lengthy feature in Pacific Standard, declared that women are not welcome on the Internet. After describing her own frightening experience of online stalking, Hess lists other ugly incidents and cites statistics and studies arguing that women on the Internet—journalists, bloggers, and general users—are routinely terrorized solely because of their sex. New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat called the article “a candidate for the most troubling magazine essay of 2014.”Last month, freelance journalist Amanda Hess, in a
Troubling, indeed. But is it true?
There is no doubt that many women, prominent and obscure, have experienced severe online harassment that can spill over into “real life.” Hess’s stalker, who repeatedly threatened her with rape and murder, went from emails to phone calls and voice mail messages. Whether such harassment is a female-specific problem and so pervasive as to actually deter women’s online participation, is far less clear.
Hess and her supporters’ argument relies heavily on out-of-context (and sometimes inaccurate) data, anecdotal evidence, and conflating serious harassment with garden-variety trolling and petty insults. These claims, uncritically received, are fanning a moral panic that could punish legitimate speech and create a more negative environment for women on the Internet.
As evidence of the perils of being a woman online, Hess states that, “of the 3,787 people who reported harassment incidents from 2000 to 2012 to the volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent were female.” This is an average of 288 women per year and these numbers hardly indicate an epidemic. Moreover, only a minority of the reports involved threats of violence (20 percent on average, and as few as seven percent in 2011-2012).
It’s important to note that men make up a nontrivial percentage of the victims of online harassment. Some of the disparity is likely due to self-selection; men who are harassed may be less inclined to complain than women. When American Internet users in a random survey by the Pew Research Center last year were asked if they had ever been stalked or harassed online, 13 percent of the women said yes—but so did 11 percent of the men. This is a surprisingly small gap within the poll’s margin of error.
Hess’s article does not include these statistics, but cites another finding from the same study: “A Pew survey reported that five percent of women who used the Internet said ‘something happened online’ that led them into ‘physical danger.’” For men that figure was three percent. Again, a gender gap so trivial it wasn’t even mentioned in the Pew report on the survey, which gave a combined figure of four percent for both sexes.
Quoting a different Pew study, Hess reports, “From 2000 to 2005, the percentage of Internet users who participate in online chats and discussion groups dropped from 28 percent to 17 percent, ‘entirely because of women’s fall off in participation.’” She offers this as proof that sometimes, women are actually driven out of virtual spaces by sexist abuse. Yet this alarming claim turns out to be, quite simply, a pseudo-fact made of statistical smoke and mirrors—an apparent error made by the report’s author, Deborah Fallows, and further amplified by Hess. The statistic is contradicted by one of the study’s own infographics, in which chat and discussion group participation rates for September 2005 are listed as 24 percent for men, 20 percent for women. The full dataset shows considerable volatility for both sexes on this item, with a low of 20 percent for men and 14 percent for women in February 2005.
In an email responding to my query, Pew senior researcher Mary Madden acknowledged that the wording in the report “does not appear to reflect the fluctuations that occurred in online men's use of chat rooms” and said that “clarifying language” would be added to the text. Meanwhile, other Pew data on Internet usage are dramatically at odds with Hess’s claim that “on the Internet, women are overpowered and devalued.”
In September 2013, the Pew website featured a “FactTank” brief, “It’s a Woman’s (Social Media) World,” based on the finding that in the last five years, women’s use of social media has exceeded men’s by an average of 8 percentage points. This gap is partly due to Pinterest, where women dominate five to one. But women are also the majority on Facebook, used by 72 percent of women Internet users and 62 percent of men in 2012–2013. Twitter and Tumblr are both close to a 50/50 split. The only predominantly male social media network is Reddit, used by eight percent of the men online and four percent of the women.
Of course, these generally encouraging statistics are cold comfort if you’re in the small minority to be targeted by a cyberstalker.
But online harassment doesn’t only happen to women. Last August, First Amendment advocate Ken White documented one “progressive” activist’s persistent harassment of several male conservative bloggers, including postings of lurid violent fantasies and, in the case of former Breitbart.com writer Lee Stranahan, phony child abuse reports to authorities. Stranahan was also one of several men who received rape and death threats (their phone numbers were also posted online for anyone to see) over their role in a documentary critical of the Occupy Wall Street movement. And, in 2012, a number of bloggers (all male) were targeted in “SWAT-ting” attacks, phone calls intended to trick the police into dispatching an emergency team in response to an alleged homicide.
In a little-noticed response to Hess’s article, Gerard Harbison, a chemistry professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and libertarian who blogs as “The Right-Wing Professor,” described his own experiences with online retaliation. In 2008, a blog called “The Gerard Harbison Files” not only labeled him a “right wing nut” and a “sociopath,” but falsely asserted that he had been “accused of sexual harassment” and was “infamous for making inappropriate sexual advances towards his students.” While the Gerald Harbinson Files has not been updated after the first three posts, it remains online. Harbison believes the culprit is a local Democratic Party activist and says that his attempts to get the page removed proved futile.
Just as the victims of cyber-warfare are not always female, the offenders are not always male. On average, about a third of the reports of online harassment to Working to Halt Online Abuse identify the aggressor as female (with the perpetrator’s gender unknown in another one-fifth of the incidents).
Last year, novelist James Lasdun published a compelling memoir, “Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked.” He recounts his experience with a former student who contacted him for advice on getting published, then progressed from flirtatious emails to obsessive ones, and finally declared war when he began to ignore her. Over several years, the woman bombarded Lasdun, and several people close to him, with abusive and often threatening emails, faked emails from him to others, and posted vicious attacks in comments threads on his articles and in reviews of his books on Amazon.com. She accused him of stealing her writings and ideas, sexually exploiting his female students, and even setting her up to be raped because she wouldn’t sleep with him.