In the pre-social media years of free-AOL-hours CDs, chat rooms, and email, I felt like the Internet held so much potential. Finally! A place I could be free to explore new ideas, safely express them, and find acceptance from friends across the globe. Today, my positivity about the Internet has faded, in large part because of the way people treat one another online. Karla Mantilla’s debut book Gendertrolling: How Misogyny Went Viral, explores some of the worst of that behaviour, which comes in the form of misogynist harassment.
What Mantilla dubs “gendertrolling” is not just people being mean to one another, nor is it the type of generic trolling that men experience. The women interviewed by Mantilla describe being harassed, stalked, and threatened by mobs of angry men on a variety of media platforms for months and even years. The threats are gendered and typically contain sexual slurs, as well as graphic rape and death threats.
And what are the qualifications for being subject to this abuse? Only that one is a woman and has a platform on the Internet. Some women note that developing an increased following seems to up the chances of harassment, but the abuse itself is not limited to women who speak on any one issue, or even any group of issues. The women who spoke about being targeted with abuse in Gendertrolling run the gamut of interests — a couple are in the atheist and skeptic community, there are radical feminists, liberal feminists, right-wing and Christian writers, authors of parenting/mothering blogs, and food bloggers. The only thing they really have in common is their gender, though women working in traditionally male dominated areas, such as gaming and technology, are particularly targeted.
Every time I read articles on the subject of men’s harassment of women online, I’m always struck by the number of men who, in the comments section, downplay the harassment. It’s similar to the way men demand proof from women who speak publicly about street harassment.
For example, when a woman says she’s been in contact with the police about online harassment, men argue that, if her claims were real, the police would have already taken action.
When people demand “proof,” they can always change the standards — what they are really saying is “prove it to my satisfaction!” In the example above, “Guncriminal” states the police decided the graphic rape and death threats against gamers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu weren’t credible, because the police have not publicly taken action against the perpetrators. A commenter named “Arekushieru” points out the irony of this claim, as earlier in the thread, “Guncriminal” stated, “[t]he only credible threats in the whole Gamergate debacle were two bomb threats — both aimed at supporters of Gamergate.” Yet “Guncriminal” refuses to provide evidence to back up his claims. The trick here is that no matter what “evidence” had been provided to “Guncriminal,” he almost certainly would have picked it apart in some way.
Perhaps these men would prefer we live in a country where, in order to prove a rape or harassment claim, a woman must have several male witnesses legally support her statement?
When I read reactions to male online harassment (which I’ll refer to as “gendertrolling” from now on), I often wonder how the male commenters think they would react if they were subject to the same sort of debasement. But then, as men, they’re not faced with the same gender-based, sexual threats that women are, just for speaking online. Indeed, Mantilla notes that when men make similar statements or share similar opinions as women who are being gendertrolled, the reaction from the harassers is typically very different.
The point of gendertrolling is to remind women we are subordinate, so trolls typically don’t go after men, even men who align themselves with outspoken women. Mantilla argues that gendertrolling is a continuation of men’s sexual harassment and abuse of women in other areas of life, carried over to online spaces. She provides fascinating historical data as to how women were kept from speaking publicly and from having their written opinions taken seriously throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The sexual harassment of women writers, of women at work, and of women on the street effectively functions to keep women from writing, out of the workplace, and off the streets — whether this is the intent of the harassers or not. Similarly, gendertrolling functions to silence women’s voices online. However, the effects of gendertrolling aren’t limited to the Internet — this is another important distinguishing feature from generic trolling.
All the women interviewed and quoted by Mantilla have been impacted in “real life” by online harassment campaigns. One impact of these vicious gendertrolling campaigns is that women fear that online harassers will find them in their real lives. Doxxing — posting a target’s home address, phone number, and employer — is a typical part of harassment campaigns. Some women, including Anita Sarkeesian, have fled their homes after receiving credible threats. Feminist and atheist blogger, Rebecca Watson, says threats from a man who lived only a few hours away from her forced her to consider moving.
Then there are also the professional costs of being targeted. Mantilla quotes Danielle Keats Citron, a legal scholar and the author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, who says:
“Targeted people who curtail their online activities or go offline incur serious costs. They lose advertising income generated from blogs and websites. They miss opportunities to advance their professional reputations through blogging. They cannot network effectively online if they assume pseudonyms to deflect the abuse. As technology blogger Robert Scoble explains, women who lack a robust online presence are never going to be included in the [technology] industry.”
Many employers now Google a potential hire’s name, and for those who have been gendertrolled, this may mean women have to consider bringing up the online slander to potential employers before a background check happens.
Women also describe feeling watched, never knowing whether someone they meet in real life might be an online harasser. Feminist writer, journalist and (at the time) attorney, Jill Filipovic, describes her reaction to discovering she was the target of an online harassment campaign via a law school message board called AutoAdmit:
“Stuck at home and going swiftly down an online rabbit hole, I spent hours reading posts that extended beyond commenting on my rape-ability into users posting dozens of photos of me, commenting on my body, rating my physical attractiveness, and listing my contact information… people [who] claimed to know me in real life, or said they had at least met me, or seen me, or maybe talked to an ex boyfriend of mine. They had details about what I wore to class and what I said. I felt very suddenly like there wasn’t enough oxygen in the room to fill my lungs.”
One of the men who had been posting in this forum went so far as to confront her on a nearly empty floor of her law school. The idea that online harassment is something victims can “opt out” of simply by logging off is clearly false. Online hate-trolling has ramifications that go far beyond the keyboard.
It’s long past time this kind of abuse be addressed. Social networking sites and blogging platforms are free to implement their own rules when it comes to how their users engage, which means they can start placing some limits on what libertarian computer geeks call “freedom of speech.”
Mounting pressure has indeed resulted in a number of sites implementing processes to report and deal with abusive behavior. In Febuary 2014, the professional networking site, LinkedIn, finally added a feature that allows members to block profiles of other users. The campaign for this feature was started by a woman who had personal experience being stalked on LinkedIn after leaving her job due to sexual assault. It seems blatantly obvious to me that social networking sites must have (at least) a way to block profiles of harassers. I wonder how it is that it took until 2014 for a major site like LinkedIn to implement such a basic feature. Perhaps the decision to not create a blocking tool initially has something to do with the perspectives of an overwhelmingly male-dominated tech industry.
Because, even today, much of the tech industry remains male dominated, many sites may not have considered how a free-for-all environment fosters the reproduction of inequalities that exist offline. The fabulous podcast Reply All produced an episode recently that provides concrete data on how a more diverse workplace allows for the generation of ideas that may never have come to fruition had the workplace been all people from the same background. A majority white, male technology workforce is just not going to think of, let alone seriously consider, the types of concerns women have online, particularly in the social media relm.
But as it stands now, most social media sites do not include equal numbers of men and women on staff; in fact, many won’t even listen to users who complain of sexual harassment via their service. If social media sites aren’t willing to listen to women, users may have to go after their bottom line. A Facebook Rape Campaign, #FBRape, took this route, targeting companies that advertise with Facebook by screenshotting the companies’ ads on pages that hosted offensive or abusive content. This resulted in Facebook issuing a public statement in May 2013, stating, “It has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like… We need to do better — and we will.”
Mantilla writes that perhaps the most important changes, though, are those that impact society at large. Hiring a workforce that more accurately reflects their users is one step online content providers can take. On an individual level, people can be encouraged to send supportive comments to victims of gendertrolling campaigns. Posting these messages publicly is another way to show the trolls they are both in the wrong and outnumbered. But cultural change, while perhaps the most worthy step, is also the hardest. Mantilla notes, “[T]he conclusion of many who are trying to tackle this behavior is that, in order to truly effect change in gendertrolling behaviors, we need to reduce misogyny in general by changing the ideas, values, beliefs, and norms that determine how women are regarded and treated.”
While gendertrolling may not be the most pressing issue facing women globally, it is connected to the misogyny expressed by men who rape and kill, as well as the men who catcall, batter, or who simply see women as inferior. It is also an increasing problem in today’s world, where the Internet is a part of our everyday lives. As we learn more about the ways men are using misogyny online, those of us on the right side of history are sure to come up with more ways to counter these campaigns. Mantilla’s book provides both documentation of the problem and also gives a name to it — two essential steps towards addressing misogyny online.
All referenced quotes are from Gendertrolling: How Misogyny Went Viral (2015), by Karla Mantilla.
Laurel Long is a canine-walker and would-be writer. She lives in Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C.