Online forum harassment

Hillary Smith

In my last column, I mentioned that after Anita Sarkeesian began calling out misogyny in the gaming industry, she was hit with intense online harassment that spiraled into death threats. Sarkeesian’s personal information was also compromised, leaving her in a terrifying situation:

Completely unknown harassers possessed the means to harm or even kill her, but since they were anonymous and distant from her, she had no idea how far they would actually go.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the hateful, illiterate comments that exist under every YouTube video, but Sarkeesian’s case brings to light how dangerous the free internet can really be. In an effort to find out how common serious online harassment actually was, I discovered a recent study (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/10/30/5-facts-about-online-harassment/) done by Pew Research Center which reports that 40 percent of Internet users experience harassment, and half of them don’t know the identities of their harassers.

Even more disturbing than this, but not very surprising, is the fact that internet harassment is a more serious issue for women. While women are slightly less likely to experience online harassment in general, they deal with more severe forms, like stalking and sexual harassment.

As an article (http://time.com/3305466/male-female-harassment-online/) in Time explains that the harassment women experience is more likely to be rooted in gender, given their history of being discriminated against and abused for being female. It is more often less about “un-
pleasantries” than it is about men seeking to assert their own dominance and silence women for speaking out of their “place.”

So the Internet, then, is used to target not only outspoken people or all people equally, but members of historically victimized groups, adding another means for this victimization that may even be the hardest to escape given the constant presence of the Internet in most of our lives.

Another side to this issue is that online harassment is often used by intimate partners as a form of domestic violence. That same article in Time reports that intimate partners use fake names and accounts to harass former or current partners with stalking and threats of rape or death. In one study cited by the article, a majority of domestic violence victims were threatened or intimidated by their abusers through technology, which includes, of course, access to the Internet. I had been aware of cyberbullying between young people as a major problem, of course, but I had never stopped to think about online harassment being a means of domestic violence. This just adds another item to the list of how the Internet can be used to abuse people.

I guess most people would say that this is an unfortunate consequence of the right to free and open Internet. And yes, I agree that we all have the right to use the Internet. But in my opinion, this use needs to come with limitations. While I have no idea what this would look like practically, there have to be stricter rules for using online names and for interacting with others online. I get the whole freedom of the Internet ideal –– I really do –– but too often this freedom gets grossly abused and ends up contributing to ongoing oppression of certain bodies of people, like women. For the sake of anyone who is harassed online, we must do something to limit people’s abilities to abuse Internet power so that this abuse cannot get out of hand, as it too often does.