Right To Be
Bystander Intervention Online

The concept of bystander intervention is really simple: it’s people helping people.

We have worked to translate some of our resources and make them more accessible. Read this guide in Arabic, Burmese, French, Spanish and Indonesian.*

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:

1. Distract:
Creating a distraction to de-escalate the situation

The good news is, the internet is a very distracting place! We’ve got a lot to work with here.

One idea is to amplify the original post that caused the harassment to begin. You never want to amplify the abuse (don’t give them the pleasure!). But by amplifying the original voice you’re saying, “hey, we’re going to let this person have their voice. We’re going to like it, we’re going to upvote it, we’re going to retweet it, we’re going to share it.” Online harassment, like all forms of harassment, is often intended to silence people. By lifting their voices, you’re not only reminding the person being harassed that their voice matters, you’re also showing the people who harass others that their attempts to silence this person have backfired.

The other strategy is drawing attention away from the abuse. It’s really hard to be hateful while staring at a flood of photos of cute baby animals, gifs of jumping goats, or elephants running through the wilderness with pink converse. This type of content is not only de-escalating, it’s funny. And the internet is fantastic at generating tons of it.

2. Delegate:
Finding someone else to help

One person intervening is good, but more is better.

Consider reaching out to supportive communities — like listservs, your BFFs text chain, your private Facebook community, etc, and sound the alarm. You can ask them to support by amplifying the voice of the person being harassed, or by reporting the harassment to the platform where it happened. For example, amongst those of us who do this work professionally, it’s not uncommon to see notes like this sent out across listserves: “My friend is being impersonated online & she can’t get the @account removed. Can you join me in reporting it to Twitter?”

A word to the wise: the first thing a lot of people think about when they think about delegate is contacting the police. You want to check-in with the person being harassed before contacting the police on their behalf (unless it’s a medical emergency) because many of the communities most targeted by harassment online — including communities of color, trans* communities, etc, may not feel safer with police presence.

3. Document:
Creating documentation of the incident and then giving it to the person who was harassed

It’s a best practice to have screenshots and hyperlinks of any harassment that you experience online — even if you don’t think it will escalate and you don’t want to report it to law enforcement. The trouble is: capturing that information can deepen the trauma of people harassed online by increasing their exposure to the hate. That’s where you, the bystander, comes in.

This is especially important because when harassment is reported to social media companies, and removed, the evidence of harassment disappears. When offering to do this for someone, we recommend putting the screenshots and hyperlinks into a folder, and emailing the entire folder to them with a message like, ““I want to ensure you have evidence of this abuse. Attached are screenshots to file away.” You want to hid the evidence under a layer of protection (and not cut and paste them directly into an email) so that the person being harassed has some control over when they see the evidence (if they choose to see it at all).

Another option if you’re being harassed is to go to Right To Be’s Storytelling Platform (stories.righttobe.org) where you can leverage a vetted community of bystanders to screenshot the harassment on your behalf, and it will be saved on the backend of the system when (and if) you want to review it. Tactics like “blocking” or “muting” while tempting, can mask the presence of deeper, more serious threats. As a bystander, offer to monitor mentions and document harassment — and encourage the person being harassed to take a break from the internet to take care of themselves and connect with those they love.

4. Delay:
Checking in on the person who experienced harassment

When it comes to in-person harassment, we know from research with Cornell University that as little as a knowing glance can reduce the trauma related to harassment. It’s not much different online — if you replace a knowing glance with a direct message or text.

Delay is simply that check-in. It’s about affirming to the person who was harassed that it’s not their fault, and they are not alone. It’s about asking if they want to talk, or if they need helping reporting the harassment or locking down their digital security. While this may seem so simple it’s obvious — too often we see this as a missed step in the process.

Most people who experience harassment understand that not everyone in the world is going to be kind, or agree with them. But what they have a harder time stomaching is that they can be publicly humiliated, with everyone watching, and no one saying anything. What we see time and time again is that the trauma of one doing or saying anything, if oftentimes worse than the trauma of the original incident. So take action, text them if you know them, and send them gifs and gifts to support their healing process.

