Does Responding to Harassment Work? Help us Find Out in a New Study!

Our Princeton & NYU team is recruiting women and your trusted allies on Twitter to test what to say and who can best respond in your context.

by Audrey Chebet and J. Nathan Matias, Dec 15, 2017

California Sea Lion and Western Gull.

California Sea Lion and a Western Gull. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Cambridge University classics professor Mary Beard is famous for more than just her research on ancient Rome. A literary critic, television presenter, and pioneer of academic blogging, Professor Beard is also famous for responding to people who send harassing and abusive messages toward her on Twitter. In a 2014 Guardian interview , she explained why: "In general, I am more concerned to be sure that people don't use the internet in this way (or don't do so again) than to seek 'punishment'."

Does responding to harassers change a person's behavior, and if so, who is in the best position to respond?

No one has an obligation to respond to people who call them names and send them abusive, racist, or sexist slurs, and many people shouldn't be asked to take on that burden. For those who can, is asking trusted friends to engage with harassers worth the hassle and effort? Does responding to harassers change a person's behavior, and if so, who is in the best position to respond?

Over the next few months, our team will be asking this question together with women on Twitter who routinely experience harassment, who aren't facing frequent physical risks from online harassment, and who feel able to ask their trusted allies to respond to harassment with humor, facts, and other strategies. If that describes you, please sign up here to receive recruitment information when we're ready to start.

Sign Up Here to Receive More Information

Why Responding to Harassment is Such a Complicated Thing To Ask

For decades, the internet has been a powerful resource for women to have a voice with consequence in society. But becoming more visible and reachable also involves becoming more open to harassment.

This January, feminist writer and activist Lindy West left Twitter, describing the burden of managing the regular harassment that many visible women face online: "I talk back and I am “feeding the trolls”. I say nothing and the harassment escalates." Faced with this dilemma, 27% of Americans report that they have chosen to self-censor their online posts. Like Lindy West, 26% of Americans facing harassment have disconnected social networks and their phones entirely. These rates are much higher for women 15-29 than any other group.

To be a woman online is to expect violence towards your personhood. Even "harmless" insults and name-calling stop becoming innocuous when you receive multiple messages a week; the effect can slowly culminate over time with chilling psychosocial implications. That's why the debate over responding to harassment is so tricky: does responding to harassment change behavior or attract more harassment? Who is in the best position to respond effectively? Taking on this burden is only worthwhile if it makes a difference.

Responding to racist slurs on Twitter can cause people to change their behavior, according to a recent study by our collaborator Kevin Munger, a PhD candidate at New York University. Kevin used a series of research Twitter accounts to send a message saying "Hey man, just remember that there are real people who are hurt when you harass them with that kind of language." He found that sending the message reduced the harasser's use of racist slurs by 1-2 per week, but only if the responder was higher status and their profile image and name had the same race and gender as the harasser. Kevin’s research shows how online ally communities might organize to make digital spaces safer for those vulnerable to harassment.

Recruiting Women on Twitter To Study Ally Responses to Harassment

While Kevin's research offers a valuable early picture of the benefits of responding to harassment, it leaves many questions unanswered. That's why we're working together on a new study that organizes Twitter users to test these questions together.

If you are a woman who routinely receives harassment on Twitter, if you're not under physical risks, and if you have trusted allies who would work together to test effective responses to harassment, we want to talk with you. Our first step is to better understand the harassment you receive, the responses that you think are meaningful, and the people you trust to support you.

Then, with consent from you and your allies, we'll use the CivilServant software to coordinate your responses to harassment and monitor outcomes that matter to you. By the end of the study, we should have clearer evidence on the pros and cons of responding to online harassment.

Sign Up Here to Receive More Information

Our Promises To You

We know that any online harassment research can involve some risk, so here are our promises to you:

  • We go about our research in a way that is led by you, our research partners

  • We have experience working with sensitive information from harassment reports:

    • We will dissociate interview notes with your personal identity and store them securely

    • We will keep the identities of everyone who works with us private, unless you request otherwise

    • We will store Twitter information securely

  • Anyone who participates in our research will get basic support on information security and online identity protection

  • You will be able to stop participating at any time

More About Our Team

Audrey Chebet is a senior in the Princeton Psychology Department with minors in Neuroscience and African Studies. As an avid Twitter user and a self-proclaimed feminist it only seemed sensible for her to combine her interest and develop a research project focused on making online spaces safer for women.

Elizabeth Levy Paluck is Professor in the Department of Psychology and in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Currently she also serves as the Deputy Director of the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science and Policy at Princeton University. Her research explores how people understand, follow, and disobey social norms, and has applied these ideas to topics including ethnic and political violence, corruption,bullying and conflict in schools, and violence against women.

J. Nathan Matias is the founder of CivilServant, which organizes people on the internet to conduct citizen behavioral science for a fairer, safer, more understanding internet. Nathan is a post-doc in the Princeton University departments of Psychology, the Center for IT Policy, and Sociology. He studies online gender discrimination, harassment reporting,moderation, and behavior change.

Kevin Munger is 5th year PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics at NYU and a member of the Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab. He studies the political implications of new forms of communication enabled by the internet and social media by developing novel text analysis and experimental methods , including the use of Twitter bots to perform online behavioral experiments.

This project is also supported by the CivilServant tech team, including Jason Baumgartner and Eric Pennington, who have deep experience managing large-scale data from social media.

This project has been made possible by a research grant from the Mozilla Foundation and funding from the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Policy at Princeton University.