Taking Back the Net
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.

First They Come For You, Then Your Friends

Another one from Lena Chen. This one’s about how she asks everyone who so much as likes her posts or leaves a supporting comment to post anonymously or pseudonymously, so they don’t suffer the terrifying threats she has. Because, apparently, people have been targeted for merely supporting her.

Enough is enough. This is not merely the consequences of a “heated debate” or “words said regretfully in anger.” 

This is deliberate and pervasive. 

Mainstream Roundup

It’s been less than a week since the debut of #MenCallMeThings, but it’s already getting attention from sources associated with the mainstream—op-ed and other. Here are some of the choicier bits:

Men call me things: it’s not as romantic as it sounds

'Bitch', 'slut', 'whore' and 'love' are commonly thrown towards women online, along with rape threats and deviant violence references, and are very rarely called out by the woman scorned or by the online community surrounding her and the 'troll'. They’re given seemingly without consequence, and perpetuated by compliance. I’m often told by colleagues, friends and my partner all with the best of intentions (love you guys), not to worry about the abuse or to fight it or even to respond as “it’s just trolls” or “don’t feed the trolls”.

But you know, I can’t remember the last time I was on the bus, expressed an opinion and had a man pipe up that he was going to knock me off. Nor can I think of a time I’ve been in a cafe, reading a newspaper and commenting on the issues of the day, only to have a man in a mask jump out and tell me I’m a silly little girl that deserves to be raped.

This one’s going around from the Time:

Women who wrote about politics, religion, feminist issues and other hot-button topics reported some of the most over-the-top abuse such as threats of rape and murder, threats that were occasionally accompanied by the writer’s home address or other personal details. Yet even women who describe themselves as not particularly “high-profile” or who cover typically less controversial topics such as health, culture and society, detailed the insults they’ve endured. Neither the subject nor the website, it would seem, makes a difference in whether or not a woman writer will be the target for hateful speech

"You should have your tongue ripped out": the reality of sexist abuse online

Another good collection from feminist bloggers all over.

Some highlights (bolded parts emphasized):

The sheer volume of sexist abuse thrown at female bloggers is the internet’s festering sore: if you talk to any woman who writes online, the chances are she will instantly be able to reel off a greatest hits of insults. But it’s very rarely spoken about, for both sound and unsound reasons. 

Initially it was shocking: in the space of a week, I received a rabid email that included my home address, phone number and workplace address, included as a kind of threat. Then, after tweeting that I’d been waiting for a night bus for ages, someone replied that they hoped I’d get raped at the bus stop.

I am often told how my mouth would be put to better use giving fellatio or that I am uptight and sexually repressed, someone who could clearly benefit from a “regular seeing-to” and how my defence of conservative values stems from a deep-seated need to be anally penetrated. I am crying out for anal rape to be put in my place, preferably by an HIV-positive male who is not wearing a condom, in order to understand the iniquity of the Church’s teaching on contraception.

And a followup here:

When I started getting letters at my flat, I reported them to the police, but they advised me to stop writing provocative material. Eventually, I was sent an email directing me to a website advertising my services as a sex worker, with my address on the front page under the legend 'fuck her till she screams, filth whore, rape me all night cut me open', and some images of sexually mutilated women.

One commenter, called “PC Lightyear”, opined: “Nina seems quite pretty. After we disband the Police, let’s see pretty Nina walk through a sh1tty estate in say Elephant n Castle, Camberwell, Tottenham, Brixton, Lewisham, Wembley … and see how well her idea works out when the Gangstas decide they deserve to have her as a toy.”


Why Am I Here?

Mostly because of this (trigger warning: hate speech):

http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/10/11/on-blogging-threats-and-silence/

(I suggest reading the comments on this one, btw)

The amount of abuse people have to deal with is astounding. Going beyond mere insults to death threats, rape threats, and worse… is beyond the comprehension of many people who are not bloggers or activists. The silence about these threats can be just as damaging as the silence that those who make these threats seek to impose.

Those who wish to break the silence, come here.

Here is how this works. You send me your stories about dealing with harassment (via /ask or /submission), and I post them—as much as you feel comfortable with. They can be chat transcripts or emails or just your own experience. They can be as anonymous as you want them to be. I will collect them here.

Awareness is the first step to a solution. You are not alone.

-Cal