Virtual Harassment

Amanda Hess chronicles the vitriolic and often violent rhetoric aimed at her and other female journalists by anonymous commenters. She warns that “no matter how hard we attempt to ignore it, this type of gendered harassment—and the sheer volume of it—has severe implications for women’s status on the Internet”:

According to a 2005 report by the Pew Research Center, which has been tracking the online lives of Americans for more than a decade, women and men have been logging on in equal numbers since 2000, but the vilest communications are still disproportionately lobbed at women. We are more likely to report being stalked and harassed on the Internet—of the 3,787 people who reported harassing incidents from 2000 to 2012 to the volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent were female. Sometimes, the abuse can get physical: A Pew survey reported that five percent of women who used the Internet said “something happened online” that led them into “physical danger.” And it starts young: Teenage girls are significantly more likely to be cyberbullied than boys. Just appearing as a woman online, it seems, can be enough to inspire abuse. In 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland set up a bunch of fake online accounts and then dispatched them into chat rooms. Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7. …

But for many women, steering clear of the Internet isn’t an option. We use our devices to find supportive communities, make a living, and construct safety nets. For a woman like me, who lives alone, the Internet isn’t a fun diversion—it is a necessary resource for work and interfacing with friends, family, and, sometimes, law enforcement officers in an effort to feel safer from both online and offline violence.

Friedersdorf changed his view of the matter after reading McArdle’s inbox during a guest-blogging stint:

Even as someone who’d previously blogged about immigration in California’s Inland Empire, fielding insults and aggressive invective as vile as any I could imagine, I was shocked by a subset of her blog’s correspondence. To this day, I don’t know if I was experiencing a typical or atypical week. Perhaps in the abstract, there isn’t any threat more extreme than the death threats I’d received and brushed off as unserious. But I read emails and comments addressed at McArdle that expanded my notion of how disturbing online vitriol could be. And it took my actually reading them for my perspective to change.  … Lots of women thrived as bloggers despite this extra obstacle, but I am fairly certain that it caused many others to self-select out of journalism or certain sorts of journalism.

Kilgore calls Hess’s article a “must-read”:

The tendency of men to view this sort of exposure to communications that would be clearly criminal if delivered in person or by mail or phone as obnoxious but tolerable if deployed online is a big part of the problem, particularly given the predominance of men in the law enforcement and digital communities that are the sole recourse for victims. (Ignorance is also a problem, at least for law enforcement: Hess recounts making a 911 call after a battery of extremely disturbing death-tweets by someone who seemed to know how to find her; the officer who responded asked, “What is Twitter?”).

Timothy B. Lee wonders about the legal issues raised in the article:

Hess cites the work of Danielle Citron, a legal scholar who has argued that the hostile reception women receive online should be viewed through the lens of the civil rights movement. In her view, online harassment discriminates against women online in much the same way sexual harassment creates a hostile environment in the workplace. Thinking about the issue in those terms might motivate people to action, but actually extending civil rights law to cover online harassment could be a legal quagmire. The courts are likely to hold that some online harassment is constitutionally protected speech. And Congress had good reasons to exempt intermediaries such as Twitter from liability for the vile comments of their users.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Tufnell notes that two people in the UK pleaded guilty to sending menacing tweets to feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez:

One abusive tweet from [Isabella] Sorley, sent in July after it was announced that Jane Austen would replace Charles Darwin on the £10 note, encouraged Criado-Perez to “go kill [herself]”, before telling her to “Die you worthless piece of crap.” In a comparable deluge of abusive messages, [John] Nimmo threatened Criado-Perez, telling her to “shut up” and warning her “I will find you”. Nimmo also targeted Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow with similar threats. Nimmo was arrested on 30 July after evidence was handed into the police by the BBC’s Newsnight programme. Sorley was arrested on 22 October after police discovered she had created three anonymous Twitter accounts for the purposes of abuse.