Although I have been writing extensive blog posts for a number of years for the Digital Media and Learning community, this particular story—about people subject to online harassment—raises a number of challenging issues about trust, privacy, consent, ownership, and dignity in the context of reporting.
In fact, the term “harassment” seems far too inadequate as a way to describe the threatening and dehumanizing stalking that many people experience in which their physical safety and bodily security comes under attack. That is why the newly founded Center for Solutions to Online Violence has chosen the word “violence” as a more accurate way to describe the experiences of those who undergo the grueling ordeals unleashed upon them by hostile digital offenders.
Certainly the issues around pervasive Internet misogyny, racism, homophobia, and transphobia has finally received some public attention with major stories running in the New York Times and other news organizations of record. For example, The Atlantic has run articles about “The Dark Psychology of the Sexist Internet Commenter” and “When Misogynist Trolls Make Journalism Miserable for Women.” Unfortunately such coverage often does little to help the victims because it points more public attention in their direction, and it can even be counterproductive to those who would rather not be scrutinized and gawked at in the service of an opportunistic general cause that might not address their specific needs as individuals.
So as a minor player in the Addressing Anti-Feminist Violence Online http://dmlcompetition.net/proposals/addressing-anti-feminist-violence-on... project that received support from the Trust Challenge, I am actually not going to discuss any details of the recent two-day summit that brought together people targeted by online violence, experts, writers, activists, and educators from across the country to share experiences, vent their frustrations, and launch into developing a multi-pronged toolkit of tactics to provide resources to a very diverse population of people who have been wounded and silenced by online violence. I hope that readers of my work who are accustomed to in-depth interviews or vivid first-person descriptions understand why I have chosen this approach.
What I can say is that the action plan of the new Center for Solutions to Online Violence, which was conceived at the AAFVO summit, emphasizes four concrete areas for substantive intervention: 1) resources for rapid response for people experiencing online violence, 2) curricula to educate potential abusers, 3) strategies for responsible sharing for journalists, scholars, and members of the general public, and 4) documents that map the history of online violence by ethically gathering testimony, evidence, and data. (It’s a history that’s over twenty years old, as essays like “A Rape in Cyberspace” show.)
The value of rapid response is certainly significant for those in urgent situations. Immediate help is necessary for those who have had sensitive private information – including unlisted addresses and social security numbers – leaked to the web (a practice known as “doxing”), false reports placed with law enforcement or emergency first responders (a practice known as “swatting”), or are experiencing rapid escalations of threats of graphic violence. The Center for Solutions to Online Violence will be collaborating and networking with existing groups like Crash Override to avoid duplicating efforts.
The DML community has long been interested in digital learning and literacy, but the issues about teaching people not to do harm online often don’t correspond neatly to the standard cyberbullying narrative. Just as there is a diversity among people who experience online violence, there is also a diversity of perpetrators. Too often the perpetrators are allowed to be anonymous and are presented as generic “trolls.” In reality the offenders may be pre-adolescent children attempting to perform a perverse mockery of what they believe is adult masculinity or former lovers extending domestic violence into new venues for cruelty and humiliation. In addition, problems can be magnified when academics and journalists, who might consider themselves allies, write about people’s participation in online spaces without the consent of the people they write about. There are many variations when it comes to characterizing those contributing to this pernicious problem that excludes, shames, and terrorizes.
For those who are “born digital” or “digital natives” (terms that I reject but use here for convenience) things aren’t getting any better. Just this month a new Pew Study on Teens, Technology, and Friendships shows a deep gender divide in online participation in which girls are becoming more and more cautious, much more likely than boys to unfriend and block others and to avoid voice communication and the vulnerability of live social participation in online play. If these girls are accurately seeing digital environments as punishing places, the Center for Solutions to Online Violence would like to make significant changes to environments that are too currently hostile for people to feel safe.