By Alicia Wallace - Alicia A. Wallace is a queer Black feminist, human rights defender, and gender expert. She is passionate about social justice, interested in issues of identity, and excited by our ability to co-create feminist futures. Alicia produces monthly newsletter The Culture RUSH which fuses pop culture with social justice, and she tweets as @_AliciaAudrey.
I didn’t expect to become a target for online harassment when it started happening to me in 2014. I became a women’s rights advocate that year and, within days, I was receiving rape and death threats online.
I had recently launched Hollaback! Bahamas—part of a global movement to end street harassment which sexual harassment in public spaces—and co-led the response to a Member of Parliament making a non-joke about domestic violence. I spoke at the public forum where I was photographed by a media personality who then posted my image on Facebook along with a mischaracterization of my position. The comments incited violence against me and some of them were direct threats. Since then, my life has not been the same.
Receiving threats of violence can be an isolating and terrifying experience. I was reluctant to tell anyone what was happening because I thought people would try to discourage me from being an activist. I also thought it would scare my loved ones and I was not prepared to deal with other people’s emotions about something that was happening to me. I kept it to myself for a long time while looking for ways to protect myself and safely refuse to be silenced.
Here’s what I’ve been doing to keep myself safe.
1. Limited apps on my phone.
I don’t have Facebook or Twitter apps on my phone. I don’t want to receive notifications or be tracked by them. It’s also been helpful to use technical safety guides like this one by HeartMob—a movement started by Hollaback! to end online harassment.
2. Location off.
I don’t want to be tracked on my phone. Sometimes I have to turn my location on to receive a delivery, but I turn it back off as soon as the transaction is complete. Every now and then, I check my settings to see the details each app can access. It’s a good way to remind myself to be careful about what I download and what I give up in exchange.
3. Consider everything public.
No matter the privacy settings I choose, I consider my social media accounts to be public. It’s easy to imagine screenshots flying around and people using other people’s accounts to access “friends only” posts.
4. No location check-ins.
I never check in to a location on social media. If I ever want to tag or mention a business I support or acknowledge where an event took place, I delay the post. At first, this was frustrating, but I’m used to it now. I focus on being in the moment and choose to reflect on the experience later, when I’m ready to share content. I feel safer knowing that people can’t generally tell where I am.
I’m not the only one who feels the need to exercise caution offline. In an email interview, Madeleine Sinclair, New York Officer Director & Legal Counsel at International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) said, “From what we see, the impact of online harassment can be very profound. Victims of online harassment may experience anxiety and fear about physical harm to themselves, to their families, as well as damage to their livelihoods. Online harassment can result in defenders no longer feeling safe anywhere.”
Additional Resource: 5 Lesser-Known Social Media Privacy Tips
5. Ask friends to help.
It took a long time for me to let anyone know what was happening, but it made life easier. Now I can call on my friends to take over my social media accounts and help me to document online threats.
- Squadbox - put a trusted squad between you and your inbox
- Block Party - let friends help you moderate harassing content on Twitter
- Deploying Supportive Cyber Communities
Emily May, Co-founder and Executive Director of Hollaback! and HeartMob, wrote in an email interview, “Don't go it alone. Recruit people to help you out and hold you down emotionally as you go through it. You can ask them to screenshot your experiences with harassment, report your harassment to the platform, monitor your feeds, or simply to send you ice cream and remind you you're amazing. Harassment is designed to chip away at your self worth and make you feel isolated: combat those feelings first.” She also recommended the HeartMob safety guide and PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual.
6. Reduce others’ exposure.
I rarely post family members or friends on my social media accounts. This was difficult in the beginning because I didn’t tell them I was receiving threats. Some people were upset that I rejected their tags or didn’t post photos of us together. I had to decide that it was more important to protect them than to keep my secret. I also avoid giving any clues as to where they live or work. If you live in a small place, for example, even the most normal things can put people at risk, so it helps to think and rethink before posting something that includes others.
Additional Resource: Consider Who and What You Want to Protect Using a Threat Assessment
7. Use aliases.
If I have to use my home address for anything—like a grocery delivery during a pandemic—I don’t use my name, phone number, or email address in the same place. This can get tricky, but I don’t want anyone to be able to find all of my details because they got access to the database of one delivery app or a pizza place. It means I have to put someone else on notice that I’m using their phone number and make sure they’re able to give the driver directions, but it’s safer for me and my loved ones don’t mind. If you’re not able to do this, consider setting up an email address with an alias and getting a SIM card that you only use for deliveries, and remember to use a VPN.
8. Intentional self-care.
My self-care practice centers ideas and systems that give me more control of my life. I set boundaries, communicate them to the people around me, and insist that they are respected. My home space is only for me. I rarely want guests, and I don’t let many people know where I live. My loved ones have to accept that. I don’t use devices from 9pm to 9am (and sometimes that window gets even wider), so I always have quiet time. I spend a lot of time reading, cooking, and gardening, away from the online space and completely at home with myself.
To people experiencing online harassment, even as you try not to give in to fear, assess the threats and figure out what you need to be and feel safe both online and offline. May said, “The internet is just another form of public space, and online harassment can shift to offline harassment or violence quickly.” While your focus may be on online safety protocols, remember that escalation is a possibility, and do what you can to prevent and prepare for it.
May also noted that some of us are at higher risk than others. “Similar to offline harassment, online harassment tends to be disproportionately targeted at women, folks of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and folks with disabilities.” Online harassment looks different for different people, the effects vary, and the support we need can vary too.
It takes a community to combat online harassment, not just by holding perpetrators accountable, but ensuring survivors get the support they need. Let’s do what we can to protect ourselves and to support each other.