News for Authors

Identifying Forms of Harassment on Social Media

by Phil Stamper-Halpin|July, 2019

As we mentioned in a previous article, on your social media accounts, you get to determine the line between general negative comments and hate speech, threats of violence, or obscene language. But as online discourse gets louder and messier, it becomes harder to draw that line. In this article, we define common types of online harassment and explain how to report and deal with each.

Please note that the advice provided here is for informational purposes only. If you are dealing with serious threats to yourself and your family, or threats of legal action, you should consult with a lawyer.


1. Trolling

The term “troll” gets thrown around a lot—so much so that to some users, a troll simply means someone who disagrees with them. Though you may feel like you’re being trolled when you’re in a heated conversation with someone who doesn’t see your side of the story, trolling actually refers to the deliberate posting of (unsolicited) controversial or inflammatory comments in an attempt to get a rise out of the original poster.

If you think you’re being trolled, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this unsolicited feedback?
  • Are they using intentionally inflammatory or exaggerative language?
  • Does it feel like they aren’t genuinely looking for an answer from me?

If the answer to all these is yes, you may have a troll on your hands. In fact, if you look at the supposed troll’s profile, you might see them doing this constantly to others, seemingly at random. Another thing to ask yourself is, “Are they using hate speech to get a knee-jerk reaction from me?” If that’s the case, you certainly have a troll.

What should I do when I’m being trolled? Report, mute, or block. Don’t feed the trolls with any response.


2. Bullying

Cyberbullying is prevalent for adults and teens alike, and suggests a pattern of abuse rather than a one-off moment of conflict. This can occur over any of your channels, and can even include spreading harmful information outside of social media. There are overlaps with trolling, doxing, and hate speech, and the biggest challenge can be that bullying is often hard to pin down, especially if it’s happening across many platforms.

A victim of targeted harassment or cyberbullying often deals with a barrage of threats, lewd remarks, and hate speech. The harasser may also direct their followers to pile on abuse. Outside the victim’s bubble, the bully or bullies may also target the victim’s overall reputation through rumors, doxing, and more.

I think I’m being cyberbullied. What do I do? As we explain in more detail on this page, screenshot all pertinent posts, report and block the user(s) from your profile, and escalate the issue to your marketer, publicist, or editor. If others have joined the original harasser, consider locking your account until the situation is resolved.


3. Hate Speech

Hate speech is any communication that attacks a person or group on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. It’s unfortunately a common form of abuse on social media… and even more regrettably, social media sites are often reluctant to take action.

In the United States, hate speech may technically be protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. However, hate speech is often firmly against the code of conduct for sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and those sites all have the right to remove hate speech to keep their platforms safe for users.

What should I do if I am the target of hate speech? Report, mute, or block. On Instagram and Facebook, you can delete a comment completely and the original poster won’t be able to see that it was deleted. You might also consider bringing the incident to the attention of your publishing team.


4. Doxing

As public figures, authors are vulnerable to doxing and cyberstalking. The act of doxing as harassment is when someone researches and releases private information about you (home address, personal email, phone number, family information, Social Security number, credit card info, etc.) and encourages people to direct harassment via these various channels.

How can I prevent doxing? Hackers often access personal information in various places online: social media, old blogs or websites, forums, old screennames. Search for public information on yourself: first/last name & hometown, old usernames, public email addresses, etc. Sites like MyLife can also be sources for this information. Click here to learn how to remove your information from these sites.

Beyond that, make sure you adjust your social media privacy settings. Do you have a personal Facebook? View it in incognito mode to make sure everything is private. Are you using your pen name? Make sure your legal name isn’t readily accessible. If this is a recurring issue, or if you worry older posts may contain personal information, consider using a service like TweetDelete to mass-delete older Twitter posts.

What should I do if I’m being doxed? The release of private information is against the terms of service of most social sites, so report the user. Take screenshots, inform your publishing team, and lock down your social media accounts. Get friends to help escalate the issue by reporting the doxing on their own accounts. For good measure, change your passwords and turn on two-factor authentication for all your social media accounts.


5. Online Impersonation

There are more than 100 accounts on Twitter right now claiming to be Taylor Swift—but when  does online impersonation cross the line? According to Reputation Defender, “For someone to be guilty of an online impersonation, they need to use a false persona to cause you harm or defraud you.” Online impersonation is a stressful and confusing experience for the victim; thankfully, it’s often treated as a crime in many states.

I think I’m being impersonated. How can I stop it? First, determine the intent behind the impersonation: Is it a fan wanting to make a “Your Name” fan page? The “Taylor Swift Brasil” page, for example, focuses on updates for her fans in Brazil, but isn’t directly associated with her. In these cases, it’s up to you. Feel free to ask the fan to make it clear they’re not officially associated with the author, so no one gets confused. (They can include “unofficial” or “fan page” in the bio or name fields.) If the intention is more sinister and the impersonator is trying to negatively affect your reputation or defraud you, then take screenshots and bring the issue to the attention of your publishing team.


As you can see, there are many forms of harassment on social media, and the first step to keeping yourself and your family safe is knowing the different types of harassment and what to do if you experience them. If you’re not sure about a particular situation or need additional guidance, reach out to your marketing team.



Phil Stamper-Halpin is Senior Manager, Author Platforms and Publishing Development for Penguin Random House.