PEN America Launches Online Harassment Field Manual

Nossel-Suzanne, CEO, PEN America
Nossel-Suzanne, CEO, PEN America

The New York based PEN America, a free speech organization, has launched an online harassment field manual which would serve as a resource to equip and empower writers, journalists, and all those active online with practical tools and tactics in defence against hateful speech and trolling.

The manual offers a one-stop bank of advice, guidance, and resources on cyber-stalking, doxing, hate speech, and other forms of digital hate. It was informed by a survey of 230 writers and journalists targeted by online harassment: Two-thirds reported severe reactions to being trolled, including refraining from publishing their work, deleting social media accounts, and fears for personal safety. More than a third reported avoiding certain topics in their writing. Writers were targeted for their viewpoints but also based on their race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.

Announcing the guide to combating trolls, Suzanne Nossel, PEN America chief executive officer, said: “Online harassment poses a clear threat to free expression, as evidenced by the results of our survey. When certain voices are muzzled, when people choose not to write about topics that matter and when they remove themselves from the public debate, everyone loses.”

Nossel said PEN America is “especially disturbed by the ways in which online harassment affects their work”. She added: “Journalists and writers whose web presence is a professional imperative can’t be left defenceless in the face of rampant digital intimidation, provocation, and vitriol when they dare to stick their heads above the parapet.”

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.

The manual calls on employers, tech companies, and law enforcement agencies to play a stronger part in the fight to stop the online abuse of writers. “In the digital age, all writers and publishers of online content are vulnerable and susceptible to web attacks,” Laura Macomber, PEN America journalism and press freedom project manager, said.

The manual provides advice, guidance, and resources on cyberstalking, doxing and hate speech. The charity said it was intended to “fortify” writers and journalists with the best available means to protect themselves and secure their freedom to write.

PEN America stated that with those concerns in mind, they have taken up the challenge of fortifying writers and journalists—for whom online engagement is a professional imperative—with the best available methods and means to protect themselves and secure their own freedom to write.

PEN America also offers  recommendations directed to employers, tech companies, and law enforcement on the roles they need to play to prevent online harassment from enforcing silence. While the content is geared toward writers, much of the advice and techniques discussed are relevant to anyone confronting hostility online.

The Field Manual highlights include:

A number of first-hand accounts of online harassment and its aftermath; step-by-step guides for enhancing cybersecurity and preventing doxing; ideas for leveraging online writing communities to combat online harassment; tips for combating hateful speech with counter-speech, guidelines for allies and witnesses interested in intervening in online harassment; best practices for employers of writers and journalists to improve institutional support during episodes of online abuse; information about online harassment and the law; and an online harassment glossary with proposed responses.