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Femena: Right, Peace, Inclusion
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How to Encounter Organized Online Attacks and Smear Campaigns

Author: Yara WHRD Center

Virtual violence, especially in mass or organized attacks, is one of the most disturbing experiences that a person could face because of the relationship between online presence and activism. In addition to targeting people’s identity and reputation, these attacks can also lead to more serious risks, such as physical threats and threats to life in real spaces. At the same time, women rely on social networks such as Twitter for advocacy, engagement, public mobilization, access to information, and visibility. Therefore, it is necessary for human rights defenders to insist on the right to protection from abuse and the right to freedom of expression in virtual spaces, and to hold companies like Twitter accountable.

Speaking out about sexist digital abuse and recognizing its harsh consequences on mental health, as well as the role it plays in silencing women activists’ voices, is a preliminary step. Addressing the current situation requires collective solutions and affirmative measures. However, there do exist some recommended strategies to deal with cyberbullying, or to at least reduce its harm on an individual level. It is equally important to discuss and spread these strategies as part of the effort to make virtual spaces safer for women and gender and sexual minorities.

Who organizes these attacks?

Sometimes you may be attacked for a comment, for publishing a report, for writing about sensitive issues, or any number of things. Some of the mass online attacks can be defined as social attacks – that is, the hysterical reaction of society and public opinion towards taboo topics, crossing the red line, and going against conventional norms. For example, openly defending and supporting homosexuality or talking about body and sexuality, etc. might invite this response. Other attacks can be related to polarized political atmospheres that target two opposing factions. These attacks are also sometimes organized. In this way, specific accounts with large numbers of followers simultaneously target a person for their political stance or simply an analytical mistake, for supporting for a specific political group, etc. Another category of attacks is related to government institutions and the cyber army affiliated with the government and its ideological supporters, who may target any individual, political position, or faction. This method of suppressing opponents is common especially in non-democratic and dictatorial countries of the region. For further context, you can read the interview of Simindokht Kargar, who, based on the findings of her studies, talks about the mechanism of organized virtual attacks by users affiliated with the Islamic Republic.

What happens when you become the target of smear campaigns?

Sometimes you face a flood of hateful comments just because of expressing your opinion. You log in to Twitter and you find a wave against you, from tweets about false information and accusations to those mocking your appearance, body, identity, etc. At first, your heart rate may increase, and you don’t understand exactly what happened. Then you will think about ways of coping or reacting: should I respond? Should I be silent? How should I react? You get angry, you feel terrified – and all these feelings are normal. But you should avoid immediate reactions caused by anger. Arguing with attackers will only escalate the attack and make the situation worse. Try to stay calm and take control of the situation. Then think about possible reactions and responses.

Ignore cyber bullies and do not respond

It is highly recommended that you should never engage in conversation with bullies and Co-ordinated online attackers. Ignore abusive behavior and do not respond directly. Based on experience, Twitter also suggests the same. Responding often leads to increased violence and harassment. Be aware that online abusers are looking to antagonize you and are likely to increase the amount of online abuse directed toward you if you respond to them. Harassers seek your attention. Disappoint them. If you want to avoid encountering attackers and content they are producing against you, block or mute them. Consider disabling replies on Twitter, Instagram and other platforms during the attack. If you do so on Twitter, only people you follow will be able to reply to your Tweets.

Twitter’s guide to blocking and muting

Facebook’s guide to blocking

Instagram’s guide to blocking

Read more: know your trolls

Manage and monitor your digital footprints

When you are targeted by a coordinated and organized mass attack, large numbers of people have put you under the spotlight and are seeking out more information about you. They will review all the history of your social media pages and other activities on different platforms and sites. For this reason, carefully check and monitor what information is available about you. Be aware of what images are available of you online and think about how they could be used against you. If you’ve shared posts, tweets, comments, personal information, or pictures that you fear will be used against you or put you at risk, remove such posts or limit the access to them. If you’ve shared your home address, pictures of your children, or content that you think might expose you to a serious threat, remove this information. Check the privacy settings of your pages and change them if necessary to increase the privacy of your user account. Disable location tracking for any social media accounts. During the attack, if you feel  it is necessary, make your social media accounts completely private.

