This article contributes to understanding the phenomenon of online abuse and harassment toward women scholars. We draw on data collected from 14 interviews with women scholars from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and report on the types of supports they sought during and after their experience with online abuse and harassment. We found that women scholars rely on three levels of support: the first level includes personal and social support (such as encouragement from friends and family and outsourcing comment reading to others); the second includes organizational (such as university or institutional policy), technological (such as reporting tools on Twitter or Facebook), and sectoral (such as law enforcement) support; and, the third includes larger cultural and social attitudes and discourses (such as attitudes around gendered harassment and perceptions of the online/offline divide). While participants relied on social and personal support most frequently, they commonly reported relying on multiple supports across all three levels. We use an ecological model as our framework to demonstrate how different types of support are interconnected, and recommend that support for targets of online abuse must integrate aspects of all three levels.
Workplace bullying, online harassment and higher education
Towards an ecology of support
The influential reach of social media, the ease of disseminating one’s work, and the collaborative nature central to many digital platforms makes sharing one’s writing and research online an important and desired avenue for academic knowledge mobilization. Harnessing online spaces for academic work has the potential to enrich the research, writing and dissemination process for the researcher and interested publics. At the same time, online spaces are notorious for haters, trolls and other bad actors (Citron, 2014). For women scholars in particular, sharing one’s work online comes with the risk of online abuse or harassment (Vera-Gray, 2017). Online harassment and abuse impacts victims’ personal and professional lives, often leading to anxiety, poor self-esteem and self-blame (Citron, 2014; Duggan, 2014; Veletsianos, et al., 2018; Vitak, et al., 2017). Despite the growing scholarship examining online abuse and harassment, current literature lacks investigations identifying supports that women scholars turn to when they experience online abuse and harassment. We fill the identified gap with this study.
In this study, we interviewed 14 scholars who self-identify as women, all of whom who have been a target of online abuse or harassment. Throughout these interviews, participants referred to various types of support which they rely on to help them respond to online abuse. We use the term support to refer to the different strategies and channels participants use to help them manage or recover from online abuse. Our analysis shows how support-seeking extends to support types at a variety of levels. Our aim is not to assess the validity, merit or helpfulness of different types of support, but rather to understand the ecosystem of support that women scholars seek when experiencing online harassment and abuse. Our findings suggest that in order to best help women scholars who continue to engage online after being subject to abuse or harassment, support structures should be established at multiple levels. We begin our paper with a review of relevant literature pertaining to online harassment, its impacts and an overview of the ecological model in related areas of research. Next, we discuss our methods and key findings. Finally, we conclude by showing how support behaviors following the online harassment of women scholars can be understood as part of a system of interaction that can either help or hinder the victim of harassment after an incident takes place.
Workplace bullying, online harassment and higher education
Harassment and the use of online tools in education work
The working lives of most scholars over the last decade have been shaped by digital technologies (Selwyn, 2016). Many scholars and researchers are encouraged to use social media such as blogs, wikis and social networks (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook) for both personal and professional purposes, including to develop and maintain personal and professional contacts, engage in knowledge mobilization, enhance teaching activities, conduct boundary-spanning research, and engage in advocacy (Manca and Ranieri, 2015; Veletsianos, 2016). For all these reasons, the use of information and communication technologies in higher education is often promoted in the professional literature (Gruzd, et al., 2012; Mbatha, 2014; Thelwall, 2002). Unfortunately however, there is sometimes a dark side to online participation, since maintaining an active online presence potentially exposes scholars to a variety of negative consequences including incivility, flaming, trolling, doxxing and other types of abuse and harassment (Cassidy, et al., 2014; Vera-Gray, 2017). Despite the growing accounts of online abuse and harassment of women scholars appearing in mainstream media, like that of Mary Beard (Boseley, 2017) and Roxane Gay (Brown, 2017), few scholarly studies focus solely on women scholars (Citron, 2014; Jane, 2017; Vera-Gray, 2017). Although literature focusing on women scholars and online abuse is underdeveloped, there are two existing streams of literature that help contextualize the importance of this issue: workplace harassment in higher education and gendered online abuse.
While at first glance workplace harassment may seem a separate issue from online bullying or harassment, we argue that due to the public nature of much scholarly work, online harassment of academics should be considered within the realm of workplace harassment. Previous research has shown how the construction of an online persona or personal brand is now a key component of academic work in a digital age (Barbour and Marshall, 2012; McLennan, 2006; Selwyn, 2012). Related to this, studies in organizational scholarship have begun to consider any cyber-bullying that occurs in the course of work as a type of workplace bullying or harassment (McGinley and McGinley-Stempel, 2012; Privitera and Campbell, 2009), stating that “the workplace has expanded to locations beyond the four walls of our offices or plants” .
Workplace harassment in higher education impacts both the productivity and the mental health of the victims who experience it (Henning, et al., 2017). In their meta-analysis, Henning, et al. found that victims of harassment are more likely than non-victims to experience depression, anxiety and aggression, and that within higher education, women are more likely than men to experience these consequences. Similarly, sexism in the workplace has been shown to impact performance-based self-esteem which in turn has an effect on women’s career aspirations (Bradley-Geist, et al., 2015). In fact, in a 2015 study, Bradley-Geist, et al. note that even simply observing sexism can impact the career aspirations of women not directly involved in the encounter.
