Image by Cei Willis
Amy Harmon isn't stupid. When the NYT correspondent wrote a feature explaining that a Hawaiian campaign to ban GM crops was about as scientific as the plot of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, she probably expected a bit of blowback. Probably the kindest thing you can say about anti-GM protesters is that they rarely allow their ignorance to restrain their outraged righteousness. So an article that, in the words of one blogger, “shows what happens when you actually look for facts instead of being a dumbshit activist with an agenda who rejects the facts in favor of a political worldview,” was not going to make its way through the idiotsphere unscathed.
Even so, the response from campaign group Food Democracy was remarkable. They chose to Photoshop Harmon’s head onto the body of a woman in a leopard-skin swimsuit, strolling hand-in-hand with the CEO of biotech corporation Monsanto on a tropical beach. It was sexist, childish, and a demonstration that if you put the most sophisticated tools in the world in the hands of idiots you will still end up with garbage. “Evil bitchweed” and variations of “cunt” were among the gentler comments left beneath it on their Facebook page—others talked darkly of force-feeding crops to her family.
Another Amy, Amy Wallace, encountered similar levels of vitriol from the anti-vaccine movement after writing about the non-existent link between vaccines and autism. As Wallace recounted this weekend, “In online comments and over email, I was called a prostitute and the C-word. JB Handley, a critic of childhood vaccination … sent me an essay titled, 'Paul Offit Rapes (intellectually) Amy Wallace and Wired Magazine'. In it, he implied that my subject had slipped me a date-rape drug.”
Male journalists writing about controversial subjects get plenty of abuse, too—an irked Christian once suggested I should be decapitated—but as Wallace remarked, the sexualized, "you’re a whore" tone taken with women seems rather different, and the levels of abuse in a typical case reach far greater heights.
One of the great myths about online abuse is that it’s pretty much the same for men and women. Recent research by writer Meg Baber found that men believe, on average, that they receive about the same level of abuse and harassment online as women do. In reality, there is no evidence to support this, and a growing amount that suggests women receive far more.
In a recent, notorious case, a male Reddit user created a fake OKCupid profile posing as a woman, and lasted two hours before the creepy messages frightened him away.
While there’s a lack of large-scale research in this area, the studies that have been done have produced similar results—researchers at the University of Maryland, for example, found that female usernames in chat rooms received an average of 163 malicious private messages per day, against just half a dozen for men. They were overwhelmingly targeted by male, human users (rather than bots) and often sexually explicit.
Support group Working to Halt Online Abuse receives three times as many complaints from women as men; while Pew Research surveys suggest 42 percent of women who sign up to online dating services receive bothersome messages compared to 17 percent of men. Pew also found that 5 percent of women have been put in physical danger by incidents online.
A second great myth is that this is a question of "trolling." That word has been so abused by commentators in recent years that it now means everything from being argumentative to sending death threats. Coupled with the fact that—as Helen Lewis pointed out recently—much of the abuse leveled at women is simply unquotable in newspapers or on pre-watershed TV, we have a situation where most of the people expressing an opinion on online abuse have no real clue what it’s actually like.
In reality, we’re talking about straightforward abuse. Amanda Hess recently provided a sample: “To Alyssa Royse, a sex and relationships blogger, for saying that she hated The Dark Knight: “you are clearly retarded, i hope someone shoots then rapes you.” To Kathy Sierra, a technology writer, for blogging about software, coding and design: “i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.” To Lindy West, a writer at the women’s website Jezebel, for critiquing a comedian’s rape joke: “I just want to rape her with a traffic cone.” To Rebecca Watson, an atheist commentator, for blogging about sexism in the skeptic community: “If I lived in Boston I’d put a bullet in your brain.” To Catherine Mayer, a journalist at TIME Magazine, for no particular reason: “A BOMB HAS BEEN PLACED OUTSIDE YOUR HOME. IT WILL GO OFF AT EXACTLY 10:47 PM ON A TIMER AND TRIGGER DESTROYING EVERYTHING.”
