Why Women Need A Safer Internet
I'm a firm believer in the "online" friend. I often find myself chatting with people online and learning bits about them, mostly within online communities and in the comments section of sites, but always in spaces I feel safe to talk. There was one instance that my attempts at reaching out into the internet-sphere backfired. I had been enjoying a chat with someone over a blog post online when things took a nasty turn.
I met him in the comments section of a blog post about , we had a similar opinion on the post. It was refreshing to hear someone with a strong opinion on an issue that I was also passionate about. He messaged me a while after, and we continued the chat around the topic. But within a matter of days, the conversation became increasingly personal. I was getting questions I didn't feel comfortable answering. I slowly responded to fewer and fewer, and finally decided to not respond to his messages at all. He did not take this well, and after a day of not responding, he added me on other (personal) social networks. Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn. It escalated into a series of messages from him that read: "Why aren't you responding to me?!", "I miss you" and "Come back and talk to you me you who*e."
I had to block him from all social networks to make sure he could never contact me again. Luckily it worked and that was the end of it, but not all women have it so easy.
The digital space is one where information is often shared with dig data companies, where hackers can uncover photos and private information can be shared with the world. It's also a space where people face violent messages, threats, and attacks. Doesn't it seem these crimes committed should actually be reflected in our law? Take out, for example, that these threats were given online and instead took place in the real world. If someone walked up to you and ripped off your clothes without consent, it would be considered sexual assault and yes, it's illegal. Online, things get tricky.
Gamergate is a perfect example of when comments about a woman online went too far. Game developer, Zoë Quinn was pushed into the spotlight when her ex boyfriend released private information about their relationship. It included private images of text messages, and details of her sex life, and claims that she slept with 5 other men. The post went viral and was published on sites like 4chan, Reddit, and 8chan to name a few. Gamers latched onto this theory, deciding that she had only slept with the men to get publicity for her game. Her family and her were subjected to severe online harassment. The comments ranged from "ur dumb" to death threats. After the scandal, threats forced her out of her home and on to the couches of friends. She was too afraid to be alone in her own home.
Eventually the harassment became so overblown that many in the online community, including writers and gamers, spoke out on Quinn's behalf and argued that the harassment had to stop. From the chaos an online movement surrounding the ethics of journalism, games, and online harassment was born. Today, the incident is so often brought up as a case for why women are vulnerable in online forums, mostly because it showcased one of the worst examples of online harassment, and adjusted a spotlight onto the gravity harassment can have on a person's life.
Though men, women and people of all types face the challenge of getting harassed online. According to a 2014 Pew Research Study, women bear the brunt of it. Twenty-six percent of young women ages 18-24 have been stalked online, and 25% were the target of online sexual harassment. Over a third of women (all ages) report being stalked or threatened on the Internet. There's more, many of these women also reported that they had been called offensive names, purposefully embarrassed, stalked, sexually harassed, physically threatened, and sustained harassment.
The reality is : The world needs a safer place for women
I'll admit that this is a common theme in conversations amongst my female friends. I've had friends disclose that they were being stalked, harassed, and called names. And on the subject of sexual harassment, well we all have our own gruesome story. Sites like, Tumblr, Instagram, Reddit and Facebook — which started under concepts of fostering relationships and internet friendships — sometimes don’t always uphold safe practices and supportive environments for women. These sites synonymous with friendship, are instead communities where some women are afraid to have a conversation, for fear of being judged, stalked, or harassed.
So with all of this online harassment there should be something to protect us, right? Well, the laws don't seem to help keep the online environment safe.
After 2011, federal cyber-stalking laws began to enforce new legislation that addressed harassment and started going after people who used to internet as a vehicle for harassment. Today, laws define “interactive computer services” as devices that cannot be used as a tool for threats. Yet, most women that took up cases of online harassment were turned down.
It doesn't end there though, those that do try to get laws in place to protect themselves and others, they're being harassed too.
Katherine Clark, Massachusetts congresswoman, who introduced the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act of 2015 to congress, has been working against sustained online harassment since she was elected into office. She was harassed online, and in one instance had the police sent to her with fake claims against her.
“Any woman who is using the Internet for her professional life or for her personal life has come across that moment where there is all of the sudden a hateful or sexist comment coming back at you,” Clark said in an interview with The Atlantic back in May of 2016.
Clark went on to emphasize that “This shouldn’t just be something that we accept as part of women using technology in their work lives and in their personal lives.”
When I was briefly stalked on the internet for a while, it seemed invasive, scary, and I was pretty angry for having to keep my guard up more on the internet. Though I must admit in comparison to so many other woman who face the same type of intimidation in the digital world, my walk away was easy. I was able to block and keep that person from seeing any of my personal information. But not all women have it so, they face sexual harassment and stalking on a daily basis. They have to set up their own systems to protect themselves, because the law won't do it for them.
The internet has just become another place where women have to look over their shoulders as they walk at night, carrying pepper spray and hoping they don't get hurt. They have to learn techniques to stay safe and arm themselves from online predators, and if they fear for their safety they don't have anywhere to turn. Safety online is definitely a complex issue, but it’s not hopeless. As Clark and other legislators work to make online safe for women, so are thousand of women across the globe. But we can also work to make the internet safer for ourselves and our friends by continuing to be part of the discussion. To continue to push for a safer online for women.