In a set of recent surveys, researchers found that 40 percent of surveyed online users experienced online abuse (Duggan, 2014; Lenhart, et al., 2016). While men and women are both likely to experience online harassment, women experience “a wider variety of online abuse, including more serious violations” . Research also suggests that women are more likely to be targeted than men (Hess, 2014) and that women who rely on public and online spaces for work face even greater risks (Duggan, 2014; Quinn, 2017). In their study on women who engage in feminist debate, Lewis, et al.  found that 40 percent of their sample (n = 226) “experienced sexual harassment” and 37 percent “experienced threats of sexual violence” online.
Impacts of and responses to online harassment
As stated earlier, digital workplaces are not bound by physical walls or activities that occur within the traditional work day. Similarly, the impacts of online harassment are not confined to the online sphere. Victims of harassment often experience distress, shame, and self-loathing and tend to respond by limiting their participation online, deleting their profiles and avoiding the situations or spaces in which harassment occurs (Citron, 2014; Duggan, 2014; Veletsianos, et al., 2018; Vitak, et al., 2017). Online harassment has also been shown to affect the professional lives of those who experience it (Citron, 2014), resulting in several and various negative repercussions to women’s careers in academia and their sense of well-being in their academic careers. However, the lived experience of interaction on social media is complex and multifaceted, meaning that most social media sites, as well as being venues where women experience harassment, also provide a place where they can find one another and experience social support after harassment takes place. This is in part due to platform affordances which allow otherwise isolated individuals a chance to interact with a community and feel a sense of solidarity (Keller, et al., 2016).
Support and coping with online harassment
In the workplace, the structures of support set up by the organization both can help decrease incidents of harassment, and also help people who have experienced harassment following an incident (Law, et al., 2011). In fact, support for workplace harassment seems most effective when it comes from different levels, including societal forms of support, interpersonal support, and the availability of institutional resources, an idea we will return to later (Richman, et al., 1997). Similarly, when harassment occurring in the context of one’ s work occurs in the online sphere, support from various sources often aids in personal coping after an incident. Scarduzio, et al. (2017) identified support seeking as an “active emotion focused coping strategy”  that victims of online harassment employ. This strategy takes place when the victim turns to someone for support and advice, such as seeking support from family, friends, coworkers and romantic partners. Scarduzio, et al. (2017) found that victims also employed what they called a problem-focused coping strategy of help-seeking. This coping strategy entailed reporting the harassment formally, which they suggest was likely to happen when the victim knew the harasser prior to the incident (Scarduzio, et al., 2017). Reporting could be seen as another example of seeking support. This time, support occurs at the level of an institution, like work or law enforcement.
One particular type of support, known as social guardianship, has been identified by Reyns, et al. (2011) as a factor that reduces the risk of cyber-bullying among college students. In their study, social guardianship was defined as “the presence of others, who by their presence ...  ... may discourage [cyber-bullying] from taking place” . In other words, sometimes the act of simply being present and thus demonstrating support of someone else who is a target of online abuse or harassment is enough to mitigate or discourage the harasser. Similarly, the presence of social support can, if an incident occurs, mitigate some of the negative psychological effects felt by the victim. Matsunaga (2011) showed that if people receive the level of support they expect after a bullying incident, then they are more likely to experience subjective well-being following the incident. However, if there is a discrepancy between the level of support they expect and what they receive, then they are less likely to experience subjective well-being, and more likely to experience negative outcomes as a result of the bullying incident.
Work and thus workplaces can be thought of as “a theoretical system encompassed by (in a relative sense) multiple secondary, mutually overlapping systems” . If we think of work or workplaces in this way, as suggested by Huvila, then that which happens in the context of work, both positive and negative, must be considered contextually as well. This means that for harassment that occurs in the context of one’s work, support needs to be understood as part of a system of multiple influences. The meta-analysis by Henning, et al. (2017) supports this idea, and their research found that harassment related interventions recommended in the literature take place at all levels. There were individual interventions such as communication and civility training, organizational level interventions such as culture changing initiatives and interventions beyond the organization that seek to address the growing movements of global populations around the world. This is consonant with work by Pyke (1996) which recommends a system approach to understanding sexual harassment in a university setting, stating that it cannot only be understood at the level of the individual. In developing a systems approach to understanding harassment and support, it is helpful to employ an ecological model, which considers multiple overlapping influences. To summarize, while the literature shows the circumstances under which online abuse and harassment occurs (Hess, 2014; Lewis, et al., 2017), the effects that it has on those targeted (Duggan, 2014; Vitak, et al., 2017) and the often gendered nature of such abuse (Jane, 2014; Vera-Gray, 2017), scholarly literature lacks in its attention to the types of support targets rely upon and the ways such supports intersect. We address the identified gap below.
Towards an ecology of support
The ecological model
Given the recommendations stated by Pyke (1996) and Henning, et al. (2017), and having established what we know (or do not know) about women’s experiences of online abuse, we expect the support women scholars’ need following online abuse and harassment to be broad and extend beyond their immediate self. To grapple with similar complexity in other areas, many scholars have employed an ecological model as their theoretical framework. Though this model has not yet been used in understanding online harassment specifically, we believe it offers a systemic and context-rich view that allows for a consideration of the many different types of support that could both mitigate harassment, and also help women who have experienced harassment recover from their experiences.
