Staying Safe while Speaking Out

This is an updated, reorganized, and less swear-y version of a piece I wrote in October 2017. I will keep this page updated as best practices evolve.

Safety and security:

Working with the media:

  • Carefully vet the reporters you talk to. I noted some folks I trust in my original post, but reach out to other folks in your field for more accurate referrals. Another good tactic here is to ask if they’ve previously covered sexual assault and/or sexism in your industry and ask for press clippings of previous coverage.
  • If you’re talking to a reporter who is new to covering these issues, here are some some excellent guides you could send them on how to be sensitive towards victims.
  • Email interviews are a great hack. You get the time to consider what to say and make sure that it won’t open you up to litigation, you can just decline to answer some of the questions (because cripes, the questions people will ask you…). Working over email also lets you run your responses by a trusted and hopefully less-traumatized friend to make sure they’re unambiguous and don’t reveal more than you intend.
  • Some useful language re: the press. Know the difference between these terms, and get the reporter you’re talking to to agree to the one you prefer before you say anything:
    • On the record: can be published, can be attributed to you by name
    • Off the record: can’t be published, can’t be attributed to you by name
    • On background: can be quoted or paraphrased and used as a story detail without direct attribution but with a vague organizational affiliation, eg. “a person in the White House who was not authorized to speak to the press” – this is the usual “anonymous source” mode
    • On deep background, not for attribution: can be quoted or paraphrased and used as a story detail without any attribution
      • When you want to say something on either “background” and “deep background,” it’s useful to give a clear definition of what you mean, just so you’re both on the same page. The definitions given above are commonly used. If you want, copy/paste those exact sentences into the email with the reporter so you’re unmistakably clear about your boundaries.
    • You can ask for anonymity. You can ask for press time to be delayed. You can negotiate anything as long as you do it before you give the quote. If you have conditions, make sure your agreement is hashed out in advance. Journalists are not bound to conditions imposed after the fact.
    • If the reporter is working for a magazine, sometimes they will ask you for a phone number so that a fact-checker can call you. Don’t be freaked out: this is common practice and doesn’t mean you’re going to be de-anonymized. Incidentally: the fact-checker is not obligated to read back to you verbatim what’s going to be in the piece, but you will get a sense of what’s going to end up in the piece based the questions they do ask.
      • Again, if this freaks you out, negotiate a different process before you give the quote, such as doing the fact-checking over email.
    • You can do things like “anything below this line is on the record” or “anything in italics is off the record” – just get an agreement in writing with the journalist as to the shared format
    • The rules around on the record / off the record / not for attribution / anonymity and so on are built to give journalists flexibility in dealing with sources who have power, like the PR divisions of major corporations. If a journalist pushes the outer bound of ethics really far with a victim, that has entirely different consequences than doing that to a company. Keep in mind that corporations and government sources negotiate these kinds of terms with journalists all the time, and very aggressively: there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be in your toolkit too.

Self-care, mental health, and other notes:

  • Coming forward is a HUGE step towards protecting other people. If you’ve done so willingly, thank you for your profound courage. We talk a lot in infosec about whistleblowers, but you should know that you are a goddamn whistleblower too. If your story has been told without your consent, I know that that’s a wretched retraumatizing experience and I am so sorry – but please do know that it’s not without impact and WILL keep other people safe in the future.
  • Enlist the support of trusted friends or loved ones to monitor social media and sites like Reddit and 4chan for threats directed at you. A couple of ways to do this:
    • You can securely grant someone access to your Twitter account using Tweetdeck Teams. Alternately, a simple way to monitor messages sent to a particular user is to use the “to:” search operator like so. Use a private browsing window so that you see tweets from blocked users as well.
    • Reddit’s search has a url: operator (search for url:example.com for example) you can use to track discussion around your posts or news stories about you.
    • 4chan will usually leak onto Reddit or Twitter.
  • It is up to you whether this is a good time or not to be open to hearing from other victims. In 2018, I noted in my post that I wasn’t ready to listen to other survivors’ stories, and directed folks to appropriate counseling resources. Almost everyone respected this, for which I was grateful. It gave me time and space to process going public without being retraumatized by trying to help others process their own experiences. I have since spoken with many other survivors (of the same assailant and others) and it has been a very important part of my healing process, but it was important to me to take the time to just process the media drama with close and trusted friends, and my therapist, first.
  • Therapy is great and has been an essential part of being resilient in the face of garbage fires like you’re going through. If you’re employed, your work may have an EAP that will get you a therapist with minimal fuss. If it’s not covered by your insurance Captain Awkward has a guide to locating low-cost mental health services in the US and Canada, and a newer post on other free and low-cost mental health resources. I’m also a big fan of the book “Unfuck Your Brain: Using Science to Get Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-outs, and Triggers” by Dr. Faith G. Harper as a great DIY resource and starting point for working through trauma.
  • I was fortunate to have access to good pro bono legal advice and some familiarity of my own with the laws around defamation. You probably want to find a lawyer to talk to (it’s worth paying money for if you can’t find someone to talk to you for free). Local domestic violence shelters and rape crisis hotlines may be able to help here with referrals. Remember that lawyers tend to be conservative due to the nature of their work; “this could get you sued” is not the same as “this WILL get you sued”. Sometimes the risk is worth it. The other thing to look are the “anti-SLAPP” laws in your jurisdiction – some of them have language that specifically deals with the right to speak out about one’s own experiences with DV or sexual assault. The ACLU also has some fresh advice on this stuff in their #MeToo series.

Some resources for bystanders: