We should do more to protect social activists online

Online hate has become an increasingly prevalent part of social media in recent years, fueled viciously by the 2014 scandal of ‘#Gamergate’, and found most predominantly on Twitter. The crux of the problem is the ability to experience abuse and harassment, most likely from people you have never met, online. This problem far from stops here, as it is even possible to come under attack online without having published any opinions or material on any form of social media.

New and inventive ways to publicly humiliate a person in the worst way have come to light in the past couple of years. Harrowing methods such as ‘revenge porn’ and ‘doxxing’ have come into the mix, and it is understandable that many female and minority groups now feel uncomfortable sharing their views, or even maintaining a presence online.

The most common form of hate we see online today is ‘doxxing’, which involves releasing someone else’s private information online. This can include as little as their name, or as much as their full address and phone number. Following this are often threats of violence, death and rape.

Zoe Quinn, the catalytic victim of #Gamergate, received countless threats of rape and violence, along with her family being contacted and harassed. Understandably, she was forced to leave her home for a considerable time and to remove her online presence in the midst of the hate.

What did she do to fuel this nightmare? Nothing; she was the unfortunate victim of a spiteful ex-boyfriend who saw fit to publish private details about her and their previous relationship. In addition to this was a list of people with whom Quinn had allegedly had relations, some who worked in the same industry as her. Quinn is a videogame developer (coding all her own work), and her game The Depression Quest has a million players. Understandably, the attack had an impact on both her work and social life.

All too often it seems that women in tech and journalism find themselves at the forefront of the abuse. Recently, founder and editor of ‘Gadgette’ Holly Brockwell received a disturbing amount of threats of violence after she spoke to the BBC (under their BBC 100 Women project) about her reluctance to have children. Just some of the abuse included proposals to perform a laryngectomy on her (effectively taking away her speech), and comments about her sex life, appearance, and mental health. 

But these groups are far from the only targets; celebrity icons such as Olympian Tom Daley and historian Mary Beard have also found themselves in similar situations. Behind a computer screen, it is easy for these online ‘trolls’ to discriminate and threaten with little fear for their own safety or risk of backlash. So what can be done to combat this growing problem?

We can look to the new online guide ‘Speak Up & Stay Safe(r)’ (aimed at feminists receiving hate online, though highly transferrable) created by reproductive rights activist Renee Bracey Sherman, writer Jaclyn Friedman, and creator of the webseries and charity Feminist Frequency Anita Sarkeesian. It acts as a site where potential and current victims of online abuse can seek advice and tips about how to protect themselves and their private information online. The guide has tutorials on password security, removing personal information from the web, and provides a substantial support network to help victims.

This practical solution allows anyone to speak up on an issue they feel passionate about without fearing threats of violence and hate. It is a friendly and accessible support and information network, which will allow more voices to be heard on issues that really matter. 

Solutions like this are the real way we can challenge these problems. To deny these internet ‘trolls’ the ability to silence female and minority groups on real issues is just one step we can take to protect the wellbeing and private information of everyone online.

Image credit: Marcie Casas

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