Taking on or engaging with abusers

Illustration Taking on or engaing with abusers Pranisha02

If you've ever had an online harasser, then you've probably had someone tell you, 'don't feed the trolls'. In other words: don't respond, oh no, because calling out the trolls only reinforces their behaviour.

But how universally helpful is this advice?

For one thing, many women and gender minorities know that it doesn’t always work: sometimes, the harassment just gets worse when you don't respond.

But also, what if the trolls want us to warily police ourselves on our own social media, never quite feeling at ease? What if us surrendering our digital spaces to them is precisely what the trolls are aiming for?

What are the long-term effects of us agreeing to that?

Taking on an abuser might entail reasoning with them and trying to explain your point of view. It might include countering misogynistic attitudes with facts and arguments, or with humour. Or you might take on abusers by telling them exactly where they can shove it. Tweet back to their taunts. Reply to their abusive emails. Give it back to them in the hellscape that is the comments section.

Whatever the form or platform, engaging with abusers is ultimately a refusal to back down. It is also a way of telling the trolls that they don’t own the Internet. That this is your space too, and that you’re not going anywhere.

Don’t let it stand. That is your dignity at stake. It is like dealing with street harassment. You walk on the street, someone whistles at you, you put your head down, you walk a little bit faster, you cross that patch, you move on. Second day. Third day. Eventually the space on the street you can walk on keeps shrinking, shrinking, and eventually you are just off the street. It’s your street. On the road, fighting off the bad guy is full of risks. On the Internet, it is not that risky. There is absolutely no excuse for not doing it. Look at it as street harassment happening on the Internet. But you are no longer limited by your physical size. You and the guy both have the same amount of power: you both have keyboards. Then what is stopping you?

-- Sharada, interviewed for Don’t Let It Stand

***The below contains illustrated examples of online abuse that readers might find distressing***

Actress Vishakha Singh gets a lot of less-than-savoury comments on Facebook, but she resiliently takes on several of her harassers. Here are two instances of her kicking ass, courtesy Buzzfeed.

When she posted this picture of herself in a fun t-shirt,

Credit: Buzzfeed

Vishakha received tons of obnoxious comments, including this one:

Credit: Buzzfeed

But she was not going to stand for poor boob-jokes, ignorance, or women being derided.

Credit: Buzzfeed

Vishakha has also been taking on other Facebook ‘fans’ who seem to think her breasts are up for public discussion.

Credit: Buzzfeed

Vishakha’s sharp responses counter ignorance and harassment with intelligence and facts. And by the look of things, neither man tried to push it any further. You go, V!

Vishakha is not alone in putting her faith in taking on abusers.

And to this [whole] "you can't do shit about it" concept - hell yes you can. You have to just make sure that people know you're there and you're NOT scared. And men will back off, cause nothing, as we know, is more powerful than a woman who stops giving a shit.

-- Aditi Mittal, in conversation with the Internet Democracy Project


Abusers might back down when they – and everyone else - realise you aren’t simply going to let this sort of behaviour and comments slide.

In volatile political climates, droves of abusers often go after people who criticise a certain party, policy or ideology.

When actor and TV presenter Shruthi Seth did the unthinkable, a.k.a. irritably tweeted about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s #selfiewithdaughter campaign, Twitter’s numerous BJP-supporters were not happy.

A selfie is not a device to bring about change Mr PM. Try reform. #SelfieobsessedPM

-- @shruthiseth

‘Not happy’ is putting it mildly, of course.

She writes in an open letter on Twitlonger (for when Twitter was still limited to 140 characters and that just wasn't cutting it):

The tweets were targeted at me, my family, my “Muslim” husband, my 11-month old daughter and, of course, my non-existent, dwindling, no-good career as an actor [… ]. Men who were busy hash-tagging their selfies with their daughters one minute called me slanderous names the next.

Viciously attacked over the next 48 hours by countless Twitter handles calling her everything from a ‘bitch’ to a ‘prostitute’, Shruthi vigilantly took on several of them.

Credit: India Today

As she notes in her open letter:

I had abused the highest office of the country (which is the President, by the way). And so I deserved to be punished. And punished on [sic] a manner commensurate with the vitriol that the anonymity & access of Twitter so easily provide.

But she kept up the good fight.

Credit: India Today

By the way, Twitter’s settings mean that if you share someone’s tweet with your own comment added to it, the person gets a notification – just like they would if you replied to them. Two birds, one stone. #JustSaying

Shruthi concludes in her note to India,

As for my initial reservation about the initiative being nothing more than eyewash, I am deeply saddened to see that, in the end, I was proved right.