Increase your digital safety and secure your accounts

Online attackers may also try to gain access to your accounts. They do this to obtain personal information about you, to lock you out of your accounts, and to publish content from your own accounts to harm you. Turn on two-factor authentication for all your accounts, including email, social media accounts, and any accounts that may hold your financial data. Where possible, it is safer to use an app, such as the Google Authenticator app, rather than SMS. Use a password manager to create long, unique passwords of more than 16 characters for all your online accounts. Monitor your accounts and look out for alerts from online service providers regarding any unusual activity.

Documenting the attack

Document the abuse. Save conversations and screenshots of all messages. Even if deleting them is sometimes relieving, documentation is important. Take screenshots of all threats, insults, accusations, and harassing behavior. Carefully record the time and context of the violent content. Create a system for documenting abuse, especially anything that you feel is threatening and could lead to a physical attack. Also document accounts that regularly troll you. If you report abuse to a social media company, do not forget to document the reporting process. This is necessary for future follow-ups, whether through the support mechanisms of Meta or Twitter, or in the context of seeking legal action. In addition, if you intend to report your case to organizations that support digital rights and ask them for support and help, you will still need these documents. If reading and reviewing these attacks is too disturbing for you or may put your mental health at risk, ask someone else for help. Set up Google alerts for your name, including any common misspellings. This will alert you if your name is mentioned online.

Reporting the attack

Each platform has different policies around reporting online harassment and tools available to protect users from cyber violence. One of these tools is the option to report the violent user to the company, especially in cases of repeated, targeted harassment and threats of disclosure of personal information and images. Administrators are only likely to take down content if it violates their community guidelines or standards. Before reporting harassment to the platform, make sure you are familiar with their guidelines and what they will and will not remove. Report the violent users to social media companies not only when you are the target, but also when you witness others being bullied and harassed online.

Legal action

In some severe cases of online attacks, threats and intimidations, you might feel the necessity of taking legal action. For instance, when you receive death or rape threats with reference to your home or work address. Many jurisdictions across the globe lack comprehensive or sufficient laws to protect women from digital violence; or, existing laws are being enforced inefficiently. But if you fear severe consequences and you have decided to take legal action, make sure to take screenshots and document abusive behavior and all the threats.  Write down all the details regarding the context and the time of the incident. If the violent user has shown such behaviors in other platforms or has inflicted harm to others in the past, document all these cases carefully. Contact and consult a lawyer before deciding to seek legal action.

Seeking solidarity and support

In addition to talking to family members, friends, co-workers, etc., try to create support groups or  contact existing support groups, as well as feminist groups. Make a public statement of solidarity, try to focus on condemning the behavior, not the abusers, and let others know about your situation. This will help you form a solidarity and support network. Contact digital rights-focused organizations like Access Now and Frontline Defenders and ask for help. If you are a journalist and the attacks are related to your reporting and news work, ask your colleagues and newspaper editors to make a statement in support of you. Zaina Erhaim, a Syrian journalist and women’s rights activist, said in an interview which was published on Yara that feminist solidarity and support is our most important tool to resist these online attacks.

Self-care and mental health

Research findings suggest that online attacks may have severe long-term mental consequences. You must take these attacks, especially the repeated ongoing ones, seriously. Some victims of digital violence have reported that they have experienced anxiety, fear of physical attack, sleeping and eating disorders, and other issues related to mental health and physical health. Speak up to the ones you trust or seek expert support and consult. Self-care has proved to be an effective way for dealing with mental harm. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, meditation and yoga would reduce your stress, anxiety, and tension. Find the techniques that work best for you and make them a regular part of your routine to improve your sleep and overall well-being. Take time away from online space and take care of yourself.