Saturday 23 June 2018

The most harassed women online share why they’re not logging off

The internet can be dark and full of terrors for women, but it also provides a platform to be heard and connect.

When the internet metamorphoses into a hate-filled wasteland where strangers hurl the most vicious comments imaginable, the words “hope” or “love” can feel entirely alien to the experience of women online.

For many women, simply existing in an online space and voicing an opinion can render them a target for abuse. Those targets include: Women of colour, women in the LGBTQ community, liberal women, conservative women, women fighting for reproductive rights, women speaking up about sexual assault, women taking a stand against misogyny and sexism, women with opinions, women who are just doing their job. Women are not the only people subjected to online harassment and abuse — and whose experience of the internet is warped by efforts to silence and shout them down — but for women who speak up, the internet can exacerbate the sexism, both overt and subtle, that they face in real life.

For some of the most harassed women on the internet, all hope is not lost. They told Mashable what they love about the internet, and why, despite the vitriol, they keep logging back on.

Two decades have passed since Monica Lewinsky’s name and the intimate details of her sex life were thrust into the public domain of Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment trial, but strangers on the internet are still, to this day, bombarding her with hateful, obscene, and harassing messages.

Lewinsky says that, even though social media can be a source of negativity in women’s lives, it can also be a force for good, and a way of taking control of the stories that define us. “As a woman, what is vital is how social media can be used to amplify our voices or reclaim our narratives,” Lewinsky tells Mashable. “There is something powerful about direct communication — not being mediated through another’s lens.”

Now an anti-cyberbullying campaigner, Lewinsky says she finds hope in the internet’s ability to bring people together and its power to make us all realise we’re not alone. “What gives me hope is that it is so much easier to find your tribe and like-minded people on social media whether people are in your same city or halfway around the world. Knowing we’re not alone is crucial.”

It didn't take long for trolls to dig up activist Johnetta Elzie’s resume and old tweets in the wake of the 2014 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. After going to pay her respects at the place of Brown’s shooting in the hours following his death, Elzie tweeted that there was still “blood on the ground” and “a cone in place where his body laid for hours today.” She documented the Ferguson unrest on social media as it unfolded, and the New York Times called Elzie “one of the most reliable real-time observers of the confrontations between the protesters and the police.”

“They were like: ‘How do you know anything about protests, you used to be a customer service agent?’ But, what does it have to do with tragedy arriving in the city where I’m from?” says Elzie, known as “Netta” among her followers.

Elzie says she has been called pretty much every insult under the sun. “I feel like I’ve been called everything possible. I’ve been called ‘nigger,’ as well as white racist combos like ‘nigger bitch’ and the typical racist shit,” says Elzie. “Then there are people who take my photos and do crazy weird things with them. I’ve had a few serious trolls who make new accounts over and over and over to troll me if I block one.”

Faced with all this, it’s not surprising that Elzie says she finds solace “off the internet.” But, that’s not to say that the internet doesn’t bring her joy. “I Iove how easily I get access to music from being online, especially on Twitter or on YouTube, and meeting new people has been fun. I’ve made a few friends from Twitter,” she says

Elzie says when she was younger she used to try to engage, but now that she’s older and wiser, she blocks and mutes anyone trolling her.

“I’ve learned not to engage. 29-year-old me, I’m just all about the block,” she says.

“As a hyper-visible woman of colour, I have had things said to me that people wouldn't dare say to my face,” says April Reign, founder of #OscarsSoWhite. “Both I and my children have been threatened with physical violence. I've had people threaten to attempt to get me fired. Every racial or gender-based slur you can imagine has been hurled at me.”

Reign’s faith in the internet is restored when she sees “the progress that is made” and witnesses crowdfunding campaign goals being met for people “who are in need.”

“As the creator of #OscarsSoWhite, I find hope in the fact that we can see incremental changes reverberating throughout the entertainment industry based on a movement that was started online,” says Reign.

Something she loves about the internet is the ability to interact with people from around the world. “The internet allows us to have meaningful interactions with people we might not otherwise meet offline.”

