"You wouldnt look so smart wit my dic in your mouth." - Anonymous, sent to me on Tumblr
I am female on the Internet, an occupation that comes with near daily comments like the one above. I have so far not received any death threats, only demands of a sexual nature, critiques of my physical appearance, veiled threats of rape, and reminders that my content would be more popular if I would just wear a low cut shirt. It's nothing new; women get harassed, trolled, demeaned, belittled, and objectified online.
If you need numbers to reassure you that women's online lives are being riddled with disrespectful harassment at a disproportionately high rate compared to men, Amanda Hess' piece in Pacific Standard is a great place to start. She confronts online harassment and her own experiences with law enforcement officers unwilling to take threats seriously because they were on Twitter. Hess documents the game of hot potato played by police and the companies that host threatening comments regarding who should be responsible for action.
It's not like this treatment is actually deterring women from creating content and living publicly online, right? According to Emily Graslie, host of The BrainScoop, a YouTube channel focused on natural history from the Field Museum in Chicago, "While there are at least 13 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) channels hosted by men with over 400,000 subscribers and 7 of those 13 which have topped a million, there are only four channels hosted by women that have even 160,000 subscribers." So female producers can expect both lower viewership and more harassment. What fun!
And STEM women may have a particularly uphill battle. As a fellow female STEM YouTuber -- the writer and host of an educational show about technology -- I draw a nearly 75% male audience according to YouTube's internal statistics. And, as Whitney Phillips said in her TED Talk on subcultural trolling, the demographic of trolls is "males, between the ages of 18 and 34-ish, predominantly white, and predominantly English speaking." Even though many men online are active supporters of female content creators, and the actions of a few should never disparage an entire gender, I still currently employ censorship just to keep the comments on my educational channel civil. The functionality is a great improvement to what has long been known as the worst comments section on the Internet, but this type of censorship is a poor weapon against trolling. Censored words are easy to get around and often give bullies the incentive to be more creative in their wording.
What should we do about it? The pervasive opinion online is that you should just ignore terrible comments; delete them if you have time, but just move on. "Don't feed the trolls." But as former US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, regarding the First Amendment protection afforded hate speech, "The remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence." Silence drives minorities out of public discussion and interaction and further homogenizes who speaks and thus who is seen as influential online. Without public backlash to this treatment, sexism becomes normal online.
Anita Sarkeesian, the creator of the YouTube channel Feminist Frequency noted in a TED Talk detailing the online campaign against her video project about depictions of women in video games, "[Cyber Mobs are] maintaining, reinforcing and normalizing a culture of sexism where men who harass are supported by their peers and rewarded for their sexist attitudes and behaviors. And where women are silenced, marginalized and excluded from full participation."
There is gender inequality and mistreatment of women the world over, so why do I care so much about the Internet? I write and make YouTube videos, network, socialize and share my work online. My life happens online. The Internet is young and its picturesque promise of connecting a global society may well be possible, but currently that connection means exposing people -- especially female people -- to a torrent of degrading speech. Harassment is not going away and -- until someone (*cough* Google *cough*) makes a context-aware, artificially intelligent search system capable of differentiating criticism from harassment -- we are stuck defending ourselves and others when abuse arises.
The encouragement to 'not take it too seriously' when online commenters trend toward the misogynistic is ludicrous. Sharing outrage at this treatment can rally communities that might otherwise just shake their heads at sexist comments, underrepresentation or unequal pay and move on. The anonymization of abuse and thus the perceived inability to shame or find recourse is no excuse to stay quiet. When others threaten, abuse, mock, and troll online we have to share it with the world, not just to squash bullies but to build a community that understands the realities and rallies behind women online. As Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her TED talk about why we should all be feminists, "Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change."