Women scholars are part of an overlapping system of online and offline influences. In other words, social and digital communication technologies are best understood within a framework of media ecology, in which “users ... can no longer be meaningfully understood without a better understanding of the ... contexts in which they operate” . The field of media ecology has grown to express the idea that media operate as, and within, complex systems of human interaction (Ito, et al., 2010; Madianou and Miller, 2013). Media ecology reveals the structures that influence people’s use of media and the impacts these uses have on them (Scolari, 2012). The ecological model (Figure 1), initially developed by Bronfenbrenner (1979), considers the multiple levels of influence that shape human behavior. Originally focussed in the realm of community development and health research, the ecological model views behavior as something which is guided by many and varied interactions between individuals, individuals and communities, and individuals and the state. This model is often applied to recommend mechanisms to change behavior, since it suggests that changes in behavior are most likely to occur when interactions at all levels of the model support the behavior change (Gillum, 2014). However, this model has also been used to understand how people interact with each other, their organizations (Hodson, et al., 2018; Cukier, et al., 2011), and even social media platforms (Wilkes, et al., 2016).
Figure 1: The ecological model. Source: Cukier, et al., 2002.
Beyond media studies, an ecological framework has been useful in the public health literature for considering such social issues as violence against women, health interventions and harassment. For example, Weeks and Leblanc (2011) used the ecological model to understand intimate partner violence in older women, and found that such violence could be best understood along the micro, meso and macro levels, the micro being the immediate context in which the abuse takes place, the meso being the relationships the women have with their social networks and the macro being influences of geographic location and culture. Outside of public health, an ecological model has been applied to the study of organizations. Huvila (2009) recommends an ecological approach to understanding knowledge organizations and the work they do, since this approach allows for an understanding of the social and cultural contexts that inform this type of work. Several studies have used an ecological model to understand topics such as academic performance among college students (Rania, et al., 2014) and how faculty approach technology use in their work (Shelton, 2018; Zhao and Frank, 2003). In a similar vein, work by Wilkes, et al. (2016) showed that an ecological model of contextual interactions in a users’ life influences social media use. Specifically, these authors demonstrate that a web of different factors, including the technological affordances of the platform, policy, safety and personal relationships influences how users think about social media and work needs.
The ecological model and support
Similar to online abuse and harassment, literature related to other kinds of abuse suggest that support for victims require engagement from all levels of the ecological model. For example, both health promotion research and research on bullying among adults and children alike (Johnson, 2011; Dresler-Hawke and Whitehead, 2009), suggest that interventions must not address the individual alone, but also consider the context in which the individual is located. Similarly, Myer and Moore (2006) suggest that since a crisis can be viewed with an ecological model, so too must an ecological model be used to understand reactions to a crisis. Any response to a crisis, they maintain, must be context-rich, and not specifically focus on the individual alone.
Johnson (2011) understands workplace bullying as a “product of societal, organizational, departmental and individual factors [and that] outcomes of bullying also occur at these levels” . Johnson suggests that support must be provided at the various micro, meso and macro levels in order to be most effective. Campbell, et al. (2009) use an ecological model to understand the mental health impacts of sexual assault. They found that while social support from family and immediate peers was helpful to victims of sexual assault, these positive sources of support are often outweighed by negatives if there is a lack of support given from organizations at the meso and macro levels, such as if the perpetrator of the assault is not prosecuted by the legal system. Campbell, et al. further suggest that the the utility of ecological frameworks comes from the way it allows us to understand “multiple strategies, at multiple levels of analysis, for alleviating” harm associated with the phenomenon under study . Thus, recovery for victims of this type of abuse requires support from individuals and institutions at all levels.
In summary, these studies detail that support following abusive behavior comes from a variety of sources and occurs across different levels of experience. Yet, the literature examining the support women scholars receive following online abuse isn’t clear on whether the support needed and used by women scholars following harassment falls within a similar framework. In what follows, we detail our methods for understanding how women scholars employ support following an incident of online harassment, and show how an ecological model of understanding indeed does help illuminate the different types of support necessary.
To understand the different mechanisms for support that women scholars rely upon following experiences of online harassment, we adopted an ecological approach, as described above, asking the following research question: What kind of support do women scholars report seeking or using after experiencing online abuse and harassment, and how it be understood ecologically?
Procedure and sample
Participants were initially recruited through a seed and snowball technique in which the two principal investigators sent e-mail messages to their institution. When this approach returned few respondents, a larger call for participants was posted on Twitter from 29 September 2017 until 1 October 2017 by @AcademicsSay, a high profile account within the academic community. Potential participants included anyone who self-identified as a woman scholar who experienced online abuse. The term scholar in this case includes anyone who engages in scholarly activities, and is inclusive of a broad cross-section of individuals including but not limited to independent scholars, doctoral students and adjunct, limited-term, tenured and tenure-track faculty. The social media posts featured a link to a recruitment screening tool, which provided prospective participants with more information about the study, and invited them to leave their e-mail address if they were interested in being contacted to participate.
