Fighting Back Against Abuse: The Future of Women and Online Harassment

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TRIGGER WARNING: This post deals with sensitive topics such as rape threats and sexual assault. Some of the material included is explicit in nature.

In recent years especially, the Internet has become an extremely hostile space for women. From gaming to social media, there has been an explosion of online harassment, often with very little recourse for the women who are facing rape and death threats. What kinds of abuse are women facing online today? Why is it so hard for them and for our institutions to cope with these problems? And finally, what can Internet users and social media companies do to address these issues in the future?

To begin, let’s look at some of the statistics regarding online harassment. A recent PEW research study detailed the many forms that online abuse can take: name-calling, trolling, doxing, open and escalating threats, vicious sexist, racist, and homophobic rants, attempts to shame others, and direct efforts to embarrass or humiliate people. While these issues affect both men and women, it affects women disproportionately so, with 73% of women online reporting that they have faced some kind of abuse.

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This begs the question of whether or not the Internet is a “welcoming” place for women. Along this vein, PEW asked its sample to rate how “friendly” certain Internet neighborhoods were for men and women. The results show that most people consider the Internet to be equally welcoming for men and women, with the exception being online gaming where the largest discrepancy between men and women exists.

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These perceptions, however, don’t seem to match the reality of most women. Although many reported social networking sites and apps (such as Twitter and Facebook) to be equally friendly to both genders, the women surveyed were most likely to report social networking sites and apps as the scene of their most recent instance of online harassment.

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This discrepancy may account for why this problem has gone unaddressed for so long. If the majority of people perceive the Internet as equally friendly towards both men and women, it is difficult for women who do suffer abuse to get the wider community to recognize how serious the problem has become.

While statistics are always useful for painting a larger, contextual picture, they tend to gloss over the more human element. The fact of the matter is, the majority of women online face very real, very visceral threats regardless of whether or not they are public figures or just your everyday Internet user. Here are a few examples of typical tweets that women receive almost daily:

The examples don’t end here. Emma Grey’s tongue-in-cheek listicle details 13 things you can do on the Internet to receive a rape threat (#13 is, quite simply, be a woman) that links to the real stories each point is based on.

Here is a horrifying and moving piece by journalist Amanda Hess detailing how Twitter harassment and cyber-stalking ended in a physical confrontation with a man who was later hospitalized for mental issues and then arrested. She highlights particularly the law enforcement’s failure to aid her, even though she had abundant evidence of violent rape and death threats made against her.

Sadly, Hess’s experience is far from unique. Here’s a list of the most prominent cases of online harassment in the last few years. Jill Filipovic shares a similar story about how quickly virtual threats become physical ones when a Twitter troll tracked her down and threatened her, and media critic and activist Soraya Chemaly wrote a great piece on why women are particularly vulnerable to uniquely cruel kinds of online abuse. Journalist Amanda Marcotte has also opened up about how years of harassment on Twitter led her to disable users’ ability to tag each other in tweets on her Twitter feed. In yet another example of how online threats can escalate to real world violence, game critic Anita Sarkeesian (check out my blog post for more information) and game developer Zoe Quinn were both forced out of their homes after repeated rape and death threats from the group #GamerGate.  Lastly, here’s a truly stomach-turning collection of years’ worth of rape and death threats made against Rebecca Watson.

This is a fantastic longer piece detailing exactly what qualifies as Internet aggression and what we should to to combat it:

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For a quicker overview of things, this NPR piece on the Diane Rehm Show also does a great job of detailing the #GamerGate controversy more specifically. In it, you also hear more from Hess about her traumatic experience and her frustrating dealings with law enforcement.

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What’s apparent from the overwhelming amount of examples is that a very serious problem exists for women online, one where they face a daily barrage of violent messages that takes a huge emotional toll, and sometimes a physical one in the cases where virtual stalking translates into real-world threats. In light of all this evidence, why is it so difficult to recognize that an issue exists and work towards a solution?

Well, one problem is that there is currently no legal definition of what constitutes online harassment, and the standards for proving something to be a true threat are difficult to meet in the context of the Internet. The Supreme Court is weighing in on the issue for the first time in an upcoming court case, but as of now no legal precedent exists on how to handle this kind of abuse.

Another piece of the puzzle is that the Internet is a global network, but reports of serious threats go to local law enforcement, who have no real power or jurisdiction to track down any one abuser. Women are left in a catch-22, where they must ignore or laugh off extremely frightening (and personal) threats, or report each and every instance of abuse to local law enforcement who a) lack the power to apprehend the perpetrator, much less convict them and b) often dismiss such concerns altogether as “unreasonable hysterics.” Most officers recommend that women report such abuse to the online site directly.

