Women Pay the Price for the Internet’s Culture of Anonymity

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Photo: Gu/Corbis

Gawker Media built an anonymous commenting system to encourage readers to share juicy gossip and sensitive news tips. What its women’s site, Jezebel, got was a “barrage” of violent pornography GIFs and gory JPEGs. You’d be forgiven for not being shocked: Women often pay the price when online publishers facilitate anonymity. Thanks to trolls like ViolentAcrez, Reddit became the internet’s top purveyor of photographs of scantily clad underage girls.When Twitter emerged as an organizing tool for feminists in the U.K., it also became the most convenient way for anonymous users to lob rape and death threats their way.

And Gawker’s Kinja platform offers jerks even more protection than Twitter or Reddit. Its “burner” accounts do not record users’ IP addresses, preventing Jezebel editors from blocking porn-spamming individuals and requiring them to manually delete each gruesome entry. After months of complaints, Jezebel staffers published an open letter on the site yesterday, calling out Gawker brass for “prioritizing theoretical anonymous tipsters over a very real and immediate threat to the mental health of Jezebel’s staff and readers.” Gawker Media editorial director Joel Johnson apologized for not giving the problem “proper attention” and promised to address it within a couple days. (Johnson just announced that Gawker will disable image uploads.)

Similar petitions were eventually heard by Twitter, which added a “Report Abuse” button, and Reddit, which shut down “Jailbait” and “Creepshots” subreddits. But the larger issue of anonymous online harassment isn’t going away. Women who complain about it are told to grow thicker skin or stop feeding the trolls, with the implication that online threats are in some way less real than IRL. But, as Amanda Hess wrote in Pacific Standard earlier this year, the internet is only different from “real life” for those who create fake identities to harass people. It’s an extension of real life for their victims — often professional writers who receive such threats under their real bylines and their real author photos.

Hess and Jessica Valenti have spoken publicly about the money and time they’ve lost protecting themselves from anonymous commenters who tracked down their phone numbers and promised to rape or kill them. For suggesting last week that tampons should be free — hardly the most bluntly provocative claim to be blogged recently — Valenti was told to take her “gaping vagina” to North Korea. The Guardian, which publishes Valenti as well as other feminist writers, recently acknowledged the tide of misogynist comments on stories about women’s issues. “Perhaps it is time to assess whether anonymity should be an option rather than the default position,” wrote readers’ editor Chris Elliott.

The irony that writers for Jezebel — which both covered online sexual harassment and was a safe haven from it — are now being tasked with their own daily deluge of abuse is not lost on them. “If another workplace was essentially requiring its female employees to manage a malevolent human pornbot, we'd report the hell out of it here and cite it as another example of employers failing to take the safety of its female employees seriously,” they wrote. And, according to Hess, this is the most legally useful way to think about anonymous harassment going forward: as employee discrimination — a civil rights issue.

Like sexual harassment at the hands of a meatspace co-worker, the abuse enabled by anonymous commenting “brands [women writers] as incompetent workers and inferior sexual objects,” University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron told her. And female writers can’t just get out of the kitchen, so to speak: Facing down anonymous misogynists who want to embarrass them into silence is part of the job description. As the writers of Jezebel put it, “None of us are paid enough to deal with this on a daily basis.” If online publishers want to drive traffic by fostering a feminist community, they need to ask themselves: At what point do trolls become a workplace hazard?