The recruitment screening tool collected demographic information such as age and current position. This allowed us to conduct purposive sampling in order to recruit a diverse range of participants. In total we interviewed 14 participants. We interviewed people that represented a diversity of age ranges and positions (tenure track, vs. tenured, vs. independent, as seen in Table 1). All of our participants identified as women, though we did not ask them to indicate further demographic variables such as ethnicity, race, class or gender assigned at birth. Eleven participants were located in the United States, two were from Canada, and one was from the United Kingdom (see Table 1).
Table 1: Participants. Pseudonym Age Current position Area of study and practice Terminal degree Country of residence Abby 34 Non-tenure-track academic on a fixed-term contract Health Ph.D. U.S. Chloe 70 Independent scholar Leadership Ph.D. U.S. Emma 60 Tenured academic Geology Ph.D. Canada Hannah 35 Tenured academic French & Second Language Acquisition Ph.D. U.S. Jasmine 29 Independent scholar History M.A. U.S. Jessica 34 Librarian Sociolinguistics Ph.D. U.S. Lucy 47 Tenured academic Molecular biology Ph.D. U.S. Magda 36 Non-tenure-track academic on a fixed-term contract Physics Ph.D. U.S. Olivia 33 Tenured academic Political science Ph.D. U.S. Sarah 55 Tenured Academic — Administrator Education Ph.D. U.S. Sophia 60 Non-tenure-track academic on a fixed-term contract Human resources and management Ph.D. Canada Stella 32 Non-tenure-track academic on a fixed-term contract Couple and family therapy Ph.D. U.S. Stephany 26 Non-tenure-track academic on a fixed-term contract Neuroscience Ph.D. U.K. Zoe 37 Independent scholar Religious studies Ph.D. U.S.
Data were collected via one-on-one Skype or phone interviews for each consenting participant. All interviews lasted between 30 and 60 minutes and were recorded for the purposes of transcription. Interviews were semi-structured to allow for follow-up questions and probing for additional detail when appropriate. Interviews were conducted until saturation was reached. Saturation was determined on the basis of repeated patterns, and was deemed to have been reached at the fourteenth interview.
The research team inductively coded the interview data. Four researchers coded the data separately, and then came together to discuss, question and refine the codes. This process was repeated multiple times. Participant responses were initially classified according to three codes: affect, impact and response. In the response code we noted any mention of how participants responded to the abuse they received, why they responded the way they did, how their response unfolded, how they wish they could have responded and — if they shared their experience with others at the time — what other individuals’ responses to their experience was. Within this code, we saw the pattern of ‘support’ emerge over and over again. Inductive coding thus revealed a variety of support that participants rely on in order to respond. Once the theme of support was identified, we analyzed the data one last time to identify the different types of support and map them along an ecological model in order to better understand the ecology of support structures that are desired and/or used by women scholars following the experience of online harassment.
The research team took three steps to reduce the incidence of bias in our analysis. First, we coded interview transcripts independently of one another to avoid group influence; second, after deciding on a list of codes through a process of in-depth discussions of individual findings, inconsistencies and emerging interpretations, we re-coded the data collaboratively; and third, we conducted member checks by contacting participants, providing them with summary findings and asking them whether our findings accurately described their experience. Seven participants responded, and they all stated that the findings reflected their experiences and feelings.
Analysis identified the different types of support that scholars depend on following their experience with online abuse and harassment. Some sources of support were more public, like relying on policy, law or the platform on which the abuse took place, and others were more personal, such as enlisting the assistance of family and friends to face or respond to harassment. Different types of support were associated with the ecological model at the micro, meso and macro level. Table 2 shows how we classified support at each level.
Table 2: Examples of different levels of support. Micro level support Meso level support Macro level support
- Situational awareness
- Colleagues & peers
- Platform settings & terms of service
- Blocking & reporting tools
- Institutions & institutional policy
- Government policies
- Law enforcement
Existing attitudes toward gender
- Misogyny & sexism
- Equality for all
Perceptions of digital dualism
Media representations of online abuse
- “Don’t feed the trolls”
The most common type of support employed by our respondents was micro level support. All participants spoke about micro level support (either personal or social support). This theme was found in 60 comments. Micro level support was followed by meso level support, discussed by 11 participants in 26 comments. Macro level support was discussed among eight participants in 21 comments. In the next section, we detail interview responses from each level, showing the different strategies that women scholars employed following online harassment with respect to finding support after an incident.
Micro level support
Micro level support refers to “direct interpersonal interactions between individuals and members of their immediate environment” . Micro level support in our data focused on both personal and social factors. Personal support took place at the level of individual or personal reactions, which is impacted by an individual’s situational awareness, resiliency and personality. Social support took place at the level of interpersonal reactions, such as when participants enlisted family, friends, colleagues, peers and other people close to them for help. Campbell, et al. (2009) refer to personal and social kinds of support as informal support.
Personal support was the ability to effectively decide what is best for oneself and to tap into personal resilience in order to make that happen. Many participants expressed a type of situational awareness whereby they learned to de-escalate situations by exercising restraint and ignoring many of the comments they received. As Hannah explained:
“It was mostly the fact that I was a female that was the center of a lot of bad words being thrown my way ... It went into very bad names, and whatnot, when I was trying to continue the conversation at a more respectful level, never using bad words, even though, seriously, I wanted to write them as well.”
