How Academics Can Protect Themselves From Online Harassment

Data & Society, a research institute focusing on “social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from data-centric technological development” has issued a guide for those conducting “risky research” about how to protect themselves from online harassment.

Best Practices for Conducting Risky Research and Protecting Yourself from Online Harassment,” authored by Alice E. Marwick (Data & Society), Lindsay Blackwell (U. Michigan), and Katherine Lo (UC Irvine) is aimed at academic researchers who engage in risky research or work on controversial topics. They elaborate:

Scholars who research and write about a wide variety of topics are finding that their work has an audience beyond the academy. This public interest can be highly beneficial, but it can also cause problems for individual researchers and their institutions. Work that may not seem controversial within one’s discipline can spark public discussion, criticism, or outrage [emphasis added]. In the worst case scenario, a scholar may become the target of repeated harassing behavior. This is particularly true for members of marginalized groups, including women, people of color, and LGBT people.

They created the document because they

believe the academy needs to recognize that researchers conducting sensitive or risky research—particularly research about controversial topics—may be susceptible to online harassment and related threats. We also believe that institutions are responsible for ensuring that their employees, whether graduate students, postdocs, faculty, or staff, enjoy safe and secure working environments—which includes internet and social media use.

The guide includes recommendations for departments and institutions, as well as individuals in various institutional roles besides the researchers themselves (advisors, senior faculty, supervisors, etc.). Yet the bulk of the guide is aimed directly at researchers.

It includes proactive measures to take prior to starting and publishing your work, including:

  • Notify your institution that you are engaging in research that may be susceptible to online backlash, and that your advisor, PI, department, university marketing team, etc. may receive negative messages or false information about you.
  • Explain online harassment to your friends and family, and warn them about the possibility of your research making you vulnerable to online attacks.
  • Reach out to people doing similar research.
  • Take breaks. Switch to less taxing projects.

There is also advice about what to do if you are harassed, including:

  • Recognize that this is a traumatic experience and that counseling or therapy may be appropriate. Prioritize your mental health.
  • If you are harassed on social media, turn off mobile notifications. Ask a trusted friend to read your emails, DMs, Twitter mentions, comments, etc. and let you know if they see anything that requires your attention.
  • Engage strategically. If people begin to contact you about your work, you may choose not to engage with anyone, or to engage only with select individuals.

Additionally, the guide lists various basic internet security measures individuals can take, as well as a number of helpful resources. The authors have also developed a short information sheet, “Online Harassment Information for Universities,” for researchers to share with their colleagues, institutions, and acquaintances.

Further helpful suggestions from readers welcome.

(via Daniel Nemenyi / PHILOS-L)


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7 years ago

Never tweet.

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
7 years ago

It’s not like I have anything better to offer, but: it strikes me as regrettable that this advice overwhelmingly takes the form of making more work for, or interrupting the work of, people getting harassed. It’s good to protect people’s safety and well-being, but it’s a very incomplete measure to do so by removing them from public discussions of important topics. Unfortunately, I don’t see anything here that will prevent harassment will have its intended effect of stifling discussion of some topics by some people.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
7 years ago

It’s unfortunate, but it seems even worse to not give such advice, and leave individuals and departments caught unawares when it happens.

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
7 years ago

If your institution has an online directory, make sure your personal contact information like cell number, etc. are not listed.