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Online Harassment Is a Social Problem That Requires a Social Response

Gender-based harassment, always intersectional, is marked by the intent of the harasser to denigrate women on the basis of their sex, race, religion, gender, sexual identities or disabilities. It frequently uses violence that leverages existing real world threats that women navigate, like avoiding rape or intimate partner violence.
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young desperate and depressed freelance worker or student woman working with computer laptop alone late at night in stress suffering internet bullying victim of social network
young desperate and depressed freelance worker or student woman working with computer laptop alone late at night in stress suffering internet bullying victim of social network

This week The Guardian is publishing a fantastic series of articles about online harassment and culture. In an editorial titled "The Internet We Want," editors introduced the series, which includes an unprecedented analysis of more than 70m comments on The Guardian's website. What was particularly insightful about the research was that the analysis took into account abuse and disruptive behaviour. To date the series has included pieces about work being done by women to confront these obstacles, what social media companies are doing, and what kind of cultures are cultivating pockets of hatred online.

"Although the majority of our regular opinion writers are white men," the report noted, "We found that those who experienced the highest levels of abuse and dismissive trolling were not. The 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men. Two of the women and one of the men were gay. And of the eight women in the "top 10", one was Muslim and one Jewish." All ten of the least harassed writers are men.

Like most mainstream media companies, The Guardian has more male writers, and topical sex segregation in its assignments and writing. The more male-dominated the section, such as Sports and Technology, the more aggression women writers encounter in their day-to-day work. Articles about feminism, rape and Israel and Palestine result in the most vitriol.

In February, the Women's Media Center launched The Speech Project, which I direct. We work to raise public awareness of what the often vague and catchall term term "harassment" actually means and to work with social media companies, legislators and other civil society advocates to curb abuse and create cultural change in the way people interact.

While online abuse can and does happen to anyone, the focus of this project is on the ways in which women's rights and expression are affected by persistent and often violent harassment related to their gender, class, race, sexuality and more. Women are more frequently targeted, as so richly illustrated at The Guardian, with gendered slurs, hateful commentary, and pornographic photo manipulation because the objectification and dehumanization of women are central to normalizing violence against us. This dehumanization goes beyond individual harms and is used strategically for political gain, the widespread sexual objectification of women politicians being a case in point.

Harassment like this usually leverages historic discrimination, safety gaps and double standards to amplify disparate impact on women. It is often a matter of civil rights.

While we use terms like "online harassment," the catchall phrase inadequately describes includes a whole spectrum of activities, some of which are legal, others not. We developed this graphic to explain the scope and impacts of what happens on line and how its related to the "real" world.


Gender-based harassment, always intersectional, is marked by the intent of the harasser to denigrate women on the basis of their sex, race, religion, gender, sexual identities or disabilities. It frequently uses violence that leverages existing real world threats that women navigate, like avoiding rape or intimate partner violence. While many forms of hatred are recognized, it is a problem that the role gender plays in exacerbating and amplifying the effects of being targeted is routinely ignored.

Last December, for example, researchers Evan Soltas and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz wrote an excellent New York Times oped on the relationship between people's anti-Islamic Google searches and actual violence. Using data from 2004 to 2013 they posited a direct correlation between anti-Muslim searches and anti-Muslim hate crimes, work presaged by The Dangerous Speech Project. They cited hate crimes statistics and, as an example, described an incident involving Asma Mohammed Mizami, a 23-year old Muslim woman in Minnesota. Mizami was driving home one night when a man, his car window down, yelled "Muslim bitch" at her. He then followed her and, using his car, tried to push her car off the road.

"While the vast majority of Muslim American's won't be victims of hate crimes," Soltas and Setephens-Davidowitz explained, "few escape the constant sense of fear and paranoia," that their loved ones might be next. That "constant sense" is actually one that many girls and women live with every day, as a function of being girls and women. That "constant sense" is at the heart of limiting double standards, safety rules, victim blaming and normative hyper-vigilance. Offline safety gaps between men and women exist in double digits all over the world.

Mizami wasn't just called a "Muslim" by her assailant. She was called a "Muslim bitch," words that are common online. If Mizami was targeted for hate, then she was doubly targeted, not only by anti-Islamic sentiment, but misogynistic sentiment. For the almost 25% of American Muslim's who are black, racism is a seamless part of this abuse.

According to a The Independent , in the wake of the November 13th terrorist attacks in Paris last year, Muslim girls and women in the UK were the vast majority of those assaulted in the more than 300 percent spike in anti-Muslim assaults.

There is no doubt that these attacks and harassment have a chilling effect on speech, just as they do offline. It's difficult to work in this environment. When I talk about this problem, as a writer, a common response from men, also writers, is to immediately talk about the harassment that they get. While I understand the instinct to engage by saying, in effect, "I understand," much of the knee-jerk response can often sound more like "Me, too, it's not so bad. It's the cost of doing the job and so earn your stripes." The experience of waking up in the morning to messages that include ugly slurs and naked men with knives in their mouths threatening to rape or kill you is different, however, for a whole host of reasons, from someone calling you stupid or an asshole. The last thing that women doing this feminist work and enduring this ugliness are is wilting violets.

