When journalist Anna Merlan made a dig at the notorious 4chan forum in an article on Jezebel, she couldn't possibly have expected what happened next.
Displeased by Merlan's description of 4chan as "the Internet’s home for barely potty-trained trolls," users publicly posted her address, and conspired to send her everything from pizza deliveries to a SWAT team.
The SWAT team never materialised, though multiple food deliveries were sent to her (thankfully old) address – including a pizza with triple cheese, triple sausage, triple salami, triple barbecue, hot sauce, half onions and half pineapple.
Merlan was being doxxed. Writing about her experience for Jezebel, she acknowledges the motivation of her online abusers was "to prove they know where I live. To scare me".
And she isn't alone. Though many cases of doxxing go unreported, other cases include the two New York Times journalists who were attacked online after reporting on Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, and Gamergate target Anita Sarkeesian.
At the ONA conference in Denver on 17 September, freelance journalist Rose Eveleth shared some strategies for reducing the risk of doxxing, and what to do if it happens to you.
Separate, separate, separate!
Eveleth recommends keeping different email addresses for work and personal use, only one of which shared publicly.
"I know that's this is difficult in this era of the personal brand... but it's worth it so that way you have a channel with which you can communicate with people if [doxxing] is happening," she said.
Similarly, work and personal phone numbers should be separate too. Google Voice allows calls and texts routed to your main phone number (US only), while Skype offers phone numbers as well.
She also advises getting a PO box or using your employer’s address for work shipments.
See how much you can find out about yourself using Facebook, Twitter, Whois, and third party information sellers, said Eveleth.
"You’ll probably be surprised what you can find."
Take steps to protect your personal information
"One tactic harassers like to use is to figure out your doctor or vet and call them asking for records," Eveleth said, adding that doxxers especially like to target people who have or have had mental health issues.
She recommends setting up a password or safe word with offices that may have your personal information, such as your GP or healthcare provider and even your vet (doxxers apparently like to make threats about any pets you may have).
Journalists should also not list their birthdays on any social media sites or elsewhere on the web, as this could be used to aid access to personal information.
Have channels for support
Having friends, family, and sympathetic colleagues you can turn to in the event of getting doxxed can make a huge difference.
For freelancers, online networks such as Slack channels or Facebook Groups can also be a big help.
For example, journalists receiving online threats could ask someone else they trust to go through their Twitter notifications for them and block abusive accounts.
"Having channels where you can find support is just as important as figuring out your [digital] footprint," said Eveleth.
She also points to the website Crash Override for more details and resources on doxxing and online abuse.
Free daily newsletter
- The hidden impact of reporting on covid-19 from the frontline
- Facebook and Google team up with INSI to fight online harassment of journalists
- Tip: What journalists can do when experiencing online attacks
- Gender on the agenda for the future of ethical journalism
- The art of working with whistleblowers