If there is a single thing the last decade has made crystal clear to the world, it’s the resounding power and influence of social media, not always for the better, and again and again, women have borne the brunt of the abuse of its worst actors. Now, this topic has been analyzed and analyzedand analyzed, as we’ve witnessed everything from digital harassment campaigns to out-and-out murder, and I’m not going to regurgitate that incredible and necessary work. But coming from the perspective of a successful woman with a platform, I think we do need to talk about what’s happening every day online: the weaponization of social media platforms to attack and harass women through intimidation, doxxing, and threats. Because it’s something we need to know how to navigate.
So what on earth do we do about it?
Since this issue first reached public consciousness in 2014, with the harassment campaigns against people like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, the problem has only grown; as Sarkeesian describes it, “the most horrible s*** is completely normalized.” And it’s overwhelmingly directed at women.
This is the dark side of social media, something we’ve all had to grapple with in the last few years: from deliberate misinformation to organized misogynistic mobs, the internet has turned from a fun pastime and a welcome new means of connectivity into yet another public forum in which women are, ultimately, unwelcome. If you’re a woman who says anything on the internet, you will inevitably be on the receiving end of sexist harassment from stranger. Add to that the burden of being a public figure, or really just anyone whose career requires a social media presence—an author, an actor, a politician, a marketing executive, an entrepreneur, practically anything today—suddenly, you’ll find yourself at the center of a maelstrom you did nothing to deserve and that isn’t even really about you as much as it is the expression of years of pent-up (and overwhelmingly male) frustration. Which leads a lot of women asking what can be done to get through a mess that is, ultimately, unsolvable by any single one of us?
1) Don’t engage. Don’t reply.
When someone comes at you brandishing slander and misogynistic insults, it can be hard to back down. Who among us hasn’t wanted to stand up for ourselves, to put someone in their place, especially when they’re out-and-out lying? But the thing is that social media trolls don’t care about the truth; they’re just trying to get a rise out of you. It’s a hard thing to swallow, but pushing back very rarely does anything more than give them exactly what they want: your attention. And because the spotlight energizes them, the more you react, the more they want to go after you. It’s not always easy to remember in the moment, but be careful; engaging them offers a kind of interior validation that only fuels the fire.
2) Keep it clean.
Going hand-in-hand with “don’t engage,” it’s critical when harassment campaigns are in full swing not to give them anything they can use. That means avoiding even veiled references to them, or insulting them, or attacking them. Things like that get passed around endlessly. They’ll have an easy enough time with your regular old innocuous social media habits; I’ve seen women get attacked for posting a picture of their cat. So anything they can see as playing into the narrative they’re trying to force (which is inevitably one of having stolen your success from a man, trespassed in something they believe they have some ownership over, or getting ahead through sexual favors), even through denial, is just going to give them more to work with and amplify their message. It’s a kind of self-sabotage they want to coerce you into.
3) Protect yourself.
The digital age means that information is incredibly easy to access, and as a result, we’ve seen the rise of doxxing. The term is derived from “documents” and refers to the deliberate leaking of personal information such as phone number, home address, and confidential records. It’s an intimidation tactic designed to force you into silence for fear of physical harm. But you can protect yourself. Beyond taking care to turn off geotagging services on social, you can actually do quite a lot to make your information as hard to access as possible. That includes removing yourself from people-finder services, ensuring any web domains you own don’t have your home address or number attached to them (accessible through a simple WHOIS search), and enabling two-factor authentication on your accounts. And for those who still need to include location tagging in social posts, always be sure to post only after you’ve left. For step-by-step assistance in locking down your digital footprint, check out Crash Override’s COACH program.
4) Have support.
The least obvious but most critical thing for you to take away from this is to make sure you have a support system in place to help you handle the emotional toll. It can very often be traumatizing, with everything from death threats to stalking to SWATing all having a profound psychological impact. In contravention of the classic “sticks and stones” mantra, words—especially threatening and demeaning words—can very much hurt you, and that’s ignoring the possibility of escalation. Be sure you have someone trusted you can speak with, and ideally a therapist with experience in trauma (especially long-term). Taking care of yourself has to be a top priority.
5) Pull back.
Last, and far from least, is pulling back from social media entirely. While this is never ideal, especially considering a large (and increasing) number of women are required to use their social platforms to do their jobs, in some cases it’s the best option. Star Wars actor Kelly Marie Tran faced such overwhelming harassment in response to her work in the famous franchise that she essentially vanished from social media. I know you might be reluctant to take this step, thinking it tantamount to admitting defeat, but think of it more so as recognizing that nobody deserves access to you, and you have no obligation to give these people any mind. Stepping away from social media and the emotional rollercoaster of praise and denigration when needed is only going to make your life easier—and make it easier for you to continue doing the work that matters.