Today we’re featuring two separate guest posts, both about online harassment. Stay tuned for the second one!
This is a guest post from Alice Marwick, PhD. Dr. Marwick is the Director of the McGannon Center for Communication Research and is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University.
Over the last two years, gendered online harassment has finally been recognized as a significant issue. High-profile cases of women doxed, attacked, or shamed in public, often those speaking out about sexism, highlight the ways in which the technical affordances of the internet enable systemic persecution. The same technologies which allow for positive collaboration and creativity can—and are—used to threaten, provoke, and hector journalists, bloggers, software developers, activists, or even just random people online with disturbing regularity.
This is a difficult problem to solve. The desire to harass women is not a virus spread by the internet that strikes individuals at random. Instead, it’s fueled by very real, and very complicated, underpinnings of structural misogyny (and, often, racism, homophobia, and classism as well) that affect who gets harassed. During the panic over cyberbullying a few years ago, LGBT activists implored the press to remember that implementing anti-bullying campaigns without addressing larger issues of trans- and homophobia ignored the underlying issues. I’m currently working to do something similar with gendered online harassment.
Many well-meaning people are proposing a host of legal and technical solutions, from eliminating online anonymity, to reinforcing anti-harassment statutes currently on the books, to increasing moderation in online communities. Some of these solutions may work, and some may not. But I share the EFF’s concerns; we shouldn’t use gendered online harassment, as awful as it is, to chip away at protections for online speech. Online anonymity is frequently used by activists, domestic violence survivors, and sexual minorities as a protective tactic. And companies like Facebook and Reddit, who are not legally required to actively patrol harassment on their platforms, have shown themselves unwilling to invest in greater moderation or content regulation.
Even given all these suggestions, we still have very little information both about why people choose to harass others—and, more broadly—why men adopt, adhere to, and spread sexist and misogynist views. You’d think the latter would have been extensively researched in the 1970s, but it seems to have been barely studied at all. I (and two PhD-level research assistants) have been unable to find any major studies identifying motivations for men adopting sexist views, let alone motivations for harassing women, whether that be sexual harassment, street harassment, or online harassment. (I would be extremely happy if you could comment with any studies you may know of and I can be proven wrong). But this is the missing piece. Without understanding why people are harassing others online, we cannot accurately solve this problem.
So I’m posting this to ask for a favor. A project I’m involved with is currently up for a People’s Choice Award in the fifth Digital Media and Learning grant competition (called the Trust Challenge). Together with another professor at Fordham, Gregory Donovan—who’s worked extensively with diverse groups of young people in NYC on other participatory research projects—we’re hoping to study harassers with the collaboration of young women who’ve been harassed. We think it’s extremely important to involve victims of online harassment to avoid the paternalism that often comes into play when creating solutions to help young women. The information and expertise provided by a focus group of young, diverse New York City area women will help us understand where this harassment takes place, what it looks like, and how to combat it. It will also inform the second half of the project. We hope to identify, contact, and interview people online who have harassed others. From these people, we want to understand motivations. Is it for the lulz? Do they identify as trolls? Is it because they subscribe to a Men’s Rights ideology? Is it a way to let out aggression? With the information we learn from both groups, we hope to create best practices for tech companies and legislators to design any strategies to combat harassment. We hope to include not solely harassment for being feminist, but harassment for merely existing as a woman online—especially a woman of color, a queer woman, or someone with an intersectional perspective.
Please vote for our project on the DML website. It takes a second—just click the heart—and it gets us one step closer to getting this project fully funded. We’re asking for money to support summer funding for both of us, a semester off for Gregory so he can devote himself to the project, incentives for our participants, and a grad student to help out with the project. We hope that you’ll agree that this project is worth funding.
(We also encourage you to check out FemTechNet’s project which focuses on creating educational content to combat harassment of feminists specifically).