H7: Providing support and advice
It's natural for you to want to offer as much help and support to a harassment victim as you can, but you must keep in mind that your skills and tools do not necessarily encompass all types of help and support that a victim may need. At times, there will be advice you simply cannot offer, either because doing so may inadvertently harm the victim or you or because it would be more useful to refer the victim to someone more qualified to offer that support.
What kind of support can you offer?
Before we go into types of support, remember: you should never feel obligated to counsel or advise harassment victims if you are not comfortable doing so. Your mental health and safety are as important as those of anyone else. It is much better for you to pass off a case to someone more equipped to handle it than for you to burn out trying to do it all yourself.
What you can do: Non-actionable cases
The most important part of offering support to victims is something you've already read about in this module: empathy. Your goal should be to communicate to the victim that you understand their feelings and that you are approaching the situation with those feelings in mind. Even in cases where you can offer no concrete action, providing emotional support can still help the victim feel safer. Your communications with a victim should balance honesty with sensitivity. While both of those are generally good things, being overly blunt or attempting too hard to shield a victim can lessen the effectiveness of your communications.
What you can do: Actionable cases
As a functionary investigating a harassment case, you are also the person best positioned to take concrete action to stop the harassment – where doing so is possible and called for. When a case is closed or a sanction put in place, you should let the victim and/or reporter know that action has been taken. Try not to make this communication emotional, whether apologetic or pleased; your goal is simply to let them know what has happened.
What you can do: Malicious or mistaken reports
A situation where a report was made to you in bad faith or with significant, compromising errors can be one of the hardest to communicate about. You will be dealing with an alleged harasser who is defensive, anxious, and impatient as well as a reporter who is likely to be pushing hard for action and reluctant to reconsider their views. The key in many of these situations is to carry out communication without judgment. When talking to a mistaken reporter, remember that if they believe that they were harassed – whether you believe they were or not – you can still offer links to support venues like RAINN or the Victim Connect Helpline. Support venues exist for support in other languages.
When you speak to the subject of a mistaken or malicious report, keep in mind that you are delivering positive news to them. They are not in trouble, and you know they didn't do anything wrong. That doesn't mean you should communicate emotionally, however – you are a neutral, evaluative party, not a friend congratulating them on being vindicated or a prosecutor going into detail about the other party's guilt. Repeated malicious reports are a problem that should be communicated to other people who may be receiving reports from that person. It is important that knowledge is shared, and that other people's time is not wasted on evaluating reports without basis. People intentionally abusing reporting systems may need to be sanctioned, and this behaviour can constitute a form of harassment itself.
What kind of support can the Wikimedia Foundation offer?
The Wikimedia Foundation's Trust and Safety team is always available as a resource to both you and harassment victims in cases where you need us. However, while SuSa is always happy to provide advice, it can only take action in the most severe of cases. This can include cases where a community has already taken unsuccessful steps to resolve the harassment or cases of harassment serious enough that the community cannot resolve it themselves. Here are a few types of help the Wikimedia Foundation can offer:
- Emergencies: If a threat to someone's real-life safety has been made on a Wikimedia project (for instance, a harasser threatening to find someone's home and hurt them), you should immediately report that threat (including diffs) to the Support & Safety team's emergency email hotline (emergencywikimediaorg). This hotline is monitored 24 hours a day, and the staff who monitor it are able to quickly pass such situations on to law enforcement or others who can help ensure the safety of the threatened person.
- Victim support: The Support & Safety team exists to assist and protect our users, and team members are available to offer support to victims of harassment. In the past this has included things like providing letters of good standing for harassment victims to give to employers who are receiving negative contact about the victim, connecting victims to non-Wikimedia resources that may help them, and simply being a sympathetic ear. If you feel actions of this type are needed in a case, please direct the person who needs assistance to cawikimediaorg.** Please note, however, that Wikimedia Foundation staff are neither social workers nor trained mental health professionals. For the safety of all involved, staff cannot provide counselling or emotional support, though they can direct community members in need to other available resources for these things.
- Legal support: The Wikimedia Foundation's Legal staff, under American ethics guidelines, cannot offer legal advice to individual community members. However, when an eligible community member is the subject of a legal threat or lawsuit, the Wikimedia Foundation's Legal Fees Assistance Program may be able to help them locate and pay for their own counsel. In these situations, please contact the Legal team directly at legalwikimediaorg
What kind of non-Wikimedia support can you direct someone to?