Rossalyn Warren wasn’t expecting to see anything other than “chit chat and random shit” when she scrolled idly through her Facebook inbox one day. Instead, the journalist was confronted with a photo of a young man who was standing naked and holding a big knife. Even more disturbing than the image itself, however, was the message, which informed Warren that he had created the image especially for her. She reported the message and blocked the sender.

But, in spite of the barrage of gendered insults like “stupid slut” and “bitch” and graphic photos of botched abortions, Warren has not lost faith in the internet. For her, she finds promise in the way women interact and build communities online. “Over the years I’ve seen feminist networks and women from all corners of the world come together to discuss the challenges facing them within their communities, within their countries,” says Warren. “By sharing that knowledge and information they’re able to lift each other up.”

“Watching how feminist campaigners in El Salvador connect with pro-choice campaigners in Europe, watching women connect online makes us all feel a little bit less alone, and it makes us feel like a stronger force,” says Warren.

“Primarily, they attack me for being queer,” says journalist Gabrielle Bellot. “They deny being trans is 'real' and send me simplistic links about chromosomes or send me propaganda about how LGBTQ people are, supposedly, child molesters.” When her trolls don’t realise she’s trans, Bellot is attacked for being a liberal — or rather, “a libtard,” as they phrase it. “And for being — the worst of all — a feminist — excuse me, a 'feminazi,' an 'SJW.'”

Back in January 2016, Bellot wrote an article for Slate about a bill proposed in Indiana to criminalise trans people for using the bathroom corresponding with the gender they identify with. The bill — which was eventually denied a hearing — was one of several attempts among U.S. states and localities to block trans people from using the bathroom of their choice.

Bellot received an email from a “delightful woman” — an “anti-LGBTQ activist” — with an offer for conversion therapy. “Another man refused to call me Gabrielle, despite that being my actual legal name, and called me a male version of said name — despite me never having had that name.”

Bellot says she feels “lots of optimism,” however, and the internet is “tightly woven” into that.

“We shine a light on and call out bad behaviour now on a scale that just wasn't possible before social media,” says Bellot.

She says that the internet has made way for a “prominent, brave new generation” which refuses to tolerate “archaic prejudices” any longer. “There's this beautiful sense that business-as-usual, boys-club bigotry and/or trolling against women, LGBTQ people, and people of colour can't just exist without consequences, regardless of where it happens, if someone is around to record and call it out.”

“They still tell us to be silent; to that, we say, hell no.”

For podcaster and writer Kara Brown, the worst harassment she experienced happened when she worked at Jezebel. “The worst stuff usually came after I wrote something about race. I'd have people calling me a nigger and a stupid black bitch and all that,” says Brown, who co-hosts the Keep It podcast. “The scariest was probably when someone threatened that I'd be "swinging from the trees with the other niggers." That instance was “the most direct threat” she’d ever received. She forwarded it to Jezebel’s legal department so they could monitor it.

“We all also got tons of rape threats constantly,” she adds. “The bad thing about that (aside from the obvious) is that it all ends up sort of bleeding together. You get so used to it that things stop standing out.”

But, Brown finds hope in the fact that the internet is “both real life and not.”

“I can log off. I can turn off my computer and these people no longer have access to me,” she says. “There's also the fact that while the harassment can be legitimately frightening, it's unlikely these people are going to be able to do the harm to me that they threaten.” She reminds herself that people who engage in this kind of behavior are “cowards.”

Asked what she loves about the internet, Brown says it’s the “reason” she has a career. But, she’s also thankful for the internet’s ability to unite people with memes and jokes.

“As irritating as it can be, there are some days on Twitter when a certain meme catches on or everyone hops on and starts contributing to some joke and the material is just so funny and clever.

And you realise we never would have been able to experience all this humour and joy without the internet. It makes me really happy to be able to engage with such a large group of people in those moments.”

Two years ago journalist and author Jessica Valenti took a hiatus from Twitter after a troll made a rape and death threat against her then five-year-old daughter.