Interviewees indicated that navigating responses to online abuse is difficult. Several respondents credited their ability to turn to personal levers of support to their experiences of being a woman in a male-dominated space, or being a woman in general. As Stephany pointed out, being a woman in her respective field has made her stronger: “Yeah I think it’s a very personal thing dependent on the individual. But I also think that particularly as a woman in this research field you develop a bit of resilience towards [harassment].” In some cases, resiliency inspired women to “troll back” with tact. Olivia for example noted: “I kind of take the approach of almost trolling them back, of finding ways to kind of mock or find humor in it.” Jasmine explained this action further:
“When you get a dick pic, it’s ... [my] initial emotions are like, What? And then it’s usually followed by, Gross. And it’s usually followed by, What the hell do I do now? My biggest thing now is I love telling men to not be so emotional about things. I’m like, Oh, thanks, I’m not interested in that right now, and then they get mad. I’m like, Don’t be so emotional. Be more rational. Then they get really mad and it’s really funny.”
In a similar vein, rather than retreating from online spaces, some participants demonstrated an ability to persevere and be productive in spite of the abuse. Zoe explains that she used writing as a way to make sense of her experience:
“Yeah, it’s one of those [experiences] where I wrote about it so I could kind of work through how awful it was, but also how common that kind of attack is on women. Including women scholars, but women writers who talk about more controversial topics that a lot of folks feel like we’re fair game for these kinds of threats.”
Jasmine explained that the abuse became fodder for increased productivity:
“I made a lot of progress, because I was so pissed off, that I went and I wrote a bunch of epic blog posts that were well received, and I got booked for a bunch of stuff, and accepted to this conference. Collaborating with someone over here on this project to be published next spring, and stuff like that. They came back and they were like, Whoa. I was like, ‘Yes, piss me off again. I get a lot of stuff done when you piss me off. Could you do it again?’”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some participants reported personal support that did not translate into greater productivity or steps to face harassers. Rather, personal support in these cases looked more like mechanisms of coping. For example, Abby explained:
“On a good day, I can laugh about it [...] But on bad days, I drink wine in the bathtub and cry, or I hug my kids and cry, because I just can’t imagine that things aren’t getting better, that their not growing up with people who are better examples for their schoolmates and they’re still going to be inheriting these problems that we are fighting today — and it’s really crushing on bad days [...] I don’t think that I cope with it well at all, to be perfectly honest.”
Social support was the ability to call on family, friends, and colleagues to comfort, offer empathy and help with the fallout of online abuse. In our interviews, women recalled discussing their experience with friends and family as a way to invite empathy and sympathy. For example, Jessica explained:
“I never responded. I never engaged with those people. I did copy the text of some of them, and share them with some trusted friends, and say, ‘Oh my God, can you believe this person?’ Just kind of looking for some sympathy.”
Participants also turned to family and friends for advice and encouragement during and after experiencing online abuse. As Abby explained, commiserating with other people who have experienced online abuse offers validation:
“I have a lot of groups that I have co-admin’s with online and a lot of friends who are academics or professionals in social activity groups, things like that, across the globe that I shared with and it’s a pretty common occurrence so we sometimes we do kind of an online complaint and support thread from time to time that, you know, hey this really tough thing just happened and validating each other’s responses and experiences.”
The most common form of social support was to outsource reading posts and comments to family and friends as a way to triage the worst of the abuse. Jessica’s husband, for example, became her “intermediary” in reviewing online comments:
“My husband became my designated comment reader. When I would publish one of these pop linguistic articles [...] he would actually go to the articles and read the comments for me and say, ‘Oh, this one person really liked your article. This other person offered this other example of this other thing. This person said something really stupid about how your article is dumb.’ He became my intermediary.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many participants mentioned receiving support from colleagues and peers in a way that is similar to the support they received from their friends. For example, Magda noted: “I wasn’t the sole manager of the FB page ... the worst responses, I’d be like, ‘hey someone’s saying things,’ and I would let one of the guys [the other admins] go and delete the comments and take care of that.”
Meso level support
Meso level support refers to “interconnections and linkages between individuals and systems” such as organizations and social systems . Our analysis of the data suggested that participants drew upon three types of meso level support: technological, organizational and sectoral. Technological factors referred to the policies and terms of services set out by the social media platforms and websites on which online abuse takes place. Technological factors guided the kinds of responses the companies have, the reporting tools they developed and the extensions they allowed. Organizational support referred to the structures introduced into an institution, such as an individual’s place of work, that aim to shape or guide how one interacted with social media, such as social media training and literacy or the level of institutional oversight. Hodson, et al. (2018) explain that organizational support directly impacts an individual without actually including them as an active participant. Lastly, sectoral factors of support coincides with Powell’s (2015) description of formal responses, as those provided by “institutions of the state (such as police and in the courts)” .
