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January 07, 2014 3:00 PM Policing Internet Threats Against Women

By Ed Kilgore

I try not to over-use the term “must-read,” and also don’t often draw attention to very long pieces, but I strongly encourage everyone to read the very long (and harrowing) but essential article at Pacific Standard by online journalist and Slate contributor Amanda Hess about threats and intimidation aimed at women on the internet, and why so little has been done to deal with it (beyond self-help efforts by the victims).

Please read the whole thing, particularly if you are a man and don’t really “get” that this is a constant problem for women—especially though not limited to women who try to earn a living online and must cope with death and rape threats along with less graphic kinds of abuse. The tendency of men to view this sort of exposure to communications that would be clearly criminal if delivered in person or by mail or phone as obnoxious but tolerable if deployed online is a big part of the problem, particularly given the predominance of men in the law enforcement and digital communities that are the sole recourse for victims. (Ignorance is also a problem, at least for law enforcement: Hess recounts making a 911 call after a battery of extremely disturbing death-tweets by someone who seemed to know how to find her; the officer who responded asked, “What is Twitter?”).

Hess explores a variety of possible remedies for the problem, including treatment of internet harassment of journalists as a form of workforce harassment. But the first step is clearly for those other than the victims to begin taking it much more seriously.

Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor who focuses on Internet threats, charted the popular response to Internet death and rape threats in a 2009 paper published in the Michigan Law Review. She found that Internet harassment is routinely dismissed as “harmless locker-room talk,” perpetrators as “juvenile pranksters,” and victims as “overly sensitive complainers.” Weighing in on one online harassment case, in an interview on National Public Radio, journalist David Margolick called the threats “juvenile, immature, and obnoxious, but that is all they are … frivolous frat-boy rants.”
Of course, the frat house has never been a particularly safe space for women. I’ve been threatened online, but I have also been harassed on the street, groped on the subway, followed home from the 7-Eleven, pinned down on a bed by a drunk boyfriend, and raped on a date. Even if I sign off Twitter, a threat could still be waiting on my stoop.
Today, a legion of anonymous harassers are free to play their “games” and “pranks” under pseudonymous screen names, but for the women they target, the attacks only compound the real fear, discomfort, and stress we experience in our daily lives.

This needs to stop, or at least be countered by serious measures from law enforcement and tech companies, with support from everyone who lives a big part of their lives on the internet as producers and/or consumers of content. The First Amendment will survive just fine without people feeling free to threaten to rape and kill Amanda Hess.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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