A recent study by the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School indicates that more females than males go online in the United States, defying the perception of the Internet as a male-dominated realm. Women are currently making numerous important contributions to the computer field and in online communities, and the proportion of their contributions continues to rise. Having been online for over a decade now, what bothers me is not the medium, but the lack of attention paid to how that medium may perpetuate misogyny, sexism, and violence against women.
In light of the incident involving the threats and harassment of blogger, Kathy Sierra, in March, the issue triggered a discussion on the need for a bloggers' code of conduct, which makes interesting reading if nothing else, although in some ways it does resemble Newsvine's own Code of Honor.
Kathy Sierra : "...nobody has yet been able to tell me that the person who did this is not a real threat. We've become so desensitized to vile comments on the net that many people can't comprehend why I would feel threatened. But if we dismiss every cruel, vile, sexually threatening comment as simply the work of an anonymous troll, we will no longer be able to recognize a real threat. Are we willing to stake our mother / sister / daughter's life on a sexually and physically threatening photo or comment, simply because it appeared on the internet and therefore must be harmless?
"That said, Chris and I are in complete agreement that it would be tragic if this incident were used as a weapon by those who would limit free and open exchange. My desire is for much more open debate on this issue, not legislated limits."
Trolling and spamming are one thing, this was something else entirely, but Sierra isn't the only one to endure online harassment and threats. Intimidation should have no place in modern civilized society, online or offline, whether public, private, political, or professional. Freedom of speech — however distasteful and crude the speech may be — we can all agree is crucial, but when those words contain threats of harm, or sexual violence, or death, they cross a line that makes plain old porn seem somewhat quaint, and what they do is a crime. In the United States, it is a federal crime to anonymously "annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person" via the internet or telecommunications systems, punishable by a fine and/or up to two years imprisonment (Violence Against Women Act - HR 3402, renewed on 05 January 2006 - .pdf). Free speech does not cover threats to a person, that's why it's illegal.
It is worth noting that our online communities are conditioned by the same sorts of socialization patterns that occur in society at large, and a significant factor in that society is discrimination against and harassment of women. While taking place via the medium of computers — be it e-mail, online forums, comment areas on blogs or web sites, MMORPGs, virtual reality, or instant messaging — online communications are still shaped by our beliefs, biases, and (mis)understandings.
"In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity. The norm is: one body, one identity. Though the self may be complex and mutable over time and circumstance, the body provides a stabilizing anchor. Said (Jean-Paul) Sartre in Being and Nothingness, "I am my body to the extent that I am," The virtual world is different. It is composed of information rather than matter. Information spreads and diffuses; there is no law of the conservation of information. The inhabitants of this impalpable space are also diffuse, free from the body's unifying anchor. One can have, some claim, as many electronic personas as one has time and energy to create." — Judith S. Donath, Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community (1996)
And therein lies the rub. As a woman who has moderated forums, mailing lists, comment areas, helped manage a virtual world as well as an online game, and having worked with other third-party public feedback systems for years, I've seen all kinds of hateful crap, including having to deal with my own virtual stalker several years ago, and I do know how real the fear can be. And it almost always originates from people (mostly males) trying to hide their true identity using multiple accounts and anonymity. The excuse given over and over again by the offenders is that it is 'just the internet' and one should 'grow a set...' or 'get a thicker skin'. And when caught in the act, the usual response is 'don't you have a sense of humor?' or 'you shouldn't be so sensitive' or 'it was just a joke'. But, until you are the victim, you have no understanding of the impact that such harassment and threats can have on your life, and that of your family, friends, and co-workers.
Clearly, anyone who enters the blogosphere needs to be aware of the types of people who get satisfaction out of online harassment. I think what I have trouble comprehending is just what sort of twisted mind makes the jump from "I don't agree with your position in that article" to "I'm going to start insulting who you are as a person", let alone escalating things to the extent of threats of sexual violence or death threats. The only sort of conclusion I've come to is that these are people who are serial bullies, but also serial attention-seekers. They don't care what type of attention you give them, just as long as they can provoke someone into paying attention to them. And when you have a woman in a position of perceived leadership (say, as the moderator of a forum or the person who does most of the blogging on a site), it's like a 2-year-old throwing a tantrum to get the attention of a parent. Your reaction, no matter how you publicly react, is like giving a crack addict his "fix"... and he thrives on it.
