STEADFAST – 7 strategies for managing online harassment and bullying

Over the years I have done a lot of public engagement on immunisation. The most rewarding part is knowing the research that you and your colleagues do has a greater opportunity for impact. Having the evidence out there increases the chance it is used in policy and practice. Its also an act of reciprocity – a return on the public investment in research with knowledge that benefits people.

But public engagement can be very challenging. One of the most difficult parts is when you become the target of harassment. Very occasionally, researchers can get verbally abused and threatened, as was reported in today’s ABC article and a piece in The Conversation. Last week I was called a “fawning, obsequious prat” by one random emailer. Another began, “I see you have a reasonably balanced point of view” but five paragraphs later;

“We the people will remember you and your mates and when this is over, we will take everything from you all just like you’re advocating doing to us.”

The correspondence I find most difficult, however, is more low key. It’s the sniping and misrepresentation from a limited number of individuals often professionals and often seemingly on the same side of public health.

Around 2012, I would find myself in intense Twitter discussions about how to raise immunisation rates. Others were making calls for more punitive approaches to the problem of vaccine refusal. I would try to bring in a more moderate view, based on years of research. Sometimes these conversations degenerated into ad hominem attacks from several individuals at once – intimidating pile-ons which were not unlike the feeling of being bullied in the school yard. Other times there was just low level constant and repetitive misrepresentation of my views from a small number of individuals over extended periods of time.

I started to develop some strategies to manage these challenges, gradually refining them with each new experience. In public health we learn that multi-faceted strategies are more effective. So here is my seven-point-plan for professionals in managing harassment and bullying in the public arena. These have been refined in the fire of experience and informed by research and wise colleagues, including my own work on how to manage anti-vaccination activism. They don’t represent the full scope of what may be needed, like when to report to police or get legal advice. But they are a start. The word “steadfast” serves as an acronym to present each idea:

Slow think it

Avoid the temptation to be reactive. This can be very hard when your emotions are strong, whether they be anger, indignation, or hurt. Always take time before responding and in doing so, try to be as rational and cool-headed as possible. Don’t shoot from the hip.

TEll your employer

Makes sure your employer is aware of your situation as early as possible. Some workplaces actively encourage their staff to engage via social media. They have a duty of care to employees when it comes to harassment and bullying. Provide your boss with the facts and any evidence and seek advice on what to do. Also, some individuals will try to attack professionals via their employer. If your employer is ready and aware of the problem they are more likely to be able to support you.

Archive

Keep a record of offending tweets/comments/posts. Screenshot anything and save it to a single file that is easy to access. Archiving can also help you psychologically compartmentalise the problem and perpetrator. It can also be a ready source of evidence if needed in future.

Diagnose the perpetrator

It can help to think about the motivations of those involved. Studies of online trolls find they are more likely to be affected by personality traits like narcissism and sadism, enjoy conflict and are attention-seeking. Knowing this can help you to make sense of their behaviour; predict how they may react in certain circumstances; and find good advice for managing them. It might also help to consider the humanity of the perpetrator – that a person who behaves like that in online life may struggle socially in real life – in close relationships, family and work.

Focus on values And goals

Focus on the important things: remind yourself of your values, goals, and what you stand for. Keep head held high and try to rise above it. More often than not, it achieves little to get into slanging matches or debates with trolls. You end up playing their game and behave in a way that is unprofessional. It can be hard not to respond. One strategy is to think about role models: Who do you look up to? How would they respond?

Self care

Engage supportive people. This is the crucial part of responding to online harassment. Being harassed and bullied online can swamp you emotionally. Supportive colleagues, friends and family can help you to re-orient and put things in perspective. This can be particularly important when you want to bite back. The cool assessment of a colleague or friend can help you decide what is the best course of action in the heat of the moment.

Self care is also important emotionally. Online harassment can have ongoing effects if it is persistent or you ruminate over it. Professional help may be needed to take care of your inner landscape of emotions, anger and possible impacts on your family. Engaging a counsellor can help you debrief, create stronger awareness of your own reactions and how to manage them. If your harassment comes as a result of your work, ask your workplace for support or utilise their employee assistance program, if they have one.

Trolling limit rule

Practice minimalism with the trolls and provocateurs. Imagine you are living in a bright sparse cyber-room. Don’t clutter your feed. Don’t respond unless you really need to, as it will enliven trolls and draw more attention to them, which is often what they crave. It may be wise to reduce the stimulus from negative people and comments through muting, blocking and filtering. Use an internal rule of when this applies. For example, it could be two strikes of toxic comments and the person is blocked – or none at all. Getting sucked into the vortex of an argument online can be incredibly time consuming. Your goal here should be to keep doing your work, engaging constructively and making a positive impact.

The STEADFAST strategy has worked for me and made it easier to rise above the dirt tossed around during the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope that it helps others with tips that enable them to continue to engage with the public constructively and with professionalism and to continue to make a difference.

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