Taking Back the Net
More Roundups!

#mencallmethings In case you needed any more reminders of how far we have to go, Zora Sanders of Meanjin has this roundup of stories from people who have experienced online harassment. 

Some highlights:

Like many of the women who have commented on Twitter, the consensus among the men who insulted and slandered me is that they’re just ‘stirring’ and ‘poking light-hearted fun’. But when I stick up for myself, I am ‘going postal with baseless allegations aimed at destroying their (the men’s) social standing’.

All of the men who have attacked my husband and I are adults. Most are professionals in their 30s. One is even in his late 40s. Some have wives and kids.

One of the most striking things for me about the general tone of these emails is the assumption that it’s somehow acceptable to physically threaten and crudely insult women when they have a strong voice and dare to share it online. I have male friends who blog about some pretty serious issues themselves, and they haven’t received such nasty emails.

But also on a good note:

Most of the time, I don’t talk about such emails publicly. But recently I’ve started to respond to them on my blog through what I hope to be mature discussion that bypasses the call to silence of these emails.

Threat of the Day

About a week before #mencallmethings went viral, Alyssa Rosenburg introduced #threatoftheday in a similar move. It didn’t take off to the same extent its successor did, in part because it was subsumed by the more generalized tag.

Threats and hate speech aren’t as far apart as some people think. One need look no further than the recent example of Kyle Sandilands and his vitriol against a female critic:

What a fat bitter thing you are…. you’re a piece of shit.


Watch your mouth or I’ll hunt you down.

There’s a reason they call it “hate speech.”

More on Death Threats

Though #mencallmethings is a new tag, the discussion around threats and abuse is an old one. This article from the BBC highlights one particular discussion:

Ms Sierra described on her blog how she had been subject to a campaign of threats, including a post that featured a picture of her next to a noose.

Robert Scoble, author of popular technology blog Scobleizer, condemned the campaign against her.

"It’s this culture of attacking women that has especially got to stop. I really don’t care if you attack me. I take those attacks in my stride. But, whenever I post a video of a female technologist there invariably are snide remarks about body parts and other things that simply wouldn’t happen if the interviewee were a man," he said

Why “Don’t Feed the Trolls” Is Bad Advice

For years, the standard advice given to bullied kids was as follows: “Ignore them, and they’ll go away.”

As many a bullied kid could tell you, the advice rarely worked. It rarely worked because the well-meaning people who gave that advice did not understand why bullies bully.

It’s true that bullies look for “easy” targets, and that some of them would define an “easy” target as someone who showed emotion quickly when provoked.

But that’s not always the case. More often, a bully would define an “easy” target as someone who did not fight back. They would not face consequences for picking on these people.

And bullies would pick targets who they thought “deserved” abuse, regardless of whether or not they showed any reaction to abuse at all, because the internal reward for bullying is not a specific reaction, but rather the feeling of power they get when abusing others. They would choose targets who were they were taught deserved abuse—racial minorities, kids not conforming to gender roles, and kids with poorly-developed social or physical skills.

Between these two factors, it’s easy to see why “Just ignore them” didn’t work. Ignoring bullies didn’t make the abused kids less different from their fellows, and it didn’t result in any consequences for the bullies.

Only by fighting back—whether directly or through a system developed to protect bullied kids—actually stopped bullying.

As it turns out, kids and grown-ups aren’t that different when it comes to how they use power.


Women And Gaming

Like politics, gaming is often seen as a “boy’s club.” This despite a report from Entertainment Software Association that claims that 42% of gamers are female. 

You might not know it from looking at the stats, however: many female gamers actively hide their gender for fear of harassment, especially in traditionally-male environments like Counter-Strike. 

Not that it doesn’t happen on World of Warcraft either. 

Kwok said the most common questions she receives when other players find out she’s a girl are: “Are you hot?” “Can you make me a sandwich?” “Do you play games?” or “Do you have a dick? Are you really a girl?”

Fat, Ugly, or Slutty is a website that highlights the sexist garbage women get on a regular basis.

The Tax of Being a Female Critic

Radio shows aren’t exactly bastions of tolerance and respectability. Even so, it’s not every day we get treated to an outburst from one of the hosts calling their critic a “fat slag” with “not enough titty.” 

Listeners are outraged. But will this hurt our man Sandilands, or will this be just be another ratings boost?

Only time will tell for him. But in the meantime, it’s quite telling that part of being a female critic involves slurs directed at your weight, attractiveness, and bust size — as if that had anything at all to do with doing your job. 

Strange, no?

Sady Doyle: No Place Is Safe

Sady Doyle wrote an article about “Staying Safe Online,” but there’s a twist ending: you can’t actually do it. Or, in her words: 

Every Photo Is the Wrong Photo. Every Name is the Wrong Name. Any Kind of Good is Too Good. 

She concludes that the only way to really end harassment is to stand together and speak up. 

Hard to fault that conclusion.

Taking the Fight to Your Stalker

The idea of fighting back against harassment and threats can be daunting. But there is also a host of resources that you can use in that fight that most people don’t even know about.

Working to Halt Online Abuse has a good roundup of resources if you’re facing threats on your life, persistent sexual harassment, or other forms of “cyberstalking.” Having never used any of these services, I can’t recommend them personally. But they should give you a good sense of what’s out there and what else you might be able to find.

