The Problem of Online Harrassment

John Scalzi, bless him, addresses the subject that women blogger often get a lot more abusive comments and e-mails than male bloggers of a similar visibility, based on this post by food blogger Shauna James Ahern, in which she discusses the sort of abuse heaped on her for “crimes” as harmless posting a photo of some processed cheese, traveling to a conference leaving her kid at home or just plain existing, being what some people consider overweight and still daring to eat.

And as if all that wasn’t disturbing enough (Why harrass a food blogger, for fuck’s sake? If you don’t like her food, don’t read her blog or cook her recipes), there is this post by marketing and business blogger Naomi Dunford, in which she describes how she was harassed online and received death threats, because a very disturbed individual believed that she was having an affair with his brother (she didn’t) and decided to target her for allegedly wrecking the brother’s marriage.

Women being harassed for eating Velveeta cheese? Women receiving death threats because someone decides to blame them for their personal family drama? Really, what is the world coming to?

I wish I could say I was surprised, but I’m not. Because there is an incredibly amount of nastiness online and a disproportionate amount seems to be directed at women. Just look at the comment sections of any newspaper or magazine article on anything at all and you’ll see the nastiness. And it’s not just by clearly disturbed people like that fellow who used to spam every comment thread at the Guardian website with rants about how the BBC was forcing him to listen to hip-hop by following him around with ghetto blasters. Even comment threads on the most innocuous of subjects are afflicted with people who believe that whatever is being discussed is entirely the fault of a) Barack Obama, b) atheists or c) women, particularly those that identify as feminist. And when the subject of the article is even remotely related to women, it gets even worse.

A few years ago, I read two profiles of different romance authors at two major news sites. Both articles were obviously supposed to be inspirational feel-good stories, both told the story how the author in question left behind a broken and/or abusive marriage and resigned herself to living alone, until she unexpectedly met her soulmate who turned out to be the most unlikely person imaginable (a much younger surfer in one case, a Scottish tour guide supposed to show the author around on a research trip in the other). One would think that absolutely no one would have a problem with either article. But the comments were full of the nastiest sort of abuse, apparently by men who had nothing better to do than attacking a strange woman for daring to leave her husband. Mind you, these weren’t the former husbands of the women in question, but total stranger. Or look at all the hatred directed at Elizabeth Gilbert, which seems to be based in nothing but the fact that she left a marriage that wasn’t working, went on a trip to find herself and wrote a bestselling book about it. So yeah, women who dare to get “uppity” in some way and “uppity” can mean anything from openly identifying as feminist, having left a marriage that wasn’t working, not being married or having children, being a lesbian, being a single mother, having sex or just being successful in any way at all. In short, the mere existence of women seems to be enough for some people to heap abuse on them.

There is a very nasty strain of hateful misogynism online. It festers in places like men’s rights blogs and conservative advice blogs for women and it seems to be growing. This sort of thing scares me, because a couple of violent spree killers such as the man behind the Norway attacks (his manifesto was full of hatred against women and feminism) and the guy who shot up a gym full of women a while ago, because no one wanted to have sex with him, originated in the orbit of popular misogynist and rightwing hate blogs.

But it’s not just men who attack and women who are the targets. Everyone can be the target of such attacks and the perpetrators are both men and women. In fact, I strongly suspect that the people who accused Shauna James Ahern of being a bad mother were women.

There are some people in the online SFF community I stay the hell away from. I don’t comment on their blogs and sites, I don’t link to anything they say, even if it is reasonable, I don’t engage with these people at all. Because these people have the tendency to be extremely aggressive to the point of stalking and harassing others. You probably have some names in mind, they may even be the same names as those on my list. Maybe I am a coward for not engaging with these people, but it’s not worth the risk IMO.

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5 Responses to The Problem of Online Harrassment

  1. Estara says:

    I’m the opinion that (unless your livelihood depends on socialising on the internet) the internet should be used to give yourself a breather from real life or to get information/entertainment – maybe to build friendships if for some reason your real life options are limited, etc.

    So, engaging with griefers and flamers – we already HAVE to do that in real life where it can’t be avoided – why would I purposefully enter into that (unless the grief strikes you so deeply you have to lash back – or you’re in a bad mood in real life already – that happened to me last year on a friend’s blog where I went after an online a++hole with his same methods – with expected results: he kept being an a++hole and while it was nice to vent some real life frustration it didn’t help my friend much) – I’m unlikely to engage like this again, having learned my lesson.

    • Cora says:

      I have disengaged from online communities that only gave me grief, because a-holes aren’t worth bothering with. Occasionally, I will get into an argument, if I feel very strongly about something or if someone else is being either incredibly stupid or incredibly obnoxious.

      But sending hate mail to random bloggers and leaving nasty comments? Why, for goodness’ sake? Especially since both examples didn’t even express controversial political opinions. Those blogs are about gluten-free cooking and marketing tips. How could gluten-free cooking provoke so much rage?

      • Estara says:

        It has to be the same mechanism that made my father come home from work and start shouting at us for the smallest different opinion from his – it even happened while we were discussing biological information learned a school during lunch one time. He just needed some reason to vent the stress off on us, no matter that we hadn’t done anything to rile him, so he found something to go mental about.

        There are more people like this (if you’ve had to live with them you recognise that very soon). Personally I’ve always tried to vent my frustration directly towards the source of it – but that also has its downsides: if the people who cause the frustration are people you have to work with for longer, you and they get into a habit of assuming the worst of each other. So venting – for me – is only a short term way of coping.

        I haven’t found a good way to re-direct the stress yet, I have to admit.

        • Cora says:

          My Dad also used to came home annoyed by something or someone at work and then would vent on my Mom and me. Apparently, a lot of men of that generation across cultures were raised to suppress stress and anger in the workplace and vent at home.

          Venting does feel good and it does relieve stress, though it doesn’t really resolve the problem. A few days ago, I yelled a stream of abuse at the car of a new neighbour, which is always parked at the curb and makes it difficult to get into my driveway, because the neighbour apparently is scared of driving into her own garage (their driveway is very long and narrow). So I yelled at the car and resolved to give the owner a piece of my mind next time I see her, because the woman is annoying and never says hello anyway.

          But then today, while I was unpacking groceries, the new neighbour walked past with her little kid, came up to me and introduced herself. Turns out she’s really nice. So it was probably better to yell at her empty car than at the woman.

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