Then there’s Caroline Criado-Perez, who committed the crime of suggesting it would be nice if more women could feature on Britain’s bank notes: “I remember the man who told me I’d never track him down, only feel his cock while he was raping me,” she told Helen Lewis; “the man who told me he would pistol-whip me over and over until I lost consciousness, while my children watched and then burn my flesh; the man who told me he had a sniper rifle aimed directly at my head and did I have any last words, fugly piece of shit? I remember the man who told me to put both hands on his cock and stroke it till he came on my eyeballs or he would slit my throat; the man who told me I would be dead and gone that night, and that I should kiss my pussy goodbye, as a group of them would 'break it irreparably'; the man who told me a group of them would mutilate my genitals with scissors and set my house on fire while I begged to die.”
Many pages have been written about the social and legal aspects of this problem, but there has been far less discussion about how this relates to public health, or technology. The people doing this are not generally among life’s winners. They are typically younger men, often with some form of mental health issue, looking for attention or some sense of self-worth through notoriety.
Some are clearly obsessive. One individual, a London-based man calling himself "ElevatorGate," has created an online archive of more than 15,000 Storify posts, watching his targets—mostly women—all day, and meticulously documenting their online conversations. In the last few years he has created dozens of accounts on Twitter, Storify and WordPress, at one point even blogging in support of the convicted rapist and ex-pro soccer player Ched Evans, pointing readers to an internet forum where his victim was named.
Over time, a community of misfits and misogynists rallied to his cause, constructing a sort of childish fantasy around his pseudonym—he became a "brave hero," challenging the dark forces of women. What resulted, as in so many cases of long-term abuse, was a self-reinforcing cycle of attention seeking and approval. And then something changed: what started as an irritation (I was originally one of his targets) became increasingly pitiful. Here was a grown man with the entire world at his fingertips, yet cruelly unable to interact with it in any constructive way; lost in his own fantasy, flinging rude words at women he had never met.
Until now, the focus has been very much on the victims of internet abuse, but nagging questions remain unanswered—to what extent are the abusers also victims? Are there some people for whom social media just isn’t healthy? Indeed, are there entire communities of people essentially reinforcing and enabling each others’ problems in a collective downward spiral?
And then there’s the technology, the complex web of services and APIs layered on top of the World Wide Web. Abuse against women online has been endemic since the early days of the internet, but it’s only really come to mainstream attention in the era of Twitter. In part, this is because online conversation is far more central to our culture now, but it’s also a result of new features and innovations in online services. Twitter abuse is far more visible, and more easily directed at high-profile individuals, than misogyny in an AOL chat room. It’s also more likely to escalate, thanks to the brevity of messages and the capacity for anyone to wade into any conversation, bringing their followers with them.
Many of these services seem almost designed for stalkers. In 2014, anyone with basic computer skills can create an anonymous email account, use that to generate accounts on WordPress, Twitter, Storify and other services and generate abusive content on an industrial scale. More sophisticated abusers can employ simple scripting or services like If This Then That to automate elements of their workflow, or route their activities through Tor.
Once you reframe abuse as a technological problem, you realize just how little services like Twitter have actually done to protect their users. Contrary to popular belief, it is impossible to block someone on Twitter—all you can do is block particular accounts. There are no levels of privacy between "protected account" and "totally open to everyone." Worse, Twitter doesn’t scale—people with tens of thousands of followers face an unmanageable cacophony of feedback, while those targeted by a mob have little option but to retreat until the storm dies down.
You might say that Twitter doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. It’s just one service, and if people don’t like it they can go elsewhere. The same could be said about chat rooms. And if you don’t like the comments on your blog posts, well, you can switch them off. That misses the point, though. No one public space is particularly important in itself, and if one is closed, it isn’t some existential threat to modern democracy; but when the same people keep being driven out of more and more spaces, at some point we need to take a stand.
This should matter to Twitter and other online services for commercial reasons too, because history has shown what happens to services that fail to create a pleasant environment for their users. Back in 2005, the Pew Internet and American Life Project discovered that participation in online chats and discussion groups had fallen by more than a third in the space of a few years. The dramatic decline was almost entirely due to women leaving the services; which “coincided with increased awareness of and sensitivity to worrisome behavior in chat rooms.“ Already, people are taking conversations they would have had on Twitter to other forums, citing near-hysterical responses to even the mildest of topics. It wouldn’t take much to turn the site into a modern-day AltaVista.
Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins