PEN America‘s New Guide Recognizes Online Harassment as a Threat to Free Speech

PEN America is launching an Online Harassment Field Manual for writers and journalists

Today, PEN America launches its Online Harassment Field Manual, a resource with the mission to better prepare and empower writers, journalists, and all of us living our lives online with more tools to deal with hateful speech and trolling. This is not your hackneyed sexual harassment instructional pamphlet — you know the ones: equal parts bad writing and bad advice, depicting harassment in crisp, neatly colored-in story lines that resolve all-too easily. The Online Harassment Field Manual, by contrast, is more comprehensive: with personal stories, health and wellness tips, legal advice, and cyber security suggestions, all informed by 230 writers and journalists who deal with online harassment in their daily lives.

The manual includes practical resources like step-by-step guides for preventing doxing (the distribution of your personal information across the internet without your consent); advice on how to combat hate speech with counter-speech; and guidelines for using online writing communities to fight back against online harassment. It also outlines new roles for employers, tech companies, and law enforcement officials who are responsible for ensuring no one is forced into silence. One of the most powerful sections of the field manual is the “real life stories” section, which includes accounts from writers and journalists who have experienced online harassment and its aftermath.

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It’s clear that PEN America recognizes online harassment as a virus that poisons a person’s whole being, the effects all-encompassing and paralyzing. It’s crucial we have resources set up to acknowledge and respond to this reality—especially because online harassment disproportionately affects women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community, people who already struggle to find footing in a historically white-male-dominated literary world.

PEN America was founded in 1922 and works “to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to make it possible for everyone to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others.” With the Online Harassment Field Manual, PEN America is taking a stand against online harassment as an obstruction of freedom of speech.

With the Online Harassment Field Manual, PEN America is taking a stand against online harassment as an obstruction of freedom of speech.

And we should identify online harassment as a threat against free speech. So many previous attempts to address online harassment have been mired in a new form of victim blaming: by pointing to the untamable internet, the anonymous comment fields, or social media as explanation for the hate, previous attempts elide the violence (psychological and otherwise) being committed by actual people against other actual people. Rather than condemning the internet writ large, and in the process throwing up its hands about making real change, PEN America is instead working to empower and protect our rights as thinkers and writers in the digital space we care about and believe in cultivating together.

We reached out to Laura Macomber, Journalism and Press Freedom Project Manager at PEN America to learn more about how PEN America envisions the Online Harassment Field Manual operating in the MeToo moment, and online harassment as an issue of free speech.

EL: How do you envision writers and their allies using this manual?

LM: Storytelling is an essential part of countering online harassment: without people like Lindy West, Leslie Jones, and Mary Beard coming forward to share their experiences and draw attention to the horrors of online abuse, this problem would continue to be trivialized by tech platforms and society in general. We thought it was really important to include the voices of a diverse group of writers inside of the Field Manual, not just to highlight the ways in which online hate takes a toll personally and professionally, but also to offer solidarity to lesser-known or emerging writers who may be suffering unseen.

We thought it was really important to include the voices of a diverse group of writers in the Field Manual, to offer solidarity to lesser-known or emerging writers who may be suffering unseen.

Our practical goal for the Field Manual is that it help writers protect themselves online by offering information about cyber security, self-care, and law enforcement as they relate to cyber abuse. We also exhort online allies and the institutions that employ writers — newsrooms, publishers, etc. — to recognize their stake in this issue by offering them “best practices” for supporting writers during online harassment. But I would say our more lofty goal is that this Field Manual will generate deeper and more widespread connections among writing and journalism communities and their allies online, so that we can keep coming up with innovative ways to address this issue and not retreat into our corners, which is what allows online hate to thrive.

EL: What did PEN America learn about online harassment while putting this manual together?

LM: Our 2017 Online Harassment Survey of writers and journalists gave us a lot of insight into how online harassment impacts writers’ personal lives, professional lives, and well-being. Two-thirds of our survey respondents reported having a severe reaction to online harassment — including refraining from publishing their work, permanently deleting their social media accounts, or fearing for their safety or the safety of their loved ones. Those are pretty egregious outcomes for something that many people still want to say isn’t a “big deal.” I think the other troubling, though perhaps unsurprising thing we learned was how alone people feel when they’re targeted by online abusers. So many of the writers we spoke to said that to be targeted online was to feel isolated, scared, and lonely. How can something that happens to so many people result in so much isolation?

So many of the writers we spoke to said that to be targeted online was to feel isolated, scared, and lonely. How can something that happens to so many people result in so much isolation?

EL: Can you expand on the relationship you see between PEN America’s mission to protect free speech, and the trends you’ve witnessed in online harassment for writers?

LM: In the “about” section of the Field Manual we address this very question. Online harassment is a free expression concern precisely because it can result in people censoring themselves or withdrawing from online discourse out of concern for their safety and sanity. Writers and journalists are on the front lines of this battle: we rely on their voices to reflect our national narrative and cover the most pressing issues of the day. We can’t afford for them to be silenced. On top of that, online harassment unduly burdens groups and individuals who are already marginalized — people for whom online discussion has actually been an invaluable medium for increasing the visibility of women, people of color, the queer community, and other groups. When people stop speaking out and writing about topics they feel are important, everyone loses, especially in a country where we pride ourselves on our speech freedoms.

EL: Why now?

LM: Because we can’t afford to wait! We’re in a tenuous moment. The President and his administration continue to bully journalists, and in turn online trolls feel emboldened to bully anyone they disagree with, or whose identity — for whatever reason — offends them. Obviously online harassment has been around since long before the 2016 election, but if we continue to ignore its implications and the chilling effect it’s having on writers and journalists at a time when this country’s leaders are working to minimize the value of our free press, we’re all in trouble. And it’s not just the current administration: outrage mobs have become an issue on both sides of the political aisle. While we’d all be better off if we stopped shouting over and saying terrible things to each other, one way PEN America can contribute to the conversation is by offering the strategies for nurturing productive online discourse that are contained in our Field Manual.

If we continue to ignore online harassment and the chilling effect it’s having on writers and journalists at a time when this country’s leaders are working to minimize the value of our free press, we’re all in trouble.

EL: Do you see this project as being in conversation with the Me Too Movement?

LM: It’s impossible not to — especially since women are really the ones who have pushed the issue of online harassment into national consciousness. In some ways it’s ironic that #MeToo started online, which is where so many women face unprecedented sexual harassment every single day. And yet, it also speaks to how powerful and necessary our online communities are for elevating the voices and experiences of people who have been historically ignored and oppressed. Which is exactly why we created this Field Manual: to ensure that voices aren’t silenced and that people continue to exercise their right to speak online.

EL: Anything else you’d like to add?

LM: There’s still a long way to go, and we need a lot of different stakeholders to continue contributing to this conversation. We hope, as a start, that this Field Manual will make it into the hands of anyone and everyone facing online hate, and that it will inspire its users to continue campaigning for safer and more inclusive online communities.

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