Defending Against Coordinated Internet Harassment (SAAPP)

Defending Against Coordinated Internet Harassment (SAAPP)
Photo Credit: Leah Millis/REUTERS

Tactics to help you send fuccbois to the circular file.

Dear Reader,

Today I'm coining a new term to describe coordinated Internet harassment of the type which often affects public figures, journalists, and activists:

Strategic Attacks Against Public Participation (SAAPP).

The goal of SAAPP attacks are to sap the victim's will to continue participating in public life. These attacks attempt to degrade the victim's reputation in the eyes of the world, to isolate and disconnect them from their allies, friends and colleagues, and to cause them to doubt themselves and withdraw from their work.

Online trolling and coordinated criminal harassment campaigns have become increasingly prevalent, significantly impacting various news stories and public figures. High-profile cases, such as the targeted attacks on celebrities like Leslie Jones and Taylor Swift, and the widespread harassment of female gamers during the Gamergate controversy, began to underscore the pressing need for effective defense strategies years ago, yet these types of crimes continue to proliferate, seemingly unabated and with little recourse for victims.

Depending on the target, these attacks can be informal and powered only by the rage and hatred of the mob's participants, or directly funded by an adversary.

Professional political trolling is still a thriving underground industry around the world [...]" –Axios

In many cases, Internet harassers have sought to bridge the gap between the Internet and the real world by engaging in criminal activity to cause harmful consequences to their victims, such as the act of "swatting", in which criminal trolls abuse a 9-1-1 emergency line to report a violent crime at the victims' residence, causing armed police to arrive and a dangerous situation to play out.

All social media companies have come under fire repeatedly for their negligence regarding "Trust & Safety". In one particularly notable recent example, Twitter deprioritized safety across their platform, causing extensive and widespread harm to many victims as anonymous accounts associated with crimes against them continue to tweet with no intervention from the company.

In response, this guide offers several tactics designed to empower people who are victims of such coordinated harassment.

  • Recognizing Coordinated Attacks: The first step in defending against a coordinated troll harassment campaign is to identify its hallmarks, which may include multiple accounts targeting you with similar language, repetitive negative comments, or a sudden influx of negative interactions. Are there indications of why the harassers are targeting you? The substance of the attacks can helpful to identify likely suspects for attribution.
"One of the biggest telltale signs of troll activity is when the person in question fails to contribute anything constructive to an online debate. If the person focuses solely on manipulating others and evoking negative emotions, cease any further discussion and flag the account to the platform for verification." –DeutscheWelle
  • Assembling a Support Network: Forming a posse of trusted friends or online allies can provide invaluable support in the face of coordinated trolling. By sharing information about the harassment in a similar coordinated fashion and openly enlisting the help of your network to report trolls and their content to platform moderators, you may be able to effectively counteract the harassment.
Don't be afraid to earnestly ask your network for help. Let them know you are being targeted for harassment by strangers, and ask for their support. Consider creating a group text where you and your allies can communicate about these issues.
  • Collective Defense Strategies: Collaborate with your support network to develop a comprehensive plan for counteracting trolling. Strategies may include responding with a template response, using the trolls to advertise something you care about, engaging in defensive communication which counteracts the lies they are promulgating, or coordinating a reporting campaign against the harassers.
Stock replies can often be an effective way to communicate that your posse will not allow you to be defamed and harassed online.
  • Staying Vigilant, Yet Balanced: A flexible approach is essential to ensure the continued effectiveness of your defense strategies. It is crucial not to let the harassers consume your life, as this plays into their ultimate goal of causing distress. Maintain a balanced perspective by focusing on positive aspects of your life, never believing their lies, and finding support from loved ones.
Try to emotionally deprioritize the words of abusive strangers.
  • Assessing Engagement Strategies: Consider whether engaging with trolls is the right step for your situation. In some cases, it may be best to simply block or hide the content and limit the ability of unconnected users to send you messages. Remember that the goal of harassment is often to suppress your participation in public life, so ensure you are prioritizing your well-being when making decisions about how or whether to engage. When choosing to respond for the benefit of others who would see the exchange, never respond with emotionally charged language.
  • Starving the Trolls: Although it may be tempting to engage directly with the trolls, doing so often encourages their behavior. Instead, focus on supporting your online community and promoting positive interactions. While temporarily withdrawing from public online spaces may lead some trolls to lose interest, be aware that other types of trolls could become emboldened by your absence and decide to harass you further upon your return. The ultimate goal of harassment is to chill your participation in public life. Therefore, carefully consider your options and prioritize your well-being when deciding how to respond to online harassment.
  • Understanding the Role of Sociopathy and Psychopathy: It's important to recognize that the prevalence of sociopathy and psychopathy in the general population can also manifest in digital spaces. Victims should not assume that there is something inherently wrong with them that invites trolling or harassment, nor should they believe any lies or negative claims made by the trolls. If victims find themselves believing the toxic content, it can have a detrimental impact on their self-esteem. In such cases, it is crucial for victims to seek ways to minimize exposure to the harassment and focus on their own mental health and well-being.
"Of course, the relative anonymity of the Internet also contributes to trolling. But our research identified two personal factors – sadistic pleasure and harm rationalization – that explain why some people find trolling appealing." –Dr. Erin Buckels, Psychologist
  • Protecting Your Personal Information: The prevalence of data brokers and surveillance business models has made it easier for harassers to obtain personal information about their targets. To safeguard your data, consider running through a privacy checklist, searching for yourself online to identify any available information, using a service like DeleteMe, freezing your credit, and protecting your phone number with your mobile provider to avoid SIM swaps. However, only take these steps if you have reason to believe that the harassment is escalating beyond simply posting information about you online. Otherwise, you may be allowing the trolls to generate more stress than is actually warranted.
Do not assign outsize importance to trolls. Try not to allow trolls to control your emotions or to drive all of your actions, which is ultimately what they want.
  • Informing Your Personal Network: Notify your family, friends, and colleagues that you are being subjected to targeted harassment. Instruct them to state "wrong number" for phone calls and ignore any messages if they happen to be contacted by anyone seeking information about you. Instruct them to only report contact with harassers if they contain threats, which should then be saved and reported to the police.
  • The Limitations of Cyber Law Enforcement: While reporting incidents to the appropriate cyber law enforcement agency may seem like the logical course of action when harassment reaches a level where it violates your country's laws or poses a significant threat to your safety, it is important to recognize that law enforcement often struggles to tackle these issues effectively. This may be due to a lack of knowledge, training, and resources dedicated to addressing cyber-related matters. In the United States, for example, you can report cybercrimes to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), but keep in mind that their ability to address each case may be limited. Ensure you save a copy of any report or evidence which may be needed in the future should you choose to press charges or litigate against any harasser or platform.

Confronting coordinated troll harassment demands a solid strategy. Harness these defense tactics to stay firm in the face of organized trolling.

However, never lose sight of the fact that the harassment is not your fault!