A disinformation expert's guide on combatting online abuse

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The Instagram app icon on the screen of a mobile device. (Jenny Kane/AP)
The Instagram app icon on the screen of a mobile device. (Jenny Kane/AP)

Editor's Note: This edition contains descriptions of online abuse that some listeners will find disturbing. It may not be appropriate for children.

When disinformation researcher Nina Jankowicz put out a video debunking wild claims she saw on social media ...

"I received for about two weeks straight hundreds of tweets an hour dissecting my appearance in every way, making fun of the way I spoke, making fun of the way I looked," she says." And it's not even that bad compared to what a lot of people receive."

So, Jankowicz went deeper. She investigated how 13 female politicians of both parties were treated online in the 2020 election.

"We found over 336,000 pieces of gendered abuse and harassment, most of which was targeted then-vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris," she says.

Threats of rape, murder and more.

"Some women make the calculation, especially when it gets violent, when their families are threatened, when a SWAT team shows up at their door," Jankowicz says. "Then those women have to make the calculation, and often the calculation is that they're going to protect their families and step back.”

Today, On Point: How to fight online abuse of women.


Nina Jankowicz, disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank. Author of "How to Be A Woman Online." (@wiczipedia)

Also Featured

Brianna Wu, video game developer. (@BriannaWu)

Saleen Martin, reporter on USA TODAY's NOW team. (@Saleen_Martin)

Book Excerpt

Full Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti, Nina Jankowicz is back with us. Hello there, Nina.


CHAKRABARTI: Now, for those of you who don't know, Nina is an expert on disinformation and democratization. She's known for her 2020 book How to Lose the Information War. And now she's in the Biden administration working on counter disinformation. But we're going to talk about something a little bit different today with Nina. So back in 2020, you posted a video online — debunking a conspiracy theory that was doing the rounds then, and we have a little bit of that video. Here's what you said.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]: Color revolutions happen in autocracies when people are fed up with the indignities of an entrenched regime. While we have witnessed some democratic backsliding here in the United States, we are not an autocracy. We still have checks and balances. We still enjoy democratic rights. Certainly, we are not Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 or Belarus today.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Nina, I mean, first of all, all of that is factually true, and it seems kind of benign, right? Just debunking conspiracy theories. But what happened next?

JANKOWICZ: Well, this very benign video that was based very much in my area of expertise — democracy in Central and Eastern Europe — went viral because folks on the far right disagreed with it and thought that I was a CIA plant and then a whole onslaught of abuse started for the next several weeks. And that was the first time I had experienced such heightened trolling in my life. I had gotten, you know, the odd tweet here or there, but I was receiving hundreds of tweets a day, picking apart my appearance, picking apart my background, making fun of my voice, saying sexual and violent things to me. And it was a real kind of watershed moment for me and my career and my public engagement online.

CHAKRABARTI: Just out of curiosity, can you remind me what the conspiracy theory was?

JANKOWICZ: Sure. So, the idea was that there was a color revolution organized by the Democratic Party happening here in the United States, and this actually ended up feeding into some of the ideas that we saw with the "Big Lie" around the 2020 election that the election was stolen. This was kind of the seeds to that theory. And when I heard that being bandied about online without people, you know, understanding the history of color revolutions — that they are these grassroots movements — and in fact, using the Putinist idea that these are in fact, you know, controlled by the CIA or some other intelligence service, it was really worrisome to me to hear that Russian propaganda repeated in our own discourse. Hence, the video which brought on the trolling.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. So, you know, the challenge that we've faced all week long in preparing for this conversation, Nina, is we want to as accurately and plainly as possible, state what kind of trolling: abuse — I'm going to call it what it is — abuse that women face online. But due to our FCC license, we can't actually say most of the things because it's really bad. So, you know, as much as you can without getting any of us into trouble, can you describe in more detail, like, what happened to you that week, what was coming at you on social media after you, you know, debunked a conspiracy theory?

JANKOWICZ: Yeah. So, I made a list this morning in preparation for our interview. It started with, you know, regular run of the mill, gendered or sexualized insults, you know, words that diminish women's authority and capacity like "girly" or "deer," "a princess," "sweetie," "honey," "bimbo," the B-word, the C-word, all of that's kind of run of the mill, unfortunately, when you're a woman online. Then it kind of escalates to comments on your appearance — things like how your hair looks, your breast size, your face symmetry. I have a chin dimple. One guy told me that I was a four out of 10 with a Jay Leno chin, and I kind of like my chin dimple, so, whatever, dude. People were criticizing my feet, my nose size.