You will have noticed in the above sections that due to privacy, safety, and legal concerns, there are significant limitations to the types of assistance that functionaries and the Wikimedia Foundation can provide to harassment victims. This does not mean, however, that there is no help you can offer to victims in need of types of assistance you and the WMF cannot provide; you are free to use your judgment in referring those in need of further assistance to organizations and resources that can offer that assistance! The following examples are by no means exhaustive; for a more detailed listing of resources, see the Support & Safety Resource List.
Support you should not offer
There are some types of support and advice that you should not attempt to give to users; these include mental health counselling and legal advice, both of which should only be given by trained and qualified professionals.
Mental health counselling
If you handle harassment cases, you will be dealing with people in various levels of mental distress. Most people understand that functionaries are not psychology professionals and will not expect you to provide counselling, but in cases where someone is in crisis or where you feel the appropriate mental health advice is obvious, it can be tempting to offer it – please don't.
Why shouldn't you offer counselling, even in a case where the victim needs it or you believe you know what to do? For more than one reason:
- Boundaries: As a functionary handling a harassment issue, your community expects you to act in a neutral, investigatory manner. Reaching past that role to counsel a victim risks confusing them – "is this person an investigator or my friend/advisor?" – and overstepping the trust your community gave you.
- Not dividing your energy: You are a functionary in your community because your community felt you had expertise in the skills that role calls for: discretion, knowledge of IP address technology, good judgment in resolving disputes, etc. Even if you think advice beyond your functionary role could be useful, remember that you are of most use to someone in a harassment situation by using the skills the community asked you to use; try not to get sidetracked by trying to offer other services as well.
- Safety of the victim: Unless you are a trained mental health professional, you simply cannot know the appropriate way to treat or counsel someone in a mental health crisis. Trying to do so without the necessary expertise means that, if you make a wrong treatment decision, you could inadvertently cause harm the person you are trying to help. In the case of mental health and crisis counselling, this kind of mistake could lead to a victim being even more upset, or even to a non-life-threatening situation escalating into a life-threatening crisis.
- Liability: By representing yourself as someone able to provide mental health advice, you could be violating laws in many places that govern who may give medical treatment. If such a law applies to you, you could be held legally responsible for negative repercussions from the advice you provided. Professional providers have insurance to protect them in this situation; you likely do not.
In short, it is in everyone's best interests in a harassment situation for you to focus on assisting as a functionary, not a mental health counsellor. You may optionally wish to suggest to a victim who asks for counselling that they reach out to an organization like the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) (US only), which can help those in need find mental health treatment and resources, or provide them a link to a resource directory like the Metafilter "There is help" page (international), but you are not obligated to do so if you are not comfortable.
If you believe a situation is an emergency where the victim or someone else is in immediate physical danger, you should contact emergencywikimediaorg or local authorities immediately.
If you handle harassment cases, you will almost certainly eventually encounter one in which legal concerns come up. Perhaps a victim will want to know if they can issue a [Glossarylink|DCMA] to force another website to take down images of them; perhaps the harassment someone reports to you will be in the form of "I will sue you" legal threats; perhaps a victim will ask whether they should pursue legal action against the harasser.
As with mental health issues, it can be tempting to offer a victim with legal questions or needs whatever level of advice you feel you can. Please don't. Why? Many of the reasons are similar to the reasons you should not offer mental health counselling:
- Boundaries: see mental health counselling, above
- Not dividing your energy: see mental health counselling, above
- Best interests of the victim: Though giving poor legal advice is less likely to lead to physical harm than giving poor mental health counseling, the damage it can do is nonetheless significant. Being given incorrect legal advice could lead them to take (or not take) legal actions that are not easily reversible; it could even lead to a victim putting themselves in a situation where a harasser has grounds to file a legal case against their victim.
- Liability: In some countries, including the United States, it is illegal to carry out the unauthorized practice of law, which includes activities like "providing information about what actions to take or giving advice to someone that is specifically tailored to an individual's unique situation, under the guise of being an lawyer or person experienced in the law." Breaking laws of this type puts you in legal jeopardy of your own – you could be fined or imprisoned!
If someone involved in a harassment case asks for legal advice, you should explain to them that you cannot offer advice of that type. If you know of a resource that can connect victims to qualified legal assistance, you may wish to offer it, but you are not obligated to do so and if you are uncomfortable for any reason, you may choose to simply explain to the victim that you cannot provide such assistance. Linked below are two resources that allow a victim to search for legal aid by area, crime type, and other requirements:
#2: Offering support and resources
This module will periodically present you with multiple-choice questions you can use to test your knowledge of the module you are studying. While more than one of the suggested answers may seem correct, remember that you should try to pick the most correct of the options.