“I am sick of this shit. Sick of saying over and over how scary this is, sick of being told to suck it up,” she wrote in a series of tweets at the time. “I should not have to fear for my kid's safety because I write about feminism.”

After she returned to social media several months later, she told the Sydney Morning Herald that she had been accustomed to dealing with harassment, but the threat directed at her daughter felt “so different, so scary.”
Valenti told Mashable she is encouraged by the young women who are building communities online.

“Young people — young women, in particular — give me hope on the internet. The communities they foster, the support they provide, it's almost enough to make you forget about the general awfulness of things online,” she says.

She is also reassured by women’s strength and resolve when faced with unrelenting harassment experienced by many people online.

“But most of all, what gives me hope is that they're not ceding these spaces to harassers — in the same way we're not going to stop walking down the street because of harassment there, we're not going to stop using powerful online tools because of misogynists.”

Faceless, angry strangers send Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca death threats, rape threats, and doxing threats on a near-daily basis. She writes extensively about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of unyielding hostility. “Having to suffer the anticipation and onslaught of abuse is exhausting, and it takes a toll,” Duca told Mashable.

“If we can understand harassment as a silencing force, then simply speaking up is an act of defiance,” she says. “Using your voice as a woman on the internet shouldn't require righteousness, but unfortunately it does.”

She says she’s thankful to those who continue to raise their voices despite the constant chorus of dissent.

“I'm grateful for all of the women who keep going in spite of all the garbage,” says Duca. “Social media is an integral part of the public square, and we need to fight for including women's voices in the conversation.”

Journalist Hadley Freeman says the abuse she received is “pretty much everything you'd expect a Jewish feminist to get online now, sadly.”

“I get a lot of anti-Semitic stuff, a lot of stuff about Israel (even though I have never written about Israel), a lot of misogynistic garbage,” says Freeman. “It's usually people telling me how ugly I am, how fat I am, and what a hideous Zionist rich bitch apologist I am for Netanyahu.”

But one instance deviated somewhat from the typical barrage of anti-Semitic and misogynist insults: the time she received a bomb threat. “When I got a bomb threat I had to report it to the police, and I wasn't allowed to stay in my apartment that night,” says Freeman. “It was more annoying than scary, to be honest.”

It’s in the “fightback” that Freeman takes heart. “If I was dealing with abuse on my own, it would feel terribly dispiriting and even scary.”

She finds hope when she sees other women fighting back against abuse, racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism. “I can see online all the other women who get abuse, and how they are fighting back, writing brilliantly and doing incredible things. Women such as Caroline Criado-Perez, Rebecca Traister, Aminatou Sow, Irin Carmon, Jessica Valenti, and Jia Tolentino are just some who come immediately to mind.”

Sloane Crosley’s resolve lies in her unwillingness to give trolls and harassers the same energy they’ve spent.

“The internet expends plenty of energy lauding, objectifying, tearing down, dismissing, demonising and deifying women but that doesn’t mean I have to expend that same energy in return,” says Crosley, author of I Was Told There'd Be Cake and Look Alive Out There.

“Perhaps my ‘hope’ is to be found in my near-total indifference to faceless strangers.”

Journalist and author Dana Schwartz says she’s dealt with so much harassment over the years, she’s found a way to tune it out. “I also turned on the strictest settings that Twitter has so a lot of the time I don't even see it,” says Schwartz. “If someone says something that does get to me, I'll just block or mute depending on my mood.”

The harassment and abuse she receives often has a personal nature to it, but Schwartz says she mostly lets it wash off her. “The most common trolls either harass me for being Jewish or for being ugly, but since I am Jewish, and since I feel pretty good about myself, it doesn't really get to me,” says Schwartz.

The internet isn’t always the kindest space, but Schwartz can’t get enough of it.

“I love the internet like way too much,” she says. “I honestly think I am addicted to the internet, and it's probably ruined my brain. Gotta get that external validation somehow.”

