The net is not neutral. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the experience of women bloggers.
Over the last few weeks, bloggers and journalists have been sharing disturbing and surreal stories of cyber harassment. Of course, every writer should expect criticism; this is the internet, after all. But what's different about women bloggers is the sickening extent of the harassment that they -- indeed, any woman with an online presence -- must contend with on a daily basis.
Opinionated women have always fought an uphill battle when in the public eye. Personal attacks, especially regarding their sexual attractiveness or orientation, are often used to invalidate and silence their opinions; or worse, drive them out of public life.
But the ease and anonymity of the internet have meant that these "trolls" are now bolder than ever. Women no longer face mere insults, but violent and graphic rape and death threats. Opinions on subjects as benign as economic policy are met with the most distasteful and vitriolic attacks.
Don't feed the trolls
"This is a reality, and it doesn’t go away if we don’t talk about it."
For years, the conventional wisdom has been to ignore this kind of abuse; that speaking out or responding would only "feed the trolls" and invite more attacks. And the truth is, most threats are just that: threats. Few are followed by real action or intent. This has led many to conclude that these messages, while disturbing, are mostly harmless.
But this is not the case. It is impossible to be completely detached. Women bloggers must live each day with the very real fear that some of these trolls are serious. After all, it only takes one.
And some threats are more credible than others. In an effort to truly inspire fear in their target, some trolls go to great lengths to find bloggers' intimate details: addresses, phone numbers, the names of family members. This is far from "harmless".
Silence is not a solution
"Rape threats, death threats and misogynist abuse are designed to make
women activists/writers want to give up. That's what they're for."
-- Laurie Penny
Ignoring the trolls has not made them go away. Silence has never stopped abuse, and it never will. At the risk of inviting more hostility, women bloggers need to stand up and show that this kind of abuse will not be tolerated. We need to show these trolls that it is not acceptable to make threats from the shadows. We need to expose their abuse for what it is, abuse, and not simply as a cost of doing business.
This comes at a crucial moment. Women's rights groups the world over are preparing for the 16 Days of Action to End Violence Against Women, and we need this issue included in the discussion. That's why the Take Back the Tech! campaign is so important. It seeks to secure and defend online spaces against this kind of gendered abuse. Our own Erotics research has shown that the Internet is a crucial means for women, especially those in the LGBTQI community, to build community and express their sexuality.
We must redefine how we engage with the Internet, and in doing so redefine how it engages with us.