Virtual Brutality

For many women, the Internet has become a pit of sexual harassment and death threats. Government—and tech companies—can do something about it.

By Jack Meserve

Tagged technologyThe InternetWomen

Imagine it’s the pre-Internet era. You walk down the driveway, open your mailbox, and find letter after letter after letter calling you some of the foulest names imaginable and threatening to kill you. This would never have happened, but it’s not so different from the experience the writer Amanda Hess detailed recently in Pacific Standard: an unending stream of death threats and grotesque sexual slurs in her inbox and on comment sections, directed at her by readers of her pieces. Hess isn’t an exception; many female writers report getting this treatment regularly. Women more generally receive harassment through social networks, online dating, even computer games. Many of the men who read her essay, even fellow writers who also receive hate mail, were shocked to see the extent of the online abuse women put up with. It seems the Internet, which has revolutionized just about everything else, has also revolutionized sexual harassment.

Since my adolescence, I’ve spent thousands of hours online in the different corners of the Web: games, forums, political sites, and so on. I’ve always had male user names, and in more than ten years, I’ve had one serious threat of assault against me, and zero sexual threats. Many women, prominent writers and not, get more than that in a week. This tallies with Conor Friedersdorf’s experience. Friedersdorf, a seasoned writer at The Atlantic, receives plenty of hate mail, and found it a troubling but manageable part of doing business. Then he guest-blogged for the libertarian blogger Megan McArdle. There, he writes, he received “emails and comments addressed at McArdle that expanded my notion of how disturbing online vitriol could be.”

In Hess’s case, someone set up a new Twitter account with the name “headlessfemalepig,” and began sending her messages claiming that he lived in her state, that he was going to “rape you and remove your head,” and finally that “[y]ou are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.” Making such threats is a crime, and yet when Hess reported them to the FBI and local police they were indifferent.

Reducing the frequency and severity of this behavior shouldn’t be impossible. But the sheer volume of ugly behavior online makes most observers throw up their hands. If one writer on one topic on one small subsection of the Internet can draw dozens of threats a week, what’s the point in trying? Better to tell the recipients to steel themselves and get used to hitting delete. The prevalence of online harassment has become an impediment to any attempted solutions.

Cases like these pit our intuitions against each other. Anyone who has spent serious time on the Internet knows that if it is a series of tubes, those tubes are often carrying sewage. There are threats from everywhere, to everyone, usually from someone the victim doesn’t know. On the other hand, a threat received through the physical mail is just as impersonal, and the sender is just as far away. And few would toss a death-threat letter into the trash and smile through the rest of their day.

There’s another example of intimidation against women that once seemed intractable: workplace harassment. Into the 1970s, routine harassment by co-workers and supervisors was not only seen as not criminal, but as an inevitable part of being a woman in the workplace. But an effective movement of women applied pressure to public and private institutions and began to stigmatize that behavior. It signals a possible way forward for similar online harassment.

The history of the movement against sexual harassment in the workplace is a rough but useful analogue to the current state of Internet harassment. Then, too, the most common stance was “jerks will be jerks.” In 1977, The New York Times’s Russell Baker typified the shrugging attitude of the time. Responding to a suit by Yale students alleging sexual harassment by faculty, he wrote, “There are surely quicker and cheaper ways of making professors mind their manners.” What are these ways? “A robust father might have appeared carrying a shotgun at the office of one of the more obnoxious offenders. A large brother or boyfriend might have blackened his eye.” Later in the piece, he laments that the accusers “are simply conforming to a new national habit, of course. Hand an American a problem and he immediately takes it to court.”

But change was on the march in the courts and the federal government. In 1980, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued its first notice that sexual harassment at work was prohibited as a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1986, the Supreme Court confirmed that sexual harassment was covered under the Act, noting that harassment included not just quid pro quo sexual extortion but the creation of a “hostile or abusive work environment.” It was a 9-0 decision, with the opinion written by conservative Justice William Rehnquist.

Despite the unanimity of the Court, not everyone was on board. In 1991, National Review ran a guest editorial by Barbara Amiel decrying that the workplace had become a “feminist Salem” imposed on us by “pathologically neurotic” women. Criticizing a workplace training video about sexual harassment—which depicted a man telling a female co-worker bending over a copy machine that he’s “enjoying the view”—Amiel rails, “Who, but disturbed human beings, would see this as sexual harassment?”

Clearly, the road to enlightenment was a bumpy one. It took diligent work in the media by activists like Lin Farley and Catharine MacKinnon to change attitudes. Carrie Baker, in The Women’s Movement Against Sexual Harassment, documents how newspapers and women’s magazines lifted the veil of silence covering this behavior. The first New York Times story on sexual harassment appeared in 1975. The prominent anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in 1978 that “so many men use sex in so many ways as a weapon to keep down the women with whom they work.” Baker notes that many newspapers, not having ever covered it, had to create new categories in their indexes for “sexual harassment.” (She notes, “The Wall Street Journal listed sexual harassment articles under the category ‘Sexuality’ through the mid-1980s.”)

Plenty of work is still to be done, but identifying and condemning sexual harassment has helped create a stigma that punishes at least some perpetrators, and allows victims to feel more comfortable coming forward. In politics, the fact that in recent years presidential candidate Herman Cain, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, and Representatives David Wu, Anthony Weiner, and Eric Massa have all been forced to end their political careers over sexual harassment charges is a positive sign that such advances are no longer winked away.