CHAKRABARTI: The video was like a head shot.

JANKOWICZ: I guess they went on my Instagram and saw some pictures of me at the beach. But you know, people go to some really great lengths to find things to criticize about you. Then they go further. And this happens a lot. We've seen in our research, women in power, women who ... put their voices out there in public are often accused of being transgender because clearly an assertive woman, a woman who expresses, you know, her opinions assertively can't be a woman. She's not diminutive enough. She must secretly be a man. So, I had a couple of that, you know, evidence of looking for an Adam's apple on me or a five o'clock shadow.

We also saw things like sexualizing or diminishing women's roles. You know, kind of propping up traditional women's roles, so I had a lot of stuff for the guys who were pushing back against my debunking, saying, "Oh, she just wants to sleep with you. She's angry because no one would hit it and stick with it." One guy told me, "You birth babies, we build bridges." And I was sent memes of an empty egg carton, which is something that the incel, the involuntary celibate community, often does to remind women who are, you know, career women, that their fertility is waning. And I find this especially ironic because as I speak to you today, I'm eight months pregnant. So haha.

And then we had, you know, violent things as well. You know, things like, "I'd fix her," or "you'll be dealt with in the streets." And this culminated for me after January 6, I had been interviewed by, I think, the L.A. Times, and I received an email to my work email, and I'll censor this for you. It said, "Hey, America hating B-word. Thanks for requesting my feedback on your quotes in the Times. You sound like a hysterical [expletive] snowflake, lesbo [expletive]. Stick to what you do best brainwashing the little male B-words at the Willey Center, the Wilson Center. Learn the art of the [expletive] and make yourself useful for once in your pathetic [expletive] life. You seem to be hankering for a civil war and might get your wish. Good [expletive] luck with that."

And that was the most violent thing that I had ever received. And it, again, was the culmination of a few months of abuse, and unfortunately, those emails aren't that abnormal for women in public life. Every time I go on the radio, every time I go on TV, sometimes when I'm quoted in the press, they're the type of things that are sent to us in direct messages. Some people send voice memos. Some people will email you at your work email, you know, where you're expecting professional correspondence. And that's what you're met with.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, Nina, I just want to say, for what it's worth, I am very sorry that all that happened to you, and that you were abused that way online. I do want to note that I appreciate you — this is live — so, I appreciate you sort of self-editing the vile words out. I think one or two might have gotten through that we wouldn't usually allow on the air. But given what we're talking about, first of all, for anyone who heard what Nina said and felt on edge or offended by it, I understand, and imagine how she felt at the same time. So, we're trying to we're trying to balance here — we're trying to execute a fine balance here.

But, you know, trying to think about what to say because on the one hand, Nina, you know, for some of the more, you know, schoolyard, taunty stuff. I just want to be like, "Hey brows, grow up. You're losers." Right? You just like turn around and, like, walk away. But when it escalates, and the point is, is that for so many women online, it does almost instantaneously escalate to out right attacks, smears, threats, threats of violence. Like you said, the doxing, the digging up of old pictures or materials or information about a woman and then the publicizing of that. I really want to understand how you are left feeling when that instant escalation happens. How did it change how you walked through the world IRL, Nina?

JANKOWICZ: Yeah. Well, I think that's a really important point. We often see these threats of violence escalating to offline violence, especially for women of color. So, women of color are doxed more often. Their personal information is published online more often. That leads to swatting, which is when someone calls in a bomb threat or something similar in a SWAT team shows up at your house. This happens frequently to women, and so I've changed how I post online to protect my physical security. You know, I don't post from the location that I'm in. I don't show pictures of my dog with his collar on because I don't want anyone to see my phone number or address that are on his dog tags. When I'm traveling again, I wait till I get back to a safe location before I post pictures on Instagram stories or on Twitter. And my mom encouraged me to get a personal safety alarm so I carry around in my purse now, something that will make a loud noise and light up if I'm attacked and, you know, hopefully that doesn't happen. And I know, you know, that's the physical side of things.

