Online harassment has become an epidemic on social media. Ask any woman who’s used a dating app or voiced an innocent opinion online and they probably have a story about being tapped into digitally. If it wasn’t you personally, you probably know someone it happened to. I know I do! Any person who is not white cis-gender knows that their everyday life is dangerous territory. For this particular article, I’ll be focusing on women, but first of all I want to acknowledge that the problem is causing a veritable rainbow of casualties. Sexist, homophobic and racist hate speech is thrown out in a constant stream of mindless resentment. Sometimes it’s not just swearing. People have reported being threatened, spammed and stalked online. The response so far has been disappointing, as lawmakers simply can’t keep up with technology. Many women have been forced to approach the situation passively by ignoring the attacks, but how long can we continue to ignore offensive behavior? Just because it’s about the computer doesn’t mean it isn’t real, doesn’t mean it isn’t terrifying! How long can we keep telling women to just turn it off, cancel their accounts, or change their behavior instead of prosecuting the attacker? It’s time we stood up to end cyberbullying and online harassment because it’s gotten so out of hand. Freedom of expression and hate speech cannot be further protected as if they were one entity.
(Actress and writer, Leslie Jones, looks gorgeous at the Ghostbusters premiere)
Social media dominate our lives these days. We use it to keep in touch with friends and family, keep up to date with the news, ventilation and date. But I want to get into the fact that men and women experience all of this in very different ways. If you’re not white, cis-gender, everything you say and do online will be scrutinized by opponents who like snipers waiting for the chance to yell at you and call it “free speech.” Anything goes when you wear the mask of cyber inconsistency. In the news last week was a story that women, especially women of color, know all too well. With the recent release of the new Ghostbusters, starring four incredibly talented women as our spectral lasso heroines, came a different kind of creepy crawler who likes to lurk and terrorize the masses; Internet trolls! The sexist torment began a few months ago with the trailer’s release and peaked when the film was released on July 15. One of the stars of the movie, SNL‘s Leslie Jones, was the target of a disgusting display of male interest on Twitter. She was bombarded with racist comments, pornography and was compared to a gorilla. I was outraged when I read one of the tweets suggesting that the actress could play “Harambe” – the gorilla killed in a Cincinnati zoo after a toddler injured himself in the fence – in a movie about the demise of the animal. She was moved to tears by the hatred she witnessed, but in a… interview with Seth Meyers, she said she was not unfamiliar with the specific insults. Thanks to Leslie’s power to speak up and the Twitter team, many of the offending accounts have either been warned or permanently terminated. This was an important but admittedly small step in the right direction for all women experiencing these types of seizures.
Ms. Jones’s horrific experience prompted this article and my digging into the statistics of online harassment of women. What the writer-actress had to go through is something that no one has to worry about when logging into social media. It is intended as a space where you can have fun and relieve stress. But the reality is that people abuse it every day for malicious purposes, to hurt others and cause pain. According to the Pew Research Center in a 2014 study, “”60% of internet users said they had witnessed someone being called offensive names. 25% had seen someone being physically threatened. 19% said they witnessed someone being sexually harassed and18% said they had seen someone being stalked.” Those are pretty solid numbers that we really shouldn’t be seeing in a civilized society. According to the same study, young women (aged 18-24) experienced a “disproportionate” amount of online sexual harassment and stalking compared to their male peers. 26% of women surveyed by Pew said they were being stalked online and 25% disclosed incidents of sexual harassment. I wasn’t exactly surprised by these numbers. Just Googling “online harassment” turns up overwhelming amounts of literature and personal testimonials. Many fear it has become the norm.
Online, women experience the full range of contempt and verbal assault. From cyberbullying (harmful name-calling and belittling) to actual threats to their physical person. Many women report that men threaten them with rape. They threaten to find and kill them. “It’s not just words. Those words were chosen very specifically to make women feel threatened in a way that it might be difficult for some men to feel threatened,” said Tara Moss – Canadian author, UNICEF ambassador and champion of women’s rights – in a quote to CNET. The site also reported on a survey by security company Norton that found that 47% of women surveyed in Australia report having experienced some form of harassment on the internet. The article goes on to say that the number jumps to 76% if you look at just women under 30. In a case last year, a young woman called Olivia Melville (then 24) had her tinder profile captured in a screenshot and posted to Facebook with the caption “Stay Classy, Ladies.” Melville calls the incident “terrifying” because her image was plastered all over. A 25-year-old Australian man now faces jail time for the 50+ comments in the photo, most of which were threatening and sexually explicit. The man made the threats after Ms. Melville tried to defend her online. Some of his derogatory comments were, “I’d rape you if you looked better,” and “[women]deserve to be brought back to the 50s [where] you’ll get to know your part and shut up.’ After the aggressor was arrested, he claimed he didn’t know it was against the law because it was online. Court documents quoted him as saying he was “trolling a group of feminists who were harassing me and my friends”.
This is where the laws start to fall behind the times. Cyber harassment laws vary widely globally and nationally. This case is particularly happening in Australia, where because of this case, the law stating “to use a carriage service to threaten, harass or cause offense” now includes online harassment, making it a criminal charge. America is just starting to catch up. University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron who wrote the book Hate crimes in cyberspace, stresses that we are only now treating these incidents as actual threats. But the sentencing in Australia is a victory for women who are victims of cyber hatred everywhere.
Remember, it’s important for you to stand up to people who think a computer screen can protect them from the consequences of their actions. Misogyny should not rule the internet with an iron fist. We can’t resist! Death threats are unacceptable. A woman shouldn’t open Tinder to find that someone she rejected has left a page-long comment calling her an “ugly whore” and saying he’s “throwing her a bone”. That’s no exaggeration, I’ve seen tumblr blogs devoted to the horrible messages women have been getting on Tinder and OKCupid. Hate speech, both offline and online, should not be tolerated or ignored, as it remains a problem that all too often leads to actual violence. We as a people must remind the government that hate speech is not the same as freedom of expression. Remember that words hurt and leave scars. Words prompt action. Threatening, humiliating and shaming someone with rape to get the Alpha Male power you crave is disgusting! This power that you think you have over women because you have learned that you can control someone by force is a disgrace. You can no longer transfer your power from us. We are not afraid of no trolls!