5. Direct:
Setting a boundary with the person doing the harassing, and then turning your attention to the person being harassed

The last form of intervention is Direct. What distinguishes “Direct” from the other forms is that you’re publicly allying with the person being harassed, in a way that can be easily detected by the person doing the harassment. It’s the one we all think of when we think about intervening, but it’s also the one with the most safety risks because the harassment may turn towards you. Before choosing this option, you’re going to want to do a deeper assessment of your safety:

  • What are your identities?
    Could they put you at increased risk? For example, if you’re a woman witnessing sexist behavior, you might choose to pick a less direct action. 
  • Are your own biases affecting how you perceive the situation or how you intervene?
    For example, do you assume that Black and Latino men are more likely to escalate to violence than white men? 
  • Are you triggered or are your own experiences keeping you from seeing a way through?
    If when you look at the harassment you feel your body transported back to moments of trauma in your own life, you should know this is a normal response. Trying breath regulating exercising like box breathing (inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4, repeat) or grounding exercises like putting your feet on the floor, back on your chair, and naming three things you see, two things you can touch, and one thing you can hear. If you’re not able to get yourself back into the present moment, you may want to pick a less direct form of intervention. 
  • Is the person targeted by abuse somebody you know?
    If so, text, call, or direct message them to check in and can offer support. They may not know what they need, so offer to go on a walk with them, buy them a coffee and listen, or help them lock down their digital security. 
  • Is the abuser somebody you know?
    Do you have a good relationship? If so, you may be well positioned to directly intervene by pulling them aside and asking them about their behavior. Questions like, “what makes you feel that way?” Or reflections like, “this just doesn’t sound like you.” can be helpful conversation starters. 
  • Does the abuser have a history of escalation?
    This can be hard to know, but a quick search through their online presence can be helpful, especially if the abuser is well-known. 
  • Do you have friends who are aware of your plan and can have your back if needed?
    Consider letting some friends know what you’re up to, so that you know they are there if you need to call on them for support later on. 

Once you decide to directly intervene — keep in mind your goal is to support the person being harassed — not to name, shame, and blast the person doing the harassing off the internet (as tempting as that may be).

One way to intervene is to chime in with supportive, affirming, or constructive comments, messages, or hashtags. In fact, on Right To Be’s Storytelling platform, supportive messages are the most-requested form of support — because they validate the person’s experience as online harassment and remind them that they didn’t deserve it, and there are people in the world who have their backs.

While HeartMob allows supportive comments on a private platform, doing it directly online is a form of “Direct” intervention. You might also choose to fact-check claims or expose impersonation. For example, if your friend is being impersonated, you may want to publicly share something like this to show support: “If you’re as big a fan of Victoria V as me, be sure to follow their REAL handle: @vvictoria. Abusive trolls are impersonating her – help me report these @victoriav and @vvv impersonation accounts.” Here, you’re not only elevating the voice of VIctoria by encouraging others to follow her, you’re also getting more folks to report the fake accounts in hopes that social media companies will deal with the issue quicker and more seriously.

While it can be tempting to want to educate the person doing the harassing on why their behavior is OK — people who are actively harassing others are rarely in their best learning mindset, and certainly not in a growth mindset. However, publicly stating what is and isn’t OK creates norms online, and helps others who may be at risk for the same behavior feel more seen, heard, and cared for online. For example, publicly saying something along the lines of “This is a blatant attempt to use abusive tactics to intimidate and censor a Black reporter, whose talent and skill we need more than ever. Reject hate,” can be effective at setting norms online and building awareness of the extent to which both journalists and Black folks are disproportionately targeted by online harassment.

The meaning of action:
A 2017 Pew Study found that while 66% of Americans have witnessed online harassment, only 30% have ever intervened in it. The next time you see online harassment — assess your safety, and notice what holds you back from intervening. Then, see if there is something that you can do. Remember four out of the five D’s are indirect approaches to bystander intervention — and that your goal is to support the person being harassed. When we all start to intervene we also start to shift the culture that makes online harassment so prevalent to begin with.

*We have partnered with Facebook to make possible the translation of some of our resources and materials.