(New York, NY) —With egregious instances of online harassment making daily headlines, a new report from the literary and free expression group PEN America lays out a series of innovative product design changes that could collectively transform how Facebook, Twitter, and other digital giants protect users from online abuse. Building on the free speech organization’s digital safety expertise, No Excuse for Abuse outlines how years of complacency and a lack of robust action have created a toxic digital environment—and that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Online abuse chills speech and silences voices. With its disproportionate impact on women, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ writers and journalists, online abuse exacerbates existing inequities and distorts public discourse. Through dozens of interviews and a year of consultations with technology and free speech experts—as well as writers and journalists who have endured such abuse—the new PEN America report presents concrete, detailed, and actionable recommendations on how platforms can reduce risk for users; more effectively respond to online abuse; and raise the costs for those who harass.

“Writers, journalists, and every-day users of social media platforms routinely face death threats, doxing, sexual harassment, and hate. When they turn to social media companies for help, they’re often met with silent indifference,” said Viktorya Vilk, director of digital safety and free expression programs at PEN America and the report’s lead author. “All too often, Facebook, Twitter, and other major players throw up their hands, offer platitudes about the complexity of the problem, or proffer lip service about their commitment to reducing online harms. The fact is that these platforms have ducked and sidestepped obvious steps that could quickly curb abuse because they continue to prioritize user engagement over safety. PEN America has now spelled out specific, actionable, vetted solutions that would blunt some of the most horrific impacts of online abuse. If the companies are serious about combating online abuse and creating more inclusive spaces online, implementing these measures would be a quick and clear way to prove themselves.”

Drawing on years of experience training writers and journalists in how to defend themselves against online abuse, PEN America’s report makes clear the dire consequences of rampant, unchecked harassment: compromised mental and physical health; silenced voices; and in extreme cases, a prelude to real-life violence and even murder. This spring, a number of high-profile cases of online abuse targeting journalists and writers were met with dumbstruck silence by tech companies, who have largely sat on their hands when it comes to implementing features that make it easier to report harassment, shield targets from the worst vitriol, and penalize abusive users.

Among the report’s top recommendations, PEN America calls on social media companies to implement the following immediately:

  • Shields. Instead of forcing users to see every disgusting slur or hateful insult hurled their way, social media platforms should enable users to activate shields that treat online abuse like spam, filtering and quarantining toxic content in a designated space where it can be reviewed with the help of allies.
  • An SOS button and live support. Over the past year, cable news hosts, politicians, and other bad actors have used their platforms to launch targeted, coordinated, sustained attacks against writers, journalists, and others. When a user is being besieged, platforms should implement a button that instantly activates tighter protections and a hotline that provides responsive, human-to-human support in real time.
  • Rapid response teams. Users should be able to set up rapid response teams so trusted friends and allies can help monitor, block, mute, document, and report heavy abuse.
  • Documentation features. Targeted users need to record evidence of abuse in order to hold perpetrators accountable, yet the platforms offer no tools to do this. Instead, users must manually track and save every cruel or threatening post. Social media companies should implement documentation features that allow users to capture abusive content automatically or with one click.
  • Consistent, escalating penalties. While the platforms have taken action against some high-profile offenders, online abusers often evade accountability and repeatedly attack other users. Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms must set up a transparent system of escalating penalties—multiple strikes, and you’re out.

“Social media can and should be a place where we exchange ideas, ask questions, even post memes about the Honey Badger or Bernie Sanders’s mittens,” writes PEN America Trustee and award-winning columnist and author Jennifer Finney Boylan in an introductory essay to the report. “What it should not be is a place of danger, a place where users fear for their safety—even, sometimes, for their lives.”

Alongside findings and recommendations, the report includes interviews with writers and journalists subjected to online abuse. “I wasn’t prepared emotionally for the abuse I saw on my screen and, as a freelancer, received little support from publications,” journalist Jasmine Bager told PEN America. “Now I sometimes avoid reporting on certain topics, or I publish pieces, but I just won’t post on social media because I am afraid of the blowback and would rather not deal with it.”

“It is well within the powers of the platforms to drastically curtail the harms of online abuse,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. “While more sweeping solutions are needed to tame algorithms that prioritize hate, there are multiple, practical measures that could provide protection and relief to the most vulnerable right now. There is no excuse for platforms that willfully allow online abuse to fester and flourish by skirting viable fixes.”

Read the full report, as well as the introductory essay from Jennifer Finney Boylan. In the coming weeks, PEN America will be rolling out a social media initiative highlighting the voices of those targeted and galvanizing national support around solutions. It will also direct those facing online abuse to PEN America’s Field Manual for navigating online harassment, which lay outs information on self-defense, legal recourse, and how employers and allies can support those facing abuse.


MEDIA CONTACT: Stephen Fee, [email protected]