There's also a mental and emotional toll. Not to mention a career toll, right? There are women in journalism, in academia and in my line of work, public intellectuals, people in government, who think about the type of work that they want to pursue and decide, you know, today I don't have the energy to write that tweet today. I don't have the energy to pursue that story today. I don't have the energy to deal with what's going to happen if I do this interview and the abuse that I'm going to receive afterward.

And that is a real impact on the opportunities that we have as women putting ourselves out there and frankly on things like our right to self-expression and right to work. So, it's not just about mean words on the internet, it's easy to shrug off some of the little insults. But when it comes down to making calculations about how you pursue your career, I think people need to realize the seriousness.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, you know, I'm sure we'll get comments along these lines, ironically on social media. But I'll admit several years ago, I too would have said and have said, "Well, just get off Facebook or get off Twitter instantly. Who needs it?" But that was several years ago. I no longer say that because it's absolutely true. And, Nina, you know, you just spelled it out that we're living in a world where to make your ideas or work known through social media for many professions is absolutely crucial. And so, to silence women via abuse, that way, they're also being denied. Essentially, the opportunities to grow their careers is what you're saying.

JANKOWICZ: Absolutely, absolutely. And, you know, especially for folks whose livelihood is based online. My research is online research. So, when I'm getting this stuff, it's like I have a crowd of people sitting in my office with me shouting insults and slurs all around me as I write and read, write.

CHAKRABARTI: And if that happened in the physical workplace, it wouldn't be allowed.

JANKOWICZ: Or on the street you'd get a restraining order. Exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Nina, you had mentioned earlier something very, very important and that is, first of all, women, by virtue of being women, are often hit with this onslaught of online abuse. And then when you factor in being a woman of color, for example, it can get even worse. So, we spoke with Saleen Martin. She's a 29-year-old journalist in Norfolk, Virginia. She was formerly with the Virginian-Pilot, now is a reporter with USA Today. And she says that people like her — journalist, black and female — attract online abuse in different ways.

SALEEN MARTIN [ARCHIVAL]: As a journalist, I do have a pretty — what I think is a pretty important job, and there are people who will take one look at me and not want to hear what I have to say just because of how they feel about Black people and about women. It's not a competition, but I do think that belonging to two groups that are generally disliked by so many people for no reason definitely makes me a target for more of this negative feedback and harassment and the hatred that I've seen on social media.

CHAKRABARTI: And Saleen has kept a file of some of the vicious messages she's received over time.

MARTIN [ARCHIVAL]: I have had people tell me they hoped I would die. I have had someone message me and say, "Shut the bleep up you racist bleep piece of bleep." I've also had someone respond to me and say, "At least I won't be dead." Like, I don't even want to say this is just so disgusting. I'll just skip that part. They said, "Bleep off you literal bleep stain of a human" is what they called me. Someone also said, "Shut the bleep up you worthless piece of bleep. Shame it wasn't you who got their skull crushed." Yeah. The list goes on and on.

CHAKRABARTI: That's Saleen Martin, a reporter with USA Today. Now, Nina, of course, we're going to talk about your some of your advice on how to survive online as a woman. But I did want to hear from you a little bit about, you know, how would you talk through the idea that — are women who are not as high profile also subject to, you know, to this kind of online abuse because, of course, you're high profile in the policy world? Saleen is a reporter, so her name has to be out there. But does the abuse flow even to women who perhaps don't have that much as much name recognition?

JANKOWICZ: Absolutely. And I want to make the point that this book that I've written is not just for women like me or influencers online. You can go viral at any point, and especially with the way people are operating online lately, I think it's really important for everyone to take the necessary precautions to make sure that their personal information isn't out there, you know, to be used willy-nilly by anyone who wants to manipulate you or silence you.

The good news is that a lot of these precautions are kind of set it and forget it, especially on the physical security side. So once you invest in them, once you take the time to set them up, you are really protecting yourself and making it much, much harder for anybody who wishes to harm you to do so online. But I think unfortunately, because we live so much of our lives online now, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, we're all a lot more vulnerable than we used to be. And you know, if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time on the internet, things can get pretty ugly, pretty quickly.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, you know, we just got a comment from a listener named Ted Kroeger on Facebook who said, "Good Lord Almighty. As a gentleman living in rural America, I caught the first 15 minutes of today's program, and I am shocked and stunned with the horrible vitriol that my supposed countrymen spout. We are better than this. We seem to have allowed ourselves to become a nation of hate. I will be in tears for the day thinking of what we are. I live by the adage that sunlight is the best disinfectant. We have to keep shining that light."