So how do we deal with them? First, become "The Observer." Refuse to respond directly to or engage the serial bully in argumentation. Don't reply to their postings, and carry on in your normal online routine of posting without reference to anything they are posting... as if they don't exist. In other words, "Don't Feed the Trolls."
Serial bullies hate this because what they crave is any kind of reaction from you. Although you may be the main target of the serial bully, you can train yourself to act as The Observer, taking you out of the firing line, which enables you to calmly study the perpetrator and collect evidence.
Use the tools that are available to you to make their messages of harassment invisible to the general public. Some blog software will allow you to edit a comment, and the simplest way to edit out their comment without losing the information (which you may need to save for law enforcement) is to simply "comment out" their comment via <!-- and --> code. It will still be available, it just won't be showing in public. On Newsvine, comments can be reported to Newsvine Staff, and Columnists can use the Delete function in their column which hides the comment, but does not completely destroy it.
Keep a log of their comments, emails, IP addresses, email addresses, links to their comments, phone calls, the time and dates each of these things occurred, and any other information you can glean from their communications with you. (A useful set of tools for gathering more detailed information from online may be found at DNSStuff.com. You might also find Google Notebook to be useful in keeping your log.) You'll need this log book of information in order to complain to the authorities, whether that's the forum administrators, blog hosts, or law enforcement, as it gives you some credibility when you are making your complaint. Whenever people use the Internet to perpetrate their bullying or other crimes, they leave a trail of evidence that makes it easier to both catch and convict them.
Serial bullies, trolls and cyberstalkers often project their own weaknesses, failings, and shortcomings on to you. Don't take what they say as really being true, because it's designed to get a reaction out of you. As The Observer, you can note what these weaknesses are, and with each subsequent hateful communication from them, you can train yourself to instinctively watch for whatever this person is revealing about themselves to you. Their behaviors may include projection, false criticism or accusations, disordered thinking patterns, dysfunctional aggressive behaviors, and patronizing sarcasm, while contributing nothing of value to the discussion of the topic at hand. Stable people simply do not continue, over long periods of time and in different locations or means of communicating online, to pursue someone and harass them. They almost all have some type of mental or emotional problem, and they thrive on the distress caused by provoking or tormenting others. Threats are only effective when you allow them to be effective.
Most of all, do not remain silent when you see women (or anyone) being harassed. Foster the kind of online community that finds this kind of behavior unacceptable and intolerable. Other people who see or hear this kind of thing going on shouldn't just stand by and say "well I'm not involved." You're not, but your silence tells us that you don't care, and I think that all of us should be fighting against this kind of harassment rather than what often happens, which is that it is tacitly accepted because people don't want to "rock the boat"... and sometimes it's even somewhat supported among men ("feminazi" - The term that Rush Limbaugh uses is simply a way to dismiss all feminism or even any group run by or for women as extreme or man-hating. Nazis, btw, were opposed to gender equality.)
Women are our moms, our daughters, sisters, wives and girlfriends, and they don't deserve the kind of intimidation and abuse that they are often subjected to... would you want some serial bully or anonymous cyberstalker going after someone you love? Don't tolerate the kind of abuse that includes threats or even suggestions of violence (especially sexual violence), and don't think that just because you only see it happening online that it isn't happening in the real world. I'm here to tell you, it does.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead -
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This article is my entry to the Take Back the Blog! Blogswarm in support of the rights of women to participate fully in all aspects of our society, including specifically online in the world of blogging but indeed everywhere and at all times, day and night, without fear of harassment, intimidation, sexual harassment, online stalking and slander, predation or violence of any sort.