Not Helpless, Not Silenced: What to Do if You Are Experiencing or Witnessing Online Abuse

Democracies depend on robust, healthy discourse in which every member of society can engage.

Ninety percent of U.S.-based reporters felt that online abuse was one of their biggest safety threats. (SanderStock / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Online abuse can feel like an enormous, insurmountable problem, but we are not helpless, and we refuse to be silent. Together we can fight back to make the internet safer, more equitable and more free.

I’m Facing Online Abuse

Online abuse can cause trauma and even trigger a fight, flight or freeze response. Remember: This is not your fault and you’re not alone in experiencing it.

If you feel physically unsafe, consider filing a police report and bringing along someone you trust. It’s important to document severe abuse, which can help you navigate conversations with friends, family, employers, law enforcement, legal counsel and tech companies. Leverage the tools provided by social media platforms, such as blocking, muting, hiding, restricting and reporting abuse. It’s also a good idea to bolster your digital security—from using long passwords and turning on multifactor authentication on your sensitive accounts to tightening your privacy and security settings on social media.

Most important, don’t go it alone. Tell trusted friends, family or colleagues what’s happening and enlist their help.

I’m Witnessing Online Abuse

Each and every one of us can be an ally when we witness someone being abused online. The simplest thing to do is to check in with the person being targeted, ask if they’re OK and suggest a few concrete ways you can help.

Here are some things you can offer: Document the abuse; help with blocking, muting and monitoring; reclaim a hashtag; mobilize a support group; or just lend a sympathetic ear. And if you can’t reach out to the
person being abused, there are still things you can do to help, such as amplifying their voice by resharing their content or reporting the abuse to the platform.

I Manage People Who Face Online Abuse

When people are abused online as the result of their work, their managers have a critical role to play in helping them feel supported and protected. It is important to acknowledge the effects of online abuse and help create a culture in which everyone feels safe to share their experiences with it. Work with the targeted person to assess the risks and
come up with a safety plan. If your organization has direct contacts at social media companies, don’t be afraid to use them, especially when the platform’s built-in reporting mechanisms fail.

I Want to Push the Tech Industry to Do Better

If the social media platform is “free,” you’re probably paying with your attention, your time and your private information. Tech companies need our eyeballs, so we have power and we can push them to do better.

Demand that social media companies take decisive action to curb online abuse on their platforms—including by reforming policies and redesigning in-platform features and third-party tools that empower targets of abuse and
their allies, and disarm abusive users.

Above all, let’s change the conversation around online abuse by helping people understand that it’s more than just a personal attack, but part of a systemic effort to silence women and those with marginalized identities.

Take Action on Online Abuse

Learn more about how to defend yourself against online abuse and fight back: Take a look at:

Need immediate help? Go to the Online Violence Response Hub created by the Coalition Against Online Violence—organizations coming together across the globe to seek solutions for women journalists facing digital attacks.

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Ms. magazine. Join the Ms. community today and you’ll get the Winter issue delivered straight to your mailbox.

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About and

Viktorya Vilk is the director for digital safety and free expression at PEN America. She regularly speaks to audiences around the world, including on PBS NewsHour and NPR, and her writing has been published by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate and Harvard Business Review.
Jeje Mohamed is the senior manager for digital safety and free expression at PEN America. She has worked as a journalist in Egypt and the U.S., writing articles and producing documentaries and podcasts on human rights abuses. She serves on the advisory board of the Coalition Against Online Violence.