Nina, do you get that response a lot? I mean, there does seem to be authentic surprise among many people out there that this is even happening.

JANKOWICZ: Yeah, you know, when I first dealt with this, close friends and family, including my husband and my mom — I love them very much — and some of my best friends were like, "Just don't feed the trolls. Ignore it. Why are you even reading it? It's not a big deal."

But I had to kind of explain to them the severity of the abuse and how it really made it very difficult to concentrate on my work, just like we were talking about before the break. It's as if these people are in the room with you, especially since we live our lives online nowadays and my work is based online. And so, one of the things that I do, and I recommend in the book, and this might not be for everybody, but when I get abuse like this, I anonymize it. I take out the person's, you know, profile picture, avatar and their screen name. And I take a screenshot of it, and I share that on social media with my followers. And sometimes I get a response just like your listener now from men who are who are shocked that this is happening.

And I think it's important to do that to build awareness because again, we need to make the point that this isn't just mean words online, it has an effect. Hopefully, there are people out there who would be horrified to see this happening to, you know, their daughter, their mother, their sister, their wife. And now, from now on, after having seen that they'll be more active bystanders online. They'll report. They'll block. They will, you know, come to the defense and express solidarity with those who are being abused. And that's really important.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. ... I hope I'm going to remember to do this. But as we get towards the end of the show today, I'm going to ask you to give us a bullet list of some of the things again that people can do, and we will talk about sort of — these are the bigger issue of like, can platforms do more? But you also tell some great stories in the book, and I'd love for you to share some of them. So first of all, tell us about Cindy Otis, who is she and why did you want to feature her in in your book about how to be a woman online?

JANKOWICZ: Yeah, Cindy is a friend of mine who I met on Twitter. She's one of the good parts of Twitter. We are both disinformation researcher. She's a former CIA analyst. She's a disabled woman, a proud disabled woman, she'll tell you. And she and I have testified together in Congress in front of the House Intelligence Committee, which is chaired by Adam Schiff. And one time we did that. We were both targeted by Q Anon aficionados, affiliates, I guess, who said some pretty horrible, violent things to us. They made fun of Cindy for her disability. They again went after all of — it was actually an all-women panel — all of us for how we looked, how we spoke, you know, our backgrounds.

And I thought that Cindy was a really interesting story because she has been in the intelligence community. She thinks very differently about how she puts herself out there online, and she has a different approach to all of this than I do. She, when she knows something big like that testimony is coming up, she'll lock down her account preemptively because she doesn't want to see or hear or be distracted by the abuse that will inevitably come with something like a congressional testimony. And she said to me, "You know, I know I've lost opportunities because of that, but it's the way that I manage it."

And so, I sought to really highlight a lot of different approaches to dealing with online abuse because there is no one way to go about this. It's a very personal issue and again has to do with where you are in your life, who your support network is. And Cindy, I think, just is such a vibrant personality also. You know, somebody who's written books, done a lot of media, and she deals with it very, very differently than I do.

CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Well, and so there are things like in the section of the book where you talk about her ... one of the recommendations you have is to use best practices to keep your data profiles and devices safe. Meaning what? And it also sounds like a lot of hard work.

JANKOWICZ: It's not as bad as it seems. So first of all, you know, make sure that you have two factor authentication turned on your accounts. That means when you sign into a social media platform or your email account or anything else, you have a second factor that verifies that it's you. It might be a code that you input from an authenticator app. There are actually physical security keys as well that you carry on you to try to make sure that it's you. And this way, if somebody gets your password, they won't be able to get into your account and get all your personal information. Or in the case of social media, post some things that you might not want online.

There's also, you know, password managers, a lot of people I know find it very cumbersome to think of new passwords all the time. Password managers exist so that they think of the passwords for you, they store them for you. You only have to remember one password for the rest of your life, and they'll input them securely into every website that you visit, whether it's on your phone or on another device. So that's a really good way again to kind of put an informational moat between yourself and people who might seek to get your personal information.

