*A note from the author. I write this as a cisgender white woman. This post reflects some experiences and statistics of other female gender-identified users.
I write this post in light of women’s history month, which in preparation got me thinking about the unique experiences that women and girls experience especially in digital spaces. Digital communities have afforded me many networking, branding and outreach opportunities – but not without drawbacks.
This post shares some of these tough circumstances, but also will leave you with way more resources, communities and tools for empowerment in virtual spaces.
This past year we have seen examples of women, especially on Twitter harassed such as Ella Dawson, Dana Schwartz, and Leslie Jones. I know there are countless others. I dare you to read the comments on their Twitter feeds: from comfortable support to complete shock.
In the fall Twitter rolled out a new harassment reporting tool. As the Twitter blog details,
“The amount of abuse, bullying, and harassment we’ve seen across the Internet has risen sharply over the past few years. These behaviors inhibit people from participating on Twitter, or anywhere. Abusive conduct removes the chance to see and share all perspectives around an issue, which we believe is critical to moving us all forward. In the worst cases, this type of conduct threatens human dignity, which we should all stand together to protect.”
Abuse can be seen and experienced across the digital landscape. In 2014, Pew Research Center published a harassment study finding that 70% of adults have observed online harassment and 40% have personally experienced harassment online.
Examples include being called offensive names (27%), someone purposefully embarrassing them (22%), physically threatened (8%), Stalked (8%), harassment over time (7%) and sexual harassment (6%). Age increased these statistics, with 18-29 reporting harassment at 65% (Pew, 2014).
When looking at gender, men were more likely to be called names but by far women, especially those 18-29, had experienced severe harassment including sexual harassment and stalking. The other main difference between men and women is what Pew reports as, “they (women) do not escape the heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general” (Pew, 2014).
I have had two major experiences with online harassment. The first was a YouTube video that used my name along with a number of expletives, including calling me names that started with “b” and “c.” Interesting enough, some high-profile YouTubers had also received this same video. I reported the video, and the account and the entire channel was deleted within a day. But by far, most of my struggles have been on Twitter.
The other experience continues to happen, as my Twitter account has been ‘stolen’ or impersonated over 200 times. At one point there were 50 of me on Twitter. Thankfully, these accounts haven’t tweeted anything offensive and going through Twitter’s (slow) reporting process will eventually get them taken down.
Twitter’s new tool allows users to take back their accounts, not just reporting users but the ability to block harassing words, phrases or entire conversations. This is not a new idea – as YouTube settings allow for similar filtering.
What hopefully will re-focus Twitter’s efforts acting on harassment comes from the new hateful conduct policy that, “prohibits specific conduct that targets people by race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.” If you report a tweet or user under this policy, it goes to the top to be reviewed.
But how bad can it really get? There are countless stories to share, but the most recent that got public attention – including causing Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to respond directly involved Leslie Jones.
Ok I have been called Apes, sent pics of their asses,even got a pic with semen on my face. I’m tryin to figure out what human means. I’m out
— Leslie Jones (@Lesdoggg) July 18, 2016
Twitter is known for having a troll problem, accounts that only seek to harass users and stir up controversy. The peak of Leslie Jones harassments came at the release of Ghostbusters late summer. Tweets that mentioned or were directed at her called her a primate, included pornography, resulted in the production of fake Leslie Jones accounts that tweeted hate, and more. One user, in particular, Milo Yiannopolouls – part of GamerGate who is known to support harassment of women – took to Twitter to attack Jones.
Yiannopoulos reacted with even more ammunition. One tweet calling her “barely literate.”
Leslie Jones supporters fired back, using hashtags just as #LoveforLeslieJ.
To be clear: Leslie Jones shouldn’t need to be strong, we shouldn’t have to avoid the comments.
Terrible people should stop being terrible.
— Amma Marfo (@ammamarfo) August 24, 2016
Amma describes what transpired next, “I came to her defense with a tweet about how I loved that she was strong, but she shouldn’t have to be- people should be nicer. It got WAY more attention than I expected. Lots of re-tweets, likes, and messages of agreement came in, but lots of vitriol and hate came with it. I was called naive, stupid, unrealistic, and told to shut up…and those are just the comments that are fit to print.”
She went on to share,
“Insults were hurled at me based on gender, but also based on race. The deluge became so unsustainable that I had to activate the Quality Control mechanism that Twitter had deployed only days before. I appreciated it for the peace and space it created, but it does make interacting in that space different from how I used to.
Finally, Amma reflected, “Quality control only allows you to see responses from people you follow- which is a nice way to reduce noise but also limits my ability to find new people who may have found their way to my feed via a friend or other referral. Further, it quiets dissent in an odd way. I don’t want to exist in the sort of echo chamber that a Quality Control filter creates, I just want people to be civil and constructive. And for standing up for a fellow woman creator, I lost the ability to make that distinction.”
The quality control filter that Twitter implemented still exists, but like Amma’s original tweet beckons, “Terrible people should stop being terrible.”
Laura Pasquini, Lecturer in Learning Technologies in the College of Information at the University of North Texas and Researcher with The Digital Learning and Social Media Research Group at Royal Roads University, shared another detailed example to Leslie Jones and #GamerGate. She shared how Twitter trolls took over, “who thought it was great to flame me way too early in the morning before having my coffee.”
— Laura Pasquini (@laurapasquini) October 21, 2014
She went on to state that, “I think it is something we need to talk about and bring awareness about, particularly since some of us work in areas where trolling and attacks happen for work and research.” She shared a fantastic guide called the Best Practices for Conducting Risky Research and Protecting Yourself from Online Harassment.
The likelihood of being a chick in cyberspace, and encountering harassment are real. What I find that keeps me engaged are people and organizations that use those same tools to bring women together.
For example, Laura Pasquini is also a founder of a fantastic podcast, #3Wedu: Women Who Wine in Education. The show is described as, “designed to uncork ideas and thoughts of what is happening with women in education.” They chat about barriers, mentorship, recognition, leadership, mentorship and empowerment all over the delight of a glass of wine.
No matter your gender identity – everyone deserves to be treated as a whole person, both physical or virtual locations. With statistics rising of bullying of all kinds, I implore you to take action especially if you see harassment happening to someone and report the behavior if it is happening to you. Watch out for your fellow cyber chicks.
Twitter, the company, can only do so much. It has to be the collection of users that want to take back the tool for real constructive dialogue and experiences to make a lasting impact.
Duggan, M. (2014). Online Harassment. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/10/22/online-harassment/
Summer Virtual Connection Circle – Facebook Group
Girl Boss – Twitter Page
I am That Girl – Twitter Page
Malala Fund – Twitter Page
Women for Women International – Twitter
Women’s Leadership Institute Participants & Friends – Facebook Group
ACUHO-I Women in Housing Network – Facebook Group
NASPA – WISA Women in Student Affairs – Facebook Page
African American Women in Higher Education – Facebook Page
Oregon Women in Higher Education – Facebook Page
Women in Higher Education – Facebook Page
Higher Education Resource Services (HERS) – Facebook Page
ACPA – Coalition for Women Identities – Facebook Page
Women of Color in Student Affairs – Facebook Page
Girls in Tech – Twitter
Girls Who Code – Twitter
Movemeant Foundation – Twitter