Technological support represented the level to which social media companies implemented and followed through with ways to shield or protect targets of online abuse and reprimand the agitators. Platform support was most often technical, like blocking and reporting tools, but could also be more general, as in terms of services and codes of conducts. The most common type of platform support on which women relied were the platform’s reporting and blocking functions. Abby identified blocking and reporting tools as the only “productive” option for responding to online abuse, stating:
“The blocking and deleting is just the only, the only real option — productive option. They [harassers] are not interested in a dialogue, they are not interested in an exchange, they are only interested in intimidation and power and finding some way to cow me, so by not responding and by deleting and blocking, they don’t get any response — meaningful response — for all they know it might have never been seen. So, I feel like that’s the most effective way to respond, to not even feed their, feed whatever it is that’s driving them to contact me.”
Chloe explained that she uses these options to threaten people, which has worked in her experience.
“I write to them and say, I’m going to report you if you ever contact me again. And then I usually don’t hear from them again, but I don’t like to have to be exposed to that.”
Organizational support was the guiding framework that universities (or other places of work) implemented for dealing with online abuse. Very few participants discussed receiving this kind of support. In fact, only one participant indicated that the university she worked for played a central role in dealing with the online abuse. However, three participants noted that they turned to their place of work only to receive little to no help, illustrating that women scholars who are experiencing online abuse are indeed seeking support at this level, if not always finding it. When asked about the impact a lack of institutional support has had on her life, Magda offered an important comparison between two of her places of employment. She pointed to the way that the larger culture within her department and university has changed the way she experienced harassment and the support she received:
“At my last job I spent three years in [a different country], at a university there, doing another post-doc, and it was a very different environment. The student body in physics was 50–50 [women-men], we had an equality and diversity working group. And the entire country has this award program for gender equality that uses quantifiable things, like, do you hold meetings in the hours of the middle of the day so that people that have kids can attend all the meetings? Do you do this? Do you do that? Like just simple good practices that benefit everyone but have a much larger impact on women [...] And I don’t have any of those resources here [in this new country, in this new university] anymore so it’s much harder to find ways to make change. It’s an environment where if you speak out about things then people say well, no it’s not. So it’s very hard to make yourself heard.”
Sectoral support referred to law enforcement officials, like the police, as well as the courts and legislation and law more broadly. Much like organizational support, participants rarely mentioned relying on legal support or law enforcement. One participant, Olivia, was assigned a detective to oversee incoming online communication. Another participant, Abby, explained that when the harasser is identifiable she has on occasion reported the abuse to the police with mixed results, suggesting that outcomes associated with sectoral support are inconsistent:
“[It’s] Pretty hit or miss. My local precinct, if they knew it was someone they knew was local, has been pretty good. They document it and give me a report number and it’s just kind of, you know, okay we’re just going to file this away, explaining what my options were, that if I really wanted to hire an investigator I could hire a private investigator that could really go to town and find, you know, find enough links of this individual to really build a case — or at least a civil case. In other cases, they’ve been really dismissive. You know, ‘oohhh you got in a fight on FB and now you’re expecting me to do something about it? Get out of here, I’ve got important stuff to do’ kind of attitude.”
In summary, reporting and blocking were the most commonly relied on forms of meso level support. It is worth noting that even while relying on these methods, many participants made it clear that they believe that technology companies could be doing more to curb the abuse they receive and expand the support offered to targets of abuse and harassment. The same follows for the institutions they work for. Reflecting on her experience, Magda summarized these beliefs:
“[Social media companies] could acknowledge misogyny as hate speech or unacceptable behavior, but they choose not to. I’ve tried reporting one or two of the things and they said ‘we’ve reviewed it and it doesn’t meet our guidelines.’ They could do something; [but] they choose not to.”
Macro level support
Macro level support referred to the larger societal cultures, ideological frameworks and the attitudes and discourses embedded within them. Macro level factors included existing attitudes toward gender, such as misogyny and sexism, but also equality for all, and media representations of online abuse. These factors influence, shape and interact with the more concrete forms of support found at the micro and meso levels. In our analysis we found evidence to suggest that macro level factors promoted conditions that helped women seek support, but also complicated and made difficult the support-seeking process. There are many larger cultural and social attitudes and behaviors that either help support women who experience online abuse or that make seeking support more difficult. In analysing women scholars’ responses to online abuse, we identified three macro level factors: existing gender relations, perceptions of digital dualism and Online norms such as “don’t feed the trolls.”
Existing gender relations were mentioned as a factor influencing the responses some women have to online abuse. Magda explained that as a woman she had already learned through socialization how to respond to crude comments, a skill she uses to navigate some of the vitriol and lewd conversations she encountered online.
“Like we [women] do learn how to deflect and ignore the most inappropriate things that people say and latch onto, like, oh you said one thing that could I construe as positive, let me latch onto that and bring that part forward in the conversation and hope that you start behaving decently again. So you know, that’s a skill that I kind of picked up, and then that happened.”
Feminism was also mentioned as a force that supported participants. Olivia and Jasmine both comment on the way broader online feminist communities have supported them:
“I think there’s like a universal kind of sense of, ‘I’m sorry you’re dealing with this,’ that’s been pretty consistent. There’s also kind of I think a bit of a feminist reaction of the kind of haters gonna hate approach, I guess I would characterize it as, you know, ‘You’re doing good work, this is just proof that you should keep doing it,’ that kind of sense” (Olivia).
