Beating the Cyberbullies

How to deal with anonymous hordes of trolls and other forms
of online harassment.
Minutes after news outlets reported rapper Mac Miller’s death on September 7, Ariana Grande was inundated with accusations and physical threats on Instagram. Fans blamed the 25-year-old singer, who ended her relationship with Miller in early 2018, for his alleged drug overdose.

Grande’s experience with online harassment follows an all-too-familiar pattern. In the last year, fans of popular film franchises have harassed actors Kelly Marie Tran, Leslie Jones, and Ruby Rose. Meanwhile, Ed Sheeran quit Twitter after a cameo on Game of Thrones sparked an online backlash.

Cyberbullying is hardly a problem unique to the rich and famous. Pew Research Center reports that 41 percent of American adults have experienced online harassment, and nearly 66 percent have witnessed it directed at others. The incident that ignites the trolling may be arbitrary, but the attacks are often personal, aimed at the victim’s political views, race, or gender, among other things. And Pew research suggests it can have profound real-world consequences, including mental and emotional distress, damage to reputation, and fear for personal safety.

Just ask Abi Bechtel. About three years ago, she wrote a short tweet about how Target labeled their toy aisles by gender. She wasn’t expecting her tweet to go viral. But the Daily Dot published a story about it, and then the local ABC affiliate in Cleveland interviewed her. As the retweets and news stories increased, so did the hostile messages.“I went from being a nobody to the ‘worst person in the world,’” she says. “Most of the messages targeted my appearance, inferring from my fatness that I’m unlovable and a terrible mother.”

Other trolls were more threatening, describing her death in great detail. “For the time that it was contained on the internet, I felt like I could walk away or turn it off,” Bechtel recalls. “But it was when a guy told me that he knew what city I lived in and he was going to come find me that I realized how vulnerable I was to legitimate harm.” She reported the message to Facebook, and the culprit’s profile was deleted.

Bechtel’s experience with online harassment, like Grande’s, shows just how easily platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are abused by their users. The rules of engagement remain unclear, and as a recent New York Times article indicates, the consequences for trolling are unevenly applied.

While tech companies continue to reckon with cyberbullying and hate speech, there are several ways you can protect yourself from trolls.

Don’t Engage

A 2014 study conducted by the University of Manitoba found a strong correlation between internet trolling and sadistic personality disorder. In other words, internet trolls enjoy antagonizing their targets.

In her 2016 TEDx Talk “There is Nothing Virtual About Online Trolling,” Ginger Gorgman, a journalist who has experienced online harassment, suggested that perhaps the best tactic for deterring trolls is silence. While it may be tempting to defend yourself against trolls, especially if their statements are defamatory or inaccurate, engaging with them may only make it worse. The more defensive or distressed the response, the more likely a troll is to keep trolling. “What do we know about trolls?” says Gorgman. ” They are sadists. They desperately want a reaction, and in fact rely on your wounded, angry response to ply their trade.”

Report Bad Actors

Tech companies may not always ban an abuser, but consistently reporting trolls is one method users have to hold platform moderators responsible for maintaining a healthy online environment. Witnesses to online bullying can also report harassing posts to the platform, even when they aren’t the target.

Keeping thorough records is also important, especially if you’re being antagonized by a repeat offender. Some platforms, including Twitter, allow you to post the link or attach screenshots with your report to corroborate the offense.

Comedian Leslie Jones, who faced an onslaught of racist harassment after starring in the Ghostbusters reboot in 2016, recommended this tactic to actor Kelly Marie Tran after she faced similar backlash for starring in Star Wars: The Last Jedi this year. “What I would do is screenshot every one of them [offensive attacks]…And then also make Twitter and Instagram responsible…”

Mute and Block as Needed

For users who want to stay active on social media, Celeste Ng, author of the bestseller Little Fires Everywhere, tweeted about helpful coping mechanisms, including digital tools like Block Together and Twitter Block Chain, which assist with mass-blocking when a user is being attacked by hundreds of trolls at a time.“It’s not weakness to use troll blockers,” tweeted Ng. “It quiets the noise so you can work better. It helps keep your space safe if you need that.”

Seek Help

For Bechtel, it wasn’t just the cruelty but the sheer volume of messages that she found overwhelming. She finally had to ask her best friend and her husband for assistance. “I was getting hundreds of messages a day,” she recalls. “They monitored my messages and deleted things, and let me know when it was safe to come back.”

No matter the severity or extent of the cyberbullying, it’s important for victims to know that help is available. New online resources aim to support victims of cyberbullying, such as Crash Override, a crisis helpline that works with victims and authorities to combat online abuse. Heartmob offers victims everything from practical assistance to community support.

And if the problem gets so bad that you’re considering self-harm or having suicidal thoughts, you can always speak to someone at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

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