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Danger Predates the Internet

What we call “online harassment” is just the centuries-old fight to keep women out of public life. The good news is women already have the solution.

(Photo: esthervargasc/Flickr)

“Online harassment” is no longer useful, or adequate, as a shorthand for the sustained campaigns of abuse women face in the public that is the Internet. Yet this is how the mainstream press and online commentators alike described — to offer just two very recent examples — racist attacks aimed at an incredibly high-profile actress and comedian like Leslie Jones, and the misogynist threats that led feminist writer Jessica Valenti to leave social media this summer. Jones is black; Valenti is white. Jones starred in a summer blockbuster; Valenti is an author of several books on gender. Jones became the target of a right-wing pundit who used his real name; Valenti has received pseudonymous threats against herself and her family.

If this is what harassment looks like, what lesson are we to learn from their experiences? That no woman, no matter how famous, is safe from such abuse online? That the Internet is now fundamentally dangerous for all women?

Of all places taking that lesson from the abuse of Jones, it was Wired, once the sunniest of techno-utopian outlets. “Do you know how many Internet-using people commit harassment?” the magazine asked in an open letter attributed to its staff and published on its website in August. “Us neither. It’s not many. But that minority is literally the worst. And they’re screwing it up for the rest of us.” Forget utopia, they say. The Internet is now, 25 years after the birth of the Web, a fallen place. “You had no immune system, and you started to rot. Now that rot has turned to blight.”

Of course the most powerful information and communications network is the site where those who want to deny women a public life would attack. This is the history of women in public.

If Wired wants to use the language of “blight,” something usually marshaled by champions of so-called “urban renewal” and other clean-up campaigns, it should go a bit deeper. What the Internet was 25 years ago is also what it was nearly 50 years ago when the Department of Defense funded its development. The Internet was just less densely populated. It took decades for it to become a nearly seamless part of everyday life, and, eventually, for writers (and outside publications like Wired) to treat “what happened online today” as a story at all.

What has made the Internet “dangerous” for women isn’t anything fundamental about its design or operation; it’s that it has become absolutely indispensable for millions of women. The Internet is to women of the turn of this century what the street, the train and streetcar, the telegraph and telephone, and the workplace were together at the turn of the last one. It is where we make ourselves public.

Of course the most powerful information and communications network is the site where those who want to deny women a public life would attack. This is the history of women in public. They understand that being free to move, to express ourselves, and to create our own lives is the foundation of women’s social, economic, and political power.

The often (but by no means always) anonymous people we call “online harassers” don’t care what we publish. They care that someone might respond, and that it might matter. They don’t want to silence women. They want to discipline us.

What we might learn from the experiences of Jones and Valenti and countless others is what they do have in common: the tactics of their abusers, how these anonymous individuals were able to team up and make one valued part of their public lives — their online presence — unlivable to them. This is the key to understanding what has been mislabeled “online harassment.” What these people’s abusers seek to accomplish isn’t to make the Internet dangerous, but to cut off their access — wherever they can land an attack — to public life.

After Jones announced she would leave Twitter over racist abuse, there were the now-routine calls for Twitter to take harassment more seriously. It is far from alone in harboring racist users. Of Nextdoor and Airbnb, Guardian reporter Sam Levin writes, “tech companies typically prioritize user-friendliness and convenience above all else — even if that means shielding racist users and allowing offensive posts.”

Twitter did ban the right-wing writer who played ringleader in the relentless campaign against Jones. But this did not shield Jones from further racist abuse. Her abusers simply shifted from Twitter to her website, which they hacked. This act of escalation is terrifying. When an abuser shifts venues, it signifies dedication. It is, of course, a tactic that predates social media. What’s new now is that the Internet affords many more venues for an abuser’s harassment to propagate and generate more abuse.

What is our responsibility to women being run out of public life? To raise awareness of abuse? Or to ensure their right to an open and accessible public? These may not be the same thing.

Which is why the focus on delineating this abuse as “online harassment” is perhaps itself dangerous. In a conversation at Motherboard, Internet theorist Whitney Phillips expressed concern that, when journalists report on these stories, we run the risk of amplifying the network effect of the abuse. We extend their attacks into yet more public space.

Our late 20th-century approach to combating the abuse of women, to encourage those who have been abused to “break the silence,” may have unsettling limits in such an intensely, immediately networked age of communication. What is our responsibility to women being run out of public life? To raise awareness of abuse? Or to ensure their right to an open and accessible public? These may not be the same thing.

There are other options. For those targeted by harassment, we can document each incident, and decide how and to whom we want to report them. Journalists can choose to cover high-profile incidents of abuse in ways that do not amplify the abuse, and that give power back to targets of abuse to shape their own story. (Which may also include people who do not wish to continue to be made a story.)

Rather than reacting to the latest flare-up, we can work harder to learn from the experiences of those who have face sustained online attacks to understand trends and sources of abuse. Feminist digital activists are already doing this work, though it rarely gets as much attention as abuse itself. In their own communities, they share the methods they use to assess their risks and options to protect themselves, whether that’s using encryption or multiple digital devices to make their private data harder to access. Feminists are teaching each other how to mask their IP addresses, and they are also educating each other on the practice of sending “safer nudes.”

Feminist activists working at the cutting edge of digital security see no reason to wait for appeals to technology companies and states to be heard. They are working right now to demystify Internet safety, to put the power back in the hands of people who are most likely to be targeted, before any more women are pushed out of the network.