When Nina Jankowicz was photographed for a recent New York Times article about threats to national security just a few weeks after giving birth this summer, she received comments from men, not about her research, but about the size of her breasts.
“This is something that men don't have to deal with,” said Jankowicz, a former adviser to the Ukrainian government and a prominent expert on the intersection of democracy and technology. “Hardly ever is a man's appearance commented on—and then when it is, it's usually because they're kind of sloppy—but women just can't get by, regardless of the level of perfection that we exude.”
Of course, commenting on appearance is only one type of abuse women face in online spaces.
It's something Jankowicz dives into in her new book, “How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse And Harassment, And How To Fight Back,” a step-by-step guide for women who are dealing with online harassment, abuse, disinformation and doxing (publishing private or identifying information online). Her advice is drawn from extensive research of the online lives of public figures, plus Jankowicz’s own experiences with combatting online abuse.
In late April, Jankowicz, who was in her third trimester of pregnancy, quickly became a target when the Biden Administration selected the 33 year old to head the first Disinformation Governance Board for the Department of Homeland Security.
“There were threats to me and my family very, very quickly,” she said. Jankowicz resigned from the position just a few weeks later.
But she doesn’t intend to remain silent. She intends to continue creating a safe space for herself online—and she hopes you will do the same.
“One of the things that empowers me even when I'm going through harassment and abuse is that I don't want to give up my space,” Jankowicz said. “I don't want to cede my space to the people who are abusing me because that means that the women who come after me are going to have less space—or they're going to have to do all the work that I did to get the traction again. It's really important to keep speaking up.”
How to protect yourself
In the same way that we, as women, carry our keys in our hand when walking at night, we should take extra precautions to protect ourselves online. The basic steps Jankowicz identified are surprisingly simple.
First, make sure that you have two-factor authentication enabled on all your accounts. This means that in addition to your password, you must provide an additional piece of information, like a verification code, when signing into your account.
Second, make sure you use complex passwords that contain a mixture of upper and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols.
Doing these two things will make it “really unlikely” that someone will be able to access your account, Jankowicz said.
Finally, be smart about what you post online: especially avoid sharing identifying geographical information. Violent threats online can escalate into security issues offline.
“I don't share pictures at the front of my house,” Jankowicz said. “I make sure that when I'm sharing pictures of my pets, you can't see my contact information on their tags…. I wouldn't share a picture publicly that showed landmarks in my neighborhood, even from things like telephone poles and trees, because of Google Earth.”
You don’t need to erase your online presence completely, though. You can still share memes and jokes and opinions and cute puppy pics, especially if your social media accounts are private.
“Everybody has their own level of comfort with what they put online,” Jankowicz said. “You just have to do it in a safe way.”
What to do when you’ve been harassed online
If you do happen to receive threats or harassment online, Jankowicz suggested asking close friends to monitor your social media accounts and mentions so that “you don’t have to be subjected to and traumatized by the threats and harassment coming to you.”
Even now, Jankowicz has a “team” of friends who help her look through social mentions. She also turned off all the notifications on her phone and “locked down” her accounts on Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn and Facebook. She kept Twitter open as her only public profile.
“Making sure that you are cocooning yourself from the worst of the worst of what people have to say is important for protecting your mental health. Otherwise, it’s just this constant barrage of nastiness, and nobody should be forced to live their life that way,” Jankowicz said.
If the harassment you’ve received is related to your job, don’t be afraid to talk to your employer. They may be able to offer emotional or psychological support, legal assistance or even temporary relocation.
Jankowicz said, “As women, we don’t want to rock the boat. We don’t want to be troublesome. But when it’s attached to our job, it’s important that we ask our employers for help. We need to normalize that employers need to do more for women who are the first line of defense in the online world.”
The future of women online
Jankowicz is worried. A large portion of the college-aged women she has talked to are so afraid of harassment that they are reluctant to post anything online.
“We’re losing a critical population’s voice,” she said. When these women see leaders in their fields getting abused, “they may be less likely to go into public-facing careers because they don't want to deal with that same thing.”
One way Jankowicz regained control of her online presence is to publicly respond to feedback she has received. For example, when men made comments about her breasts in the New York Times photo, she reposted their comments and wrote: “I just had a baby and am breastfeeding. I could explain more, but I’m pretty sure the female body will always be a mystery to you. But women have the exact same experience online as men, right?
However you choose to protect yourself from—and respond to—online harassment is an individual decision. But most importantly, don’t disappear completely, said Jankowicz.
Jankowicz said, “We still have a long way to go to make the Internet equitable, but we can't do that if we're not there taking up space ourselves.”