I’m part of a generation that has done much of our growing up with and in media. Living in media in this context means that our lives are heavily mediated by new media; we can make most of our appointments online, order groceries at the touch of the button that will be delivered to our home, ask a computerized personal assistant for bus times, look for our next relationship through online dating sites, and share our daily adventures and mundane-ness with friends and family through our Facebook and Instagram feeds. Not only do many of us go about our everyday life with new media, these are also the many ways into our everyday lives that online harassment can affect us. Thinking of our relationship as living with media, on the other hand, assumes that we can easily separate ourselves from new media, but that’s often not so easy for many people.
In the past year, there have been a number of well-known women who have publicly left Twitter due to the harassment they had to endure on a regular basis and Twitter’s lack of support in these instances, and the overall toxic culture that has taken over Twitter. Jessica Valenti, Leslie Jones and Lindy West are just a few of outspoken women online who abandoned Twitter. In Lindy West’s piece on why she left Twitter, she said she no longer wanted to help it profit as no matter what she did, nothing worked to eliminate the harassment. “I talk back and I am “feeding the trolls”. I say nothing and the harassment escalates. I report threats and I am a “censor”. I use mass-blocking tools to curb abuse and I am abused further for blocking “unfairly”.”
Feminist author, Jessica Valenti posted a number of tweets in July of 2016 stating that she was leaving Twitter because of the death and rape threats targeting not herself, but her 5-year old daughter. Both Valenti and West are writers for the Guardian, typically writing about feminism and politics. The Guardian released a survey of comments on its site that revealed Valenti’s writing was the most targeted with harassment. Leslie Jones, star of the new Ghostbusters remake, was also harassed on Twitter and publicly singled out for a short period of time until the biggest troll of them all was banned on Twitter. This didn’t stop this troll from continuing to lead a huge following of online trolls, signing a $250,000 book deal, and disseminating his own writing that went on to be picked up by mainstream media.
So what other options are there? Because of the networked spaces, we have to think of these platforms as networked connections and not individual platforms that exist in a vacuum from one another. For example, when Anita Sarkeesian, of the popular online series Feminist Frequency, was harassed with death and rape threats, the harassment didn’t stop at Twitter. One harasser created a video game where the purpose is to beat up Anita into a bloody pulp. And because of algorithms, the narratives on Twitter found their way onto the top Google search results when searching for one of these online feminist writers. This is what Sarah Banet-Weiser and Kate Miltner call “networked misogyny”.
Although publicly abandoning platforms like Twitter temporarily bring attention to some of the reasons why some people would want to leave the platform (i.e. abuse, harassment) this doesn’t fix the problem and shouldn’t be the go-to response from others, anyway, telling women online to just leave if it’s getting too much for the to handle. It’s ok to remove yourself from social media and is important for self-care, but the answer to ending online harassment isn’t to simply leave. Online abuse doesn’t stay on one platform – trolls don’t only use Twitter. They can easily find your email addresses, other social media platforms you’re using, and your friends’ social media pages to also spam with abuse.
For many of us, we rely on our use of Twitter and its algorithms to keep our jobs (as freelancers and those in creative industries to use as a space to disseminate our work), to keep up with and make new connections, to find all the cutest cat gifs of the day, and many other activities. We have come to rely on our mediated lives and the ways in which we use these new communication technologies, so leaving or fixing one platform isn’t going to help. A larger culture of ending harassment must be taken up by the plethora of actors involved in the creation and maintenance of these platforms.
In the meantime, Feminist Frequency and some local Ottawa organizations have put together social media safety guides to work on preventing online harassment. These guides are definitely still putting the onus on us to prevent our own harassment. However, perhaps these guides will also be useful to those ready to design their own platforms that can tackle the network of harassment as well.