Surviving Online Harassment
This was part of a two-part series in The Lawyer's Daily which appears as one post here. The two articles are here and here. I decided to write these articles after I was experiencing some targeted harassment. This is partly the reason for the lack of writing and posting online through my blog, instagram and my Facebook pages. I hope you can enjoy and learn something new.
In 2014, I publicly opposed then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s Bill C-36, which is now law, named the Protection of Community and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA). I was about to enter law school as a first year and I was completing a pre-law program in Saskatchewan for Indigenous students.
After testifying, I received a slew of targeted messages and hate. I got notice that the opponents of sex work and the supporters of PCEPA were talking about me in private groups on Facebook. Those comments soon made their way into public social media accounts. I was alleged to be supporting drug users (yes, I do then and now) and “hookers,” used in a pejorative manner (yes, I support sex workers and whatever terms they prefer to use). Soon, and days later, my nudes were being leaked online and connected to my personal identity. This is called “outing” and it is the process where a sex worker’s identity is linked to her real identity. The leakers said they were saving the nudes and other materials. I don’t know for what purpose but I still live in fear to do this day as a result.
Most recently, I tweeted about the contradictions in young people facing difficult choices and similar to my story, that yes, when faced with underpaid or lower-paid work, some will turn to sex work. I started escorting two days after I turned 18 years old; I used sex work to better my life and acknowledge this is not the same for everyone. At that time, I needed a better paying job and one that would help me focus on my studies. I was living with a recently acquired brain injury as a result of a traumatic accident that impacted and continues to impact me today with migraines, vision problems, attention and speaking issues. I sometimes have to tell judges in court when I appear before them that I may require a moment to collect my thoughts as a result of my brain injury and I say just that — that I have a brain injury that impacts me and my speaking abilities.
When my recent tweet about my sex work was retweeted by a few right-wing bloggers, the hate piled on. This time, however, I had a process to help me manage this hate, where the hate was very similar to last time. There were threats that they found nudes of me, but I cannot be for certain as I didn’t see them myself. The hate also alleged that I was part of certain conspiracy theories, an upper echelon of racialized women lawyers who sleep their way to their top. If this is the top, it’s quite boring to say the least.
The process that helped me manage this time is a long-standing practice that I have developed since2014. These tips cover Twitter but may be practical to other social media platforms.
Since becoming a lawyer, I have all my tweets that I send personally, that mention my username, that mention key words and that I retweet or respond to from my account saved in a drive. This is done through the platform IFTTT (If This, Then That). Internally, I also have a practice management folder called “Diligence” and that is where I file away social media issues like the above recent tweet about sex work.
Flowing from that, once a tweet or a post reaches a certain level of engagement (above a significant number, usually 100,000 on any metric), I generally start to monitor the tweet. For this recent tweet, it reached above five million on impressions, meaning the number of people viewing the tweet. You can monitor engagement of your social media posts as well as creating alerts for certain posts with certain keywords through different platforms.
This requires me to first, screen capture my original tweet and decide to delete the tweet or not. I generally have a practice now as a lawyer to not delete any tweets. My theory behind this is that I should not be deleting tweets because there will be proof that the tweet is deleted later and generally, if I am frequently tweeting out things that I need to delete, then I shouldn’t be tweeting that material in the first place. As a general tip, if you are in the practice of deleting tweets, then you should probably be deleting the tweets for a limited purpose; namely, to fix an error (spelling or grammar). My practice if I decide to delete a tweet includes documenting the original tweet and then, creating a memo to file why I deleted the tweet.
To date, I have done memo to files on why I did not delete a tweet.
When I begin to receive threats and targeted online harassment, I also screen capture those tweets. However, given that I have If This Then That (IFTTT) set up to monitor tweets that mention my username or interact with my account, I don’t have to screen capture the threats or hate; still, in case IFTTT fails, I have a backup. Essentially, the IFTTT monitoring acts as a backup with my screen captures as a second backup.