And then Cindy had a really good point about the details that you share about yourself online. Like if you share a picture of your car, you might be giving away, you know, the answer to one of your security questions for your bank account or something like that. She also said, you know, be careful about what you share in terms of your daily activities. And the example that I give in the book is, let's say that I post something on Instagram that says, "Oh, I love going to Tapas Tuesdays with my girlfriends." OK, now if you look at the back of my book, it says I live outside of Washington, D.C. You can scan my Twitter profile and see that I retweet things from Arlington County, Virginia and intuit that I live there. If you do a Google search, you find that there are seven tapas restaurants in Arlington. And you know, let's say I posted a picture. You could probably compare that with the website and their decor. Maybe look at the menu, and somebody could then show up at my next stop is Tuesday.

And I think that's a really important point that with the tools that the internet gives us, such as geolocation, such as these really, you know, detailed search metrics that we can go by, people can put two and two together and you can have again an online threat become an offline threat very, very quickly.

CHAKRABARTI: Nina, I'll be perfectly honest. You just described something in 30 seconds that put a chill down my spine, right? Because it seems like, I mean, you just described it. It seems like something — people could do that very, very easily. So, it's not it's not crazy to say that this is actually, you know, tantamount in specific in many cases to a threat. But, you know, there will always be people out there who are just like, "Bullying, it happens." Or "schoolyard taunts, you just kind of deal with them." Is the problem of online abuse, particularly for women — has it been getting progressively worse?

JANKOWICZ: I don't have the quantitative data on that, but I can tell you that when we at the Wilson Center did our research on gendered abuse and disinformation, we did find that in the United States, the abuse was categorically more numerous and more vitriolic than what went to female politicians in New Zealand and Canada and in the U.K. So, there's that.

And I would also say that I've spoken to younger women — women in high school and college — for the book, and I think about their experiences versus what my experience as a teenager was like. I am definitely a digital native. You know, when I was growing up, I had all manner of blogs, every social media. I probably should have thought a little bit harder about what I was putting online. I don't regret any of it, right? That was the experience that I had online.

But these young women basically, have the opposite experience. They have locked down accounts. They know all of the tricks and tips that I've just told you about, you know, password managers and two factor and not showing your dog's collar and things like that. They're very aware of all of that. And one of them even said to me in a focus group, "You know, I don't want a lifestyle that public because I see what happens to the people, to the women who make their lifestyles that public. They, you know, have images of them shared or, you know, defiled in some way and shared. It's embarrassing. It might affect your chances of getting into college or getting a job after college. It might follow you around for the rest of your life."

And so, what's happening is this self-silencing effect? And I think we as a society are much, much worse off for the fact that young women aren't making their voices heard or feel inhibited to do so. So, I would encourage everybody to think about that. It's one thing, you know, when you voluntarily enter into a journalism or author or, you know, public official profession, and that's part of the job. It's still not OK. Of course, that we're getting this abuse. But for young women to self-silence and not participate in democracy, in public discourse because they're afraid of the repercussions that might follow them for the rest of their lives, that's just heartbreaking to me.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is On Point. You know, for anybody who doubts how pervasive this is, I want folks to know that right now on our own social media, the On Point Facebook and Twitter, we're getting some stuff. It's not as bad, Nina, fingers crossed, so far as things that you've shared earlier, but we've already got a comment from someone who's questioning your expertise for literally no reason whatsoever.

JANKOWICZ: Probably because I'm a woman.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, and to that particular person, all I have to say is your question reveals the patheticness of the person posting it. I'm sorry, I shouldn't say that kind of thing, but I'm going to, because also we just don't invite anyone other than terrifically brilliant people on this show. I mean, if you're listening, you ought to know that. But it's everywhere and it happens all the time. So later in the show, we'll get more into what the platforms can do.

But Nina, do you ever, I mean, just basically, do you ever give yourself a break from it? Right? Because I'm not saying disconnect from social media permanently. We've already well-established why that can't happen. But, you know, stepping away from it to just give your soul, your mind some refuge from the abuse, do you do that?

JANKOWICZ: Yeah. You know, this is a conversation that my husband and I have a lot. He always is encouraging me to take, you know, weekends off or things like that. But especially, you know, before I joined the government, it was really hard to do that. Keeping up with the news is part of my job, engaging with people and educating them and building awareness I view as part of my job. And because of all of that, that's, you know, that generates abuse. So, it's a bit of a vicious cycle.

