Holding Others Accountable

5 minutes, 8 links


Updated January 28, 2020
Using Twitter

With Twitter’s less than perfect reporting system, users seek other ways to hold people accountable for harassment. Depending on the severity and scale of abuse, different routes can be taken. Unfortunately, all of these come with some level of personal and professional risk. Rather than solutions, they’re options with their own potential and realized consequences.

There are no real routes to winning when it comes to addressing abusive behavior. Bearing the brunt of harassment can be embarrassing and temporary and traumatic and lasting.

danger At its extreme, it can leave individuals having to flee their homes, opt for burner phones, and permanently change the way they interact with the world, as The New York Times reported in a series on the topic. Holding people accountable can be incredibly challenging or impossible. It can also have professional implications:

  • Calling out bad behavior can have you labelled a “trouble maker” and lead to ostracization.
  • Calling out someone in your industry who is more prominent than you are can result in abuse from their followers and professional fallout (i.e. blacklisting).

What you can do:

  • Direct public outreach. If abusive or mean-spirited comments are coming from someone you may know or have familiarity with, one route is speaking to them directly. Responding directly to a tweet they’ve written can be a route to asking them to stop their behavior, be more considerate, or explain a point of contention. Unfortunately, in these situations, they may respond with more of the same or simply block you. Your response may even fuel further abuse.

  • Direct private outreach. Again, if vitriol is coming from someone you’re familiar with, reaching out to them through a DM or private channels like email can be a potential route to a civil conversation without onlookers. However, they may be unwilling to have this dialogue. They may simply ignore you, or worse, screen capture and post your DM to their followers.

  • Sharing widely. People are generally sympathetic of people experiencing harassment and abuse and may be willing to help or broadcast the issues you’re facing. Quote tweeting, screen capturing, or discussing the abuse you’re experiencing can sometimes get individual attackers to stop. You can also encourage your followers to help report abuse, making it more likely that Twitter will act. Unfortunately, sharing the abuse you’re experiencing is far less likely to work in the case of mob attacks and may actually fuel additional mobbing.

  • Reporting to a workplace. Companies are increasingly protective of their brand and public perception, including the individuals who work for them and the content they choose to post on Twitter.

    • After Jonathan Weisman, a deputy Washington editor of The New York Times engaged in Twitter behavior that his employer said showed “serious lapses in judgment,” he was demoted.

    • A developer advocate at Auth0 was fired after offensive tweets were shared with his employer directly on Twitter.

    • If you’re experiencing harassment by someone whose identity and workplace is known, making their actions known to their employer is a tactic for holding them accountable for bad behavior. However, this is an increasingly polarizing action that may lead to personal escalation and additional mobbing. Often a workplace won’t act, but may notify the employer that they were reported, which could give them further ammo.

  • Utilizing whisper networks and backchannels. Experiencing abuse can be an isolating experience. While speaking up can cause revictimization or retaliation, not saying anything means abusers can continue abusing others without consequence. Finding individuals and groups you trust to discuss these incidents can be a less dangerous route for revealing abuse and warning community members. Often this can be done anonymously.

    • Again, this is not without risk. Moira Donegan started a google spreadsheet of “Shitty Media Men” intended to be anonymous and “protect its users from retaliation.” It spread like wildfire and cost the creator her job and resulted in a lawsuit, despite being widely viewed by activists as a benefit to the #MeToo movement.

Personally Dealing with Abuse

I’ve made really close friends on Twitter. I got my first job through Twitter. Obviously, that’s all great, but then there’s the other side, too. People have harassed me on Twitter. I’ve dealt with a lot of abuse on Twitter. Twitter has made me much more cautious about who has access to my personal information. I try to be pretty careful to never post a picture or mention a location while I’m still there. All of that is important, too, even if it’s not as fun.Jackie Luo (@jackiehluo), software engineer, Square*

Dealing with online harassment and abuse can take a personal toll.

In an article for Wired, Robyn Kanner (@robynkanner) discusses the feeling of being publicly shamed: “It’s a lonely experience to feel like the most hated person alive for just saying what was on my mind.”

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