Despite what some people think, the Internet is not a place where someone can go to “escape” into a fictional world. Online identities are still connected to the real-life people holding them, especially as more people find their livelihood attached to their online presence. Likewise, people can face the same threats and acts of harassment on Twitter, Reddit, or other social media platforms as they can in the real world. For activists Renee Bracey Sherman, Anita Sarkeesian, and Jaclyn Friedman, turning off their computers or ignoring online threats is not always a practical solution.
So together, the trio this month released Speak Up and Stay Safe(r): A Guide to Protecting Yourself From Online Harassment. The guide is for anyone experiencing harassment online and includes steps on how to remove personal information from the public sphere, as well as advice on seeking self-care.
Speak Up and Stay Safe(r) was created out of necessity, both for the authors and for current and future targets of harassment. Many online users may not know how to take precautions, so the guide is a great starting point. But while reading through it, it troubled me how the onus is always on the target to educate others and find a solution to a problem forced onto them.
The burden of proof that a problem exists should not have to be on the target, and yet our culture demands it of them. This guide is yet another example of how survivors often must find their own ways to work around society’s broken systems.
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As Friedman said in a phone interview, she enjoyed working with Bracey Sherman and Sarkeesian to put the guide together. “But when I stop and think about all of the hours and effort that went into making this and what else we could have done with [our time], I do get a little angry.”
Online harassment is not new, nor is it isolated to only people in the United States. Harassment happens to anyone with an Internet connection, Bracey Sherman explained to me, and can follow them offline, whether that’s in the form of physical violence, property damage, or the toll such threats can take on a person’s mental health.
Also, it’s no surprise that the most common targets for online harassment are women, people of color, and queer folks who are prominent in feminist spaces. “It’s a tax on women, people of color, queer and trans people and other oppressed groups for daring to express our opinions in public,” the authors say in the guide.
The issue of online harassment had gained more visibility by August 2014 due to GamerGate. Under the banner of “ethics in video game journalism,” the online hate mob tends to target feminist voices in gaming, and tries to silence anyone hoping to push gaming into a more progressive place. Sarkeesian is among the many who have been targeted by the group.
But GamerGate is not the only group focused on targeting individuals online. Other groups and isolated trolls, including white supremacists and sexists, all seem to be working to outdo GamerGate’s hateful rhetoric.
Bracey Sherman, Sarkeesian, and Friedman all work in different fields, but the harassment they’ve faced is similar. As a reproductive justice activist, Bracey Sherman fights for the right to have an abortion without being shamed or jailed; Sarkeesian is a media critic best known for her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series; and Friedman is the founder of Women, Action and the Media! (WAM!) and an advocate for healthy sexuality and sexual consent. Where their interests overlap is in their demands to be vocal about the discrimination marginalized groups face. “We can work in different realms, but the attacks and the hate spewed at us … is very much the same,” Bracey Sherman told me.
But they don’t want to be known as victims. When speaking to Sarkeesian about her activity combating harassment, that’s how I initially referred to those being attacked online. Sarkeesian stopped me and suggested I use “targets” instead. She said that victim “[reduces] people to being helpless.” Targets are, first and foremost, humans, who only need protecting now until social media platforms find a way to rightfully punish online abusers.
Indeed, while some social media platforms have been implementing new anti-harassment strategies, others have yet to find (or even try) different ways of creating safer spaces. Likewise, gaming is nowhere near safe for all types of people. “This guide and other guides like it are here to help folks who are being attacked because everyone else is failing them,” said Sarkeesian.
A large step in curbing online harassment starts by society recognizing the real, traumatic experiences targets face. Suggestions—often made by well-meaning friends or even public officials who believe they’re being helpful—to ignore the harassment only dismiss the problem and further imply that silencing the afflicted party is an acceptable solution. Likewise, many Internet users still view online environments as a space for anonymity, where their actions will have no consequences.
It’s imperative to educate people who are new to the Internet that online lives are not separate from real ones, and to show them that online harassment has real repercussions. Friedman suggested that we start early in teaching this to children. Another thing Friedman pointed out is the false distinction between harassment online and off the Internet: “It’s a really dangerous distinction … that serves to downplay what we’re talking about. Online harassment is harassment. Online abuse is abuse,” she said.
And since online harassment is harassment, offenders should see criminal charges if they break harassment and stalking (or other) laws. Many targets have lamented the fact that the police are little help when it comes to acts done online. Fixing harassment means more than blocking or banning abusers from social media sites. It means charging them, sometimes jailing them, depending on the severity of their crimes.
But until there’s a massive system overhaul, targeted activists like Bracey Sherman, Sarkeesian, and Friedman will continue using their stories to help educate others.
For the trio, speaking out has become a necessity both professionally and personally. Friedman, like other activists, cannot do her work without speaking freely about it online. For Bracey Sherman, exposing the harassment she’s received is her way of fighting back and removing the isolation she once felt. Similarly, Sarkeesian noted that, “being a media critic now is not separate from being an advocate to end online harassment.” She added that for her, “The one can’t exist without the other anymore.”
So guides like Speak Up and Stay Safe(r) are necessary in today’s online environment, despite how they might feel bittersweet. Having this guide, as well as other resources created by targets is great, because readers are bound to find information that could (figuratively or literally) save their lives. But it’s also heartbreaking because it proves how much our society still fails targets of harassment, and forces them to change their lifestyle, rather than the abusers. When will the abusers finally be punished?
Hateful speech online can lead to dangerous acts in real life, as was the case with Elliot Rodger, Carl Dial, and Dylann Roof. Not every threat will ensure a threat in real life, but for those who receive death threats on a routine basis, it is unclear who is only using their anonymity online to provoke distress, and who will seek to harm.
I feel lucky we have Bracey Sherman, Sarkeesian, and Friedman, as well as the many others who have spoken out about their experiences and have helped in educating those unaware of the trauma of being a target. But I also look forward to the day when the onus isn’t on the target to change. As the guide states, it’s never the target’s fault if someone attacks or harasses them. So I look forward to a time where we don’t need these guides and networks, and when abusers are forced to speak up and teach others not to abuse.