Unfortunately, women don’t fare much better with online platforms themselves. The gender imbalance in most online companies means that it is largely males who decide how to deal with the billions of instances of female-directed abuse, and companies like Twitter have a long history of telling women “too bad, so sad.” Women are largely told to fend for themselves on Twitter, where official recommendations are to fill out a form for each, individual instance of abuse (and even then, not all rape threats violate Twitter policies) or to just remain silent. The company has suggested that “abusive users often lose interest once they realize you won’t respond” so it recommends unfollowing them, blocking them, or in extreme cases, calling the police. Twitter does ban abusive users from its network, but only when they issue “direct, specific threats of violence against others.” According to one article, that’s a criminal standard stricter than the code you’d encounter at any workplace, school campus, or neighborhood bar. In fact, Take Back the Tech, which is a global campaign to raise awareness about violence against women online, gave Twitter an “F” on a report card assessing its policies on dealing with instances of abuse.

It is easy for Twitter and companies like it to pass the blame as well, since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 does not hold website administrators liable for content posted by users. With the police officers washing their hands of the issue in favor of administrative regulation and online platforms skirting around the issue altogether, who is left for women to turn to in order to address these instances of rampant abuse?

It seems that in light of such failures, women are turning to each other and to themselves. Third party developers, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have developed an app called Block Together, which allows users to share their list of blocked users with friends and auto-block new users who at-reply them. A similar app, Flaminga, offers filters that allows users to instantly mute all Twitter accounts that share certain features, such as use of a sexist slur or accounts that are following a particular user. Both apps allow you to share your blocked lists with other users in what becomes a community-wide effort to prevent abuse.

Another example of a coping tactic is the use of humor and public shaming. A relatively recent instance of this was a young woman who sent screenshots of rape threats to the mothers of the men who sent her the messages. The images have since gone viral.

The blog Bye Felipe is another excellent example of this.  It creates a safe space for women to share their experiences and validate one another through laughter (for more on this topic, check out my blog post how women are using social media to fight abuse).

I got the chance to ask Alexandra Tweten, the creator of Bye Felipe, a few questions about her project and her opinions on where the future of women on social media is headed:

Q: Around how many submissions do you receive for Bye Felipe? Does Bye Felipe generate more interest when there are specific controversies trending elsewhere (like #shirtstorm, #GamerGate, or #DudesGreetingDudes)?

A: It’s been a steady stream of submissions ever since the article in The Atlantic came out, which was the first press coverage. I have about 2,300 unread submissions in my email inbox, 200 Instagram direct messages and 300 Facebook messages that I haven’t even opened. I only started it on October 13, so it hasn’t been around very long, but I definitely see an uptick in submissions and follows when Bye Felipe is mentioned in the press, or shared on popular blogs. There have been a few news articles that link shaming men online such as Straight White Guys Texting and Nice Guys of OkCupid, but I think the most traffic comes from online news rather than Twitter discussions or hashtags.

Q: What do you think drawing public attention to the abusive actions of men online accomplishes? Do you think it has the potential to be an effective means for change, or is it a more cathartic, validating experience for the women who share their submissions?

A: I wanted to draw attention to this issue for a few reasons. 1, to validate other women. A lot of women feel bad when they receive these messages or think that it’s something they did to cause the guy to react. I’ve received many thank you messages from women saying they feel better now that they know lots of other women get hostile messages from men. 2. I also wanted to let men know what it’s like to be a woman online. Men who don’t send these types of messages a lot of times have no idea that this is the environment we as women deal with. I hope that men who witness other men participating in the behavior will help police it and discourage it. For the men who send hostile messages, I wanted to publicly shame them. I hope they are embarrassed that they acted like that, and don’t continue that behavior. I hope all men take note and think twice about sending a hateful message because women already deal with them enough. 3. In airing these messages, I wanted to start a conversation about harassment and point out how prevalent it is in our society.

Q: What role do you think humor plays in these exchanges?

A: Humor is an important piece of Bye Felipe because most of the time, the first thing these hostile men will attack is the woman’s looks. We are already barraged with everything in popular culture that tells us that our looks are our most important and most valued asset. When men demean women’s looks, they are trying to harness the inherent power they possess because of their gender. I make fun of these guys to try to take away that power they have in making women feel bad about their bodies. I’m saying, “look at you, you’re ridiculous, and your words don’t hurt us. You should be ashamed of yourself for sending hateful messages.” I have hundreds of thousands of followers backing me up. I refrain from posting serious threats or stalking messages because I don’t want to make light of an actual dangerous situation. There’s a tumblr called When Women Refuse that chronicles real violence women face when they say no. I use humor to dismantle any harm that these insults may cause.