(It’s worth an aside to note that this attitude hasn’t completely left the country, or National Review. In 2011, John Derbyshire helpfully asked in National Review Online: “Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing? Is there anyone who doesn’t know it’s all a lawyers’ ramp, like ‘racial discrimination’? You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up. Is this any way to live?”)

Workplace harassment is still a huge problem. But norms around harassment can change. Women endured decades of grotesque treatment from bosses and co-workers, while the conventional wisdom told them to, basically, suck it up. But this multipronged effort through government, the law, and private society has made undeniable progress.

What would a similar effort against online threats and harassment look like? A similar combination of legal and government efforts against the worst offenders, combined with social pressure on private institutions to prevent as much of the remaining dreck as possible. There’s absolutely no reason that a woman (or man) who receives specific and violent threats should not have legal recourse. Whether this requires more money, more personnel, or more time, it’s a basic role of government. This also includes acts like hacking into someone’s e-mail or web accounts to access compromising images or information, a too-common crime.

To analyze how this kind of effort could be effective against Internet harassment, it’s useful to break down this behavior into three broad categories. The first are specific threats of physical and sexual violence, like the kind against Hess. Laws are on the books for this kind of thing, and the police and FBI are perfectly capable of investigating and arresting those that do it. Recently, a man in South Florida commented on a court blog that he was going to execute a state attorney, and the FBI got a subpoena and traced the location of his computer “within hours of the posting.” Now, it’s understandable that law enforcement takes threats against prosecuting attorneys especially seriously. The point is that identifying and arresting isn’t a technical challenge, but one of manpower and priorities. Beat cops will never be technical wizards, but police need to know what Twitter is (as Hess’s responding officer did not), what Facebook is, and why threats on a screen should be taken as seriously as through any other medium.

A second tier could be broadly classified as insulting harassment that doesn’t rise to the level of a specific threat. McArdle laid out many of the types of comments and e-mails she gets, including hopes that any children she has will die, claims that she only has a job because of whom she sleeps with, and “creepy sexualized fantasies.” This kind of writing falls below the criminal, but is so pernicious and disconcerting for its recipients that it’s something Web companies should take far more seriously, whether through more aggressive banning or broader filtering and blocking options for users.

Finally, a third tier of comments can be chalked up to the basic tactlessness of the Internet: calling someone stupid, evil, a Koch lackey, or even telling funny but tasteless jokes. Any individual website can moderate its comment section as it sees fit, but the bawdiness is so part and parcel of the Internet that a more general movement against it is probably doomed.

For behavior that falls below the criminal, Web companies have far more tools at their disposal than they’ve cared to use so far. These companies employ the smartest, most creative programmers in the world: There must be better solutions than more “report abuse” buttons. Facebook, for instance, has always been aggressive in removing sexual and racist postings, but had to be dragged by social media campaigns and advertisers into applying the same standards to misogynist pages, including “Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs.”

Removing users’ anonymity is a last option for Web companies, and one to be taken with a bit more hesitancy. Anonymity is the alcohol of the Internet: a disinhibitor that creates great fun and terrible behavior. Much of the creative, unrestrained content creation on the Internet stems from the fact that users don’t have to worry about their bosses searching their political posts, the memes they’ve created, or their YouTube uploads. But there’s also a coarse but accurate maxim of the Internet, created by the online comic Penny Arcade, that a Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad. Finally, removing anonymity means taking it away not only from perps but potential victims as well; many online stalkers have used victims’ Facebook accounts as entry points. Still, anonymity is not an absolute value, and Web companies shouldn’t wage total war to protect the identity of abusive users.

There’s a last reason why pressuring private companies to regulate content is preferable to government: Though online harassment is a real problem, the concerns of civil libertarians are not phantasmic. Great Britain, for instance, has repeatedly arrested Twitter users for speech that would be rightfully protected in the United States. One 20-year-old received 240 hours of community service after tweeting that soldiers “should die and go to hell.” In another case, a man was arrested for racist tweets toward a soccer player, but tweets that included no threat. Tumbling a bit further down the slippery slope, Turkish courts applied a suspended ten-month sentence to a renowned pianist for tweeting mild jokes about Islam.

These tweets range from repulsive to tame, but do any of them really warrant a trip in the paddy wagon? The government should be in the business of policing direct threats, not offensive language of any stripe. Unlike the censure of death threats, widening the charges to any kind of offensive language has tangible chilling effects on protected speech. Furthermore, American courts have jurisprudence available to distinguish between “true threats” of violence and hyperbole for effect. This isn’t a difficult needle to thread.

That said, no one who posts racist rants about football players has a “right” to Twitter or Facebook or any other Web platform, and each can set whatever terms of use they like. Citizens have no rights against censorship by private companies. The First Amendment prevents the government from arresting you for racist or sexist slurs and sexist harassment; it doesn’t protect you from getting your IP banned.

Would any or all of these actions, taken together, have an impact comparable to the changing expectations in workplaces surrounding harassment? The Web is different from an office, and its anonymity and lack of face-to-face interaction allow for dashed-off cruelty, even by otherwise pleasant people. But the modern workplace and the Web do have some similarities. Both were settings in large part shaped by and for men. Then, when women who entered this space faced hostility and intimidation, they were told that this treatment, whether it was at the water cooler or on a computer game, was an immutable part of the thing itself—better to just accept it. A strong women’s movement in the 1970s and ’80s showed that it wasn’t true of the office. It needn’t be true online.

Read more about technologyThe InternetWomen

Jack Meserve is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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