How Checklists Can Help Journalists Respond to Online Harassment

How Checklists Can Help Journalists Respond to Online Harassment

The Challenge

When we started OnlineSOS in 2016, our goal was to offer solutions to online harassment. Instead of building apps or software to do this, we spent lots of time listening to people who were experiencing online harassment and coming to us for support.

Online harassment leaves people overwhelmed and confused about where to go and what to do. It is both complex and personal, leaving lots of room for interpretation on how to take action. Do you start by contacting law enforcement or by securing your digital identity? Do you hire a lawyer? Do you report the harassment? If yes, to whom?

Finding answers to these questions is daunting too. There are many guides and resources available (including ones we’ve listed here), but no single site enables journalists and reporters to access a comprehensive, clear plan of action.

The experiences of people we talked to varied widely, but they all told us something that guides our approach to this day: they want to regain a sense of control over their lives.

Although we were providing direct service, the need for support extended far beyond our ability to fill it. We had to find a scalable way to help people facing online harassment. Our team dug in to figure out how we could offer more journalists a trusted place to get concise, actionable information about what to do when facing online harassment.

The Solution

We always loved checklists for tracking internal projects, but it wasn’t until we read "The Checklist Manifesto" by Dr. Atul Gawande that we thought they might help us better serve people in crisis.

Well-designed checklists have led to improved outcomes in many high-stress environments, from hospitals to airline cockpits. Gawande himself pioneered a checklist that reduced mortality rates in operating rooms. Through simple—yet often overlooked—steps like equipment sterilization, checklists helped protect against lapses in memory, attention, and focus that could be fatal in the operating room.

Although checklists cannot fly a plane or perform a surgery, “they provide reminders of the most critical and important steps.” This sparked our idea. If doctors, pilots, engineers and other professionals relied on checklists in extremely high-stakes situations, why not use them for online harassment cases?

After all, someone targeted and threatened online may experience a state of crisis and/or trauma. As a result, even the most rational and organized individuals can feel at a loss about what to do or overlook critical steps once they choose a course of action.

The OnlineSOS Action Plans

We knew it would take more than one checklist to serve our clients. Online harassment can come in many forms, from mob harassment to doxxing to nonconsensual pornography. Harassment is designed to distress the individual and, because of that, experiencing it is extremely personal in nature. Choice and flexibility, therefore, are critical.

A screenshot of the OnlineSOS action plan for Doxxing

Above: A screenshot of the OnlineSOS Action Plan for doxxing

Through our direct service days, we also learned that:

  • There’s no “right way” to respond to online harassment. It’s very personal to the individual. Responses vary based on the situation and what’s important to the individual according to their values. For example, for some, responding could mean giving power to the abuser while for others, not responding could be normalizing such behavior and violate one’s values.
  • Choices are critical. People seem to experience comfort in having choices, especially when they’ve had their sense of privacy violated and sense of control taken away.
  • Too much information can be overwhelming. Checklists make recommendations actionable and bite-sized. The idea is to synthesize and guide people to deeper levels of information should they want or need it.

People experiencing online harassment often exhibit symptoms of trauma, including increased anxiety and difficulty making everyday decisions. We designed our checklist so that people could see a clear path to resolution. Each checklist can help people take the right steps when faced with some of the most difficult, isolating or fearful moments of their lives.

After some trial and error, as well as feedback and input from experts and journalists, we developed unique checklists for online harassment. We call these Action Plans. Action Plans combine two types of checklists, as described by Gawande: one that provides very clear steps and another that allows for flexibility and choice. Combined, journalists facing online harassment can see a clear path to action while accounting for their personal case.

Have suggestions for action plans or online harassment resources? Get in touch here. We’d love to hear from you.