How the Threat of Abuse Silences Women Online
Nina Jankowicz on the Problem of Harassment and Self-Censorship
Too many people—and as I found out the first time I was trolled, even some close to me—doubt the severity of online abuse. They doubt that it affects women more than men, and women from marginalized communities more than white, cisgender women.
As MacArthur Fellow and legal scholar Danielle Citron writes in Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, many people trivialize online misogyny and harassment. They tell us to simply ignore the threats we receive. We are told women who report harassment are “drama queens” and the men who harass them are simply “frat boys” or sad men sitting in their underwear in their mothers’ basements. We are blamed for wanting to equitably engage in the public sphere. (My trolls have told me more than once “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”) We are reminded that the internet, as the “virtual Wild West,” has no rules, nor should we expect any to be enforced.
Sarah Jeong, a New York Times columnist, writes that the media also frequently mischaracterize the offline threats created by online abuse: “In the media narrative, harassment becomes unruly words, not Social Security numbers. It becomes rape threats, but not the publication of physical addresses. It becomes floods and floods of frightening tweets, not a SWAT team knocking on your door because someone on the internet called the police with a fake threat.”
None of these misconceptions should be acceptable in the 21st century. Here are some facts:
In the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that women candidates for office were far more likely to be the target of abusive, often gender-based messages than their male counterparts. On Twitter, abusive messages comprised 15 percent of those women research subjects received, compared with only 5 to 10 percent for their male colleagues. “On Facebook, female Democrats received ten times more abusive comments than their male counterparts, while Republican women received twice as many abusive comments as Republican male peers.”
The abuse was compounded for those women of intersectional backgrounds. Later in 2020, UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) surveyed over 900 journalists from 125 countries, finding that 73 percent of women respondents had experienced online violence, including threats of physical and sexual violence. “Twenty percent . . . said they had been attacked or abused offline in connection with online violence they had experienced.”
In the same period, my research team at the Wilson Center embarked on a groundbreaking project analyzing the discourse surrounding 13 women politicians in autumn 2020. For two months, we collected mentions of candidates for office who spanned demographic and political divides across six social media platforms. As a women-dominated research team, we knew the conclusions would not be pretty; we were women with public online profiles, after all. But the sheer volume of the abuse, even outside of the nauseating content, was shocking.
We uncovered over 336,000 pieces of gendered abuse and disinformation against our 13 research subjects, with 78 percent of instances targeting then-Senator Kamala Harris and her historic Vice Presidential campaign. The tenor of the content was sexualized, racist or racialized, and transphobic in nature. Abusers claimed Harris had “slept her way to the top” or that her sexuality precluded her from government service, with nicknames like “Heels Up Harris” and “Cumala.” They pasted Harris’s face on pornographic images or on bodies in suggestive positions. In one breath, abusers employed racist stereotypes about Black women, and in the next they claimed “#KamalaAintBlack,” alleging that Harris played up her African American roots to win votes.
Unable to fathom a woman being successful without being duplicitous or exhibiting male characteristics, QAnon conspiracy theory supporters frequently shared a poorly Photoshopped meme that alleged Harris was secretly a transgender man named “Kamal Aroush.” In all, similar gendered disinformation narratives affected nine of 13 research subjects, while 12 of 13 women in our sample were targeted with broader gendered abuse.To be a woman online is an inherently dangerous act. The attacks we endure are meant to silence us.
We by no means uncovered everything; online misogynists, we found, are expert at evading detection, using what I called “malign creativity.” In the disinformation research sphere, we often call those that spread disinformation “malign actors.” Here, they are using their creativity for malign purposes, employing coded language, iterative, context-based visual and textual memes, and other tactics to avoid scrutiny and consequences. For example, abusers name groups dedicated to harassing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez innocuous titles like “AOC Memes and Tributes” and “AOC Fan Club.”
They use images rather than text to abuse their targets, and crop, animate, or edit them so that platforms have a more difficult time tracking them once they’ve been detected. They write “b!tch” instead of “bitch.” In short, even as social media platforms attempt to address this abuse, the most prominent women in the world face an abusive onslaught that affects their likability, their image, their safety, and the democratic prospects for women the world over, each time they log on.
To be a woman online is an inherently dangerous act. The attacks we endure are meant to silence us. They are meant to encourage us to stay home in “traditional” women’s roles and not engage in politics, journalism, activism, academia, or public life more broadly. As one of my trolls wrote, “you birth babies, we build bridges.” (It is a ridiculous sentiment; among other examples, it was women who built London’s Waterloo Bridge during the Second World War, though history tried to erase their contributions.
And that’s leaving aside the false equivalence between manual labor and childbirth, the physical pain of which I doubt this troll and others like him would be able to endure, not to mention the psychological toll motherhood takes on women in a world that undervalues our expected contributions to society.) However nonsensical, however baseless and uninformed, there is plenty of evidence that suggests these attacks change how women engage online.