Journalist Anne T. Donahue says that the types of insults she receives really depends on what her harassers are reacting to. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, she was on the receiving end of a lot of “gender-based trolling” — including comments pertaining to her physical appearance as well as rape threats. “During the gun debate (well, one of many), I mostly got general hate from people with eagles in their avatars who sounded off about liberals,” says Donahue.

The eagle from America’s national emblem has been co-opted by Trump supporters and those who align themselves with the far-right online.

Thankfully for Donahue, the internet has redeeming qualities that bring her laughter and remind her of the goodness of humanity. “I mean, yes: Twitter and social media and the internet in general can be a hellscape, but there are also parts of those things that make me laugh, or inspire me, or remind me that people can be good,” says Donahue.
“I like the senses of community — the good kind — the internet can help foster,” she adds.

“I think about the way firsthand experiences are shared and can generate movements. I think about the way mental health discourse has evolved; I think about the way Twitter is being used to bring to light issues and conversations that some of us might not be privy to; I love the way someone's work can kick down doors and create incredible opportunities; I also like the friendships; I've made a lot of great friends through Twitter and social media; and that's something I love, obviously.”

Donahue says that even seeing a funny joke can remind her that “levity can be found amidst the darkest timelines.”

“And maybe more specifically, I think of the way Twitter can rally around what's good and around people fighting for what's right. It's not all bad, or so I try to remind myself.”

It was when Dolly Alderton was writing a dating column for The Sunday Times that she experienced the most trolling. Those remarks would be sexually explicit or insulting about her physical appearance. The author and columnist sees hope in the fact that “so many people online, particularly women, are so supportive and cheering of each other, be it promoting each other's work, retweeting each other's jokes or swooping to someone's defence.”

She also loves how the internet connects people with “similar interests, shared ideals, and a sense of humour.”

“You suck, you’re stupid, you’re fat, you can’t get a man, your show is failing, you need a stylist, you look old, you’re useless, you’re ugly, you want to fuck (insert guest name), you’re a thot.”

These are just a few of the names radio personality Angela Yee is called by harassers. Trolls have also posted her address online as well as death threats directed at her and her mother.

Yee has thought a lot about the reasons people would want to write such nasty, hateful comments. “I realise that what these online trolls want the most is a reaction. They WANT you to respond, to be upset, they WANT to ruin your day and that’s a reflection of their own unhappiness,” she says.

She says, through thinking about what it takes to bring a person to make such comments, she feels pity for her trolls. “Imagine how miserable a person has to be that they want company, and the underlying feelings that come with that,” she says.

She finds hope in remembering that she can log out of social media and that real life exists beyond the confines of the internet.

“Just remember that social media is not real life, it is whatever people want to create. It’s so important for me to log off and focus on reality, instead of trying to document what I want to portray,” says Yee.

“This is not funny. Are you pregnant? You got fat. What happened to Allison? Why is she so fat? Stick to comedy not politics. I used to like this show but not anymore. Unsubscribe. She’s pregnant right?”

These are just some of the things strangers on the internet say to Allison Raskin, host of Gossip podcast.

But, she keeps logging on because of the “good comments” and “positive feedback” from her friends and family.

“For every nasty sentiment there are at least 10 nice ones and those are the people I try to focus on,” says Raskin. “People have handwritten me letters and posted things that almost make me cry (with joy).”

Michelle Taylor, known by her online pseudonym Feminista Jones, experiences online harassment every single day.

While being a woman on the internet means being bombarded with slurs and insults, it also affords opportunities.

“Being online means having access to more resources and opportunities than most people would ever have exposure to, particularly marginalised people like women of colour,” the social worker and writer says.

Hope, she says, can be found in these opportunities.

“What gives me hope is that women have greater opportunity to achieve their goals and realise their dreams because of the opportunities being online affords them.”

These women, in their refusal to cower in the face of vitriol and threats against their lives and the people they love, are sending a powerful message to their harassers: We will not be scared away. We will not be silenced.

(Source: Mashable)

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