I do try to take social media hiatus as sometimes. I know that some of my colleagues, when abuse gets really bad, they will give over the keys to their account, you know, the login credentials to a friend and have them mute, block and report all of the terrible things that they receive. I know some people in the think tank community have an assistant to monitor their email so that, you know, they're not exposed to some of the things they get. But that, of course, is just shifting the burden ...

CHAKRABARTI: I was going to say.

JANKOWICZ: ... to an intern or something like that, which isn't great. Other women use an app called Block Party, which was developed by a woman who used to work in social media and helps you manage some of the terrible things that you see on your timeline so that you don't have to encounter them all the time. So, there are a lot of strategies to giving yourself a bit of a break.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Nina, of course, this has been going on for some time and very frequently, the online abuse coalesces from just individual trolls into concerted abuse campaigns targeted at specific people. And one of the perhaps most famous or infamous ones I should say was back in 2014. That was Gamergate, that harassment campaign that targeted women in the video gaming industry. So, folks might remember that one of those women was Brianna Wu, co-founder of the company giant Space Cat.

BRIANNA WU [ARCHIVAL]: A friend of mine told me, 4Chan found you. This is the text I get on my phone. And they give me the link, and I click it, and I see 4chan starting to go through my entire life history, right? Looking into my college, going through my husband, getting my address, posting phone number, doing this like internet research thing on me and starting to coordinate a serious harassment campaign against me.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, this is from a conversation we just had with Brianna Wu because we wanted to understand how long the impact of this kind of abuse and harassment stays with a with a woman. And Brianna told us that in 2014, she had two choices: to say nothing, log off for a few days and wait and hope for the problem to go away; or to stand her ground and continue to speak out in defense of women in the gaming world, which she did. And that's when the online abuse got really bad.

WU [ARCHIVAL]: I'll never forget the death threats that went viral that day. [It] said, "Guess what? Beep. I know where you and Frank live." They posted my address. They said, "You're going to die tonight. Your children are going to die, too. You did nothing worthwhile in this life. I'm going to cut your husband's [expletive] and [expletive] rape you with it until you bleed. I've got a KA-BAR knife, and it's coming for your throat." The most vile stuff, and it went hyper viral.

CHAKRABARTI: That was back in 2014, and she remembers it in detail, and Brianna Wu also told us that even though she ultimately survived that online mob all the way to today, she's not the same person she was.

WU [ARCHIVAL]: Gamergate did change me, if I'm being honest with you. The truth is it damaged me in a way that cost me some of my humanity. Today, I can have someone tell me they're going to murder me online, and I read it, and I feel nothing, and I go cook dinner. You lose something about yourself when that's the response that you have. It's like, eventually, this kind of discourse damages you and then the damage keeps you safe. I would love to tell you that it's going to get better, and we're going to grow out of this. But it's gotten worse every single year I've been alive.

CHAKRABARTI: That's Brianna Wu. Today, she's executive director for Rebellion PAC, a political action committee. Now, Nina, the reason why Brianna's story, I think, in fact, resonates even more powerfully right now is to the point she just made. Gamergate was eight years ago. Eight years is basically eight eons in the in technology, right? So, I understand there are issues of speech and the protections we have vis-à-vis the constitution for speech. But within those bounds? What more can or should do you think the platforms themselves do to curb these attacks, if anything?

JANKOWICZ: Well, all of the platforms, Magna have terms of service or community standards that we're all supposed to be held to. And in those community standards in terms of service that says that targeted harassment or harassment based on, you know, sex based on religion, et cetera, et cetera, is not allowed. And unfortunately, right now, what we see is no consequence for abusers when they're putting this sort of stuff out there. At the very worst, they might be asked to delete a piece of content to get access to their account back. Sometimes, very rarely their accounts are just shut down unilaterally. And you know, I've seen other people create a second account immediately, or sometimes they even have a second account waiting in the wings to continue to abuse from.

So, it's difficult in that regard. That doesn't mean that the platforms are doing enough right now. They need to be enforcing those terms of service more stringently. They need to change the reporting process, which it should be said, there has been some incremental change since I started working on this issue and started drawing awareness to it and others have been talking about it. There have been changes at Twitter in particular to make the reporting process more human-centered, they call it.

