Speak up and stay safe: starving the oxygen from online harrasment

by Joshua Piercey

Image source: Ivan David Gomez Arce/Flickr

Image source: Ivan David Gomez Arce/Flickr

It’s a tedious and tragic irony: women who speak up about violence towards other women incur – almost without fail – violence towards themselves.

Much of that violence manifests as online harassment. The combination of personal anonymity and proximity the internet provides can be toxic. Expressing opinions, speaking personally or even just creating content can provide a window for others to reach into your life without fear of reprisal or censure.

A TROLL UNDER EVERY BRIDGE

They can see you. They can comment on what you do. They can share your information, manipulate the facts, and even impersonate you. You are public, so they can do with you as they please.

They are anonymous, so there is little you can do to respond. The sheer scope and violence demonstrated in online harassment – the kind that leads to isolation, the end of careers, even suicide – has left society baffled. Despite admitting that they “suck” at dealing with online bullying, platforms like Twitter have utterly failed to take serious steps to combat it.

These are facts that Anita Sarkeesian, media critic, blogger and owner of the YouTube channel Feminist Frequency, knows all too well.

VIDEO GAMES VS. WOMEN

In 2012, Sarkeesian was targeted by an online harassment campaign of staggering violence, following the launch of a Kickstarter project to fund a YouTube series examining the portrayal of women in video games. Here’s an edited list from Sarkeesian’s Wikipedia page:

‘Attackers sent Sarkeesian rape and death threats, hacked her webpages and social media, impersonated her on Twitter and repeatedly doxxed her (unlawfully distributed her personal information). They posted disparaging comments online, vandalized Sarkeesian’s article on Wikipedia with racial slurs and sexual images, and sent Sarkeesian drawings of herself being raped by video game characters. The threat of violence became so intense that Sarkeesian was forced to leave her home.’

As Rolling Stone would later point out, the misogynist backlash merely proved her point – video gaming has a serious problem with women. But those who chose to speak up about problems in the industry often found themselves the target of harassment campaigns just as vicious as that suffered by Sarkeesian. For women talking about video games, online harassment has become the norm.

FIGHTING THE SYMPTOMS 

Anita Sarkeesian has received death threats after outing gaming industry misogyny on her YouTube channel Feminist Frequency Image source: abc.com

Anita Sarkeesian has received death threats after outing gaming industry misogyny on her YouTube channel Feminist Frequency Image source: abc.com

One of the reasons online harassment has become prevalent is its effectiveness. People unprepared for the vitriol and inventiveness of the mob can find their lives turned upside down. And though it might seem defeatist to treat the symptoms without addressing the root cause, the internet can move so fast and with such intensity that commentators find their ability to speak out reduced – eclipsed by the sheer scale of harassment that can be organised against them.

Speak Up & Stay Safe(r): A Guide to Protecting Yourself From Online Harassment is a freely downloadable collaboration between Sarkeesian, anti-rape activist and founder of Women, Action & the Media (WAM!) Jaclyn Friedman and Renee Bracey Sherman, reproductive justice activist and author of Saying Abortion Aloud.

In a friendly, no-nonsense tone the guide gives best security practices for social media, email, online gaming, website platforms, and ensuring privacy of personal information online, advises on how to document and report harassment, and – crucially – gives advice on how to  care for oneself (and one’s loved ones, a frequent target) during an online attack.

‘The combination of personal anonymity and proximity the internet provides can be toxic. Expressing opinions, speaking personally or even just creating content can provide a window for others to reach into your life without fear of reprisal or censure.’

It’s sad that such a thing should exist. In the words of the guide:

“We wish we didn’t have to write this. Going through even some of these steps to protect your online safety will cost you real time and sometimes money. It’s a tax on women, people of color, queer and trans people and other oppressed groups for daring to express our opinions in public. None of this is fair. It should not be our meticulous labor and precious funds that keep us safe, it should be our basic humanity. But that has proven heartbreakingly, maddeningly insufficient more times than we can count.”

“While we fight for a just world, this is the one we’re living in, and we want to share what we know.”

The existence of the guide promotes hope in two important ways. The first is that it may have the desired effect – starving online harassment of oxygen, reducing its effectiveness and therefore removing its appeal.

The second is merely this – when a system cannot protect you, you can protect yourself. As Sarkeesian and her colleagues have demonstrated, even something as overwhelming as the internet can be tackled with rationality, bravery and empathy.

Bullies prey on fear, but like any disease, fear can be inoculated against. Using tools like this one, it is possible to speak up while staying safe.

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