CPJ Safety Advisory: Trolls and online abuse

Today the Committee to Protect published a blog post detailing increased online harassment to journalists in the United States. Trolling and online abuse of journalists and bloggers, however, is a global threat. At a time when use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms are a job requirement for media workers, trolls have become a serious occupational hazard. CPJ’s Emergencies Response Team (ERT) issued the following safety advisory for journalists facing issues of online abuse.

Trolls want to incite a reaction. They choose their words to upset their victim. They often denigrate the individual on a personal level, spew profanity and hate speech, issue violent threats, and use sexual language. This malicious approach should distinguish a troll from an audience member who disagrees with you and wants to be heard.

For your own mental health, it is important to note that the vast majority of trolls are all mouth and no action. Their goal is to upset you. While you should take any violent threats seriously, be aware that most trolling is simple bluster.

That said, an important first step in preventing online harassment is to protect the personal information that you share online. One of the most dangerous threats trolls pose to a journalist is a form of harassment known as doxxing, which involves publishing a person’s personal information online.

In order to prevent doxxing, you should understand what your digital footprint is. Google yourself and review any public information that is linked to your name. If someone has posted sensitive information about you, immediately request the webmasters for the relevant sites to remove it. If they will not, you can request Google and other search engines to remove the information.

You can also take simple steps to reduce your vulnerability now:

  • Remove compromising posts and pictures from any social media sites.
  • Pay particular attention to removing geotags that may reveal locations you frequent and even your address.
  • Avoid leaving your personal mobile number on your landline voicemail message or your email out-of-office reply.

Another useful way to combat this form of harassment is to refuse to feed the troll. Engaging with trolls in an attempt to get rid of them will generally encourage further attacks. Actively deciding to disengage can be difficult, particularly if you entered a social media exchange in good faith, but it is crucial to remember that the moment you feel uncomfortable you should cease contact. Do not even inform your harasser that you plan to report him or her. There is nothing trolls fear more than being ignored.

This does not mean that you should ignore or forget about the threat.

It is important to inform your employer, family, and friends when you realize that you are being trolled. By doing so, you will alert others to the problem and prevent them from inadvertently worsening the situation by standing up on your behalf. Remember that your colleagues, friends and family should be turned to for support, but if necessary, they can also serve as witnesses in a legal case.

You should also be able to identify more serious threats in order to take appropriate action. Prioritize direct threats indicating personal action on behalf of the originator. Statements such as “I am coming to get you” should be more concerning than comments like “someone should get you”.

However, judging what is a genuine threat and what is not is difficult. If you are concerned, contact the authorities or security professionals.

In order to identity and stop a troll, authorities, or any investigator, require evidence. For this reason you should never destroy or delete any communications or messages. Deleted evidence makes an investigation much more difficult.

Do not rely on others to save things for you. Save all correspondence with your assailant, and keep a log or diary of the abuse. Take screen grabs of any posts or tweets in order to have physical evidence, and save emails or texts to a drive.

Social media platforms also allow you to block or report an abusive user. If you are being trolled on Facebook, you should immediately block the individual. For Twitter, by far the biggest platform for trolling, we encourage you to follow these suggestions:

  • Always keep the URL of the tweet as Twitter will require in order to respond.
  • Block an aggressive individual by following Twitter’s instructions, which can be found here.
  • If the same troll is sending out the same tweets to several people, report him or her as spam.
  • If a troll is abusive, you can report him or her here.

Once you have reported the troll, you should get an automated response from Twitter with a ticket number. If you don’t, check your spam folders as it is important to keep this number for future reference.

Additional tips, including how to prevent personal information from appearing on website domain registrations, can be found in an article by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on Poynter, the online publication of the Poynter Institute’s journalism school.

For more information on the global issues of online abuse, please see CPJ’s articles “Responding to Internet Abuse” and “Combating Digital Harassment.” For more information on basic preparedness and technology security, we encourage journalists to review CPJ’s Journalist Security Guide.