Online abuse, harassment & bullying

This page explains how to deal with online abuse, harassment and bullying, including take-down notices and complaining to social media platforms. 

With thanks to CounterHate from whom much of the advice on this page is taken.

Most important: if you receive unwelcome comments of any type, talk to others and seek help if it is making you anxious or causing concern.


What should I do if I get bad reviews or negative comments?

One of the difficult things about being an author, illustrator or translator is that you must put your work out into the world – and not everyone will like it. Bad reviews are painful but what can you do?

Always remember: if you engage, your response will be seen by a wide audience. And that as a published author, you will be deemed to be in a privileged position.

Opinions             

Readers are entitled to their opinions, whatever they are. Don’t challenge personal opinion – it will only make you look bad. Let it go.

Factual assertions           

If reviewers make incorrect factual assertions, then on most social media you can politely correct the facts – sometimes messaging the person direct can find you a new reader and they might even thank you for correcting their mistake!

Abuse   

If you do receive personal abuse or negative comments you may wish to treat this as trolling – see the advice below.

What is trolling?             

Trolling involves sending abusive and hurtful comments across social media platforms. Not all negative comments are trolling – though it can still be hurtful.

Why do trolls need you?              

Remember: all that is necessary to spread a conspiracy theory is to get more people to hear it. Social media has given trolls a cost-free means to spread their message to far larger numbers of people. This has exposed more people to hateful attitudes and conspiracies, and risks trolls winning new converts.

When authors, or anyone with significant numbers of followers engage with trolls you inadvertently spread and legitimise the trolls’ message by doing the following:

  • You broadcast the troll’s views to your own followers.
  • You legitimise the troll’s views as worthy of debate and deserving the merit of acknowledgement and discussion. To the casual observer a thread looks like a debate between two different sides of an argument – this form of communication legitimises the content regardless of the merits of either side.
  • You reinforce the trolls’ behaviour by confirming to the trolls that targets are listening to them and are affected by what they see online.
  • Your involvement tricks social media algorithms into pushing the trolls’ argument into a broader spread of users’ timelines.

What to do if you are trolled

1. Do not engage with a troll or retaliate

The common mantra “do not feed the trolls” is good advice. Trolls want you to engage with their content to raise visibility of their message. You will never persuade them of your view. For a troll, winning or losing is about how many people see their message. They are not genuinely debating with you.

The format of most social media platforms allow little space for substantial debate. Nor does it show the relative merits of a point of view. Complex arguments require more than 280 characters to explain.

If you do not take the bait, the troll may eventually lose interest in you.

If you have already engaged with a troll, then simply make it clear, once, that you want them to stop. If they do not stop, take action by blocking them. Do not get drawn into dialogue.

2. Block the sender

When a troll targets you, block them immediately. This will ensure that they cannot contact you again, and removes any mentions of them from your notifications. Furthermore, it will stop their small networks from being able to target you again in future. It is remarkable how few people you have to block to stop a troll storm.

3. Switch off your notifications

If you receive several tweets in a short period, temporarily switch off your app notifications on your mobile devices. Doing this will protect you from constant exposure to troll hate.

Do not post saying that you are being targeted as this will simply invite further abuse and sympathy, all of which spreads troll content more widely and makes it more prominent.

4. Take a break and look after yourself

A troll storm is unpleasant. Even after blocking abuse and switching off your notifications, you will still have to deal with having been abused in the first place. It is important to get space from social media and show yourself some compassion.

There are lots of ways to get support online or in person. Remember: You are not alone.

Things you can do if you receive unwelcome contact online

1. Record it

If you feel a message you have received is defamatory or might contain criminal content, e.g. incitement of violence or harassment; or content that glorifies terror, then record it. The best way to do this is to take a screenshot. Make sure to capture the time, date and sender or print off relevant webpages ensuring they are dated.

2. Report it

a) Report the abuse to the social media company directly from their interface and ask them to remove it. Here’s how to do that on some social media platforms:

b) Report it to your publisher or agent. If you suffer any abuse, report this to your publisher or agent. They may be able to support you and help you with advice and further action. 

c) Report it to the SoA. If you are an SoA member, the SoA may be able to provide support and guidance. See below.

3. Consider further action 

a) Make a complaint to the police

You should do this if you believe you or anyone else is in danger. Trolling may amount to a number of criminal offences. It can be prosecuted under the Malicious Communication Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003 or it can amount to criminal harassment contrary to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and punishable by up to six months’ imprisonment under the law of England and Wales.

Harassment is any course of conduct (two or more incidents) designed to cause a person alarm or distress, or where the perpetrator ought to know that is the likely outcome.

Unfortunately, the police are often overstretched and under-resourced, and online crime of this nature is often not seen as a priority. In these circumstances, you may want to take civil action. 

b) Civil action         

It is possible in some cases to take civil action for harassment (see above) or for defamation, which is an untrue statement which causes or is likely to cause serious harm to someone’s reputation. Please do not consider this option lightly as civil action is costly and risks spreading the libel further. Always contact the SoA or an expert lawyer before taking any such action.

How the SoA can help

We work hard to protect and support our members and to work for greater inclusion, diversity and better representation and professional standards of discourse.

While we deplore bullying, trolling and negative personal comments, we don’t usually speak out publicly on individual cases of trolling, especially if we have not been asked by the author to do so, and particularly on social media which is not a sufficiently nuanced forum for such debates.

The SoA staff are your professional representatives. We cannot intervene in disputes of opinion between authors, but we will always endeavour to give an unbiased view of any professional business matter.

However, we will always provide private support for authors targeted. Contact us for support and guidance. Please bear the following in mind:

  • We do not get involved in individual debates – or in disputes between authors.
  • We condemn any kind of racist, hate or unprofessional speech.
  • We have a professional code of behaviour, outlined in our Dignity and Respect Policy and the industry-wide Commitment to Professional Behaviour in Publishing.
  • We encourage members to make complaints under these policies if they are concerned about another member’s behaviour on our platforms.

As an organisation, we celebrate the right of freedom of expression and we are against censorship. There will be times when members disagree, and we urge that when this happens, views are expressed with respect.

Where else to get help

There are organisations with experience and expertise in online hate, social media tactics and trolling who are there to help, such as CounterHate. Guidance from other organisations include:

Other sources of information

Read Keren David’s 2019 blog from the Children’s Writers & Illustrators Group Conference event: ‘So You’ve been Shamed’ and speaker Fritha Lindqvist’s take-home notes.

Listen to Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed on BBC Sounds.

Visit the Ethical Consumer website to read a new guide from Stop Funding Hate and Ethical Consumer about how you can help make hate unprofitable: ethicalconsumer.org/ethicalcampaigns/stop-funding-hate

GUIDE: Stop Funding Hate: for individuals

 

With thanks to the named organisations for informing this guidance.

Last updated: November 2021