Online harassment of women becomes even more insidious


It was somewhere between the calls to repeal the 19th Amendment and the claims that I was a traitor belonging to Guantanamo Bay that the trolls started to wear me down.

Several days before the attack began, I posted a dry Twitter video debunking a conspiracy story that was gaining prominence among Trump supporters. The following week, as he sat in the waiting room of my doctor’s office, my iPhone heated up as it processed a flood of tweets and direct messages telling me “Islam was right about women”, criticizing the size of my breasts, my chin dimple, and the symmetry of my face. According to the trolls, I was an “affluent white liberal woman,” or “AWFL,” and part of a CIA psyop. The spare bedroom that has served as an office since March, where I filmed the video, was actually a basement in Langley, they said. Next year I will be “treated in the street”. A tweet read creepily: “I’ll fix it.” When this happens to you, online abuse is like a tornado of thousands of bugs that, when run over, will just become angrier, or dirt that will be kicked out if you struggle.

I sent hundreds of reports to Twitter in the weeks I was targeted, to no avail. How could artificial intelligence helping moderate content figure out that pictures of empty egg cartons weren’t nudges to the grocery store, but taunts meant to suggest that, as said one of my abusers, “You give birth to babies, we build bridges,” And that my birth years were getting shorter?

The abuse I have suffered – and my almost total lack of recourse – are not unique. In fact, on the scale of online misogyny, my experience wasn’t even particularly bad. I received no rape threats. Unlike over 668,000 involuntary women, no one – to my knowledge, anyway –created deep fake pornography of me. I have not been the subject of an involved sexualized disinformation campaign, like that of Vice President Kamala Harris and Reps Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.

But all of this is terribly pervasive, and its impact on society is sprawling. Just before the United States saw its first female Vice President, Secretary of the Treasury, Director of National Intelligence, and more women and women of color in Congress than ever before, these figures were also the targets of sexual harassment aimed at silence them. Over a two-month period at the end of 2020, I led a research team that monitored social media mentions of 13 prominent politicians, including Harris, Ocasio-Cortez, and Omar. We found over 336,000 cases of sexist and sexualized abuse posted by over 190,000 users. These large-scale campaigns represent only a small part of the abuse women in public life face on a daily basis in the internet age.

More than half of the research subjects were also targeted by gendered and sexualized misinformation, a subset of online abuse that uses false or deceptive sex narratives against women, often with some degree of coordination. These campaigns generally aim to dissuade women from participating in the public sphere. Such an account suggested that several targets were secretly transgender. This implied not only that transgender people are inherently deceptive, but that this deception is responsible for the power and influence that women like Harris, Ocasio-Cortez, or New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wield. Women of color have come under combined attacks, playing on two of America’s greatest weaknesses: its rampant racism and misogyny.

Social media platforms, for their part, have failed to create the infrastructure that supports women enduring campaigns of harassment and disinformation. Instead, they created environments to meet the needs and challenges that white and cisgender males face. They might as well adopt the refrain of my attackers: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Platforms like Facebook and Twitter force women to report individual cases of harassment and misinformation, only to be denied or ignored, despite the very real harm they inflict on the lives and reputations of victims. As platforms have improved to detect some Blatant sexist abuse – think of the five profanities related to female body parts – they were caught off guard by the burgeoning malignant creativity employed by abusers. Stalkers recognize that certain words and phrases can trigger platform detection mechanisms, and therefore they use coded language, iterative context-based visual and text memes, and other tactics to avoid automated deletion. The egg carton meme I received is just one example.

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