Shaking Off the Haters Won’t Solve Online Harassment

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Photo: Bonninstudio/Corbis

I put my opinions on the internet for a living, so other women often ask me how I handle the inevitable hate and harassment that comes my way. I always feel a bit unhelpful when I tell them the answer: I just ignore it. Honestly, the “shut up, bitch” tweets don’t even get to me anymore. I almost take pleasure in blocking them without comment. When expletive-laden emails land in my inbox, I take them as proof that my ideas have moved beyond my core audience of sarcastic gender-studies students and earnest nonprofit employees and made it out into the wider world, a place where few people read and even fewer agree with me. I archive them to my “hatemail” folder and go about my day.

The problem is, my personal strategy of ignoring the haters doesn’t square with my principled understanding that it’s not fair to expect women to do this. I wish I could tell you my blithe, shake-it-off approach is possible because I genetically lucked into solid mental health and have a stable of incredibly supportive friends and loved ones. But while I do have those things on my side, the main thing separating me from women like Anita Sarkeesian (who left her home after a torrent of rape threats) and Kathy Sierra (who left the internet for years after harassers circulated her address and social security number alongside death threats) and Zoe Quinn (whose father receives phone calls from people shouting “Your daughter’s a whore!”) is luck. I just haven’t angered the wrong internet subculture. And I’m kidding myself when I act like I have a real strategy for dealing with online hate.

I noticed a similar self-deception in a book review this week by scholar Martha Nussbaum, who argues that most perpetrators of online abuse are pathetic nobodies, “and one cedes them a huge amount of power if one makes the abuse a defining life event.” But she also writes that she won’t accept speaking invitations in a certain city because it’s the hometown of an unhinged man who’s been barraging her with emails for years. She hasn’t involved the police, she writes, because she knows they wouldn’t take him seriously as a threat. And in some ways, neither does she. “Besides, I feel safe, as S has no money and thus cannot travel,” Nussbaum writes. “His e-mails do not alarm me (after the initial shock); they do make me very sad.”

Yet the fact remains that there is an entire North American city she has declared off-limits because of this man’s words. She acknowledges that she feels unsafe, yet insists that it’s no big deal. This was a real wake-up call for me.

Coping with negative feedback online is something almost everyone has to deal with these days. But it’s becoming harder to deny that the internet is a safer place for some people to have opinions than for others. Thirty-three percent of women report being harassed online, and Pew reported last month that young women are likely to receive severe types of digital abuse like sexual harassment and stalking. In her new book, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace (ignore the Hackers-era title), Danielle Keats Citron reports that a large proportion of online harassment involves female victims and male perpetrators. Often, those perpetrators are dismissed as mere pranksters and the women they harass are portrayed as overly sensitive. It’s no wonder people like Nussbaum — and, if I’m being honest, yours truly — don’t want to acknowledge that what’s happening is online harassment. We also don’t like to think about how quickly it can go from a digital annoyance to a life-affecting threat. “The ceaseless barrage of random people sending you disgusting shit is initially impossible to drown out — it was constant, loud, and it became my life,” Zoe Quinn wrote of her experience. “Of course I know that this is just a small minority of the angry and disenfranchised, but I felt like it was the entire world.”

There is a level of self-deception involved in being both proud to shake off your haters and aware of the very real threats women face online. I don’t like to think about just how easily I could be harassed and threatened the way Quinn has been. In fact, it’s crucial to my job that I don’t think about these as potential consequences. I don’t just ignore the haters — I ignore just how quickly my coping strategy could be overwhelmed.

Last week the group Women, Action, and the Media announced a new way of reporting harassment that happens on Twitter. It involves an online form, where you can explain the harassing behavior so WAM can analyze it and then take the complaint directly to Twitter. The form asks you to choose a category of harassment you’re experiencing, and the list includes impersonating or posting false information about you (which, in old-school print media, we call libel), as well as even more nefarious behavior like threats of violence, revenge porn, "doxxing" (releasing private information like your employer or street address), and encouraging people “to harass you via phone or other offline methods." Most controversially, you can also use the form to report hate speech.

Most of what I’ve received fits in that “hate speech” category. And even though I have yet to use the WAM reporting tool — for aforementioned reasons of self-delusion — I took it personally when I saw that Andrew Sullivan complaining that “SJWs Now Get To Police Speech On Twitter.” (Apparently SJW is shorthand for for “social justice warrior,” a pejorative that originated on sites like Reddit.) “Does Twitter prevent women of color from using the service?” he asks. “Or is it simply that WAM believes that women cannot possibly handle the rough-and-tumble of uninhibited online speech?”

I am a woman who prides myself on being able to handle the rough-and-tumble of uninhibited online speech. Sullivan is sarcastically trying to use me to discredit the very real threats faced by women online — women who are systematically shouted down and barraged with vile threats until they leave the conversation or the social-media platform or their own fucking houses. And as long as women like Martha Nussbaum and I insist that low-level harassment is no big deal, we enable this argument from willfully ignorant observers like Sullivan who care little for women’s practical ability to speak freely.

Framing this debate in terms of “uninhibited online speech” implies that harassment has something to do with discourse. With trying to prevent people from sharing their ideas. I can tell you from personal experience that the sort of harassment women are compelled to report is not about ideas, unless you consider “keep your legs closed” and “get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich” and “shut up, you fucking bitch” to be invitations to an intellectual debate. (I once got a rather hateful email in which the sender acknowledged at the beginning, satisfyingly, “I haven't read your full article.”) The very fact that most harassing emails and tweets I get are not about my ideas is precisely what makes them so easy for me to ignore.

Sullivan has nothing to worry about, though. The fact is, while I support efforts like Twitter’s partnership with WAM to stop people from using their service to abuse others, I don’t actually think a harassment reporting tool is going to change things for women online, or even just those on Twitter. Like most forms of abuse, it’s a deep and widespread cultural problem.

But it’s worth it to keep searching for a solution. Even though some of us don’t like to acknowledge that hate speech has much in common with “real” threats of physical violence and doxxing, it most certainly does. Someone doesn’t have to outright say “I’ll harm you if you come to the city where I live” for you to avoid traveling there. Just ask the rough-and-tumble Martha Nussbaum.