One thing I would love to see is for platforms to introduce incident reporting rather than just one-off reporting. Right now, what you do is you report a piece of content, or you'll report the account. But what you were talking about before this — this kind of dog piling effect or coordinated campaigns against a person — they don't see that 40,000-foot view they could if they looked right. They have the resources to do that. But the content moderators are often making decisions very, very quickly, and they're looking very myopically at one piece of content.

So, most of the campaigns that I've spoken with women about have been those coordinated campaigns. Those are the really impactful ones. So, I'd love to see some sort of incident reporting introduced so that women can take a little less time rather than just reporting every individual piece of content and retraumatizing themselves as they do it.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so let's talk a little bit more about those coalescing campaigns because oftentimes they happen, you know, exclusively online. But there are times where the campaigns coalesce because in not online media, on television or on radio, somebody else you know, points out or singles out a woman and then the mob goes run, you know, goes chasing after that person.

And here's an example a year ago, journalist Taylor Lorenz, who was then with the New York Times and is now at The Washington Post, had been under assault already on social media. So, she sent out a tweet calling on women to show each other moral support when that happens. Enter Fox News's Tucker Carlson.

TUCKER CARLSON [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: Taylor Lorenz writes for The New York Times. She's at the very top of journalism's repulsive little food chain. Lorenz is far younger than prominent New York Times reporters used to be. She's also much less talented. You'd think Taylor Lorenz would be grateful for the remarkable good luck that she's had, but no, she's not. Just this morning, she tweeted this: "It's not an exaggeration to say that the harassment and smear campaign I've had to endure over the past year has destroyed my life." Hmm, destroyed her life, really? By most people's standards, Taylor Lorenz would seem to have a pretty good life. One of the best lives in the country, in fact.

CHAKRABARTI: And so, as you can imagine, thereafter, Taylor Lorenz was hit with many more online assaults and attacks. Now Tucker Carlson is going to — Tucker is going to Tucker, right? But Nina is there — I don't know. Maybe I'm putting too much faith in technology here — is there is there something more that the platforms can do when they see this like surge is coalescing action? You talked about it a little bit more, but there are triggering events here. Can they be interrupted?

JANKOWICZ: Yeah, I mean, so my six-person team at the Wilson Center was able to visualize abuse against prominent women. It looks like a bee swarm around you or like pig pens, kind of dust cloud in Charlie Brown, right? It's totally visible if you're on the back end of the platform and you're tracking this sort of thing. Platforms are able to notice a strange uptick in content being directed at an account that you know from accounts rather that don't follow that account or haven't interacted with that account before.

We recommended in our report that if they see that uptick. One of the things that they can do is proactively, you know, put a notification in that person's mentions and say, "Do you want to turn off your notifications for a little bit? We're noticing this surge," and I believe Twitter has actually made that change. We've seen a little bit less of that from other platforms — from Facebook, from Tik Tok, from YouTube.

There are some precautions that users can take to protect themselves proactively, like muting certain keywords. But when these mobs are coming after you and their coordinated campaigns, there's only so much that you can do proactively to mute that stuff and protect yourself. So, I would love to see the platforms really taking a much more proactive role to protect 50 percent of their userbase, right?

It should be a thing that they want to do to make their platforms safer for half of the world online and potentially to get more users, right? If you look at Reddit, 30 percent of that user base is women. And that's because it's an incredibly toxic place. If you look at Twitter, men's tweets are retweeted twice as often as women's are. And that's because, again, we have this dynamic that these platforms are built for and by cisgender white men. And so, I would love to see women's concerns, especially women of color's concerns being thought of first and foremost in the engineering process, as the platforms are taking safety into consideration. And that's too often an afterthought when we're talking about new platforms or new technologies being developed.

CHAKRABARTI: But when you're one of your most important metrics is engagement, Nina. I mean, that is the — it's the 10-bajillion-pound gorilla in the room for every platform discussion we will ever have — that the whole model is built to maximize the worst and most, most emotive human behavior, and that's how they make their money. And until that changes, everything else just feels like just kind of small beans attempts to take care of in the face of a huge problem.

