Addressing Online Abuse

(Note: this is a quickly made post, not researched or worked on in depth, just me trying to put out a few things I’ve written multiple blog posts on. It’s late, so any typos or Yoda-esque sentence structures are entirely my fault.)

Yesterday, my twitter feed began blowing up a little about a panel at the Women in the World summit in New York (an event that I was shamefully unaware of) where Emily Bazelon, Kamala D. Harris, Ashley Judd, Anita Sarkeesian and Katie Couric spoke about the issues of online abuse, how it is only just starting to be taken seriously, and how little can be done about it, either by law enforcement or even by the social media services that abuse happens on.

This panel has been seen by many as a great step forwards, albeit a step we should have taken a long time ago – actually taking online abuse seriously, and listening to the people who have experienced it.

The amount of abuse that I’ve seen thrown at women I follow, admire or even know online is not just demoralising, it is plain terrifying. It is constant and there is absolutely no way to stop it from happening. When I began this blog as a university project back in 2012, I tried to focus on the positives that social media and indeed the internet at large have brought to the world. I wanted to push back against the frequent criticisms I heard lobbied against the modern online world, from the narcissism of selfies to the ‘not real’ relationships formed through the internet. I had spent much of my teenage years online in one form or another, from fantasy roleplay forums in my early teens, to music fan sites in my sixth form years, to online gaming at university. It formed the person I am now, and I wanted to show that for the good experience it was/is.

So I’d be the first to admit that I was fairly sheltered from realities of online abuse prior to Gamergate. Yes, I was absolutely aware of the death threats against Anita Sarkeesian upon launching her video series on female characters in games, I even recently found a half written post about it in my drafts. I also remember vague discussions from my Social Technologies course about the internet’s treatment of women (at the time, I was deeply reticent about making videos of myself because I was afraid of comments about my looks.) But I wasn’t in any prepared for the comments I began seeing after August of last year – Zoe Quinn’s post ‘August Never Ends’ covers this far better than I could. I wasn’t prepared to see accounts hacked and smeared, personal information passed around. People driven from homes, or jobs, often permanently. People having the police falsely called to their houses. Why? At this point I’m not really sure why people are doing it.

In that half written blog post, I mentioned that people seem to view abusing others as a game. They ‘score’ by getting a reaction or a pushback, the bigger the better. In Anita’s case, this reached a peak when her talk at Utah State University had to be cancelled due to bomb threats. Given the number of threats she had already received, often with personal information such as her home address, this is not the over reaction some might imagine it to be. But while this is an extreme case, even dealing with the constant low level barrage of insults and empty threats must be utterly exhausting.

To put it bluntly, a sizeable proportion of people on the internet act in the most disgusting, vile ways imaginable. Yes, some of them may be ‘just kids’, but they are not all ‘just kids’ (and there is something deeply wrong with blaming graphic rape threats on kids and not having a problem with them saying those things) and yes, some of them may be sociopathic outcasts latching onto targets they could never empathise with, but these two demographics don’t cover the scale of the problem – there are far more abusers at work here. Obviously, I’m talking about abuse beyond the Gamergate ‘movement’ at this point, because through reading the timelines of people such as Zoe Quinn, Randi Harper or Brianna Wu, I’ve encountered many others who sympathise with them because they have suffered so much abuse in their own fields. Feminists, activists, writers, youtubers. Usually women, usually outspoken. People I would like to be like, but who would want to put themselves and their opinion out there any more?

Even social media services such as Twitter and Facebook have admitted that they struggle to stop this from happening. These are platforms that exploded from small beginnings, and perhaps they never realised what tools would be needed to deal with their current userbase, certainly they are finding it hard to effectively implement them now. In the Women of the World panel, Ashley Judd criticises the current Twitter system, and her comments are not new to me, I’ve heard them from plenty of others. The later parts of the ‘August Never Ends’ post describes how just trying to report these abuses to the authorities is all but pointless, there is no training to deal with it at the bottom, and no laws to cover it at the top. I’ve heard women on Twitter worry that this will go on until someone is actually killed. At times, it appeared that they might be right.

There are certainly moves to tackle the abuse, though it’s sad that a lot of it, such as the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, had to come from the people who have suffered the most abuse themselves, solely because no-one else would take the problem seriously enough. After all, it’s just the Internet right? It’s not a big deal. Just log off, switch off the computer, and it all goes away.

Well, no. It doesn’t.

For many of us, an ever increasing number in fact, the Internet is not just some faceted part of our lives that we can forget about once the screen goes blank, it is an utterly integral part. It’s our news, our work, our social circles and more. You can’t get rid of that, not without a drastic life change. And you shouldn’t have to. The Internet can be a wonderful thing, and we shut that out too if we quit. So no more ‘it’s just the internet’. No more ‘deal with it, or leave’. As an important part of our society, the online world needs to be treated as seriously as the ‘real’ world.