Source:, Illustrator: Aswin Behara


In the fall of 2023, the U.S. government’s cyber defense agency—Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)—approached PEN America for insights to inform a key initiative of their 2023 Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative agenda: protecting communities at heightened risk of online attacks. While CISA’s mandate is centered on countering traditional cybersecurity threats, we appreciated the opportunity to share our perspective, expertise, and resources. We highlighted how online abuse is often used to target high-risk communities we serve, including writers, journalists, artists, and human rights defenders in the United States and worldwide. Today CISA launched an initiative to support communities at heightened risk of digital security threats because of their work, which features PEN America’s resources.

Cybersecurity is a relatively young field and has historically focused on technical threats such as data breaches, phishing, malware, and Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. While countering these attacks is critically important, so too is broadening how we think about cybersecurity to include the growing challenge of online abuse. At PEN America, we define online abuse as the pervasive or severe targeting of an individual or group online through harmful behavior, which includes tactics such as doxing and hacking, but also hateful slurs, sexual harassment, and brigading.

Journalists, writers, artists, and human rights defenders, who often challenge the status quo and require an online presence to do their work, are increasingly targeted online. However, in over six years of working to counter online abuse, we have found that individuals are targeted not only for their profession, but for their identity. Marginalized communities—including women, members of ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual minorities, and transgender and gender-conforming people—are disproportionately impacted. We were ahead of the curve in recognizing the dangers of online harassment, which range from silencing diverse voices and chilling free speech to causing psychological trauma and even putting lives at risk. 

To tackle this problem, PEN America has created a unique, robust program focused on digital safety and online abuse defense. We’ve developed resources to empower writers and journalists to fight back and continue using their voices. Our Field Manual against Online Harassment provides concrete, actionable tools and strategies to navigate online abuse; it is available in multiple languages, adapted to reflect a diversity of global contexts and needs.

We’ve also created Digital Safety Snacks, a series of short videos providing simple and easy to follow tips to protect oneself online, particularly from doxing and hacking. We run a training program for journalists, writers, media organizations, publishers, universities, and other organizations to empower them to combat online abuse. We conduct ongoing research and write reports highlighting the extent of the problem and identifying solutions, including recommendations for tech companies, employers, and civil society organizations. And finally, we engage in advocacy, working in coalition with partner organizations to push the tech and media industries to more effectively address online abuse and protect those most impacted by it.

The prevalence of online harassment represents a critical challenge that cannot be overlooked in the larger field of cybersecurity. By acknowledging the impact of online abuse on marginalized high-risk communities and the vital role of journalists and writers in fostering diverse and inclusive discourse, it is possible to build a safer and more equitable digital landscape. This entails not only developing robust self-defense resources and tools, but also creating a culture of accountability among social media platforms and the tech industry more broadly.

As a staunch defender of freedom of expression, PEN America acknowledges the complexity of navigating the fine line between protecting free speech and combating hateful and harassing speech. We are grateful to CISA for working collaboratively with civil society organizations and private industry to publish extensive resources that will help high-risk communities to navigate more traditional cybersecurity threats, which complement PEN America’s broad range of resources to counter online abuse and support digital safety. We look forward to continuing our partnership to raise awareness about these issues and to empower individuals and communities so that they can keep doing their jobs and making their voices heard.