The Internet IS Real

Guest Blog by Soraya Chemaly, keynote speaker at the Technology Summit 2013. 

Photo Credit: Kaofeng Lee

Photo Credit: Kaofeng Lee

When people think of how the Internet is used to exacerbate violence against women, they often, with good cause, think of stalking. According to the CDC's National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), one in 6 women and one in 19 men are stalked during their lifetimes. Less conservative estimates that define stalking as a reflection of fear felt by targets makes those numbers 1 in 4 women and one in 13 men.  

For the majority of women who experience stalking, women between the ages of 18-24, one of the most common ways they experience it is electronically.  The most recent Bureau of Justice statistics reveal that 1 in 4 stalking victims report cyber stalking (for example, 83% get e-mails from their stalkers.)  Stalking is integrated seamlessly with cyber stalking, defined by Take Back the Tech as: “(repeatedly) sending threats or false accusations via email or mobile phone, making threatening or false posts on websites, stealing a person’s identity or data or spying and monitoring a person’s computer and internet use. Sometimes the threats can escalate into physical spaces.”

But the Internet allows for endless creativity. Email messages and explicit threats, while hugely harmful and fear inducing, are only one dimension of how abusers can use the online environment to extend their reach and influence. 

Recently, I was contacted by a woman whose abusive ex-husband was regularly posting illustrations of past physical assaults against her. To a random viewer, or a content moderator, these images might seem vaguely disturbing, or maybe offensive. When viewed in isolation, they gave the appearance of being benign. When asked to remove this content, the hosting platform declined since their processes had no way to account for context.  The images did not identify an individual by name, nor did they seem particularly graphically violent or threatening. But, to person who experienced the violence, the images were triggering, anxiety provoking and hostile.  She grew increasingly anxious every day, restricted her activities and repeatedly contacted the police, who could not nothing to help her. 

In another instance, a woman (who’d gotten a restraining order against an abusive spouse), found herself the subject of his daily online updates of her whereabouts, clothing and movement.  Attempts to have his content removed, or to have his online profile suspended yielded no results. Her anxiety drove her to stay in her house for days and sometimes weeks at a time. As no threat was explicitly made, no false posts created, no identity stolen, no electronic theft of data involved, neither the hosting company, nor law enforcement, both of whom she’d sought help from was able or willing to intercede on her behalf.  In a situation like this, the incidence of cyber-stalking is sufficient to be considered an aggravating circumstance, but not a cause for action in and of itself. Despite it’s real deleterious effects. 

Technology used in these ways can make it all but impossible for victims of domestic violence to isolate themselves from their abusers, while simultaneously leading their day to day lives.  More than 50% of stalking victims lose 5 or more days from work in any given year.  Victims often miss work, lose jobs, and cannot take advantage of promotions. National Institute of Justice studies found that victims who work, “experienced twice as many stalking tactics and were stalked three times longer than unemployed victims.” Typically, stalkers often compromise their target’s ability to work by harassing and lying to coworkers, vandalizing workplaces and other similar tactics designed to destabilize their targets. 

Prevailing ideas about what constitutes harm (it must be imminent) and what would justify a suppression of speech make this response fairly typical. Online threats, harassment and stalking, especially if part of a matrix of intimate partner violence, often result in loss of speech and physical freedom for their targets, but are often treated as jokes and dismissed as “not credible.”

Women who live public lives are often cyber-stalked, sometimes by cyber mobs making explicit, graphic and violent threats. Without fail they are belittled for expressing anxiety or for changing their behavior as the result of fear.  When student debater Rebecca Meredith became the target of a vicious and misogynistic online mob assault in which her rape potential was debated publicly, a writer made a point of mocking her publicly for making a “fuss about ‘misogyny.’” Many people grappling with cyber-harassment get this message from online companies and law enforcement officials. 

This type of online amplification of violence against women happens every day and the harm that victims suffer as a result is routinely ignored and trivialized. There is no appropriate recourse, or even frame of consideration, for understanding the impact of online abuse. We have retrofitted (already insufficient) off-line parameters, so that law enforcement, legal and judicial responses cannot adequately support victims. 

Part of the problem resides in the idea that our online identities and experiences aren’t “real.”  For women in particular, because so much of our identities and reputations are tied up in our bodies and perceptions of our sexuality, this division between "real world" and the virtual one is particularly remote. Nonetheless, it is enshrined in technology, in policies, in our legal frameworks and in our notions of safety, harm, self-defense and free speech.  

Challenging an online culture that rewards abusers and penalizes  victims requires that legal, judicial and technology norms be reviewed, challenged and rewritten in ways that take into account the pervasive threat that victims of stalking, cyber stalking, sexual assault and domestic violence live with.  Imminent harm is an insufficient and outdated criterion on which to base our ideas about safety and danger, threats and free speech. 

Soraya L. Chemaly is a writer and activist. To view more of her work, visit: 

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