‘Digital safety kit’ offers guidance for public health workers dealing with online harassment

Digital safety concept photo. Man's hands typing on laptop. Icons of padlock, smartphones, etc. float on invisible surface.

January 31, 2024 – Political divisions that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic prompted an uptick in online harassment of people working in the public health arena—and the harassment hasn’t died down. In response, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health Communication (CHC) has produced a Digital Safety Kit for Public Health that aims to help public health workers and researchers navigate hostile online experiences and perhaps avoid them altogether.

The toolkit was put together by Samuel Mendez, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Mendez, who focuses on organizational health literacy and online communication, is also a research assistant and student advisory board member at the CHC. The kit, which Mendez wrote about in a January 23 opinion piece in Harvard Public Health, provides a wealth of information about online harassment—how to recognize it, how to respond, how to make a plan to protect yourself, and what institutions can do.

The idea for the toolkit grew, in part, as Mendez watched colleagues, including doctors, scientists, and public health communicators, experience online harassment—and have to deal with it mostly on their own.

“My friends and peers, even those at a university or research center, have found that they can’t count right now on their institutions to have a lot of resources lined up to respond effectively,” Mendez said in an interview. “There are guides from content creators and streamers and social media influencers that offer a lot of individual advice—for instance, how to keep your public profile separate from your personal profile—and it’s great that those resources are available. But I found that existing advice doesn’t really translate well to public health, because in the world of public health a certain amount of your professional information has to be public because you get federal funding, or you’re promoting your work in journals or at conferences. So the idea that you can separate a public and private online persona isn’t always possible, and the idea that you can just do less online—delete an account or develop a thicker skin—may not apply, especially because public health often requires communication and community engagement to work.”

CHC Director Amanda Yarnell had seen her own share of online harassment—particularly of women and marginalized groups—while working as a manager in the journalism field. “I had given a lot of thought as to how to support people on my team who were being harassed,” said Yarnell. “When I came to Harvard Chan School, it was immediately apparent to me that there weren’t a lot of resources tailored specifically for scientists or folks in public health who were active on the internet.”

‘We received death threats’

There were at least 1,499 incidents of harassment—including online harassment and threats to personal safety—directed at local health department officials between March 2020 and January 2021, according to one study. A 2021 survey found that one in six local public health workers felt bullied, threatened, or harassed due to their professional role.

High-profile instances of harassment underscore the problem. For instance, last June, vaccine expert Peter Hotez, dean of Baylor College of Medicine, was attacked online—and then confronted by a couple of people outside his home—after he criticized a podcast hosted by Joe Rogan that featured presidential candidate and anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Closer to home, Harvard Chan doctoral candidate Eirliani (“Lin”) Abdul Rahman, an expert in child sexual abuse and human trafficking who had been a founding member of Twitter’s (now “X”) Trust and Safety Council, faced harassment after she and two other members resigned from the Council in December 2022, alarmed by the meteoric rise in hate speech on the platform after it was taken over by Elon Musk. Abdul Rahman was interviewed by several media outlets after her resignation—after which she was subjected to a swarm of online harassment. “Musk instigated harassment against us on X,” said Abdul Rahman. “We received death threats, threats of doxing [public sharing of a person’s private information, such as home address and cell phone number], and more, that also migrated to other platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and email.”

Abdul Rahman was able to get pro bono legal advice, deleted her online data, and also connected with Yarnell, who offered useful resources. She also decided to focus her doctoral thesis on the kind of online harassment she faced, known as “networked harassment,” in which an influential account instigates harassment against a target but can maintain “plausible deniability” about having done so, because it is the influencer’s followers who carry out the direct harassment.

A lack of data makes it impossible to know the full extent of online harassment of public health workers, Mendez said. News reports during the pandemic documented numerous instances of harassment directed at people involved with COVID-19 safety measures, such as vaccination and masking. Other areas in which public health workers and researchers have been targeted include abortion care, stem cell research, antiracist health research, and transgender health care.

A comprehensive guide

Mendez spent about nine months gathering information for the digital safety kit, conferring with people engaged in science communication on platforms including Twitch, YouTube, and Twitter (X), in order to gain insight into best practices for tackling harassment.

The 30-page toolkit covers a lot of ground. “There’s a lot in the toolkit because it’s a complicated issue,” said Mendez. “Dealing with online harassment requires action on multiple levels.”

Names and explanations for a dozen types of online harassment are listed in the kit, from “astroturfing” (coordinated inauthentic online behaviors, such as when a small number of people use fake profiles to make social media backlash seem as if it is coming from a large crowd) to “swatting” (reporting a false crime in order to get a SWAT team dispatched to someone’s home).

The kit also includes steps to take in the face of harassment, such as changing social media accounts’ visibility settings, temporarily deactivating accounts, documenting abusive interactions, reporting content that violates a platform’s rules, and letting friends, family, and colleagues know what’s going on.

To shield against having your accounts hacked, the kit advises using secure passwords and a password manager, changing passwords regularly, and using two-factor authentication. In a section titled “Post like strangers are watching,” the kit recommends careful consideration before publicly sharing personal information or photos.

The kit also recommends trying to keep your work profile separate from your family profile—for example, by avoiding using personal contact information to network or register for conferences. Another recommendation is to leave behind as small a digital trail as possible; one way to do that would be to share information via email instead of on social media.

Using a data removal service such as DeleteMe or Icogni, which can help automate the process of removing personal information such as email addresses or phone numbers from a wide array of data clearinghouses, would be a good place to start, Mendez said. “Investing in a service like that is a great long-term step,” they said. “It does cost money, but if you’re spending a lot of time communicating online, it’s a worthwhile investment.”

Mendez also recommended letting others in your work and social circles know your comfort level with sharing your information. “Talking about privacy and about your concerns can go a long way,” they said.

Future path

Ultimately, Mendez would like to see institutions such as public health agencies, universities, hospitals, social media companies, and legislators do much more to address online harassment. In the meantime, Mendez and Yarnell hope to organize hands-on workshops at Harvard Chan School to help walk people through the steps outlined in the digital safety kit.

Mendez acknowledged that the extensive list of recommendations in the toolkit may seem overwhelming. “There are so many things to consider that it’s probably a very rare person who would make sure they’re doing every single thing on the list,” they said. “But that’s fine. Our focus is more on offering people tools and a framework to think about what they’re comfortable doing and what they’re not—and emphasizing along the way that it’s not your fault if you experience this kind of harassment. At the end of the day, the root cause is the person doing it.”

Karen Feldscher

Photo: iStock/Thapana Onphalai