Online harassment is a prolific, largely a gendered problem. A University of New Hampshire study found that 72% of online harassment victims are women. As the prolific, self-described "troublemaker" Laurie Penny wrote in the Independent a few years back, "a woman's opinion is the mini-skirt of the Internet." Cyberharassment isn't limited to women who critique gender roles, either. Audrey Watters, an ed-tech writer disabled comments on her blog in an effort to stem similar issues.
Unfortunately, when the harassment is addressed at all, it is usually through inneffective means such as insisting people use their real names in the comments. Ultimately we need to look beyond the usual surface strategies but first we have to understand the problem.
Here are six of the primary ways online harassment silence women.
1. The cyber mob
Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign to examine how women are portrayed in video games. No stranger to backlash, she has come to expect gendered insults and yawn-worthy jokes about kitchens and sandwiches. After the campaign, however, she found herself targeted by thousands of commenters threatening violence, rape, and even murder. Her Wikipedia entry was vandalized by people with dozens of different IP addresses. Attempts were made to hack into her email and other online accounts. DDoS (distributed denial of service attacks) were launched to knock her website offline for days at at a time. She was harassed by pornographic renderings depictingher being raped by video game characters. A particularly dedicated harasser created a video game where people were invited to "beat the bitch," which caused a virtual Sarkeesian to become bloody and bruised.
The cyber mob mentality plays into all the ways in which harassment of women takes place in online spaces. This harassment does not happen in a vacuum and it is not new, but new technology enables faster pile-ons and ways to coordinate attacks.
Sarkeesian speaks about her harassment in a video, along with the ways she combated the abuse. One particularly disturbing revelation: mimicking a key way women are silenced in real life, she had to document everything because she was so often met with disbelief.
2. Anti-harassment tools used for harassment
Sarkeesian's YouTube videos were false-flagged, meaning her videos were labelled as violating the YouTube's terms of service agreement. Sarkeesian says people reported her accounts for spam and even terrorism; in a sad twist that shows how ill-equipped we are to deal with cyberharassment, anti-harassment tools themselves were used to harass her. Sarkeesian's crime? Starting a project to critique video games.
When Adria Richards complained about a joke about "dongles" at a conference and Tweeted a picture of the two men she too was subjected to harassment and rape and death threats. Her website was under DDoS attack and she was fired for causing a stir. The two men making the jokes were also fired which further antagonised the situation. Whether or not you agree with her actions of outing people rather than attempting a conversation the amount of vitriol she experienced was disproportionate to the offense.
3. Take-down Culture is a Game
Un-moderated and anonymous forums like some areas of Reddit or 4Chan act as a gathering place to plan attacks and post triumphs when a group of people with similar beliefs decide to target someone. The connectivity that works so well in creating viral content also aids a pile-on in the case of disagreements. In her video about online harassment Sarkeesian spoke about the ways in which online harassment was treated like a game. People would gather in forums with screenshots as proof of the harassment and as people sought to outdo one another the ferocity of the attack escalated.
4. The Online Tools Used to Connect People Also Marginalize People
There are many dynamic web 2.0 features that allow for the compilation of data in interesting ways. Ask.fm, for example, allows a platform for anonymous questions and is great for a "get to know you" low-stakes situation. It has also facilitated online bullying that led to suicide, and is frequently used to target outspoken trans women through Twitter. One trans woman I spoke to, who wished to remain anonymous, is subjected to abuse all day without a way to block it. The harasser copy-pastes a degrading message including the transwomen's Twitter handle so the message is sent to her.
Ana Mardoll writes on her blog about a harassment issue with Storify that was also recently covered by The Daily Dot (author note: yours truly is quoted). Writes Mardoll, "[The Storify user] ElevatorGate has been instead using the Storify tool to obsessively compile the tweets of women he is stalking." He now has over 7300 stories compiled that he claims is journalism. Unless users opt out, they receive notifications that your tweets have been storified: a little reminder to keep looking over your shoulder because people are watching you.
Elevatorgate on the other hand does not feel as though he has been harassing anyone. He minimizes the distress expressed by those who are having their material collected by him by reminding people that their tweets are publicly available, and that he is not misogynistic because he also collects tweets from men. And while the Tweets certainly are public, Storify can be used to collect pieces of a conversation out of context and encourage a cyber mob-style pile-on.
These two methods of harassment have no way of blocking a person that you do not wish to engage with and no mechanisms in place for dealing with the harassment. Free speech is often cited as a defense that excuses the actions of the people upset by this.
5. The Problems Are Erased
When in the midst of an internet takedown a lot of the advice that you are given is the same as it would be in grade school. Stay away. Pay no attention.
In the UK, Laurie Penny mentions in her book on cybersexism that as cyberharassment is being written about in the media, women are being warned against engaging online. In a video about online harassment she says there's little difference "between that and people saying … well if you don't want to get raped maybe you shouldn't go out at night on your own." The logic is still the same. Women are being told to avoid another public space.
6. Chilling Effect
These ruthless attacks and harassment go beyond personal disagreements. The language used in these attacks are often deliberately chosen from the pool of women-focused, racial, or gender-identity based slurs. This affects not only the person targeted but also the bystanders, creating a chilling effect for women thinking of participating in public life. In an article on Mother Jones, Jaclyn Friedman, the executive director for Women, Action and the Media, says "The idea that a social-media network should be entirely neutral is a myth, [n]eutral platforms are only neutral for straight white dudes. These companies need to make a decision: Do I want to be making a money off of a platform where abusers and harassers feel more comfortable than the abused and harassed?"
The irony is that while those flinging these insults or participating in harassment cry free speech as a justification, they limit others in their ability to speak freely.