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Online harassment threatens free speech. Now there’s a field guide to help survive it.

The free speech organization PEN America says online harassment is a major threat to free expression.

Take Back the Net panelists discuss online harassment
Porochista Khakpour, Anita Sarkeesian, and Katy Glenn Bass, with Yassmin Abdel-Magied onscreen.
PEN America
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

For a very long time, it’s been dogma that online harassment is the price we collectively pay for enshrining free speech above all else.

“We’re a free speech site with very few exceptions (mostly personal info),” wrote Reddit’s then-general manager Erik Martin in 2011, “and having to stomach occasional troll reddit like picsofdeadkids or morally questionable reddits like jailbait are part of the price of free speech on a site like this.”

The free speech organization PEN America is now challenging that assumption. It’s arguing that harassment is not an expression of free speech but a deterrent to it, that online harassment is antithetical to free speech because online harassment is designed to silence.

In that spirit, PEN America has launched an Online Harassment Field Manual. Designed for writers who experience online harassment, the editors who hire them, and people who see online harassment taking place and want to help, the manual offers advice on everything from how to protect yourself against doxxing to why people turn into trolls.

“Online harassment is a clear threat to free expression,” said PEN America’s free expression research and policy director Katy Glenn Bass on April 21, at a panel discussion on the problem of online harassment. “For many years and in many quarters, it’s been dismissed as somehow less real and less harmful than ‘real world harassment,’” Bass said, but: “Online harassment affects its targets’ freedom to express themselves. It affects their livelihoods. It affects their physical and mental health.”

The panel also featured Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian and novelist Porochista Khakpour, as well as Muslim activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who had to Skype in to the panel after being turned away from the US at the border due to visa problems. (The irony of having an activist turned away from talking at a free speech organization, Bass said, was not lost on the panel.) All three have been the victims of exceptionally vicious harassment on the internet, and all three spoke at length about the problems they faced attempting to deal with it.

Fundamental to the problem of online harassment, all agreed, was the lack of regulation across platforms.

“People’s behavior doesn’t really change when they grow up, unless there are rules to make things actually change,” said Abdel-Magied. “Online harassment is essentially this adult cyberbullying, really, but there’s no school principal. There’s nobody holding anyone accountable.”

Sarkeesian argued that the “absent school principal” problem — the lack of regulation — is a consequence of the way social media platforms were built, and who built them.

“These companies were founded and started by mostly white dudes, and they were tested on their white families, friends, colleagues, people of their own orbit, which often looks like them. So they never considered online harassment as an issue when they started their platforms,” Sarkeesian said. “It [harassment protection] wasn’t something that was built into the platform from the very beginning, so right now, Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Google and Instagram, they’re putting Band-Aids on a gushing geyser of death.

“Can these platforms actually be fixed?” she continued. “The more I do this work, the more I’m like, I don’t know!”

All of which is why PEN describes the Field Manual as a tool for people “who must navigate online spaces as they exist today — not as we want them to be.” The internet is dark and full of horrors, and if you want to make it through unscathed, a field manual can only help.