Author: Yara WHRD Center
If you witness someone being harassed on digital platforms, there are certain actions and measures you can take to support that person. Such intervention might seem intimidating at first. You may not have any idea of what the proper supportive action is. You may be afraid of worsening the situation and exacerbating the violence. You may be afraid that supporting someone else may lead to violence against yourself. Even the violence you have witnessed may harm you and make it difficult to continue your online presence. These are important considerations that you should take into account before supporting victims of online violence. If you have decided to intervene and support the victim, this guide will help you move forward in the right direction.
Identifying Digital Violence and Distinguishing Between Criticism and Harassment
First, it is crucial to recognize the difference between criticism and online harassment. The right to criticize is one of the essential components of freedom of expression in public and online spaces. Criticism should not be suppressed by categorizing it as violence or sexual and gender-based harassment. However, it is equally important not to justify or condone online violence and harassment by disguising it as criticism. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the definition and various types of online violence. Recognizing digital harassment and understanding its forms and consequences is the initial step in preventing and addressing it.
Online harassment encompasses any verbal or non-verbal behavior that occurs through digital means, violating an individual’s sense of dignity and creating a hostile and insulting environment. It manifests in various forms, such as hacking, cyber-mob attacks, message bombing, cyberbullying, doxing, cyber stalking, and more. Perpetrators may be driven by personal/individual motives or social/collective motivations. Moreover, diverse groups may organize online attacks, including government-backed entities or non-governmental actors. It is important to notice that cyber violence sometimes exhibits a sexual or gender-based nature, with women and the LGBTQIA+ community being frequent targets. Examples of online sexual and gender-based violence include:
● Sending unsolicited sexual and inappropriate content, such as emails, messages, and comments containing sexual requests, nude photos, etc.
●Sextortion or threatening to publish private photos and information for sexual, emotional, financial, political, or other forms of extortion.
●Posting real and fake sexually explicit videos (Deep fake), spreading sexual lies, etc.
●Threats of sexual and physical violence through messages, emails, comments, etc.
●Hate speech and using discriminatory language based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or other characteristics that degrades, insults, or stigmatize individuals or groups.
●Cyberstalking or the persistent stalking and tormenting of individuals through false accusations, defamation, and other means. This can include making sexual accusations, sending unsolicited messages, and constantly pressuring someone for sexual favors.
Prioritize your own Digital Security and Mental Health
You have the right to exercise caution before supporting a victim and carefully assess all the potential consequences. In recent years, we have witnessed the spread of violence in digital space to the point where t even extending support to individuals facing organized harassment can result in online threats and attacks. Therefore, before publicly supporting the targeted individual, it is important to be mindful that a deluge of attacks may be directed toward you, impacting your mental well-being and jeopardizing your digital security.
In the text “How to Encounter Organized Online Attacks and Smear Campaigns?” you can find more information about the mechanisms of online attacks and strategies to safeguard yourself. Before intervening n in such cases, it is advisable to enhance the security of your social media pages and prepare yourself to face the situation.
Keep in mind that there are numerous alternative ways to support victims of online violence, and direct and public intervention is not necessarily the only way to express support and solidarity, particularly if this support has personal motives such as friendship or closeness to the victim are involved. Merely having a personal attachment to the victim is insufficient grounds for intervention. Recognizing that the fight against online violence extends beyond individual circumstances and should be approached from a broader perspective is crucial.
Showing Public Support and Solidarity
You can express support for the victim and condemn the violent behavior by tweeting or posting messages without mentioning the harasser’s name. It is important to emphasize the violent behavior rather than the perpetrator’s identity. Such messages can bring attention to the ongoing violence and help establish a solidarity network around the target. Additionally, you can write supportive comments under their posts.
Another way to demonstrate support is by reposting the content that triggered the attack. You can also seek collective and coordinated support from others for the targeted individual. This approach has proven highly effective, particularly in cases of online violence targeting women human rights defenders. Zaina Erhaim, a Syrian journalist, highlights the significance of feminist solidarity among Arab feminist activists in combating virtual violence, as it has contributed to empowering feminist activists.
Plan and organize collectively to confront online violence in civil and feminist groups. Contact digital rights organizations and groups, requesting their support for the victim.
Individually and collectively report harassers to social media platforms and relevant companies. This reporting helps raise awareness and promotes caution regarding users who engage in sexual and gendered comments or share private information and images to harm others. Some of these users may align with your e political views, but reposting and retweeting their content ultimately legitimizes online harassment and violent behavior. Avoid direct confrontation with harassers and refrain from using sexual, insulting, and threatening language to combat them. Avoid producing intimidating and violent behaviors in your attempts to confront harassers. For example, if someone discloses personal relationships to discredit and harm political opponents, refrain from retaliating by publishing private information you may possess about the offender. It is important to try to break the cycle of violence.
Contact the victim
Contact the victim directly and express empathy. Show patience, listen attentively, validate their emotions, and offer non-judgmental emotional support. Assure them that you are appalled by the ongoing violence and that they are not alone in this ordeal. Even if the initial comment that triggered the online violence was problematic and controversial in your perspective, reaffirm your understanding of the distinction between criticism and violence. Emphasize that no idea or opinion warrants online sexual and gender-based violence. Inquire if they need practical assistance and support, such as reporting harassers or documenting instances of violence, which can be highly distressing for the targeted individual. For further insights on the significance of documenting online violence, refer here.
Provide services and resources
Provide support services such as counselors, self-care methods, emotional resources, and digital security knowledge to help the victim enhance, their safety and navigate through this experience. If you have a close relationship with the person, ensure they are not left alone and, if possible, extend an invitation for them to stay with you temporarily. If the victim’s personal information, such as their address or workplace, has been publicly disclosed in the digital space or has received threats, they may no longer feel secure in their current living situation e and may require a temporary safe haven. If the person resides in a country where legal action is possible, offer legal advice and ensure they are not left to navigate the legal process alone.