An Ounce of Prevention: Protecting yourself against online retaliation

Last week I discussed recent news stories highlighting the dangers of online retaliation. At worst, this form of retaliation chills speech and threatens critical reporting. But short of that, it can harm journalists in a number of ways, including third-party harassment (in the case that your personal information is published) and reputational damage (through fraudulent profiles, posts, defamatory comments, etc.).

The fear of retaliation should never prevent you from covering a story. By taking some precautionary measures, you can significantly reduce the chance that the subject of your criticism will harm you online. I have compiled some practical tips to help you avoid online retaliation(please feel free to contribute your own tips in the comments section below):

  • Practice good journalism. Among other things, this means doing your research and giving the other side a chance to respond or comment. Certainly even the most cautious reporting isn't enough to stop some people from retaliating, but it reduces the chance that tempers will flare. See our Legal Guide for resources on good journalism skills and practices.
  • Before you write, know your limits. Our Legal Guide section on the risks associated with publication provides an excellent primer on the legal boundaries for publishing online. Knowing your rights and privileges is important for avoiding not only legal trouble but also retaliation.
  • Don't overshare. Consider leaving private contact information such as your personal phone number off of online correspondence, unless absolutely necessary. 
  • Communicate through email when possible. This is especially important when you are responding to a complaint about your content. Communicating online provides the benefit of a record, which is invaluable in a he-said-she-said dispute. It also forces you (and the other party) to think before responding.
  • Offer an explanation. When responding to complaints about your reporting, explain your decision to publish the disputed content. Although you may feel like you don't owe the other party an explanation of your journalistic choices--and you probably don't--a respectful explanation can go a long way in resolving the dispute and in setting a cooperative tone. 
  • Be alert. Start a Google alert for your own name and contact info--that way you'll know of any fake Craigslist ads soliciting sex in your name before your potential customers. 
  • Protect your name. If you know that your reporting is controversial and is likely to rub some people the wrong way, you might even consider buying to prevent a gripe site being put up in your name, and thus highly visible.
  • Tell your side. If you are a blogger who has been retaliated against, consider writing a blog post describing the details of the event--much like Kashmir Hill did in her piece on True/Slant. A post telling your side of the story can delegitimize the attack and provide context in the event that the attack is not removed. Follow this advice with caution: writing such a post can aggravate the tension. I would suggest writing such a post only when (1) you are confident that you have done nothing wrong, and (2) the retaliatory content is not likely to be removed. Also, should you choose to write such a post, think about the tone of the post. You want to explain rather than insult or ridicule.
There's no question that online social media tools have made retaliation easier and in some cases more harmful than the retaliation of old. On the other hand, the same tools have immensely benefited journalism and the free flow of information. If nothing else, the recent accounts of online retaliation have called attention to the fact that engaging in journalism today requires extra steps to protect against the harms of retaliation. 

(Marshall Hogan is a rising second-year law student at Columbia Law School and a CMLP legal intern.)

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