When men face online harassment and abuse, it is first and foremost designed to embarrass and shame. When women are targeted, the abuse is more likely to be gendered, sustained, sexualized and linked to off-line violence, such as stalking and the very real threat of rape. It's meant to intimidate, control and silence. Even when comments, tweets, messages and other forms of communications don't involve direct threats, language is frequently relentlessly denigrating and hateful, creating an ambient hostility that is sometimes difficult to ignore.

Many women make the decision to stop writing, or they police themselves, opt out of covering certain stories, chose not to pursue a higher and more lucrative profile, and incur costs related to security and health. They also are likely to experience harassment that threatens their families.

Women writers are in the public eye, doing jobs that require interacting with audiences. "Don't read the comments," isn't an option when you have to use social media to do your work and when communicating with others is a vital aspect of being successful in that work.

Women writers are particularly targeted for abuse, but they are not alone in this. Women politicians are also highly likely to be targeted, and, like women writers, their abuse often comes from men around the globe. In March, the National Democratic Institute launched #NotTheCost, a global initiative addressing violence against women in politics. During a conference, women politicians from dozens of countries talked about their experiences with violence, sextortion, non consensual pornography, threats and abuse, increasingly enabled online and perpetrated across borders by misogynist men not even remotely knowledgeable about or affected by their political positions and policies. British Labour Party MP Jess Phillips, for example, explained that most of the violent threats she's received came from men's rights activists in the U.S.

Most women, however, aren't writers or politicians, nor are they harassed primarily by strangers. Instead, they are targeted by "friends," partners, spouses, neighbors and classmates. Very often, harassment is part of ongoing stalking and intimate partner violence or begins in underage bullying that migrates into very adult areas. Women are the vast majority of the victims of nonconsensual pornography, stalking, electronic abuse and other forms of electronically-enhanced intimate partner control. Sometimes the abuse is perpetrated by family members or governments. Anonymity is not the problem in these cases. To the contrary, anonymity can often be the only way that girls and women and other marginalized people, put at risk because of hostility to their gender identity, race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual preference, can participate online.

Some abusive tactics are legal, but violate a social media platform's guidelines. Others are illegal, but allowed by user guidelines. Often, what seems like one or two minor instances of name-calling are actually part of a much larger and intense, cross-platform campaign intended to intimidate and, sometimes, ruin a person's ability to work, go to school, and lead a healthy life. Cross-platform harassment is very effective because users are currently unable to report this scope and context of the harassment when they contact platforms, each of which will only consider the harassment happening on their own sites.

Laws, globally, are woefully behind technology. In addition to which, the murky question of jurisdiction alone impedes justice. However, the law won't fix these problems, which require cultural change. Social mores that define jurisprudence, policy and policing are in desperate need of reform, beginning in early childhood education. I, for one, am glad that these dynamics are revealing the ugliness of what so many people have lived with for their whole lives but that, before, remained in the shadows. Twenty years ago, if a woman said some of these abuses were happening, for example, as in cases of street harassment, many people's responses would have been to say she exaggerated, or was lying. Today, the harassment is in plain sight, there for anyone to consider. Even so, opposition to what it represents remains high.

These are social problem that require social responses. There is no one organization or institution responsible for solving the problem of "online harassment." When I began writing about this several years ago, many contacted me, sending their cases and looking for information about any resources or relief that might be available. There really was none. Today, the situation is improved as grass roots efforts have evolved to provide information and, in some cases, support.

Still, though, social media companies have legal immunity from the material published on their platforms and the business and mechanics of moderating user-generated content are tremendously complex. Civil society advocates have, for years, been working with social media companies to create new ways of thinking and approaching this problem, with inconsistent results. Law enforcement is woefully unprepared and lacking in training, processes or awareness. Legislators like Rep. Katherine Clark, herself a swatting target, is a vocal advocate for addressing these problems in a systematic way, such as proposing federal funding for police training, but progress is slow. Schools, eager to embrace technology, are not effectively providing media literacy for students nor are they thinking of the ways in which the technology that students are obliged to use create fast-moving socio-technical environments that students are not prepared in any way for and from which few can find respite.

Media companies, schools and employers need to acknowledge how online abuse affects students and workers and develop protocols that will support people targeted online. They have to do this in ways that acknowledge inequality, which is extremely challenging, especially in schools culturally committed to what amount to myths of equality and an unexamined belief in meritocracy. Only a robust, safe public commons will expand freedom of expression and ensure fair and democratic public engagement.

When girls' and women's freedom of speech is so disproportionately targeted for suppression and when challenges to our freedom of expression are ignored or treated as trivial and inconsequential, or a problem we're expected to solve individually, public life and democracy are degraded. That sounds pompous, coming from a woman about women. The idea that harassing women seriously impacts our political and social worlds strikes many people as ridiculous, because in a deeply sexist society it is hard to reconcile the words "women" with "important" and "democracy."

The Guardian research is a necessary and welcome addition to a growing bank of research and analysis. Media companies, like schools and other corporate spaces, have distinct cultures and have to develop their own protocols and guidelines. The first step is recognizing that the problem exists and then committing time and dedicated resources to addressing it. It also means serious introspection about persistent male dominance of leadership and senior decision-making, a fact, in media, that has remained largely unchanged in the past 25 years. The Guardian's openness about its data and willingness to address this problem head on is a very an important step, but the larger problems are complicated and require some very fundamental shifts in how we think about education, gender, free speech and citizenship.

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