This edition of Tech Talk focuses on an issue that is near and dear to my heart—the use of sexual threats to intimidate women online—from female bloggers to girl gamers. Facebook made the news this week with their announcement that they will review how they deal with content that is, “controversial, harmful and hateful.” Upon first glance, this perhaps seems alarming—an indicator of censorship on a platform that is used by NGOs, Social Movements, and, let’s not forget, a key rally point for the Arab Spring. But counter-intuitively, a crackdown on hate speech may actually reduce censorship particularly for female voices by reducing the power of Trolls. Since the early days of the internet, Trolls have deliberately targeted to silence female voices online through tactics ranging from sexually explicit harassment to threatening to come after them and their family offline. In particular when a woman talks about sexual harassment, abortion, or rape, she immediately becomes a target of threats. In April 2013, a Facebook group dedicated to documenting instances of sexual harassment online and shut down decided to disband due to the intense trolling campaign against it.
In their last post they revealed chilling details about Facebook’s approach:
“This page has achieved what it was set up to do. It has shown that Facebook’s terms and conditions are null and void. We will leave the rest of the work for Facebook to do – or not…When we widened our targeting of content that violates the terms and conditions, we pinpointed content that promotes hate speech towards minorities, such as races or women, or taking enjoyment in crimes like rape and murder. Facebook deemed the vast majority of these not offensive enough, stating that they are ‘controversial humor’.”
To see some of this “controversial humor” click HERE. Trigger Warning: These posts are extremely graphic. Please view at your own discretion.
The Everyday Sexism Project and Women, Media, Action (WAM!) successfully utilized social media to get Facebook to say that it would work on this issue. In particular they got 15 corporate sponsors to pull their advertising. This is a good starting place but excuse me if I remain a bit pessimistic. This internet culture is not going away.
Girl Gamers are another group that faces a constant onslaught of Trolling. Just this past week Trolls successfully forced a video about sexual harassment in Massive-Online Role-Playing Games (MORPGs), to go offline. While Trolling is fairly common in MORPGs, harassment against women is particularly prevalent. Trolls will say stereotypical comments such as, “Girls don’t play video games” or “There are no girls here.” If a girl gamer dares to respond, a barrage of explicit harassment ensues.
This is far deeper than simply the online manifestation of Calvin and Hobbes’ “Get Rid of Slimy girlS” Club—i.e. boys will be boys—or Facebook’s idea of “controversial humor.” It is an online manifestation of the historic policing of women entering what are deemed to be “male spheres”—Medicine, Engineering, Politics, Law, Science, to name a few. Female pioneers in these fields faced the same type of sexual harassment and threats that we now see online.
We can hang out on Pinterest or Etsy. We can play our little games of Farmville and share recipes on Facebook and Twitter. But the moment we venture into “male territory” such as gaming, or voice our opinions on “women’s issues” (which, by the way, also deal with harassment faced by gays and racial minorities), we are intimidated in the most personal way possible—with sexual violence. Rape is designed to humiliate and silence women in particular. Facebook’s statement that they “can do better” at monitoring speech that is “controversial, harmful and hateful,” is at least a recognition that they have a problem. But this fight is far from over. Women need protection online. This is an issue that has been bubbling under the surface for far too long. Facebook’s acknowledgement gives us an inch—so let’s take a mile!!
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