(Discuss this question)
You have just concluded a harassment investigation reported to you by the victim, User A. User A received "prank" phone calls from someone who claimed to be another Wikimedian, User B, but you have been unable to either verify or refute the alleged identity of the harasser, though it seems likely that B is the culprit. User A has not been subjected to any harassment on Wikimedia projects, and since the phone call behavior does not rise to a level of threat that would call for reporting it to the Wikimedia Foundation or the local police, you have reached the conclusion that there are no actions you can take that will resolve the situation. What should your reply to User A look like?
Which option would you choose?
- Hello A, My team have been unable to verify that User B is the person who called your phone number, and as a result we are declining your request for action against B and closing this file with no action. Please feel free to reach back out to us if you have any new evidence in the future. If you feel that your personal safety is threatened, in this situation or any other, please don't hesitate to contact your local authorities and/or the Wikimedia Foundation Emergency email team.
- Hi A, It doesn't look like there's any proof that User B called you, and he denies it. We consider this matter closed, since we were unable to verify your report. Please do not bring these allegations against User B up on-wiki, since they are unverifiable and would be considered harassment against B. I suggest that if you want to resolve the situation, you contact B directly to discuss it.
- Hello A, I wanted to let you know that my team has finished our investigation into the report you sent us. Though we found your report valid, my team can only act in cases where we are able to definitively prove the identity of the harasser and take actions on-wiki to stop the harassment, and those were not possible in this case. I apologize for what I know is an unsatisfying conclusion to the case for you, and I encourage you to reach back out to me or any other local functionary in the future if you experience further harassment or need assistance.
I would also like to offer you a few other resources in case you find them useful:
Most importantly, if at any time you feel that your personal safety is threatened, in this situation or any other, please don't hesitate to contact your local authorities and/or the Wikimedia Foundation Emergency email team.
You may wish to reach out to off-wiki resources for either emotional or logistical support in dealing with this situation. Some really great hotlines and service organizations, most of which do not charge for the help they offer, are listed at http://mefiwiki.com/wiki/ThereIsHelp
If you would like to try something proactive about harassment against Wikimedians, next month the Wikimedia Foundation is going to be running a round of grant applications centered around preventing harassment on its projects. Applications will be accepted at [example page name]; you would be welcome there to suggest projects or discuss other people's projects.
- Hello A, I am sorry to tell you that we are not going to be able to take any action to help you in this situation. Please understand that this does not mean that we don't believe your report, or that we are declaring people "innocent" or "guilty" in this situation. To the contrary, I personally am convinced that B is the person who placed those phone calls to you, and I will be keeping an eye on B's behavior in the future. However, since we couldn't definitively link B to the phone number that called you, there is not much we can do in this case.
In addition, I want to let you know that the Wikimedia Foundation is going to be running a round of grant applications next month centered around preventing harassment on its projects. That could be your chance to get the community to do something about the kind of behavior you experienced. You may also wish to reach out to off-wiki resources for either emotional or logistical support in dealing with this situation. Some really great hotlines and service organizations, most of which do not charge for the help they offer, are listed at http://mefiwiki.com/wiki/ThereIsHelp
Lastly, if at any time you feel that your personal safety is threatened, in this situation or any other, please don't hesitate to contact your local authorities and/or the Wikimedia Foundation Emergency email team.
Ready to see the correct answer?
Click to expand! (click to expand or collapse)
The correct answer is: Answer C, which makes a non-judgmental statement of the case's outcome, acknowledges the feelings of the victim, and offers them further non-Wikimedia resources.
Answer A, while not entirely incorrect, is overly terse and may make the victim feel that you do not believe their report. It also does not provide any recommendations to the victim of where they can reach out for further help.
Answer B is not a good option because it not only may leave the victim with the impression that you do not believe them, but also threatens them if they seek further help. While it is true that a victim who reacts by persecuting their alleged harasser would be a behavioral issue, this case outcome email is not the appropriate place to bring it up, especially if you do not have specific reason to think the victim will do this. If you do have reason to think the victim might do it, there are better ways to make the point without sounding threatening.
Answer D is on the right track for a response to an upset victim, in that it expresses no judgment about the validity of the case and offers further resources, but this response goes too far in sharing your personal feelings about user:B's guilt and urging user:A to get involved in a round of Grants specifically to advocate for their particular situation.