Director Cynthia Lowen's new documentary Netizens should be required viewing for anyone who's even thinking about joining social media. The film illuminates the daily struggle of three women whose lives have been forever changed by cyber harassment, whether by exes, stalkers, or reactionary gamers.
Carrie Goldberg is a badass lawyer who delights in high heels and fiercely advocating for her clients, who have been the victims of revenge porn, online harassment, and more leveled by "by pervs, assholes, psychos, and trolls," as she puts it on her website. There's Tina, a businesswoman whose career was torpedoed when an ex set up websites that spread malicious rumors about her past. And, of course, there's Anita Sarkeesian, the media critic whose video series "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games" so incensed gamers that she's been fighting off gruesome online and real-life threats since the series launched in 2013.
Netizens had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, April 22nd, followed by a panel led by writer Lauren Duca, herself the frequent target of online harassment. After the panel, the film's publicists suggested that Sarkeesian and I find a place outside to do our interview. I asked Sarkeesian if that would be, you know, safe. She's been the target of bomb threats and mass shootings, and even though journalists are technically supposed to be neutral parties, it's difficult not to want to protect her, especially as a feminist in media. We settled in a nearby park to talk about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), boundaries, self care, and whether or not there's a through-line from Gamergate to Donald Trump. And we were just fine.
Was this your first time watching the entire documentary?
I hadn't seen any of it. This is the first time seeing any cuts of it at all.
Were you able to sit through all of it?
Yes, I did. I definitely cried. The documentaries that were recorded years ago that are coming out now are like reliving experiences that are exhausting to relieve, and they're re-traumatizing in a lot of ways. The reality of my life is that online harassment is the background radiation of it. It doesn't go away.... For me, it's about figuring out strategies of how to deal with it in the long term, and I'm realizing that it's becoming harder to actually talk about it all the time. I'm an expert in this field, I'm asked to do it, and it's becoming more difficult for me to do that in any capacity of wanting to actually heal from this.
In the middle of a trauma, people often tend to steel themselves just to get through it. How do you think things have changed so that now you're ready to begin engaging with PTSD?
Some of it is that I've made a concerted effort over the last couple of years to do more self-care.... I spent several years doing nothing but working. I didn't take a day off, and my job was both making the "Tropes" videos and being a public educator around online harassment, specifically around my experience. I was looking at everything. I saw everything. All these videos. All the posts on message boards. You just had to be hyper-vigilant because you were like: "When's the next threat coming through? I gotta be able to be ready for it." At some point, I was like, no, I don't need to know everything.
I started doing things like going outside more and not being online all the time and not [reading] the comments. I started working out, and if you had told me even three years ago that I would be like, I'm going to work out regularly and it's going to make me feel better! I'd be like, you've lost your goddamn mind [laughing]. But you learn strategies for coping with depression, you learn strategies for coping with trauma, and so I found mine.
The big thing though, to be honest, is that I got a staff. I'm in a situation where I was able to hire folks for Feminist Frequency, and they run our social media. I don't have to look at it all the time, and I don't have to deal with it all the time, so there's a barrier between me and the harassment. Sometimes; not all the time. That's helped a lot.
I'm not naïve, but the documentary was incredibly upsetting to watch.
[The director] Cynthia [Lowen] does a really nice job in the film of trying to humanize us, even if some of it, especially for me, was really embarrassing stuff.
I think the goal for her was to humanize targets of harassment and show the stories behind us and that there is more to us. You don't know where people are at. You might hear about a target in the news, and that's all you know about them, but you don't know what their daily life is like, what their emotional struggles are like, if family members are sick. All the things that are hard in your life can be compounded by online harassment.
The reason I'm exhausted is because a lot of people will say: "Yeah, I heard about Gamergate, that's how I heard about you, I don't really know what you do now." All I'm known for, to a lot of people, is being a victim and what was done to me, not what I do, and I think what I do is kind of cool. [laughs] I think it's cool and valuable and important. It's not like I only get asked to talk about that. I just did a talk in Philly about video games, but I can't talk about video games without talking about harassment either, so it's all tied up.
Where do these cyber-bullies come from? What happened to them to make them the way they are?
I can't do a psychological deep dive into every single person who harasses online, but there are a lot of men and boys who feel super disaffected—understandably. This country is a very difficult place right now for a lot of people, and it has been for a while. The men's rights activist groups, the white supremacist groups, they all hang out on message boards and recruit. They say, you're upset about these things? Well, we've got answers. It's the immigrants. It's the women. They're taking away your jobs, and they're the successful ones, and they're the reason that you're not getting everything the patriarchy promised you. Then they hang out in these spaces with all this super intense toxicity, and they lash out at us.
I feel like there's a through-line between what we'll lump together as Gamergate (though it's older than Gamergate) to the current presidency.
One hundred percent. Gamergate didn't get Trump elected, but there's a lot of similarity and strategies.... A lot of us feel like the canary in the coal mine. I sat down and listed out the similarities and strategies [between Gamergaters and Trump], and there's a lot of them. And that's frightening. And it's infuriating for those of us who have been talking about this forever. Like, you didn't listen! [laughs] You weren't paying attention, and you didn't think this was as serious as it was, and so here we are, and we have to keep fighting.