In my own experience, I’ve found I think differently about how to promote my work when I’m actively dealing with abuse. Should I send a provocative tweet? Pursue research and publish writing on issues that attract criticism? Post a picture of myself online, giving the men obsessed with dissecting my appearance fodder for their next campaign? Sometimes, when I am engulfed by impostor syndrome or simply too tired to deal with another wave of online bile, the answer is no. But even in those moments, I know I’m not alone.
The International Women’s Media Foundation found in a 2018 global survey that 40 percent of respondents “avoided reporting certain stories as a result of online harassment.” In 2019, the National Democratic Institute found that politically-active women sent fewer tweets in the aftermath of online abuse, experiencing a chilling effect. An anonymous blogger, who “asked for her name not to be used because she was concerned about the attention that writing would attract” told journalist Helen Lewis in 2011, “the misogynistic abuse that a number of women bloggers and writers have received functions as a form of censorship and warning to the ones not currently experiencing it to watch what we say.”
A leading disinformation researcher and personal friend told me in an interview for the Wilson Center’s “Malign Creativity” report that when she is harassed, “oftentimes, my solution is to lock down my account . . . or I completely go offline and I don’t post for days. . . . You don’t feel safe to continue speaking, so you don’t speak.”
But what about young girls and women observing these campaigns?
They may feel joy at the inauguration of Kamala Harris as the United States’ first woman Vice President, but will they want to follow in her footsteps when they encounter the persistent disinformation campaign about her that scrutinizes her appearance, her race, her ethnicity, and her sexuality, all based on misogynist tropes?
In the course of my research, I ran focus groups with high school-and college-aged women, all of whom are extraordinarily careful with their online presence. “We know not to talk to everyone we meet. We’re careful about what we post [because] we have seen people crash and burn because of the mistakes they’ve made,” an 18-year-old from Chicago told me. Her peers expressed worries about whether college admissions officers and future employers would pick apart their profiles.
They were frightened that unsavory characters might discover where they lived or worked. Her college roommate, a 19-year-old from Virginia, said, “I don’t want a lifestyle that public anymore.”
It may seem admirable that these young women are taking precautions to keep themselves safe. They keep their Instagram profiles private, are wary on online dating sites, are careful when posting pictures of their faces and homes, and do not use their real names on social media profiles. While online vigilance is certainly warranted at times, I worry that young women today cut off a valuable avenue of self-expression and political and social engagement. They do not see the online world as it exists as one in which they can freely express themselves.
As these young women transition into careers and an adult life that requires a public online presence, will they be at a disadvantage? Research suggests they might be. Plan International, a development organization that fights for the rights of girls, found that young women around the world are self-censoring in a frightening way. In their annual “State of the World’s Girls” report in 2020, Plan asked 14,000 girls across 31 countries about their online habits. In a survey and interviews, they found that “most girls report their first experience of social media harassment between the ages of 14–16. Gradually, they learn to protect themselves better.”
But that protection often amounts to self-censorship and can have psychological and other emotional offline effects. Some girls avoided going to school after they were harassed; young women had trouble finding employment. They sometimes feared for their physical safety and frequently changed their online behaviors. “Of the girls who have been harassed very frequently, 19 percent said they use . . . social media platform[s] less and 12 percent just stopped using [them].” The authors trenchantly note that this sort of harassment should not be viewed through a “free speech” lens: “girls pay a high price for other people’s, largely men’s right to free speech. They are left to mostly cope on their own with a level of unremitting harassment that would see many of us defeated.”
Social media platforms are only just beginning to take these attacks and their downstream effects on democracy seriously. Governments, continuing their long history of failing women and systematizing misogyny, have by and large refused to see the urgency of these problems. Employers often do not have the systems in place to support the women representing them in the public sphere. Law enforcement are not equipped to handle online harassment, abuse, and disinformation, both in their training and background and the infrastructure of the legal system itself. Generally, women must navigate an often-treacherous online landscape and deal with the fallout themselves.
Until platforms, governments, and employers actively begin to make the structural changes necessary to make the online environment more equitable, we need strategies to deal with online misogyny and to fight for a world that recognizes that our rights to free expression online are just as valuable as our abusers’. Right now, the onus is on women to manage these problems. It is not our fault that data brokers are selling details about our personal lives to anyone who will pay.
It is not our fault that social media platforms cannot keep up with a malignantly creative trolling class that seeks to push women out of public life. It is not our fault that some male politicians tacitly endorse these behaviors, belittling their women counterparts and engaging in sexist tropes. It is infuriating, but there are ways to make it less so.
Excerpted from How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment, and How to Fight Back by Nina Jankowicz, available via Bloomsbury.