HATERS: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online Gives A Harrowing Look At The Realities of Cybersexism

At YTH, we are dedicated to expanding online privacy and increasing awareness, but decreasing the prevalence, of online harassment and cyberbullying. We have worked on online privacy campaigns in the past that have been centered around youth-driven tech, created to empower their health and wellness online. One such current example is our TECHsex study, which involved conducting youth focus groups around the country, to discover how young people were approaching the social realities of life in the 21st century, particularly in sexual and reproductive health.

One of the pilot programs of this study was our Blocking Cyberbullying research report and panel discussion, held in New York City last October. We gathered together a panel of experts in online privacy, harassment, and digital activism that included Bailey Poland, feminist activist, communications analyst, and author of HATERS: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online. As one of our expert resources who helped to shape our study, she was a tremendous part of our research and sharing. In addition, Poland also served on our 2017 YTH Live program committee, helping to shape the direction of this year’s conference and speakers. Speaking about her experience working with YTH, “I had a wonderful time working with YTH on the cyberbullying report – it is one of the most comprehensive studies I’ve come across in my research, and adds a lot of value to a conversation that continues to develop and get more complex.”.

In this light, we decided to share with you our take on her book. For those interested in learning more about cybersexism to take into your research, work, and activism around online communities and social justice, this is an important resource.

HATERS focuses on exposing the harsh truths that women online face, that Poland argues comes from a unique form of gender-based oppression that exists for women who partake in social media and internet activity. Rather than viewing this issue as an extension of bullying, or as a result of random attacks, Poland views cybersexism as existing in the cultural framework of online spaces, bringing in the gendered ideas ingrained in our ‘real life’ social reality, into this virtual one. As women are silenced and targets for violence in the external world, so are they in the online world.

She defines this problem by showing real-life cases of cybersexism, as well as the disproportionate rates of violence, abuse, silencing, doxxing, and derailing that women face online, compared to men. What was compelling about her presentation of this problem was in the way that Poland transfers the social constructions of gender and power to explain the nature of these interactions. In our experience, most who discuss the problem of cyberbullying, which is rarely talked about to begin with, define it as a personal problem, one that should be dealt with on an individual level. Poland, in contrast, shows how this type of harassment is not a matter of an individual instance, but rather a larger phenomenon that society as a whole must address.

Think about when someone looks to find strategies for dealing with cyberbullying- they’re most likely told that they need to stop “feeding the trolls,” that they should just press the “block” button, or simply pretend that the abuse isn’t happening altogether. How savvy is this approach to not just unjust, but often illegal, ways of behaving?

Poland calls for an overhaul of the very broken system that we’ve developed to explain these problems, by collectively applying the principles and ideas of feminism to the online world, as well as viewing these instances as a part of a larger problem of sexism. By doing this, the argument goes that we can then hold space for women as a collective to congregate and activate change. After all, there is always power found in numbers.

She also calls for us as providers to address the issues of response; as the problem has thus far been defined as a personal one, rather than a community one. There are also a lot of problematic factors that are present in most of the current solution models that exist. For one, they rely on a lot of manual labor, as the privacy tools built into apps and websites usually aren’t programmed to filter abusive comments or behavior and require a report of the user to be filed, every single time there is an instance. There’s also not a way to aggregate these actions on a larger level and it’s hard to get any type of support from law enforcement, the platforms themselves, nor the online community, as with the assumption of individual dealing, an environment of sole responsibility is implied. If you’re being harassed or abused online, there’s not much you can actually do about it, on a larger scale. Is it any wonder that a lot of women facing this kind of cybersexism then go dark on social media, in order to cope? This kind of victim blaming shouldn’t be the answer.

Thus, we need to pilot innovative tech solutions that take the burden of labor and proof off of women and onto the harassers. Instead of forcing the victims to try to figure out how they can respond to sexist comments, we need to support them in seeking help and finding refuge. Furthermore, better systems of accountability need to be held for harassers, as well as better standards of privacy in social media platforms. For example, Poland cites the fact that although Twitter allows you to block individual users, that actually doesn’t stop them from being able to tag you in tweets. As Poland states: “Forcing women into a perpetually reactive stance where online abuse is concerned gives cybersexist harassers much of the power in the interaction and places a burden on women to constantly monitor their profiles, comments, and notifications.”

Overall, Poland’s book combines intellectual merit, human-centered design, cutting-edge thought leadership, and offers an innovative platform for tech leaders, activists, and advocates alike to work off, in order to transform the ways in which we interact with, understand, and accept online abuse and harassment. She is pioneering a new wave of online feminism and we at YTH are listening up.

Have you registered for our YTH Live conference yet? In the words of Poland, “Attending and speaking at the YTH panel was an amazing opportunity. I was able to talk with other panelists who are doing exciting work on the subject and have incredible insight into how we can make the internet better and safer.” If you want to have this same opportunity, register today for YTH Live.

ZonaSegura ZonaSegura is a trauma-informed youth-centered innovative mobile solution to address teen dating violence in Honduras. Learn more about ZonaSegura on our program page.