We Must Not Shut Up About How Women Are Treated on the Internet

We Must Not Shut Up About How Women Are Treated on the Internet

Anyone who genuinely cares about anything is bound to sound like a broken record from time to time. If you actually give a shit about a problem (and I don’t mean a “problem” like “the co-op is out of Honeycrisps,” I mean a PROBLEM PROBLEM), then you don’t just lodge your complaint and sit back down while the world rolls on around you. You do not shut up until that problem is fixed. You repeat and reframe and repeat and reframe and message, message, message, and eventually—hopefully—you manage to lodge that message somewhere in the public consciousness. That is how things move forward.* And right now, we desperately need to not shut up about the way the internet treats women.

To that end, everyone needs to read Amanda Hess’s stellar essay on women and internet trolls in Pacific Standard. And then tell everyone you know to read it and then tell them again.

It’s an incredibly thorough, enraging investigation of the ways that internet “trolls” (with help from IRL law enforcement, who treat the web like a “fantasyland”) systematically and deliberately drive women out of online spaces. Hess details her own harrowing, infuriating experience attempting to take action against an online stalker, and explores the often invisible emotional and financial consequences for women who choose to absorb the hate instead of removing themselves from web-based discourse. She also delves into the potential solutions—legal and electronic—that activists and victims are hanging their hopes on.

It’s impossible to choose a representative quote, but here’s Hess on the frustration of trying to deal with online abuse through channels that aren’t even equipped to comprehend it:

When I received those seven tweets in Palm Springs, a well-meaning friend reported them as abusive through Twitter’s system, hoping that action on the platform’s end would help further my case. A few hours later, the tweets were erased from the site without comment (or communication with me). Headlessfemalepig’s Twitter feed was replaced with a page noting that the account had been suspended. Luckily, I had taken screenshots of the tweets, but to the cops working with a limited understanding of the platform, their sudden disappearance only confused the issue. The detective assigned to my case asked me to send him links pointing to where the messages lived online—but absent a subpoena of Twitter’s records, they were gone from law enforcement’s view. If someone had reported the threats before I got a chance to see them, I might not even have been able to indicate their existence at all. Without a proper investigation, I am incapable of knowing whether headlessfemalepig is a one-time offender or the serial stalker who has followed me for many years. Meanwhile, nothing’s stopping headlessfemalepig from continuing to tweet away under a new name.

The whole thing is a stunning read.

I regularly see anti-woman trolls celebrating when they think they’ve successfully driven a woman off the internet. This isn’t a joke or an abstraction—it is a direct politically-motivated action to silence women’s voices. The volume and intensity of harassment is only magnified for women of color and disabled women and trans women and other intersecting identities. And when you complain, you’re told you’re being “oversensitive” or “focusing on the negative” or “letting the trolls win” or, the classic, “destroying freedom of speech.” (Hey, um, quick aside: I know your “freedom” to send me rape threats without having your feelings hurt makes up MOST of the text of the First Amendment, but what about my freedom to use the internet safely? The way that straight white dudes—the people with the most freedom in every way that you can possibly quantify “freedom” as a concept—have managed to appropriate the idea of freedom to limit the freedom of other people who are trying to assert their freedom is FUCKING BONKERS. And now I never want to see the word “freedom” again.)

Here’s Hess again, on how we talk to victims of harassment:

So the victim faces a psychological dilemma: How should she understand her own fear? Should she, as many advise, dismiss an online threat as a silly game, and not bother to inform the cops that someone may want to—ha, ha—rape and kill her? Or should she dutifully report every threat to police, who may well dismiss her concerns?
Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor who focuses on Internet threats, charted the popular response to Internet death and rape threats in a 2009 paper published in the Michigan Law Review. She found that Internet harassment is routinely dismissed as “harmless locker-room talk,” perpetrators as “juvenile pranksters,” and victims as “overly sensitive complainers.” Weighing in on one online harassment case, in an interview on National Public Radio, journalist David Margolick called the threats “juvenile, immature, and obnoxious, but that is all they are … frivolous frat-boy rants.”

I don’t care if you’re sick of hearing about internet trolls. I’m sick of hearing about them too—but I’m also sick of hearing from them. I’m sick of women being treated like shit and then being treated like shit for complaining about being treated like shit.

So anyway, don’t shut up. Keep complaining. This is your internet too.

*It’s also a great way to make people hate being around you. OH WELL, THOUGH. Oh well. I’ve long embraced my role as a broken-record Red Ajah nightmare shrew, and if weathering a few tweets of “zzzzzzzzzz” and “UGH, WE GET IT, YOU HATE WHITE PEOPLE” here and there is the price for being even marginally helpful in some large-scale way, then I’m happy to do it. W-evs. (I try to balance out earnestness with an equal-or-greater amount of my golden fart material, but apparently there’s no pleasing you people.)

Image by Sam Woolley.

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