9 Ways to Dodge Trolls: A Woman’s Guide to Digital Security
Updated: Feb 3, 2020
In late 2014, Anita Sarkeesian, the feminist and culture critic, was the target of death threats.Sarkeesian, who apparently had the gall to have an opinion AND share it online, had gained the coveted status among feminists as a man-life-ruiner. Like many others in that elite group, she’d become a target of Gamergate (more here), a legion of trolls who make lots of rape threats, among other gender-based violent acts.
While GG made real headway in 2014, that BS was hardly new. Kathy Sierra, an OG blogger / thinker / programmer and no stranger to online abuse,left Twitter for good because she was “afraid to leave my yard.” Also that year, Jezebel pleaded with its parent company Gawker to change their comments system so its employees would no longer have to manually take down the dozens-to-hundreds of rape gifs posted daily.
And since, the problem has only gotten worse, especially during the 2016 elections; Lindy West and Jessica Valenti left Twitter — the latter when her 5-year-old daughter was threatened with rape and murder — Leslie Jones was inexplicably torn apart, and Roberta Lange was mobbed. The list goes on and on.
So gals and gal-identifying folks, let’s not be naive; if you dare exist online, let alone publish any troll-life-ruining content, you need to protect yourselves and your personal lives. Thus, I offer the following, based on a threat model I worked up to prevent uninvited people from showing up at your home or that of your loved ones.
Hide Yo!selves It can get a little overwhelming to see all the ways your very personal information is available to trolls. So, it’s okay to do this in stages, prioritize what is most appropriate for you, and take breaks. I also encourage doing this with good, trusted friends.
First, know what’s out there about you and get rid of it.
Do a google search of your name in quotes i.e., “Joanna Smith”. Carefully go through the results. For example, if your bio is posted, what does it reveal about you, your habits, your connections? Do you name your alma mater? Does its alumni site keep your address on file?
Check out how much about you, as a matter of public record, is out there. Hit Zabasearch.com, Pipl.com, and Spokeo.com. Happily, it seems these sites are not nearly as free or thorough as they were a few years ago, but partial addresses or phone numbers, email addresses or handles will likely still show up. A more complete list can be found on our Personal Security Course curriculum. Here are instructions and links for OPTING OUT of those sites.
Stay aware. Set up a Google alert of your name / handle / company name / address to ping you any time anything is posted about you on the web. Make it specific to social sites using advanced tools, e.g., site:twitter.com #hashtag.
Next, make it tough to find your house.
Own your own home? Of course you do, you baller. But as a matter of public record, that information can easily be online or accessed. So create a privacy trust. While somewhat complex, there’s a lot of info out there to help. And you can do it yourself or pay a discount service like LegalZoom.
Then, set up a PO box and submit your change of address form. From that moment forward, no longer use your home address.
If mail for your partner or family living in your house still comes there, or any other mail for you still arrives at the house, shred it. Shredders aren’t expensive, but if the pile gets too large too quickly, many cities have a bulk shredding program you can take your documents to. Don’t let anything with your address leave your house — not even if it’s recyclable.
Finally, step your phone number back.
Calls to your phone feel like the next scariest thing to someone showing up at your home. If you haven’t already, set up a Google phone number. To make it more secure, you can set it up through a dummy account (which you will likely want anyway) or turn two-factor authentication on for your current account. OR do both.
Stop using your old number, except for those you trust. If that still doesn’t feel safe, change your number and give out that number selectively. Don’t write it in emails or share it with social media or email accounts for authentication purposes.
A smattering of final do’s and don’ts and some key resources.
Your mobile phone is literally a homing device. When you carry it, you’re giving up your location. Make it a little harder for the trolls by turning off location services (especially for photos), bluetooth, even wifi unless you need them.
Don’t give up your locations — current AND habitual. Don’t check in on Swarm or Foursquare, don’t login to Google Maps (does it need to know your home address?!) and don’t reveal your location on anything social — no posts, tweets, or photos — while you’re still there. That goes whether you’re at the park down the street or on vacation.
Put strong passcodes on your phone and computer. Passphrases are the strongest and easiest to remember. Use the QWERTY keyboard on an iPhone or the really complex thingie on Android.
For more on your security as a woman online, check out Violet Blue’s Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy. Zoe Quinn’s COACH walks you through your post-dox next steps, (and offers a guide for prevention.) Sarkeesian, Jaclyn Friedman, and Renee Bracey Sherman put together a more complete guide that also helps triage. Coding Rights wrote a guide for safer sharing of nude photos.
Finally, listen: This shit is horrifying and traumatic. Learning about trauma, resilience, and self-care is absolute must. Check some resources here, here, and here. Is it fair that you have to do all this while trolls get to run free? Hell no. But by taking these steps, you take back a little more of the Internet and are a little less at their mercy. Because fuck that shit, all of it.
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Originally published in October, 2014, and updated in 2017.