Artwork: Jack Forbes
Artwork: Jack Forbes

Digital safety: Protecting against online harassment

Updated March 20, 2023

Online abuse is being used to stifle freedom of expression, with media workers being targeted and harassed for their work. While it is not possible to stop the harassment, there are steps that journalists can take to increase their safety online.

To minimize the risk:

  • If you’re able, speak with your newsroom or editor about any concerns you have about potential online abuse. Check if the outlet has an online abuse policy or support for journalists who are targeted online.
  • Different stories have different online risks. Speak with your editor about possible threats and how to mitigate them, including any preventative measures you can take. Be aware that you are most at risk of an online attack after publishing a story. Journalists should ideally carry out a risk assessment for each story.
  • Be aware that certain stories, such as reporting on political campaigns, are likely to attract online abuse, including targeted smear campaigns. Research whether other journalists have been attacked for covering the same topic.
  • Review your online profile for information that you wouldn’t feel comfortable having in the public domain. This includes images that could be manipulated and used as a way to harass you. Journalists should take steps to remove any information that they feel could be used against them. Check to see if your address or other personal data, such as your date of birth or telephone number, is available online. You should take steps to remove that information yourself or request that it be removed where possible. See CPJ’s guide to removing personal data from the internet for more information.
  • Monitor your social media accounts for increased levels of harassment or abusive commentary. A gradual uptick in abuse could mean a sustained attack is likely. Ask a trusted contact to monitor your accounts if you feel unable to do so.
  • Protect your accounts by creating long, individual passwords for each account. Turn on two-factor authentication for all your online accounts, and ideally use an app, rather than your phone number, to receive the code. See CPJ’s Digital Safety Kit to learn more about account security.
  • Review and tighten the privacy settings on all your social media accounts. Read more about what data is best kept private in CPJ’s guide to removing personal data from the internet. Social media accounts can also reveal your location. Journalists should disable location tracking if they feel it puts them at risk.
  • Where possible, create professional accounts for your social media.
  • Join or create support networks of like-minded professionals who are also targeted online. Check with your media outlet or journalist organization to see if they have a peer-support group.

During an online attack:

  • If you want to and are able, make all your social media accounts private and ask family members to do the same.
  • Try to ascertain who is behind the attack and their motives. Common adversaries can include governments, members and supporters of political parties, and/or critics of movements related to race or gender.
  • Inform your family, employees, and friends that you are being harassed online. Adversaries will often contact family members and your workplace, and send them information or images in an attempt to damage your reputation.
  • Speak with your newsroom to see what support is in place to help you. If you’re a freelance journalist, or your newsroom does not have a policy in place, you can find helpful resources at the Coalition Against Online Violence’s Online Harassment Resource Hub.
  • Try not to engage with those who are harassing you online, as this can make the situation worse. If you are targeted by an orchestrated smear campaign it may be helpful to write a statement outlining the situation and pinning it to the top of your social media accounts. Media outlets can also write statements of support as a way to counteract a targeted campaign.
  • Be vigilant for any hacking attempts on your accounts and ensure that you have locked down your privacy settings, set up two-factor authentication, and set long, individual passwords for each account.
  • Review your social media accounts for comments that may indicate that an online threat may escalate into a physical attack. This could include people posting your address online and calling on others to attack you and/or increased harassment from a particular individual. Ask a trusted person to help you if you are unable to monitor your account yourself.
  • Document any abuse that you feel is threatening. Take screenshots of the comments, including the social media handle of the person who is smearing you. This information may be useful if there is a police inquiry.
  • You may want to block or mute those who are harassing you online. You should also report any abusive content to social media companies or email providers and keep a record of your contact with these companies.
  • Be aware of the possibility of fraud if private information about you has been publicized. Consider contacting your employer, bank, or utilities companies to let them know if you have been doxed
  • You may want to consider coming offline for a period of time until the harassment has died down.

For more information on how to secure your online profile, consult CPJ’s safety notes on removing your personal data from the internet and protecting against targeted online attacks. For well-being support, read our guide to online harassment and how to protect your mental health. For more information on how to better protect against online abuse, take a look at our guide to other organizations and resources offering support.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is a member of the Coalition Against Online Violence, a collection of global organizations working to find better solutions for women journalists facing online abuse, harassment and other forms of digital attack.

Editors’ note: This advisory was originally published on November 1, 2018. Information was updated on the publication date shown at the top.