Dealing with online abuse - Museums Association

Dealing with online abuse

Fiona Morris shares some key principles from The Space’s toolkit
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Fiona Morris
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Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse, Manchester Art Gallery Manchester Art Gallery, reused under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence (CC BY-NC-ND)

As a digital agency, The Space has been encouraging cultural and heritage organisations to make work and engage audiences online since 2012.

In the wake of the Covid-19 lockdowns, the power of digital content has never been clearer – to share collections, illuminate facts and perspectives and connect with audiences near and far.

However, in recent years we have also seen a worrying rise in online abuse directed towards creative organisations and practitioners. We conducted a small survey of arts professionals in autumn 2019 that revealed almost half (42%) of respondents had experienced virulent criticism or abuse online. Just 19% had known how to deal with it.

In response to the survey, The Space has created a toolkit for cultural and heritage organisations on how to prepare for and respond to online abuse, and offers consultancy in this area.

Alarming for organisations and traumatic for individuals, online abuse often explodes unexpectedly so it is crucial we raise the profile of the issue within the sector and encourage people to prepare proactively.

Manchester Art Gallery curator Clare Gannaway found herself at the centre of a press and social media firestorm in 2018 when the gallery temporarily removed John William Waterhouse’s 1896 painting Hylas and the Nymphs.

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The removal was the climax of a takeover event by artist Sonia Boyce after months of discussions with staff and volunteers about how artworks are presented and how that shapes cultural identities. The painting was replaced with signage explaining the removal was temporary and asking for visitors’ reactions on cards.

One visitor stated that he felt this was censorship and spoke to the press. This ignited a frenzy of commentary and the social media posts that followed included calls for resignations and the gallery being compared to extremist regimes. More worryingly, someone sent one of Clare’s relatives a threatening message and the front of house team were verbally abused in the gallery.

Looking back now, Clare says the most upsetting aspect of the incident was seeing the distress people’s unacceptable behaviour caused to other staff. Indeed, she feels as a sector we need to have more open conversations with people in public-facing roles about what they have to deal with.

But she says team support and knowing the project was the result of a collective decision was invaluable.

“Teamwork, solidarity and an understanding of why you’re doing something is important. If you understand why you are doing something it helps you to feel confident about it,” she said.

Clare decided not to respond to comments on social media and also updated her privacy settings to ensure they were at a level she felt comfortable with.

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Following the incident, the gallery held an event to allow team members to reflect on their experiences and have continued working together on a re-think of all collection displays. The team also decided to archive and display some reactions to the 2018 event as a new facet of the painting’s history.

Online abuse can erupt without warning and impact many parts of an organisation. However, it is possible to create robust plans to manage this threat.

These include:

  • Discussing and defining what you mean by online abuse
  • Including the threat of online abuse in your risk assessments and thinking through how you want to respond (or not) if an incident occurs
  • Creating an emergency communications plan
  • Encouraging staff and freelancers to check their privacy settings and reviewing your IT security
  • Thinking through your duty of care and how you would support individuals if an incident occurs

For more information, please download The Space’s toolkit, or for more information about our consultancy services, please email contactus@thespace.org.

Fiona Morris is the creative director and CEO of The Space, which supports arts and cultural organisations to make great art and reach new audiences using digital media, content and platforms

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