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Bystander Intervention Online

The concept of bystander intervention is really simple: it’s people helping people.

If someone had a medical emergency, you’d know what to do. If someone dropped their hat on the street, you’d know what to do. But when people witness online harassment, they freeze. They don’t know what to do. And for good reason: the consequences of action (or inaction) online are unclear and unpredictable -- and worse, we’ve started seeing online abuse as normal. We told ourselves there is nothing we can do. But that simply isn’t true.

Bystander intervention online is simply overcoming that “freezing” instinct so we can get back to that very human desire to take care of one another. It’s not about being the hero. It’s not about strapping on superhero spandex and saving the day. And it certainly isn’t about sacrificing your own safety. Bystander intervention is an idea as old as time. It’s the idea that as an online community: we got us.

Bystander intervention has been popularized in public spaces, colleges, and workplace settings -- but bystander intervention online is still a relatively new concept with new opportunities and challenges. For example, when you experience harassment in person, there are not always other people around. But online, it’s easy to ping people and get them to show up in the blink of an eye to help. It can also be easier to check-in on the person being harassed without being detected by the folks doing the harassment.

The online setting also brings new challenges, however -- the most scary of which is how quickly and easily the harassment can turn on you if you intervene publicly.  At Right To Be (formerly Hollaback!), we partnered in 2020 with PEN America to launch a one-hour training on bystander intervention online using Right To Be’s 5D’s of bystander intervention: “Distract,” “Delegate,” “Document,” “Delay,” and “Direct.”   Four out of the five forms of bystander intervention we’ll discuss are indirect, meaning that you won’t be detected by the people doing the harassing - but you’ll still be able to support the person being harassed online.

Before you get started, a couple rules:

  • Always prioritize your own safety. Seriously, your safety matters. You matter. Before you start intervening, take steps to tighten your own digital security (check out the resources section for more information on how to do this).

  • Check-in on the people targeted by abuse whenever possible. Online abuse is disempowering, but quick chats, DMS, and emails are easy. Give them their power back by simply asking what kind of support they would like.

  • Never abuse the abusers. It can be tempting, but it’s never a good idea. Bystander intervention is about prioritizing the person being harassed and breaking the cycle of violence.

Let’s look at all five approaches in-depth:

1. "Distract:" Creating a distraction to de-escalate the situation

The good news is, the internet is a very distracting place! We’ve got a lot to work with here.

One idea is to amplify the original post that caused the harassment to begin. You never want to amplify the abuse (don’t give them the pleasure!). But by amplifying the original voice you’re saying, “hey, we’re going to let this person have their voice. We’re going to like it, we’re going to upvote it, we’re going to retweet it, we're going to share it.” Online harassment, like all forms of harassment, is often intended to silence people. By lifting their voices, you’re not only reminding the person being harassed that their voice matters, you’re also showing the people who harass others that their attempts to silence this person have backfired.

The other strategy is drawing attention away from the abuse. It’s really hard to be hateful while staring at a flood of photos of cute baby animals, gifs of jumping goats, or elephants running through the wilderness with pink converse. This type of content is not only de-escalating, it’s funny. And the internet is fantastic at generating tons of it.  

2. “Delegate:” Finding someone else to help

One person intervening is good, but more is better.

Consider reaching out to supportive communities -- like listservs, your BFFs text chain, your private Facebook community, etc, and sound the alarm. You can ask them to support by amplifying the voice of the person being harassed, or by reporting the harassment to the platform where it happened. For example, amongst those of us who do this work professionally, it’s not uncommon to see notes like this sent out across listserves:  “My friend is being impersonated online & she can’t get the @account removed. Can you join me in reporting it to Twitter?”

A word to the wise: the first thing a lot of people think about when they think about delegate is contacting the police.  You want to check-in with the person being harassed before contacting the police on their behalf (unless it’s a medical emergency) because many of the communities most targeted by harassment online -- including communities of color, trans* communities, etc, may not feel safer with police presence.