JANKOWICZ: Yeah, I mean, I would love to say that I didn't think this sort of vitriol fueled engagement online, but I've seen it myself, you know. I've seen it in the way I interact, even when I'm the target of one of these abusive campaigns, I'm spending a lot more time on the platform. So, you know, again, I think there is an investment to be made. There is a positive gain to be had when the platforms are basically, you know, making their platforms safer. If there was a safe platform for women. You better bet that all of us would be spending a lot of our time on there, where we felt valued, where we felt that we could express ourselves freely and nobody has created that yet. So that's a challenge to any venture capitalists and entrepreneurs out there.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You know, I mean, there's no such thing as a 100 percent safe environment, right? It just — it doesn't exist, but I don't think it's unreasonable at all to say, well, in online spaces, we have the same expectation for a minimum level of safety, security and respect that, you know, we do in in the real world.

And even just saying that we should have that expectation, you become the target of this kind of abuse. Now I've got I'm running out of time with you, Nina, as I always do — I feel like we only get started. But there's two things I do want to cover before we wrap up here. First is, we're getting some questions like is there a typical profile for the kinds of people or person who spews the abuse?

JANKOWICZ: Well, again, that's hard to quantify, mostly because the many of the platforms, except for Facebook — and there are ways around that as well — require or do not require that you use your real name so people can, you know, have a cartoon profile picture and call themselves Snoopy. I don't know why I'm into Charlie Brown today, but they call themselves Snoopy. And you have no idea who they are.

I will say that most of the abuse I have received does seem to be from male-presenting individuals. But that's not to say I haven't received abuse from women also. And in terms of political inclination, I know everybody wants to know this, I've seen abuse across the spectrum, both in our Wilson Center study toward Republican women and Democratic women from both sides of the spectrum and to myself. I, during that abusive campaign ahead of the 2020 election, received violent threats from both folks on the far right and far left.

So, there isn't a typical abuser. I would say that we have to reckon with the fact that there is endemic misogyny in our society and the fact that there is no consequence for abusers means that lots of people feel empowered to levy this abuse online.

CHAKRABARTI: News flash: bad behavior knows no one single party. So, I, you know you mentioned earlier, Nina, especially about young women, and I really — my mind is focused on them because the future belongs to them, and we need to pave the best way forward for all young people possible. So, in the last two minutes that we have here, you know, first of all, everyone, I would encourage you to read the book. But if you could give us like a CliffsNotes version of what you think people listening to this can do right now to survive and fight back as you put in your subtitle, what would it be?

JANKOWICZ: Well, we've talked about the physical security steps that everyone should take already. I think another thing that everybody can start to do is build awareness in different ways. So again, expressing solidarity online [is] hugely important. Don't just be a passive bystander. When you see abuse happening online, report it. Learn those reporting procedures. In fact, when I interviewed Brianna Wu for the book, she said, you need to know the terms of service and get the platforms dead to rights because when they see a bunch of reports coming in about a single tweet or a single account, they're likely to take action against the account that will inform their artificial intelligence. OK, something weird is going on here, so don't think that it just goes into the ether, although it can be incredibly discouraging. Please do report.

And then, you know, there's also systemic changes that we can make in our workplaces for instance. A lot of public facing workplaces have social media policies about what their employees can post online, but they don't have policies about what will happen if because as a result of their engagement, employees receive abuse. So, I would encourage you to talk to your H.R. professionals to when you're, you know, negotiating a new job offer to say, especially if you're involved in, you know, public facing work — what's going to happen if I get abuse? How are you going to support me if I need to go to law enforcement or something like that? And that can really make systemic change?

And then finally, especially for the young women out there, builds community, be each other's support networks. I would not be where I am without folks like Cindy Otis and Brianna Wu and and others that I interview on in the book and have met on Twitter, who have helped me through so many of these incidents and let me know that I'm not alone. That is incredibly important as well.

So, making sure you do all of that recognize that you know it's hard, but it's possible to get through it, and don't let the abusers win because our voices matter and the fact that you're getting that abuse means you have something important to say.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Nina Jankowicz, her book is How to Be A Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment, and How to Fight Back. Nina, it's always a great pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so very much.

JANKOWICZ: Likewise, Meghna, thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is On Point.

This program aired on April 12, 2022.


Headshot of Stefano Kotsonis

Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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