“You just pissed off feminist Twitter. You’re never gonna hear the end of this. You’re gonna have to change your name, because feminist Twitter is a thing, and it’s huge. It’s glorious. Twitter really looks after itself” (Jasmine).
Some women explained that perceptions of digital dualism, which is the “artificial and unnecessary separation of [online and off-line] realms that are actually enmeshed” , shaped the type of support available to them. Lucy explained that reaching out to colleagues and peers is not easy when their colleagues have a binary view of online-offline realities and do not understand the importance of social media and online life.
“[P]articularly where I’m at in my college right now, people aren’t on social media. My colleagues, the faculty in my department, a lot of them have this archaic notion of social media that ‘oh, it’s not going to be good for me’ or there’s privacy issues, which, of course, there are. So if I say to that group, they’re like ‘Well what do you expect? Why are you on social media?’ and they miss the whole frigging point as far as I’m concerned.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, another participant suggested that the generally widespread understanding of online abuse makes it easier for her to tell other people about the abuse she endured:
“Luckily most people around me believe me. I don’t feel like I have to go to all this effort to make people believe that I’ve been threatened. So that’s kind of a nice thing to have happen. But yet it is intriguing to me that there’s still people who are like, ‘What! This happens? People are mean on the Internet?’ And I’m like, where have you been? [laughs] And I’m like, have you never read a comments section?” (Zoe).
Jessica cited media coverage and representation of online abuse as a source that undergirds the general widespread understanding identified by Zoe. She explained:
“But they were a little concerned about me, especially when Gamergate got in the news, and people were talking about it on NPR and stuff. They were like, ‘Oh man, that’s happening to our colleague’.”
Factors which contributed to support at the macro level can often be harder to detect because they do not always appear in tangible formats, as they do with sectoral, technological or social support. Nevertheless, participants still reflected on a number of broader attitudes and discourses that impacted the ways they sought support, and which shape the level of support they received.
These interviews, and our subsequent analysis of them, show that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution used to support scholars who face online harassment and abuse. The types of harassment and abuse women scholars face online spans a wide spectrum of harm. Support that works in one instance is not guaranteed to work in another. While some areas of support are lacking, that there are a variety of supports at different ecological levels is promising because the variety of harms encountered online, and the complex and changing contexts in which these harms take place, necessitate that solutions and support systems be multifaceted and variable in order to accommodate these shifting contexts.
Although women experienced support at all levels, our findings show that some levels of the ecological model of support are relied upon by women scholars more heavily than others. For example, in our sample women scholars who experience online harassment were most likely to try to deal with the problem themselves by changing their online behaviors or by enlisting the help of close family, spouses or friends to help manage their online presence. This type of support-seeking behavior fits at the micro level of an ecological model and is consistent with Scarduzio, et al. (2017) finding that victims of online harassment employ an “active emotion focused coping strategy” . While it may be somewhat effective, or at least perceived to be effective by the scholars who engage in this strategy, it is important to recognize that this type of support represents a type of emotional labor on top of the existing academic labor being performed by female scholars (Hochschild, 1983) and as our research on coping has suggested, can have negative psychological outcomes even when it helps minimize the presence of online harassment (Veletsianos, et al., 2018). While this type of support is immediate and essential, it is also important to disperse the responsibility of support to other levels of the ecological model so that private avenues (friends, family, and the self) do not become the primary mode of support. Relying too heavily on micro support (i.e., private avenues) could run a risk of making online abuse and harassment a private matter, whereas sharing the responsibility of support among the three levels of the ecological model helps situate this as a public issue, and as one that requires responses from multiple sectors, organizations and communities.
Our findings also show that participants relied less on meso and macro levels, though they identified these levels as important. Participants indicated turning to meso level support, such as their workplaces, local police, or the social media platforms themselves — with greater or lesser success — but this support-seeking behavior was less frequent than support-seeking behavior associated with micro levels of support. This, too, is consistent with Scarduzio, et al. (2017) finding that victims of online abuse also employ problem-focused coping strategies. Our study’s participants also reported a knowledge of online cultures, practices and policies, that both informs how they seek support, and also frustrates their attempts to do so. These broader cultural forces — the macro level of the ecological model — such as attitudes towards women and perceptions of the online and off-line dualism, influence the type of support that women scholars are able to receive from their workplaces, local law enforcement and other organizations after they have experienced harassment. While the reasons for relying less on meso and macro level support are diverse, it important to encourage these underdeveloped areas toward playing a more central role. In other words, just because this study’s participants tended to rely less on meso and macro level support does not suggest that these types of support are any less necessary. Just as in studies of interventions in bullying (Dresler-Hawke and Whitehead, 2009; Johnson, 2011; Matsunaga, 2011), violence against women (Gillum, 2014) and workplace harassment (Henning, et al., 2017), we can see that, among women scholars who have experienced online harassment, support must come from all levels — as support at a single level alone (for example individual or interpersonal) is affected by support or lack of support at the other levels. Indeed, we recommend approaching support as an ecological system whereby each level of the ecology is necessary.
