Are Social Media Sites Doing Enough To Protect Women From Online Trolls?

Even if a troll writes: "Imma send my n****s to your house to cut your slut throat," the onus is on the victim to deal with it. 

The internet is the new frontier of sexism. No longer do women only have to endure gender disparities at work, catcalling in the street, systemized bias by institutions, Republicans trying to control our uteruses--now we have strangers on the Internet bringing us daily unbridled sexism too. And that sexism doesn’t just occur in the comments of social media trolls. It’s much more insipid than that, filtering into the way we respond to these trolls socially and culturally, and the way social media sites police abusers, which is, for the most part “not very well.”

If you’re wondering what the Internet landscape looks like for women who are visible within it, it’s not great. I spoke to Amy*, a comedian who uses Twitter, about her experience with harassment. “I think harassment is pretty common for women who are comedians and use Twitter,” she tells me, “I've had people threaten to rape and kill me multiple times.” Another female comedian, Alison Leiby, had a similar experience after Tweeting a joke about female rights.

“I guess it's controversial in that it involves guns and women, but it's not a particularly incendiary Tweet,” she says. “At first it just got a lot of RTs, then some conservative politician RTed it and I started getting some hate, but like, nothing scary... Somewhere along the way, though, men’s rights/#gamergate guys got a hold of it and started replying to my RT with violent, disgusting things about 'What they would do to me since I'm a gun.' There are hundreds of replies, but I don't have most of them saved since I reported and blocked anyone who replied that way. You can see the thread on the original Tweet though (it takes a lot of scrolling and a lot of woman hate).”

Alison’s experience didn’t end there, as misogynist trolls took it upon themselves to track her down on other sites too. “I did have several guys find me on Facebook and send messages,” she tells me. “One told me 'I hope you have all of your rights taken away. Dirty Feminist.' The sexist campaign against her spread to Instagram as well. “One person then found my handle there and tagged me in a post that had dozens of hateful/violent comments about me and my joke. Some guys even started commenting on one of my Instagram posts totally unrelated to the Tweet,” she says. Meanwhile, the Tweet also found its way to various men’s rights themed Facebook pages and Imgur.

My own experience with sexist trolls online echo both Amy’s and Alison’s, although mine generally occur after I write something critical about a cultural icon online (which is pretty much my job.) This post about Lady Gaga and this post about The Walking Dead both resulted in me receiving rape and death threats via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Not rebuttals to my arguments--rape and death threats. As a writer (and for Alison and Amy as comedians), constructive criticism and open discussion are important. But as women, that dialogue is often bypassed in favor of violent threats and sexual harassment, as if by being women we’re precluded from rational argument and instead deserving of sexual violence. If that wasn’t bad enough, the resources available for women to take action are limited, with social media sites overwhelmingly wiping their hands clean when it comes to dealing with offenders.

While all the aforementioned social media sites--Twitter, Facebook and Instagram--have extensive guidelines on harassment, none of them seem to take abuse overly seriously when it occurs. Twitter, for instance, is slow to act. When I was receiving blatant rape threats, I reported dozens of accounts. None were found to be in violation of Twitter’s Terms of Service. Amy had a similar experience. “Twitter does virtually nothing to combat these threats. There was maybe one time very recently that they ended up suspending an account for threatening me. The majority of the time, even if my friends help me by reporting the account as well, they just say they didn't find that the post was in violation of their Terms of Service,” she says.

Twitter’s Terms of Service read as follows:

  1. Violent threats (direct or indirect): Users may not make threats of violence or promote violence, including threatening or promoting terrorism. Users also may not make threats or promote violence against a person or group on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, age, or disability.
  2. Abuse and harassment: Users may not engage in targeted abuse or harassment. Some of the factors that we take into account when determining what conduct is considered to be targeted abuse or harassment are:
  • if a primary purpose of the reported account is to send abusive messages to others;
  • if the reported behavior is one-sided or includes threats;
  • if the reported user is inciting others to harass another user; and
  • if the reported user is sending harassing messages to a user from multiple accounts.

Facebook and Instagram have similar policies. Which raises the question: who is vetting reported Tweets/Facebook messages? In mine, Amy’s and Alison’s cases, where aggressive Tweets and other comments/messages were found not to be in violation of these terms, they blatantly were--so why do social media platforms refuse to take action? Why are social media sites so quick to remove even the most marginal nudity, but violent threats are allowed? Why, when one Twitter user threatened to “scalp” me, did Twitter find that to be within the realm of acceptable behavior? If, for instance, someone said something like that to me in another public space, like the street, I’d be well within my rights to call the police and charge that person with assault.

Alison attempted to report her abusers too, but was met with the same indifference from the social media networks. “I never heard back from any social media platform regarding the reports I made,” she says “I also didn't report users as widely as I should have because I felt like nothing would happen. The few I did either replied to me with aggressively violent comments, and one started trolling my writing partner whose Twitter handle is in my bio.” Instead, Alison just started blocking anyone who was making violent threats against her--which is something of a tedious process if it’s happening to you multiple times a day, and just another way society blames victim, heaping the onus for dealing with abuse on the abused, rather than the abuser.

I once took matters into my own hands, after I received an abusive private message from a Facebook user during work hours, and deferring a report to Facebook had no effect. I contacted his place of employment (readily available information on his profile page), and sent a screenshot of his message, informing them that this was how their employee was representing their company during business hours. Unfortunately, that employee apparently worked on shifts, and wasn’t scheduled at the time I got the message. His employer told me his comments were “Irrelevant to his employment” and “We can't stop him from contacting you, but you should be able to block him or flag as spam.” I had no recourse to stop this person finding ways to infiltrate  infiltrate me at my work, and considering he was the one harassing me, that seemed wildly unfair.

We need to start taking Internet abuse more seriously. The Internet, for better or worse, is “the real world” now. It’s a place where people work and socialize, and as such, should be held to the same standards as they would at an office or a bar. If we don’t start more effectively policing trolls, it’s a tacit complicity in online sexism, and as Alison says, “I guess those guys just get to keep being disgusting monsters.” The social media networks where these aggressions take place aren’t doing enough to protect women from abuse and punish abusers, and until they do, online sexism will continue to thrive completely unfettered.

*Name has been changed to protect the victim.

Read more about: VoicesPop Culture

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