Artwork: Jack Forbes
Artwork: Jack Forbes

Psychological safety: Online harassment and how to protect your mental health

Journalists are frequently at risk of being harassed online in an attempt by hostile actors to intimidate or force them into silence. The harassment, most commonly directed at female journalists, often includes threats of violence against the journalist and their family and friends.

Such attacks can cause anxiety and fear. Added to that is the need by many journalists to continue using online tools to carry out and promote their work. Journalists have told CPJ that in some cases, the harassment forced them offline, in turn cutting them off from the primary medium of their work and impacting their emotional well-being.

Pre-emptive steps to protect yourself include:

  • Awareness. Journalists, particularly female journalists, are likely to encounter some form of online harassment.
  • Use a password manager or create a long, unique password for your account, containing eight words or more.
  • Check your privacy settings and consider using a service such as DeleteMe, which deletes personal information about you from the internet. These steps can lessen the likelihood of being doxed. The New York Times has guides to finding and reducing removing your personal information from the internet.
  • Set up two-factor authentication on your accounts

Immediate steps to take during online harassment or an attack:

  • Some journalists want to monitor their harassment, whereas others may want to stop looking at the harassment and ask a trusted friend, colleague, or other journalist to review content for you. Consider asking someone to review your mentions and other content and platforms where personal information may have been shared.
  • Log off and get offline. Lock down all your accounts for at least 48 hours.
  • Mute and block the user. Change notifications to limit the messages and notifications you see. Twitter is working on its “Hide Replies” feature, which will act as an alternative to blocking or muting users.
  • Tell your boss and colleagues—or if you are freelance, your editor—so they can support you.
  • Do not respond to the trolls. It is what they want.
  • If possible, save and document the content, either by taking screenshots of emails and messages, or saving voicemails. You may need records if you decide to report the abuse to the platform or police.
  • Groups like Troll-Busters and Vita Activa (in Spanish) can offer crisis support.
  • The Coalition Against Online Violence has an online hub with information for journalists about emergency assistance, physical security support, online data security, legal support, psychosocial support, documentation, and speaking with others.

To take care of your emotional wellness:

  • Remember to take care of yourself. Eat food and drink water regularly. More information can be found in PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual and the IWMF’s guide for journalists facing online violence.  You can also use this interactive self-care guide to help you in the moment.
  • Being distressed makes sense. If the distress is intolerable, you feel unable to function, or you are having suicidal thoughts, you can call a crisis line and seek out a therapist or counselor after the crisis has passed. The Coalition Against Online violence features emergency resources to use.
  • Remember what kind of support helped you get through other tough times. It’s important to not isolate yourself, especially if you are a freelancer. Social support helps, such as going to colleagues, friends, or managers. PEN America has detailed guidelines on talking to friends or employers and colleagues.
  • You are not to blame for online harassment. Remember, it’s not personal and you are not a bad person. This, unfortunately, happens to a lot of people. Find out more at Heart Mob—a project set up by Hollaback!, a nonprofit working to end harassment.
  • Try to weigh up the severity of the attack. When it’s at a low level, avoidance can be helpful. At the higher level, when safety can be at risk, it should not be ignored. It’s about balance.
  • Online violence typically makes the recipient feel helpless.  Do things that help you feel in control of other domains in your life.

More resources on dealing with online harassment include: