The concept of bystander intervention is really simple: it’s people helping people.
If someone had a medical emergency, you’d know what to do. If someone dropped their hat on the street, you’d know what to do. But when people witness online harassment, they freeze. They don’t know what to do. And for good reason: the consequences of action (or inaction) online are unclear and unpredictable — and worse, we’ve started seeing online abuse as normal. We told ourselves there is nothing we can do. But that simply isn’t true.
Bystander intervention online is simply overcoming that “freezing” instinct so we can get back to that very human desire to take care of one another. It’s not about being the hero. It’s not about strapping on superhero spandex and saving the day. And it certainly isn’t about sacrificing your own safety. Bystander intervention is an idea as old as time. It’s the idea that as an online community: we got us.
Bystander intervention has been popularized in public spaces, colleges, and workplace settings — but bystander intervention online is still a relatively new concept with new opportunities and challenges. For example, when you experience harassment in person, there are not always other people around. But online, it’s easy to ping people and get them to show up in the blink of an eye to help. It can also be easier to check-in on the person being harassed without being detected by the folks doing the harassment.
The online setting also brings new challenges, however — the most scary of which is how quickly and easily the harassment can turn on you if you intervene publicly. At Right To Be (formerly Hollaback!), we partnered in 2020 with PEN America to launch a one-hour training on bystander intervention online using Right To Be’s 5D’s of bystander intervention: “Distract,” “Delegate,” “Document,” “Delay,” and “Direct.” Four out of the five forms of bystander intervention we’ll discuss are indirect, meaning that you won’t be detected by the people doing the harassing – but you’ll still be able to support the person being harassed online.
Before you get started, a couple rules:
- Always prioritize your own safety.
Seriously, your safety matters. You matter. Before you start intervening, take steps to tighten your own digital security (check out the resources section for more information on how to do this).
- Check-in on the people targeted by abuse whenever possible.
Online abuse is disempowering, but quick chats, DMS, and emails are easy. Give them their power back by simply asking what kind of support they would like.
- Never abuse the abusers.
It can be tempting, but it’s never a good idea. Bystander intervention is about prioritizing the person being harassed and breaking the cycle of violence.
Let’s look at all five approaches in-depth: