This Filmmaker Accidentally Exposed The Disturbing Underbelly Of Online Harassment

The worst online abusers of women aren't who you think they are.

BROOKLYN ― It was a rainy morning in the fall of 2014, and filmmaker Cynthia Lowen was half-listening to WNYC radio while getting dressed for work when she heard a news story that grabbed her attention.

The segment was about Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist and media critic who made a web series exploring sexism in video games. She had just cancelled her upcoming talk at Utah State University after an anonymous person threatened to commit “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if the event wasn’t called off.

That death threat wasn’t the first, or the last, that Sarkeesian faced. As Lowen learned about the profound ways her life had been disrupted because of online harassment, she grew more and more angry.

“The fact that she was being targeted as a feminist journalist who was critiquing video games from a feminist perspective, I was just like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is not acceptable.’”

In that moment, something coalesced. Her next documentary needed to address cyber harassment of women, she decided.

“Women no longer felt safe to participate in all that the internet offers,” she told The Huffington Post during a recent interview at her home. “They were being forced off the internet.”

More than two years later, she’s now deep into the making of “Netizens,” a feature documentary film telling the harrowing stories of women who became targets of cyber harassment, and the scant justice available to them. Lowen is currently raising funds for “Netizens” on Kickstarter, which you can learn more about here.

The film is expected to be completed in late 2017.

Lowen won acclaim for writing and producing “Bully,” an Emmy-nominated documentary film that examines five children and their families as they cope with the effects of bullying. 

When she first starting working on the project, she said, there was a general attitude that bullying was just part of the culture and nothing could be done about it. That same sense of complacency surrounded the issue of online harassment, she said.

“Violence on the internet is totally normalized and treated like the price of entry,” she said. “The attitude is if a woman wants to be online, she should expect to receive abuse.”

As she began researching for the film, she imagined she would end up telling the stories of women journalists and public figures who were ruthlessly attacked because of their creative expression ― a similar narrative to that of Sarkeesian.

Instead, she stumbled upon a far more personal story: Most of the women she met who were victims of vicious online abuse were not targeted by mobs of online strangers. Instead, the person perpetrating the abuse was a former boyfriend or husband.

In other words, it was domestic violence, playing out over the internet.

“The objectives of intimate partner violence ―to dominate, to control, to prevent somebody’s autonomy ― has been amplified by the ways in which the internet can be used as a weapon,” she said. “It’s the elephant in the room with this issue, and it’s constantly overlooked.”

Lowen said she heard countless stories of women whose partners threatened to share naked photos of them online if they broke up.

The threat of humiliation is a very powerful weapon for abusers.

While often called “revenge porn,” the more accurate label for posting sexually graphic images online without a victim’s consent is non-consensual pornography. 

“The threat of humiliation is a very powerful weapon for abusers,” she said. “It’s used to keep women in abusive relationships, or to retaliate against women who have left.”

She also found that many perpetrators of online abuse were using it to harm their victim’s ability to make money and become financially dependent.

“Every single woman I filmed with, her career and her ability to economically survive was systematically targeted by the perpetrator,” she said. “If they leave the relationship and they discover that every time they apply for a job, someone Googles them and finds the damaging material and they can’t get a job, it makes them very vulnerable to going back to the abuser.” 

Other types of online abuse that she investigates includes perpetrators impersonating victims online to hurt their reputations or get them in trouble, as well as posting women’s name and phone numbers online in fake sex ads.

“Anyone can go on Craigslist or Backpage.com and create a sex ad, and then send people to your home or to your place of employment,” Lowen said. “When that happens, it’s really hard to get law enforcement to help you.”

The film circles around five women’s stories of online abuse, and the lingering repercussions that many of them still face today.

“There’s a long history of under-addressing crimes that disproportionately affect women, and that’s definitely the case here,” she said. “The thing about online harassment is it’s not about the internet. It is really about the deep seated prejudices and discrimination that exists in our communities, period.”

Watch the trailer above to learn more about the film. 


Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and other issues related to women’s health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.


Related stories: 


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline .