Imagine waking up to an email from a complete stranger wishing that you would be sold into the "sex trade" and "forced to give birth over and over again and then die from giving birth."
This is my reality. I had an abortion at 19 and I talk about it publicly; as a result, I deal with a nearly constant onslaught of hate mail, tweets, and Facebook messages. After an essay I wrote about my experience terminating a pregnancy went viral, I was frightened every time another email and tweet notification popped up on my phone. For a time I turned off the notifications, but that didn't subdue the feelings of isolation and fear. The graphic comments were on my mind for days and I couldn't function: Who were these people and why do they wish such horrifying things towards me?
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"It's just a debate," people often say. Or: "It's a controversial topic." But many feminist critics argue that hate and rape threats aren't debate, nor are they an exercise in free speech. As Laurie Penny outlined in Al Jazeera, calling out a government agency for infringing on our rights on Twitter is not nearly the same tweeting someone that you hope they die a slow and painful death because they had an abortion—such comments are abuse. When people of color, women, queer and transgender people, and other marginalized communities speak out against harmful rhetoric and violence, we become targets for violence, both online and off. We know the goal of this harassment is to silence us, but we won't back down.
Last week, Jaclyn Friedman, the founder of Women, Action, and the Media!, Anita Sarkeesian, the creator of Feminist Frequency, and I released Speak Up & Stay Safe(r), a free digital guide to protecting yourself from online harassment and doxxing. It's a comprehensive resource containing many of the tools we wish that we had access to when we first started receiving threats in response to our work.
In our guide, we make recommendations everyone can use—ranging from creating difficult passwords and removing your information from "people finder" websites, to protecting your identity while gaming, to ideas for self-care when experiencing online abuse. We outline several simple tasks, like using an encrypted password keeper and removing private information from cloud storage programs, that can make one far less vulnerable to targeted abuse and harassment: Minimizing the number of places your information is available online can help to decrease risk, but not totally.
When anti-abortion, anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-transgender, and anti-immigrant rhetoric is ubiquitous in our media, considered acceptable fodder during our nation's presidential campaign, it's no surprise the same sort comments are flung at us in our social media feeds. And, with alarming frequency, online abuse transforms into real-world harassment. In the past year alone, we've seen numerous cases of women having to flee their home or cancel public appearances after criticizing misogyny in media and gaming, of women receiving racist rape threats because they voiced their opinion on television or on campus.
A quarter of young women say they've experienced sexual harassment or stalking online.
Unfortunately, our experiences are all too common. According to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, a quarter of young women say they've experienced sexual harassment or stalking online, and 65 percent of Internet users under 30 say they've been harassed online. The threats and abuse towards marginalized people are exacerbated in digital spaces where laws haven't caught up and social media platforms aren't protecting their users.
Earlier this year, Women, Action, and the Media! teamed up with researchers and Twitter to analyze their handling of abuse and recommend ways social media platforms can hold users accountable for their hate speech. Several organizations are making efforts to shed light on this issue, but in the meantime, we need resources to protect ourselves.
While a majority of Internet users have seen someone harassed online in one form or another, well-meaning people often doubt the severity of the situation. A common response to online harassment is to tell the target to turn their computer off and simply block and ignore the offender. However, as we've experienced firsthand, this is merely a short-term solution. It's not a realistic answer to merely block and log off when you're being attacked by an online mob—the abuse is waiting for you when you log back on. Many of us use the Internet for our jobs, and our social media apps are staples on our phones. For many, it's not an option to abstain, even temporarily.
It's illegal to harass or threaten someone on the street. Why should cyberspace, where we spend so much of our time now, be any different? My Speak Up & Stay Safe(r) co-authors and I want an Internet where everyone has the ability to connect with the world positively. We will continue updating the guide with new security tools and in additional languages to reach more communities. We believe that the Internet should be a place to celebrate our diverse world and identities; my hope is that we stand up against hate and push for policies that create a safer online experience for everyone. This guide is only the beginning.