Intimidation by Internet

intimidation by internet       1.23.14

The web can be a welcoming community where people try out new ideas, even identities. But for some, the anonymity that's possible on the web engenders deep malice with no repercussions.

Since I read Amanda Hess’ January 6 article, Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet, I’ve thought about it every single day and talked about it almost as often. In case you think backlash against outspoken women is a thing of the past, read this article.

Amanda Hess writes the kind of articles I love to read. For instance, Television Critic Doesn’t “Get” Why Lena Dunham is Naked All the Time takes a male journalist to task for suggesting that Lena Dunham shouldn’t appear naked on TV since he doesn’t consider her tittilatingly hot. Hess’ writing combines outrage and logic to call outdated assumptions and attitudes out on the carpet. Unfortunately not everyone responds with joy to her articles.

Threats against Hess have some common themes. Rape is a favorite, along with decapitation and gun violence. Some of the anonymous harassers go after her appearance, “I see you are physically not very attractive. Figured.” (Implication: a woman can only have a voice if she’s deemed, what, pretty?)

Since Hess’ piece came out, other female journalists have shared similar stories. In the New York Times, Amy Wallace describes how she was called the C-word and a prostitute, after writing a critical article about the anti-vaccine movement. People who disagreed with her created mock articles about her rape and Photoshopped her head onto the body of a woman in a strapless dress.

After Amy Harmon wrote an (excellent) article about genetically modified crops in Hawaii, she too was harassed. She too received a Photoshopped image, this one of her head superimposed on a woman in a leopard-skin bathing suit.

Apparently, to take a woman down, the most obvious weapon is the fact that she’s a woman. In the words of Sarah Silverman,

You were saying something, Ma'am?

…it really is different for women. Even in the brightest of pop culture, as soon as you’re at an age when you have opinions and you’re outspoken and you know who you are, you’re very much encouraged to crawl under a rock, and be embarrassed by any wrinkle. Or by still being alive.

Online hatred is not limited to women. On the NPR program, On Point last week, a male caller described “hundreds of death threats” he received in response to his anti-SUV campaign. And just read the comments of any online news outlet for a dose of free-floating vitriol.

Where does all this malice come from? The web provides a shield of anonymity that enables bad behavior. Like drivers who rage at other cars that happen to contain people, Internet trolls are safely separated, not only from their targets, but from any repercussions for their actions. They don’t have to know their victims; they don’t have to care what it feels like to receive hateful messages from a stranger.

In 2012, Adrien Chen of Gawker uncovered the identity of Michael Brutsch, the real-life man behind the troll, Violentacrez (sounds like Violent Acres). Brutsch had created a depressingly popular section on Reddit called “Jailbait” featuring photos of underage girls in bikinis and short skirts. Some of the photos were taken “on the street” without the girls’ knowledge. Others were downloaded from Facebook. When it was his turn to be revealed online, however, Brutsch pleaded with Chen,

My wife is disabled. I got a home and a mortgage, and if this hits the fan, I believe this will affect negatively on my employment,” he said. “I do my job, go home watch TV, and go on the internet. I just like riling people up in my spare time.

After stripping teen girls of their humanity under headings like “Chokeabitch,” and “Rapebait,” Brutsch tried to leverage his human story to get a reporter, who unlike Brutsch, went by his actual name, to take pity on him. Happily, Chen didn’t cave and Jailbait came down.

Online harassment is far from an equal opportunity phenomenon. Africans Americans, Hispanics and women come up against offensive online language and images more often than white men. A huge majority (88%) of teens see online behavior they consider cruel or mean, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens are bullied online three times as often as other teens.

Telling victims of online bullying and cyberstalking to stay away from the Internet is not

Have an opinion and let the world know.

the answer. The web has become integral to many people’s lives. Going offline is akin to saying goodbye to your career for journalists and many other professionals. Many LGBT teens say they find support and community on the Internet that they’re hard-pressed to find in their physical surroundings.

One answer is to speak up. Have an opinion and let the world know it, ideally with your identity out in the open if you can. Amanda Hess started the conversation. Let’s keep it going.

About Joanne Barker

Joanne Barker is a healthcare writer and editor who lives in Somerville, MA.
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