This also helps with reporting any threats to police in the event it escalates to that. I had to report to the police the most recent harassment I have been receiving and they sadly didn’t take me seriously until I had them listen to a recorded conversation from an individual who held themselves out as media (they were not media). That person recorded our phone calls which showed the harassment. I said I was happy he was recording because he was not a member of the media and he was harassing individuals.
Generally, the threats and hate maintain a theme and once you have discovered that theme, you can stop screen capturing. I document when and why — “I stopped screen capturing the harassment because the harassment maintained a consistent theme up to X date. Monitoring no longer required. “This can form part of your memo to file.
From that targeted online harassment, you can then file takedown notices via Google if there are any publications flowing from the harassment. Usually there are some bloggers out there who publish posts to try to ride the wave. Print those posts, then issue the takedown notices — just Google “Google Take Down.” This does not take down the post online but takes down the post from appearing in the Google searches.
I have had to employ a publicist because I received harassment from individuals holding themselves out as media. This is a good idea because I was able to focus on my law practice instead of managing fake media requests. You can decide whether you want to engage those requests. You should be aware that individuals holding themselves out as media, whether they are or not, will write whatever angle they want if you do not respond. With a publicist, you maintain some control over your narrative.
If a blogger is using a platform to publish defamatory posts about you, you can file a takedown request for that platform. If it is not clear what services are hosting the website, you can right click anywhere on the website via Google Chrome and click on “view page source.” This requires you to review some coding but generally, you can CTRL+F names of platforms (AWS/Amazon, WordPress, Wix, Square, etc.). Some websites try to make this difficult, but you can generally determine if it is a subpage of a main host if the subpage is connected to another webpage by reviewing the terms of the website. Again, this requires some patience and some knowledge of website building but very minimal/elementary.
When it comes to reporting hateful posts, the best reporting method I have used is to select “targeting a group of people” (i.e. women) because more often than not, the people engaging in the hate are usually displaying or publishing hate toward other groups. Unfortunately, when you select “targeted harassment” against yourself, it is harder to have these posts and/or accounts removed.
People often think they are being helpful when they mention you on Twitter with the hate but that is not helpful. I see the hate. I don’t need to see more of it. Sometimes the best help is simply stating the allegations are false/dishonest (if that is true, which it usually is) and leaving it at that. It is not good practice to continue to explain yourself as this will just create more hate/pile on. Explain yourself once, move on.
This is also good for creating healthy online boundaries; you are under no obligation to respond to everyone or anyone at all (subject to your professional obligations). It may be a good idea to, such as I did, hire a legal professional to help monitor your social media comments. You can also link your social media accounts to a platform to give your helpers access in one spot, instead of access across many platforms. Hootsuite is a good platform for all platforms or the Facebook business option is also good if you have an Instagram and a Facebook page.
Because I receive an invariable amount of requests through my social media, I have quick keys on my phone and laptop. I type in keywords and those keywords expand text to avoid wasting time typing out the same thing over again. I also have now automated requests through Facebook and my website as you can set up “automated” replies. I also have automated replies on my public facing e-mail and as a result of the harassment described above, I now have a private e-mail that it is not published anywhere online and I tell others including my peers and colleagues not to publish this e-mail for safety reasons. Everyone is respectful.
You can also use other platforms to “hide” the harassment and to help manage your online presence safely. Block Party App is one service that can mute/silence accounts you don’t want to hear from and Tall Poppy will help you manage your online presence with data and security management for your online presence. Tall Poppy may also be useful for legal practitioners working in family law, estates law, employment or criminal law and their clients are experiencing online harassment or their clients are worried about being monitored for nefarious reasons online.
In short, the following can be summarized. Create a social media practice that includes the following:
backing up any posts you have online
screen-capturing any posts manually that may reach a certain level of engagement
creating a folder that documents all the harassment as well as your response to same (including any decisions regarding same)
creating a memo to file that documents why you made certain decisions regarding certain posts (including any decisions regarding same)
hiring a publicist to manage any potential media requests
hiring a legal professional to help monitor the harassment including deleting comments
issuing takedown notices via Google
filing reports with any websites hosting defamatory articles