Here’s what the site includes:

-Lawyers who specialize in online harassment as well as the laws they use. 

-Resources to track down harassers, including online forensics experts and private investigators who specialize in online tracking. 

-Essays and Articles about “cyberstalking

Finally, I’m going to temper this with a bit of pessimism: if you’re really willing to take it to these guys, be prepared to fail and to spend a lot of time. Getting the cops to deal with anything less than a direct and traceable threat on your life is difficult.

What’s the Big Deal? Types of Sexist Harassment Online

The hashtag #mencallmethings may be off the trending list, but it’s produced quite a few posts about the nature of harassment women face, including trends.

Let’s take a look at the Big 3, common to these three useful roundups of online abuse, in decreasing order of severity:

1) Actual violent threats

This is a no-brainer. But paradoxically, it tends to be the type of harassment least discussed, possibly because most people agree that not only is it not acceptable, it’s illegal. And only a complete fuckwit would do it in a way that can be traced back to them. Yet that can cause the actual prevalence of this behavior to be understated.

2) Just Plain Sexist Insults

Also called “hate speech” for the way it deliberately targets women (similar to how racist and homophobic hatespeech targets racial minorities and LGBT), this includes a large number of gender-specific or gender-related slurs: “slut,” “ugly,” “whore,” “cunt.” While not blatantly illegal, it is still classified as “hate speech” and has the same oppressive effects.

3) Accusations of hysteria/overreacting

Some people don’t think that this is particularly damaging, not compared to outright threats.

But in addition to being an accusation that is disproportionately targets women (how many times have you heard “hysteria” or “case of the vapours” applied to a man?), this one is especially insidious because its very presence legitimizes 1) and 2). 

The line of reasoning is something like this: if women are just “overemotional” and “overreacting” then clearly their reactions to being threatened or called a “cunt” are also overreacting—and that therefore this behavior is acceptable. 

So it enables and continues the cycle of silence and abuse.

Awareness, Skepticism and Taking Sides

Fighting abuse is a two-step fight. Actually deterring abusers is the easy part.

The real problem is raising awareness about abuse. Just about everyone talking about the reality of harassment online has expressed skepticism about its prevalence, and reasonably so. 

This story by a former LJ user provides a helpful look at two of the barriers to understanding and ending harassment.

First of all, the frequency of harassment varies drastically based on the subjects you talk about and how many readers you have. Talking about politics is more dangerous than talking about movies, for instance, but even innocuous subjects can draw wrath if you have enough readers overall. 

But “the right subjects” and “enough readers” is difficult to define. Some people can go for years or even decades without encountering the vitriol that others experience. As for Yonmei, she quickly discovered that while she could go for years using her real name online, going to the “wrong” place and saying the “wrong” things can have dangerous consequences.

The second barrier, often enough, is the ignorance of people who are supposed to deal with harassment and abuse. Yonmei recounts a truly epic clusterfuck of responsibility from Livejournal (emphasis added):

 I reported them to LJ Abuse, who did nothing.

The worst two were actually cartoons, not verbal – sketched pictures of a woman being raped and mutilated. I reported them to LJ Abuse as usual but this time with added urgency. After a day or two I hid the cartoons from sight (I could see them when I was logged in) following protests from several of the women who were reading the thread that they understood why I hadn’t deleted them, in order to get LJ Abuse to act on them, but they could not bear to see them whenever they scrolled down through the discussion on my journal. I notified LJ Abuse at the time that I had had to hide the pics for this reason, and would they please let me know when they investigated my journal so that I could un-hide them again.

It was quite a few days before I heard from LJ Abuse, and then it was an email from one of their volunteers to say they’d looked at my journal and seen no evidence of any offensive cartoons. I emailed back to point out I’d had to hide them and would unhide them now to let them investigate.

Then LJ Abuse suspended my journal. (This was in the middle of the whole breastfeeding row – I’d already been warned that my journal was going to be suspended.)

Then I got another email from LJ Abuse to say that they couldn’t investigate the offensive cartoons because my journal was suspended. I wrote back to point out that they’d suspended my journal, and they could un-suspend it – not permanently, obviously, but for long enough to check out these ugly cartoons, track whoever had posted them, and do whatever was legally required / required by their TOS to the people responsible.

I got a personal email from Denise Paolucci, the head of LJ Abuse then, now the founder of Dreamwidth, to let me know that they weren’t going to do that unless I changed the default icon which they’d suspended my journal for. 

What’s interesting here is the decision not to investigate harassment claims because of previous TOS violations — as if posting a picture of breastfeeding were no better than the deliberate harassment of other users.

So in refusing to lift a finger against people who were harassing not just Yonmei but all of her followers, LJ decided to side with the abusers, allowing them to continue to harass other, potentially more regulation-abiding users. 

And they’re not alone. One needs only to look at the number of excuses given for this kind of behavior (from “it’s the Internet” to “you’re overreacting) to realize that astoundingly enough, even people whose job it is to ensure a safe environment are often as not completely clueless as to what this requires.

Here’s a hint: it requires you to not just twiddle your thumbs when someone sends you a report.