For example, someone who identifies as gay can nevertheless be hurt and distressed by seeing someone else face homophobic attacks. These abusive behaviors send a message about who is and isn’t accepted in the wider culture, especially when the harassment seemingly goes unpunished or is even tolerated by others.

When unregulated and unchecked, certain websites and forums have enabled white extremist groups to expand their networks and recruit members. Some members of these websites who start off reading, writing, and sharing hate speech end up committing terrorist acts in real life.

The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.

Toni Morrison (1975) in a lecture at Portland State University
trolls online hate harassment
Photograph by Charles Deluvio

Should You Feed The Trolls?

A common adage with online hate is “don’t feed the trolls”.

However, a serious problem with this advice is that, in some cases, when you ignore harassment it escalates into severe and sustained abuse.

Trolls are not always merely looking for a little attention. Many are seeking the feeling of being powerful and in control.

By ignoring their hate and harassment, we can end up conveying tacit permission for their abuse. The onus in the “don’t feed the trolls” adage is on the target to suppress their pain and anger and reproduces the assumption that hate and harassment is a normal and inevitable part of digital life.

Not feeding the trolls also neglects the rare moments where socially conscious and skilled communicators find opportunities to engage meaningfully with hate speech perpetrators. In the video below, Vidhya Ramalingam speaks about her own efforts engaging with white nationalists in Sweden.

What We Can Do

Online hate and harassment are clearly complex and messy to manage. The responsibility to combat all abuse — but especially that directed against those who are most vulnerable — needs to be a collective effort between governments, tech companies, and citizens.

We can vote for and lobby governments to follow in the steps of the European Council and pass clear regulations around online hate and harassment. We can also hold technology companies to account for principled, consistent, and sustained moderation.

In the meantime, we can all be more conscious about abuse and remain vigilant about calling them out.

To be clear, this is not another attempt to push the responsibility onto the targets of hate and harassment again, exhorting targets to “teach the trolls”. Rather, I suggest that those of us who are not the targets of sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist attacks exercise our power and privilege to challenge that nonsense.

Become close companions with the “Report” button on the social media platforms you frequent. If the platforms do not take action, counteract the hate. Factcheck ignorant claims to educate other witnesses of the hate. Express fervent, genuine, and repeated support for the targets of hate speech.

If you find yourself the target of hate and harassment, call on reinforcements. Engage your communities or tag radical allyship collectives such as White Nonsense Roundup. Ask a friend, ideally one who does not share your marginalizations, to moderate your social media DMs or email inbox for a while and forward you only the messages you need to hear.

Protect yourself and your energy. Rest and find joy. Spend time with those you love. Immerse yourself in the art and beauty of resistive communities.

To keep a reminder of regular ways you’ll need to heal and restore, you can receive a self-care checklist when you sign up for my newsletter Moon Rites. You’ll receive an email from me every new moon (that’s once a month). If you enjoy reading my blog, I think you’ll really like my emails too, but in case you don’t, you’ll be able to unsubscribe anytime.

Learn More

The full recording of Toni Morrison’s 1975 speech at Portland State University has been digitized and shared by the university.

Keith Collins (2017). A running list of websites and apps that have banned, blocked, deleted, and otherwise dropped white supremacists. Quartz.

Life After Hate is an organization committed to helping people leave violent far-right movements.

Leslie Jones’ reactions to Game of Thrones will have you in stitches:

Featured image by Lum3n

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