...we all lose.
Online harassment of people on the Internet is nothing new; older Internet denizens such as myself who cut their teeth in the era of Usenet groups learned early the beauty of anonymity, and for women especially the importance of choosing a user name that was gender ambiguous and to withhold any personal information that could reveal one's gender until they felt confident that their fellow netizens had no ill intents and could be trusted.
But with the rise and accessibility of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, we're seeing a lot more harassment and vitriol -- or maybe we're just actually talking about it now. And much of it is directed at women.
Around here, we see it every day -- someone posts a diary, and someone else disagrees with it, sometimes vehemently. The discussion in the comments edges into that no-man's land called the right margin:
IfBut at least here, we have some form of moderation, both HRs from community, "time outs" to give a particularly vitriolic person a chance to reflect on their behavior, or the ultimate BOJO for the spammer and the unredeemable.
In social media, there is no similar restraint. Yes, Twitter will cancel accounts if they get enough complaints...but there's nothing stopping the miscreant from creating a new account and returning to the scene of the crime to double down. And Facebook isn't much better; it's quite easy to make up a "real name", then create a new account using a new email address if you get zapped for violating "Terms of Service" (which seem to be a nebulous creature anyway judging from what gets posted and Facebook refuses to take down.
For women especially, and for those who actually dare to speak their mind on controversial issues, social media is a field of land mines. Yet, in order to have an impact on the world, we have to be out in it -- we can't simply limit our discussions to the current fashion trends or celebrity divorce.
The discussion started with a piece by Amanda Hess at Pacific Standard. She found herself the target of harassing and threatening Twitter messages, all because she wrote things that others, mainly men, disagreed with:
I dragged myself out of bed and opened my laptop. A few hours earlier, someone going by the username “headlessfemalepig” had sent me seven tweets. “I see you are physically not very attractive. Figured,” the first said. Then: “You suck a lot of drunk and drug fucked guys cocks.” As a female journalist who writes about sex (among other things), none of this feedback was particularly out of the ordinary. But this guy took it to another level: “I am 36 years old, I did 12 years for ‘manslaughter’, I killed a woman, like you, who decided to make fun of guys cocks.” And then: “Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.” There was more, but the final tweet summed it up: “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.”She then goes on to detail how she reported the threats, only to be rebuffed by law enforcement:
Two hours later, a Palm Springs police officer lumbered up the steps to my hotel room, paused on the outdoor threshold, and began questioning me in a steady clip. I wheeled through the relevant background information: I am a journalist; I live in Los Angeles; sometimes, people don’t like what I write about women, relationships, or sexuality; this was not the first time that someone had responded to my work by threatening to rape and kill me. The cop anchored his hands on his belt, looked me in the eye, and said, “What is Twitter?”To many women, the fear of being raped is greater than the fear of being murdered. When you're murdered, well, you're dead and there's nothing else that can be done to you. But rape is the ultimate violation of your person...and something that you have to live with for a long time. Women who've been raped have been rejected by their spouses or boyfriends, shunned by family and friends especially in some cultures.
Staring up at him in the blazing sun, the best answer I could come up with was, “It’s like an e-mail, but it’s public.” What I didn’t articulate is that Twitter is the place where I laugh, whine, work, schmooze, procrastinate, and flirt. It sits in my back pocket wherever I go and lies next to me when I fall asleep. And since I first started writing in 2007, it’s become just one of the many online spaces where men come to tell me to get out.
The standard response from law enforcement when it comes to online harassment, is, predictably, getting offline: close or lock your Twitter account, stop blogging, just stay quiet and the bad men will leave you alone. But for a woman who is trying to make their name in journalism or blogging, this is totally unrealistic. These women have to be out there, have to put their names and their words in front of the public. They can't hide behind a screen name like their harassers.
Conor Friersdorf of The Atlantic saw first hand the harassment many women face for speaking their mind, when he filled in for a female blogger on the site. He came to the conclusion that this harassment and the advice to women to "unplug" is the reason why the blogosphere has become nearly male dominated.
Around this time, I began to ask female friends if they experienced this same phenomenon. And not only were they close to unanimous in avowing that they did—many also cited a weariness at gendered online abuse to explain why they either shuttered their personal blogs and stopped writing for the public, or shifted their journalistic efforts to a traditional format rather than the more personalized blog format. This is the very time that people like Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein were building the personal blogs from which they would become successful national pundits. One wonders how many equally talented women we missed out on reading due to misogynists hurling vile invective at rising female journalists.Over in the United Kingdom, they face similar issues, and have been discussing it for far longer. Last October, Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project addressed Parliament on the issue:
The process of democracy in the UK is shaped by exciting and vibrant activism, across a whole range of issues, from climate change to women’s equality. Increasingly, in the digital age, this activism is both organized and carried out using online resources such as social media. The Internet is a vital tool in raising the voices of those who have frequently previously been silenced, and allowing marginalized and disadvantaged groups a platform to campaign for their rights. But the experience of participating in an online campaign or in online activism is manifestly different for men than it is for women.There are women out there who aren't letting the assholes shut them up and shut them down. Lizz Winstead frequently holds up her more vitriolic critics to public ridicule by republishing the Tweets she receives (called reTweeting) so the entire "Twitterverse" can see them. And when a British student/journalist received harassing messages for her work in having a woman's picture on British currency, the police took it seriously enough to arrest two people who have pled guilty to the offense (or offence to use the British spelling).
Simply by participating in online spaces, women are faced with a barrage of content that can make it a hostile and dangerous environment for them.
But more specifically, women who dare to use their voices to discuss politics or take part in democratic processes online tend to face a barrage of online abuse.
But for every woman who fights back, how many women shut down their blogs and social media accounts, or limit their online activities to the standard talk of clothes and boyfriends and celebrities, rather than addressing the big issues like reproductive rights, economic inequality and the like? How many voices have we lost -- or will lose in the future?
• Despite a problematic Lifetime Achievement Award to Woody Allen (brilliant director, questionable behavior in his social life), women had a big night at the Golden Globes, most notably co-hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler who got in some digs at the sexism in Hollywood:
...they pointed out that Matthew McConaughey lost 45 pounds for his role in Dallas Buyers Club, then quipped "or what actresses call being in a movie."• More from Tinseltown: An Oscar-Nominated Director Gets Real About How Women Are Treated in Hollywood
• In the wake of the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, a discussion about the practice of companies using "booth babes" to attract visitors to demonstration booths. Guess what: they don't work.
• The Church of England could appoint its first female bishop by Christmas of this year. For those of us in the Episcopal Church in the USA who have worshiped alongside female bishops for 25 years and currently have the wonderful Katherine Jefferts-Schori as our Presiding Bishop, we'd like to welcome the English Anglicans into the 21st Century.
• The Shriver Report was released this week -- and not much in there was surprising to anyone who hangs out here on a regular basis. Got to admit that Beyoncé wrote a few good paragraphs though. (Have heard good things about her latest album -- need to check it out.)
• Irony Is Dead Department: Anti-Choice Senate Candidate Ken Buck on Having Cancer: "I Wanted To Be in Control of … My Body"
• And finally, an action item: it's obviously never too young to teach little girls the joys of plastic surgery when their bodies don't quite fit the societal norm. Contact Apple and Google and ask them to reconsider the marketing of these apps for iTunes and Google Play respectively.
Thanks for stopping by.