Q: Why do you think that there has been an escalation of hostility and aggression towards women online in the last few years especially? What do you think of how pervasive it has become in recent media reports?

A:I don’t necessarily think there has been an escalation of hostility, but I think it has been reported on more, and people have been paying attention to it, calling it out, and saying it’s wrong. I think historically this hostility and aggression was just seen as commonplace, and something that women just expected. It wasn’t seen as a problem, or at least a problem that you talked about freely. Now with the internet, it’s easy to reach millions of people quickly and effectively, so I think the conversation has changed. People are starting to call out aggression and inequality faster and louder than before. I’m thankful that catcalling and rape and harassment has become prevalent in media reports because unless you’ve experienced it, you don’t really know the extent to which it is problematic or harmful. The message has been allowed to reach a much larger group of people, who can now understand at least a little bit, that it is a very real problem. I think Bye Felipe is such a simple concept, and something that women just deal with every day that they don’t even notice it. I wanted to point it out and say, “Hey everyone, look, isn’t this messed up?” It’s wonderful that these stories are being seen as problematic in the media because that’s how you change minds.

Q: What, in your opinion, could be done to make social media spaces more women-friendly now and in the future?

A: I think it should be easier to ban trolls, but silencing them doesn’t fix the root of the problem. We’ve got to have a discussion as a society and say what is appropriate behavior and what is not appropriate behavior. Unless something changes in the misogynistic undercurrent of our culture, women will continue to receive these messages, if not online, in real life as well. I don’t think OkCupid or Tinder or Facebook should be censored, but I think it should be easier to block people who you don’t want to interact with. Harassers should face more serious consequences.

Q: I found Bye Felipe through Instagram. Do you consider this its main platform? If so, why Instagram as opposed to other social media sites? Do you envision expanding to Twitter specifically in the future (beyond the small number of already existing posts there)?

A:I started it on Instagram because it was easy. It was literally a split-second decision to create it, and it was just a simple way of conveying the message and keeping the screenshots together. It is the main platform, although I have a Facebook and Twitter page, but I’m not as active on those because it’s mostly a side-project for me. I have a full time job, so I don’t have time to update on three separate platforms all the time. facebook.com/officialbyefelipe and @bye_felipe on Twitter.

Q: Twitter and WAM! have recently partnered to create an online harassment report form. Do you think this is an appropriate means of addressing the problem of online abuse? What other recommendations would you make based on your own experiences and your contact with other women’s experiences via Bye Felipe?

A: Yes, I think the harassment form is a great idea, and it should be continued into all of the other social media platforms as well. Policing harassment is such a difficult issue, and efforts to improve it is vital. I think it needs to be easier to block harassers or ban them from sites. It should be easier to stop them from seeing your personal information. A lot of women have said that if they block a guy on OkCupid, he just comes back with a different account and continues the harassment. We need an improvement on that.

Thank you again to Ms. Tweten for sharing her invaluable insights.

Although Bye Felipe and spaces like it are undoubtedly useful, they ultimately service the preferred solution of most online companies (including Twitter): that users ignore abuse or deal with it on their own, without bothering those in charge. That’s where groups like Take Back the Tech, Who@, End Online Misogyny,  and WAM! come in. All are organizations (some professional, some just a coalition of users) that spread awareness about the plight of women online and put pressure on platforms like Twitter to implement far-reaching solutions. WAM! especially has made some significant progress. It has recently teamed up with Twitter to create a comprehensive form to report online abuse, which many are calling a huge step forward. The form would allow women to report all instances of harassment in one sitting, as opposed to having to individually report each abuse. The whole process, from filing the complaint to Twitter’s response, is then monitored by WAM! to ensure that each case is being appropriately dealt with.

The future of online harassment is extremely high stakes for many women who suffer from such abuse daily. Although there are many obstacles ahead, I believe that we cannot discount the progress that is being made. The upcoming Supreme Court decision will greatly impact the debate on whether law enforcement or online companies bear the responsibility for regulating abusive comments. Additionally, users and third party organizations alike are banding together to increase pressure on online platforms, and those platforms are responding both with potential solutions and with improvements to current systems (like the Twitter harassment form) that better equip them to deal with abuse effectively. All in all, the Internet may be a hostile place, but women are carving out their own safe spaces (Bye Felipe among them). In continuing to spread awareness, those spaces and the women in them have the potential to effect change one platform at a time, ensuring that we move forward into a brighter future.

 

 

 

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