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Yet, in reality—if the Criado-Perez case is any indication—these alleged cyber-warriors for male supremacy are likely to be losers and social misfits who do, in fact, take attention as encouragement.
“I think a lot of the so-called harassment is a self-perpetuating monster,” Ellen Beth Wachs, founder of Atheists and Humanists of Florida, told me by email. “A troll attacks a woman. She reacts in the manner the troll wants her to. The troll gets the satisfaction [he or she] was looking for and continues, and perhaps onlookers see this and join in.”
Wachs is no stranger to harassment. At one point, she says, an obsessive cyberstalker, who targeted her as first an atheist and then as a feminist, not only sent abusive emails but created fake social media accounts in her name. She believes that real online harassment, sexist or otherwise, needs to be taken more seriously by both Internet companies and legal authorities. Yet Wachs also stresses that such threats need to be differentiated from garden-variety nastiness, ramblings by unbalanced people, and even comments that get labeled as misogynist trolling for merely questioning the feminist party line.
Both Breslin and Wachs have had run-ins with another kind of “gendered” online abuse: feminist trashing of female dissenters. Breslin encountered this in 2010 when she wrote a blogpost on the True Slant site criticizing the vogue for “trigger warnings” on feminist and social justice blogs (based on the idea that the readership is filled with trauma survivors who must be warned about flashback-triggering references to everything from rape to racism). The response was a hatefest in the comments on the post and on several feminist blogs. Breslin was slammed as a “Sister F***er,” a “certifiable asshole,” and a “cunt.” For months after, she says, “an unhinged woman” sent her emails saying that she should be raped and killed.
Caroline Kitchens, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, came under feminist fire last fall after she wrote a column for U.S. News & World Report questioning the existence of a campus rape epidemic. Jezebel.com trashed her as a victim-blaming, slut-shaming man-pleaser and included a link to her Twitter page. Kitchens, a recent college graduate, received such a deluge of abusive tweets that she temporarily stopped using Twitter.
For Kitchens, the attacks ultimately strengthened her determination to soldier on. For women who are part of the online sisterhood, the toll of such bullying can be devastating. The Nation recently published a controversial article by Michelle Goldberg on “feminism’s toxic Twitter wars,” bitter, endless conflicts in which women are savaged for perceived ideological infractions, heresies and impurities, leaving many fearful of saying anything at all. Goldberg’s piece echoes an essay posted last December by blogger Megan Murphy lamenting that Twitter feminism had turned into a “mean girls-style popularity contest” and an “absolutely endless stream of hate.” With friends like these, who needs misogynist enemies.
In principle I don’t have a problem with the idea that there should be less Internet nastiness. I even think Hess has a point when she argues that defenders of online anonymity sometimes underestimate the damage of cyber-harassment and stalking, especially when accompanied by nontrivial threats of violence, privacy violations, or slander. According to Stranahan, the conservative blogger who has been a target of such attacks, they can actively discourage people from blogging. “Some of the smartest political people I know have told me, ‘I would never blog in a million years. I saw what happened to you, what happened to your wife, your kids’ pictures being posted online,’” he says.
But framing this issue as a devastating “war on women” does far more harm than good. On a broad level, it continues the blame-and-shame cycle that has made gender debates such fertile ground for trolls and bullies.
Hess’s article prompted Damon Linker, a columnist for The Week, to write that Hess’s account of online abuse towards female journalists made him feel shame for his gender. Linker pokes preemptive fun at those who would accuse him of joining the “war against men.” But one needn’t embrace the “war” rhetoric to see his nostra culpa as the kind of collective guilt-tripping that could not be safely directed at any other group.
Meanwhile, in a BBC discussion of sexist abuse on Twitter, American tech journalist Quinn Norton opined that the larger problem is that “men are raised to hate women.” Note how a discussion of hate speech towards women by anonymous Internet trolls becomes a vehicle for hate speech about men by a female journalist in a major media outlet.
In more specific terms, the crusade against online abuse of women can turn into suppression of legitimate criticism of feminists, particularly in countries with no First Amendment protections. In Canada, 53-year-old Toronto artist and designer Gregory Allan Eliot is currently on trial for “criminal harassment” toward three feminist activists with whom he had been embroiled in a political dispute on Twitter. The prosecution acknowledges that none of Eliot’s tweets contained threatening language, only epithets such as the hashtag #fascistfeminists. Meanwhile, his supporters argue that Eliot himself was the target of abuse from Twitter feminists. Among other things, they point to a 2012 exchange in which Eliot questioned the morality of murder in retaliation for rape and a woman responded by repeatedly suggesting that his sons were rapists.
In the United States, the calls for Internet speech policing are directed primarily at social media companies, which obviously don’t want to be seen as condoning online abuse of women. Last summer, an Internet user known as “Elevatorgate” had his Twitter account closed after several feminist bloggers complained that he was harassing them by using the Storify platform to compile, republish, and ridicule their public tweets. By that definition, MediaMatters.org could be taken down for harassing Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and other right-wing pundits.
Around the same time, feminist activists mounted a successful effort to pressure Facebook to crack down on “misogynist hate speech.” The campaign by Women Action & the Media focused on unquestionably nasty content that slipped by the Facebook mods. They pointed to “humorous” graphics of bruised and battered women with such captions as, “She broke my heart. I broke her nose,” and pages with titles like “Violently raping your friends just for laughs” (which had a mere 17 “likes” before it was shut down).
However, days after Facebook announced its new commitment to ridding its pages of “gender-based hate,” the material removed for violating the site’s “community standards” included a different type of image. One graphic challenged the “1 in 4” rape statistic for college women and proclaimed, “Rape culture is bullshit.” Another mocked the popular “I need feminism” Internet meme, featuring a woman holding a sign that read, “I need feminism because when I kill my husband feminists will defend me.” In these instances, the “misogynist” material amounted to an attack on specific feminist ideas and practices. (The men’s rights group that posted these graphics has published genuinely vile stuff on its own website; but the graphics removed from Facebook expressed genuine criticism.) While this is not a First Amendment issue since Facebook is a private corporation, banishing such critiques from the Internet’s largest social media site is a disturbing decision.
Finally, there is the issue of paternalism toward women. It’s not very surprising that Ross Douthat, a traditionalist known to argue that women need to be protected from the perils of sexual freedom, would choose this particular feminist issue to champion. Feminists should recognize that this brand of chivalry, which treats women as fragile flowers, is not much of an improvement on misogyny.