In a not-entirely-dissimilar incident, when actress Sonam Kapoor voiced her disapproval of a four-day meat ban in Mumbai, all hell quickly broke loose.

Credit: FirstPost

But Sonam took them on.

Credit: FirstPost

And on.

Credit: FirstPost

And ON.

Credit: FirstPost

She also sent out some well-worded angry tweets about what was going on:

Credit: FirstPost

She finally ended with this wry comment, but not before her valiant fight showed that she was simply not going to ignore such behaviour.

Credit: FirstPost

And the good news is that there were plenty of people supporting her along the way.

When you’re taking on the trolls, knowing that your own online community has your back can make all the difference.


When abusers come with a political agenda, they tend to arrive in large numbers. But this doesn’t have to prevent you from defending yourself and taking them on, especially not if you have an online community of your own.

Responses don’t always need to be wordy. Here are some more Twitter ladies giving it back as good as they get. Or really, much better than they get – cleverly confronting abuse in a single comment.

When all journalist Sagarika Ghose could do was LOL.

Twitter user Sagarika Ghose quote tweets someone trolling her with

Journalist Barkha Dutt was not going to put up with it.

Credit: Scroll

In which writer and historian Nadika shut down this transphobic tweet with a well-placed Kaala reference.

Twitter user Nadika quote tweets someone trying to take a shot at a crowdfunding campaign for trans persons by saying

[Translation: 'Kumar, who is this fool?']

Rituparna Chatterjee spotted the sexism in an insult.

In response to a twitter user telling her she should behave and put forward her views politely, Rituparna Chatterjee asks if the person is implying that if women know their place, they will not be put down by bigoted idiots.

And writer Sandhya Menon had only one word to offer.

Twitter user Sandhya Menon quotes an abusive tweet saying


Although it may not be enough to completely eliminate further abuse, sometimes publicly taking on abusers with a clever one-liner is all it takes to turn the conversation on its head - as well as to showcase your wit and brilliance!

Taking on abusers isn’t just about coming up with smart, one-line responses (though that undoubtedly feels great). It can also entail engaging them in conversation, replying to their replies, and refusing to stop until they do.

Voracious Twitter user and activist @Vidyut is a seasoned master of this strategy.

So when this guy she’d never interacted with decided to announce to both her and the Twitterverse that he had had ‘enough’ of her, she was suitably distressed. NOT.

But she didn’t let it pass.

Twitter user Vidyut quote tweets to someone saying they would unfollow to say

He didn’t take it too well.

Then they had this little interaction.

Twitter user Vidut responds to the troll to say
The user responds by continuing to abuse her.

He was getting ragey, but she didn’t seem fazed at all.

Twitter user Vidyut quote tweets the person who was trolling her to say

It wasn’t long before the gender-specific insults started flowing.

But she didn’t bat an eyelash.

Twitter user Vidyut quote tweets the troll to say

And here are some concluding gems, in which she has the last word.

A conversation between Vidyut and the troll about the episode, after the person got exasperated with Vidyut responding to him.

Note: these are only selections of a much longer conversation that is a testament to Vidyut's patience and high emotional bandwidth. But taking on abuse is often an emotionally draining, traumatising process. If it ever gets too much, remember that it’s perfectly okay to step away: after all, the onus to stop abuse doesn’t lie with you.

Not feeling deterred? Here’s an idea of how to increase your bandwidth to engage with abusers. Since Vidyut gets so many ‘enthusiastic’ men in her Twitter DMs and mentions, she’s very kindly laid out some rules of engagement:

Four tweets from Vidyut generally warning against spamming her with mentions and sending too many emails.

Because after all, if you’re engaging with the trolls, who says it has to be on their terms?

So if you have the energy for it, go forth and feed the trolls. Feed them with your anger, your logic, your voice. Feed them until they’re full and then feed them some more.

Take up all the space you want.


Refusing to back down while remaining visibly unaffected and reframing the discussion in a way that works for you are powerful ways to take control of a conversation and of your online space.

In Summary

Taking on or engaging with abusers

  • Engaging with abusers is a powerful way to let them know you refuse to back down or be silenced.
  • It is also a way to take control of online spaces - you have as much of a right to be here as they do.
  • By retweeting abuse along with a comment to the abuser, you both make the abuse public as well as directly take them on.
  • If you decide to take them on, some harassers may back down, whereas others may see it as encouragement to keep abusing. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell in advance.
  • Taking on abusers is more difficult when they are in large numbers or linked to a political agenda, but it is still possible to fight back.
  • Engaging in a longer ‘conversation’ with abusers requires plenty of patience and emotional bandwidth, which you may not always be able to spare (and that’s okay!).
  • Even a single, well-placed retort can sometimes be extremely gratifying.