As faculty members who are required to use technology as part of their knowledge work (Shelton, 2018; Huvila, 2009), women scholars’ online interactions already take place in an information ecology. As a result, it is not surprising that support for a woman scholar who has experienced online harassment also occurs within an ecological framework. Thus when recommending interventions to help women scholars who have experienced harassment, it is necessary to consider interventions from the personal or individual level through the interpersonal or relationship level, to organizations, sectors and platforms, and finally, at the level of policies and cultural attitudes. All of these relationships guide how women scholars can use online platforms and thus also guide how they should be supported in the event they become targets of online abuse and harassment.
The findings also indicate that no participant seemed to have or make mention of a ‘perfect’ support network. Instead, participants expressed a complicated relationship with the kinds of support on which they rely. For example, while only one participant reported relying on institutional support, three respondents suggested that more institutional support is needed, indicating a desire to have such support available. One approach to remedy the lack of immediate institutional support is for faculty trainers to use the results from these findings to better support and prepare faculty members for when, in the course of their work, they become targets for online harassment and abuse (Veletsianos, et al., 2018). Such support could include ensuring familiarity with organizational and sectoral policies, platform terms of services, understanding reporting and blocking tools, as well as creating a support culture within universities, which begins with a recognition of this issue and widespread discussion about it. Additionally, almost all participants suggested that social media platforms could do more to curb online abuse. While efforts are underway by social media platforms like Facebook (Davis, 2017), Twitter (Oremus, 2018), and YouTube (Kosoff, 2018) to do so, the volume of content and vast user base limits fast and effective responses.
Finally, many participants expressed tension amongst family, friends and colleagues when they reached out and shared their experience. Even when they were helpful, participants explained that sharing their experiences of harassment and abuse is not easy on the people in their life. This is understandable and speaks to our early concern that online abuse and harassment is a public issue, and therefore would benefit from a public conversation about how best to support someone impacted by online harassment.
Many individuals affected by online harassment and abuse encounter a variety of roadblocks when seeking support (Citron, 2014; Jane, 2016). While the stakes are particularly high for those whose jobs clearly align with digital spaces (such as academics, video game developers and journalists, for example), the consequences of online abuse are indiscriminate. For this reason, our findings extend beyond academe and can be applied to support for online harassment and abuse more broadly.
This study brings together women scholars from a variety of disciplines who share in the experience of online abuse and harassment. Similar to cases like bullying (Johnson, 2011), intimate partner violence (Weeks and LeBlanc, 2011) and workplace-related harassment (Henning, et al., 2017), online abuse and harassment takes part in, and has effects across different levels of a victim’s life (Veletsianos, et al., 2018; Citron, 2014). Thus, when women scholars look for support, they do so from different levels ranging from the personal, interpersonal, organizational and platform levels. Similarly, culture and organizational and institutional policies seem to influence the type of support that women scholars look for following an incident of online harassment, and also seem to impact the type of support that is available.
Our analysis focused on the experiences of women scholars. This focus limited our ability to draw conclusions about the role of platforms or to offer any comparison between the different types of harassment experienced across platforms, if any. Our study also focused exclusively on self-identified women and aimed to dive deeply into the experiences of a relatively small sample of participants, without asking additional questions at this time about racial or trans identification. Therefore, our conclusions are not generalizable across all women, but provide a point of departure for broader investigations.
We recommend four areas of future research: First, future research should examine whether micro level support indeed dominates among individuals targeted by online harassment and abuse by surveying a larger sample of scholars, and by extending demographic considerations to take a broader look at the role of intersectional factors such as race, sexuality, class, etc. in the presence of online harassment and support following online harassment. Second, future analysis should aim to identify the contextual factors that influence choice avenues of support. Third, while our model shows that there are factors important for seeking and receiving support found at each of the three ecological levels, a deeper analysis looking at each level on its own terms would help elevate the merit, and uncover the contradictions, embedded in each level. This type of analysis could also help articulate the onus of each type of support (whether it is universities, social media platforms, governments or individuals) in safeguarding individuals from online harassment. Fourth, our analysis suggests that the ecological model could be used to understand other factions of online abuse and harassment, not only to analyse support.
In practical terms, the findings of this study demonstrate that support to scholars facing harassment needs to arrive from a variety of sources and not just from the scholars themselves. Online abuse is not merely an online problem to be addressed by scholars dealing with harassers — it is a problem requiring joint efforts from a wide range of actors including digital platform leaders, designers/developers, institutional leaders, community leaders and so on.
About the authors
Jaigris Hodson is Associate Professor in the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
E-mail: jaigris [dot] hodson [at] royalroads [dot] ca
Chandell Gosse is a Ph.D. candidate in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada.
E-mail: cgosse [at] uwo [dot] ca
George Veletsianos is a Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology and professor in the School of Education and Technology at Royal Roads University.
E-mail: George [dot] Veletsianos [at] royalroads [dot] ca
Shandell Houlden is a Ph.D. candidate in the English and Cultural Studies Department at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
E-mail: houldes [at] mcmaster [dot] ca
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Received 17 April 2018; revised 7 May 2018; accepted 3 July 2018.
Copyright © 2018, Jaigris Hodson, Chandell Gosse, George Veletsianos and Shandell Houlden.
I get by with a little help from my friends: The ecological model and support for women scholars experiencing online harassment
by Jaigris Hodson, Chandell Gosse, George Veletsianos and Shandell Houlden.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 8 - 6 August 2018