Cyberbullying


Cyberbullying

The trolling of women on the Internet is only now being acknowledged for the danger it is

By Cheryl-Ann Couto  June 23rd, 2015

Here’s some unsolicited advice: don’t ever volunteer to write about online abuse if you can help it. Especially if, like me — and unlike a staggering number of women — you lead an absorbing, interactive digital life that is also somehow void of abuse and debasement. A week of trawling news and mental health studies, combing through social media and interviewing survivors, has left me with one overwhelming certainty —you and me? We got bloody lucky.

A sampling of what we’ve been missing in our lives, from last month alone: “I want to push a cheesegrater into your p*ssy and quickly pull it out so that I can enjoy raping you.” That was an Instagram missive, one of many, for Chvrches frontwoman Lauren Mayberry, just because. In response to a tweet about marital-rape-as-crime, Chennai-based poet and author Meena Kandasamy got an incredulous “How this beef eating animal killing bitch can be a feminist” from a man with the bio “staunch Indian and devout Hindu” who can keep a grudge, apparently. Three years before, Kandasamy had tweeted about a beef-eating festival she attended and instantly amassed a storm of abuse, including threats of acid attacks, being burnt alive and a televised gangrape. Rachel Bryk, a 23-year-old transgender game developer in New Jersey, threw herself off the George Washington Bridge, unable to cope with the “constant transphobia” on anonymous internet message board 4chan. Days after her death, while some members were contrite, others wished of the departed that she “RIP IN HELL TRANNYSCUM”.

You feel ill, too? It’s reflexive almost, to reach for the easy answers for “why them, why not us?” to assuage your horror. They’re  too aggressive, too incendiary, they share too much, they’re famous — it comes with the territory, or then, why don’t they just put those little locks on their profiles and stop feeding the trolls? But you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that isn’t thinly veiled  shorthand  for “she asked for it”. Because some of the reasons women have been threatened with violent death, rape and bombings, and been driven out of their homes from fear, have included silently deleting a troll’s comment on their blog, not liking the latest Batman movie, suggesting that women should be more than sexual pit stops in video games and canvassing for the Bank of England to put Jane Austen on the back of a £10 note (most likely to happen in 2017, FYI). 

“The thing about online bullying is that almost anything can spur it,” says journalist Nishita Jha. She has firsthand experience of a form of virtual hunting called ‘doxing’ (short for document tracing) in which a person’s personal information is procured and broadcasted online to shame them. On the day she went to file a police complaint for being sexually harassed by her boss, she was sent several tweets by a handle with no followers, warning her that sexually explicit content featuring her would be leaked online if she did not desist. It was only the beginning. In the following months, as several media outlets dissected illegally obtained documentation of Jha with her assailant, the online backlash only grew.  

 

Pakistani-Canadian blogger and illustrator Eiynah thought she had secured herself when she chose to use the pseudonym to write about sexuality in Pakistan on her now-widely read blog, Nice Mangos. But the insults, death and rape threats she received were “constant” all the same — and not just from men. “The ‘sex blogger’ thing makes people think they are welcome to sexually harass me online. I have received unsolicited pictures of genitalia from a woman before,” she says.     

Incredibly it has only been in the last couple of years that misogyny online has gotten any real legal traction or been considered more than collateral damage by social media companies. Pundits are noisily debating the Supreme Court’s decision to kill Section 66(A) of the Information Technology Act, which became a nifty instrument for nicking political dissent, instead of amending it to be the recourse for cyberbullying victims. And Twitter recently made decisive moves to crackdown on trolls — they’ve expanded their qualification of abuse and made it harder for offenders to start new accounts — after years of “sucking”, as CEO Dick Costolo put it, at protecting its users proved bad for business. 

Perhaps why the authorities have been slow on the uptake is best summed up by this tweet from convicted UK troll Isabella Sorley when she was charged for cyberbullying feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez in 2013: “Bit pathetic really that you wasted all of the time/money because you were scared of a couple of words #growsomeballs”. Women who report cyberbullying are often handled like skittish hysterics and their online assaults as regrettable-yet-unserious pranking. Sorley later said she had tweeted things like “Rape?! I’d do a lot worse things than rape you” to the activist because she was drunk and wanted a laugh (a common refrain among cyberbullies); she barely knew who Criado-Perez was and what she was fighting for (aforementioned Jane Austen on the back of a £10 note).

In her new book Hate Crimes In Cyberspace, University of Maryland law professor Danielle Keats Citron addresses the trivialisation of cyber abuse and argues that the lack of real-world context (especially physical cues) is exactly what makes it so terrifying. Can you be sure a troll who threatens, “I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do,” is just some bored teen and not a serial killer jonesing for his next fix? It probably is, but can you be a hundred per cent sure? Compound that, Citron says, with the reliable and well-defined fear of rape and assault that women experience in their day-to-day offline lives, and suddenly paralysing terror doesn’t seem quite such an overreaction.

“The most terrifying thing about being cyberbullied is that you are completely isolated in your world of self-loathing and fear,” Jha recalls. “I could not get out of bed for days and cried almost constantly. I contemplated killing myself.” In a speech at the conference by the anti-domestic abuse NGO Women’s Aid, Craido-Perez corroborated Jha’s experience and her frustration with being told repeatedly, “Don’t feed the trolls”. “Not feeding the trolls doesn’t magically scrub out the image in your head of being told you’ll be gang-raped till you die. What are victims meant to do with that image, the rage and horror that it conjures up?” 

 

So what is to be done in the face of unrelenting abuse and inadequate, impotent laws? “Depends,” is really the best the experts can do. For the graver kinds of harassment, there is fight (incremental action of blocking the troll, reporting abuse to the concerned social networking site and eventually the police) or flight (withdrawing from virtual social life; it isn’t unfeminist if it’s what is right for you, don’t heed the head-shakers). It’s the low-fi, needling kind of trolling that needs you to have a plan. You could...

a) Tell them nicely. Psychologists say that evenly confronting the offending behaviour can be the constructive middle ground between pretending your oppressor doesn’t exist and spewing venom back at them. You’ll feel better for having stood up for yourself and could possibly, as it happens surprisingly often, snap your troll out of their Online Disinhibition Effect (a state of abandonment of all social norms present in face-to-face interaction, coined by American psychologist John Suler).

b) Tell them loudly. Expose your tormentor by retweeting their invective and posting screen grabs of the abuse. This way you have hard evidence should the abuse escalate, and bullies aren’t known for their fortitude, exactly. 

c) Take care of yourself. Research shows depression, insomnia and paranoia are very real traumas that victims of cyberbullying suffer. Ignore the rolling eyes and murmurs of “attention-whore” that you’re bound to get and reach out to friends, family and counsellors, if need be. 

d) Get mad. Shout the house down. Rally the troops. Start a trending hashtag. Crowdsource 10,000 signatures to petition your government to re-look at cyber legislation. Stick your neck out for other victims. In her now-viral TED talk earlier this year, Monica Lewinsky, arguably the world’s first victim of cyberbullying, exhorts us to become “upstanders”, instead of bystanders, hacking away at the hate by posting positive comments or reporting abuse if we witness it.

The internet is where we go to learn, work, watch cat videos (and more cat videos), flirt and keep in touch with not-quite-friends. We will not be run out of there against our wishes. In the words of Mayberry, “Bring it on, motherf*ckers. Let’s see who blinks first”.  

Photograph: Antibullyingpro.com

You may also want to read: Deal with cyberbullying

Here’s some unsolicited advice: don’t ever volunteer to write about online abuse if you can help it. Especially if, like me — and unlike a staggering number of women — you lead an absorbing, interactive digital life that is also somehow void of abuse and debasement. A week of trawling news and mental health studies, combing through social media and interviewing survivors, has left me with one overwhelming certainty —you and me? We got bloody lucky.

A sampling of what we’ve been missing in our lives, from last month alone: “I want to push a cheesegrater into your p*ssy and quickly pull it out so that I can enjoy raping you.” That was an Instagram missive, one of many, for Chvrches frontwoman Lauren Mayberry, just because. In response to a tweet about marital-rape-as-crime, Chennai-based poet and author Meena Kandasamy got an incredulous “How this beef eating animal killing bitch can be a feminist” from a man with the bio “staunch Indian and devout Hindu” who can keep a grudge, apparently. Three years before, Kandasamy had tweeted about a beef-eating festival she attended and instantly amassed a storm of abuse, including threats of acid attacks, being burnt alive and a televised gangrape. Rachel Bryk, a 23-year-old transgender game developer in New Jersey, threw herself off the George Washington Bridge, unable to cope with the “constant transphobia” on anonymous internet message board 4chan. Days after her death, while some members were contrite, others wished of the departed that she “RIP IN HELL TRANNYSCUM”.

You feel ill, too? It’s reflexive almost, to reach for the easy answers for “why them, why not us?” to assuage your horror. They’re  too aggressive, too incendiary, they share too much, they’re famous — it comes with the territory, or then, why don’t they just put those little locks on their profiles and stop feeding the trolls? But you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that isn’t thinly veiled  shorthand  for “she asked for it”. Because some of the reasons women have been threatened with violent death, rape and bombings, and been driven out of their homes from fear, have included silently deleting a troll’s comment on their blog, not liking the latest Batman movie, suggesting that women should be more than sexual pit stops in video games and canvassing for the Bank of England to put Jane Austen on the back of a £10 note (most likely to happen in 2017, FYI). 

“The thing about online bullying is that almost anything can spur it,” says journalist Nishita Jha. She has firsthand experience of a form of virtual hunting called ‘doxing’ (short for document tracing) in which a person’s personal information is procured and broadcasted online to shame them. On the day she went to file a police complaint for being sexually harassed by her boss, she was sent several tweets by a handle with no followers, warning her that sexually explicit content featuring her would be leaked online if she did not desist. It was only the beginning. In the following months, as several media outlets dissected illegally obtained documentation of Jha with her assailant, the online backlash only grew.  

 

Pakistani-Canadian blogger and illustrator Eiynah thought she had secured herself when she chose to use the pseudonym to write about sexuality in Pakistan on her now-widely read blog, Nice Mangos. But the insults, death and rape threats she received were “constant” all the same — and not just from men. “The ‘sex blogger’ thing makes people think they are welcome to sexually harass me online. I have received unsolicited pictures of genitalia from a woman before,” she says.     

Incredibly it has only been in the last couple of years that misogyny online has gotten any real legal traction or been considered more than collateral damage by social media companies. Pundits are noisily debating the Supreme Court’s decision to kill Section 66(A) of the Information Technology Act, which became a nifty instrument for nicking political dissent, instead of amending it to be the recourse for cyberbullying victims. And Twitter recently made decisive moves to crackdown on trolls — they’ve expanded their qualification of abuse and made it harder for offenders to start new accounts — after years of “sucking”, as CEO Dick Costolo put it, at protecting its users proved bad for business. 

Perhaps why the authorities have been slow on the uptake is best summed up by this tweet from convicted UK troll Isabella Sorley when she was charged for cyberbullying feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez in 2013: “Bit pathetic really that you wasted all of the time/money because you were scared of a couple of words #growsomeballs”. Women who report cyberbullying are often handled like skittish hysterics and their online assaults as regrettable-yet-unserious pranking. Sorley later said she had tweeted things like “Rape?! I’d do a lot worse things than rape you” to the activist because she was drunk and wanted a laugh (a common refrain among cyberbullies); she barely knew who Criado-Perez was and what she was fighting for (aforementioned Jane Austen on the back of a £10 note).

In her new book Hate Crimes In Cyberspace, University of Maryland law professor Danielle Keats Citron addresses the trivialisation of cyber abuse and argues that the lack of real-world context (especially physical cues) is exactly what makes it so terrifying. Can you be sure a troll who threatens, “I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do,” is just some bored teen and not a serial killer jonesing for his next fix? It probably is, but can you be a hundred per cent sure? Compound that, Citron says, with the reliable and well-defined fear of rape and assault that women experience in their day-to-day offline lives, and suddenly paralysing terror doesn’t seem quite such an overreaction.

“The most terrifying thing about being cyberbullied is that you are completely isolated in your world of self-loathing and fear,” Jha recalls. “I could not get out of bed for days and cried almost constantly. I contemplated killing myself.” In a speech at the conference by the anti-domestic abuse NGO Women’s Aid, Craido-Perez corroborated Jha’s experience and her frustration with being told repeatedly, “Don’t feed the trolls”. “Not feeding the trolls doesn’t magically scrub out the image in your head of being told you’ll be gang-raped till you die. What are victims meant to do with that image, the rage and horror that it conjures up?” 

 

So what is to be done in the face of unrelenting abuse and inadequate, impotent laws? “Depends,” is really the best the experts can do. For the graver kinds of harassment, there is fight (incremental action of blocking the troll, reporting abuse to the concerned social networking site and eventually the police) or flight (withdrawing from virtual social life; it isn’t unfeminist if it’s what is right for you, don’t heed the head-shakers). It’s the low-fi, needling kind of trolling that needs you to have a plan. You could...

a) Tell them nicely. Psychologists say that evenly confronting the offending behaviour can be the constructive middle ground between pretending your oppressor doesn’t exist and spewing venom back at them. You’ll feel better for having stood up for yourself and could possibly, as it happens surprisingly often, snap your troll out of their Online Disinhibition Effect (a state of abandonment of all social norms present in face-to-face interaction, coined by American psychologist John Suler).

b) Tell them loudly. Expose your tormentor by retweeting their invective and posting screen grabs of the abuse. This way you have hard evidence should the abuse escalate, and bullies aren’t known for their fortitude, exactly. 

c) Take care of yourself. Research shows depression, insomnia and paranoia are very real traumas that victims of cyberbullying suffer. Ignore the rolling eyes and murmurs of “attention-whore” that you’re bound to get and reach out to friends, family and counsellors, if need be. 

d) Get mad. Shout the house down. Rally the troops. Start a trending hashtag. Crowdsource 10,000 signatures to petition your government to re-look at cyber legislation. Stick your neck out for other victims. In her now-viral TED talk earlier this year, Monica Lewinsky, arguably the world’s first victim of cyberbullying, exhorts us to become “upstanders”, instead of bystanders, hacking away at the hate by posting positive comments or reporting abuse if we witness it.

The internet is where we go to learn, work, watch cat videos (and more cat videos), flirt and keep in touch with not-quite-friends. We will not be run out of there against our wishes. In the words of Mayberry, “Bring it on, motherf*ckers. Let’s see who blinks first”.  

Photograph: Antibullyingpro.com

You may also want to read: Deal with cyberbullying