Written by The Mary Byron Project Intern
If you were walking down a public street and suddenly noticed a man beating a woman to the ground, violently hitting her, you would know that you were witnessing abuse. You would not only label it as wrong but also hopefully take action—calling the police or intervening yourself.
If you were in a store at the mall, and you heard a woman screaming threats of violence and death at her partner you would again label this as wrong and know action should be taken, whether that is bystander intervention or contacting law enforcement.
So then why is social media any different? Instinctively our gut tells us it is wrong when we see someone being physically abused or threatened in public. We must realize that our lives our now online and online abuse via social media must be viewed with the same gut-wrenching disgust.
Zoe Quinn, a 28 year old video game designer, was at the height of her career when her ex-boyfriend published the “Zoe Post”—a deluge of personal information and lies about their relationship that led to online attacks and stalking. He was able to garner so much attention that other people began to harass Zoe. Suddenly, she and other female game developers were receiving death threats and tweets telling them to get out of the video game world.
Zoe was scared enough to approach the police for help even though many people told her to simply stay off the internet. As if that was the solution. As if that was possible. She told the Boston Globe, “In 2015, that’s like saying, ‘Oh, there’s an angry mob camped outside on your sidewalk, just don’t ever go outside again.”
And I can understand where Zoe is coming from. As a college student, the internet and social media are a part of every day of my life. Just staying off the Internet is not simple, and it’s not a solution.
Because the internet is such a critical part of our lives, it has also become an avenue for abuse.
The National Network to End Domestic Violence surveyed victims and found that social media is the number one type of technology abusers use to monitor, track, and impersonate victims. Social media is the second technology source used to harass victims, superseded only by texting.
An advocate wrote: “Facebook is the hardest for survivors to shut down or avoid because they use it to keep in contact with other friends and family.” Harassment forcing victims offline, off social media, is social isolation and is abuse. Isolation is an often used tool by perpetrators, serving as a way to maintain power and control. Ultimately abuse is about power and control and social media provides the perfect tool.
Online harassment through social media can be classified as cyberstalking. Cyberstalking takes many forms, including: harassment, embarrassment and humiliation of the victim, emptying bank accounts or other economic control such as ruining the victim’s credit score, or harassing family, friends, and employers to isolate the victim.
Many states have tough laws to punish some forms of cyberstalking. But while emptying someone’s bank account or ruining a credit score are obvious crimes, social media is a gray area. To some it may be difficult to understand the harassment Zoe has experienced because it is on the internet and not directed specifically at the victim so it should be avoidable and not as big of a deal.
Even the justices of the Supreme Court grappled with the issue of online harassment.
Anthony Elonis, the man at the center of a recent Supreme Court decision regarding his Facebook posts, used social media to threaten his ex-wife, the police, and even a local elementary school after his wife left him.
Ask yourself, would reasonable people consider the following posts frightening?
“There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.”
“Fold up your PFA [protection-from-abuse order] and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”
‘’If I only knew then what I know now . . . I would have smothered your ass with a pillow. Dumped your body in the back seat. Dropped you off in Toad Creek and made it look like a rape and murder.’’
To answer the question, of course they would. These are just a few of Elonis’ horrific posts about his wife. She sought out and received a protective order against Elonis but that couldn’t stop him from wildly posting threats against her on Facebook.
I can already hear people repeating what Zoe Quinn was told, “stay off the internet.” And similarly, that is how many police officers handle cases of online harassment. As if not seeing it would mean it doesn’t exist. This new type of victim blaming is dangerous because it asks victims rather than abusers to change their behavior.
Obviously it will take time for law enforcement to catch up with the technology, but why are we waiting for law enforcement? Bystander Intervention teaches us to step up when we see instances of violence. It is time that we view abuse via social media in the same light. Why are we tolerating this kind of behavior?
Social media institutions often hide behind the First Amendment to leave their sites unmoderated and open to abuse. Caitlin Dewey, a Washington Post journalist, reported abuse to Twitter after receiving a tweet that said, “get raped, you c***.” Twitter responded with a generic letter explaining that the content does not violate Twitter’s rules and therefore the tweet can be left online.
In an interview, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo admitted that Twitter has a problem with abuse and that the site has become an “ideal platform for harassment” and that they have been unable to deal with abuse for years. There is clear evidence that abuse is occurring via Twitter, and yet the site has not changed. I have to wonder, what would Twitter’s position be if 10 million Twitter users wanted different policies?
When victims are told to simply “stay off the internet” (an impossible task) and real action is not taken to protect victims, we leave them vulnerable and in dangerous situations.
While fears that the internet isn’t safe or that we put far too much information online are somewhat based in reality, the truth is that the majority of people on social media do not use this abundance of information for harm. It is similar to when physical abusers try to use being drunk as an excuse for abuse. Many domestic violence advocates will tell you, the majority of people drink and do not abuse. Alcohol does not make someone an abuser and cannot be used to excuse violence. Similarly, access to someone’s Facebook profile does not make someone an abuser. It is a conscious choice, based on a need for power and control, to abuse someone online and misuse the access to their lives.
Imagine a University of Louisville student wakes up one morning, looks at her phone and has over twenty texts waiting for her—all concerning some blog. She logs onto her Facebook and clicks on the new blog post. She starts scrolling and realizes it is an entire post with photos from her Twitter and screenshots of her status updates. It details her location, where she goes to school, and insults her behavior and viewpoints, persuading total strangers to comment horrible things.
“I feel bad for her parents.” “Too bad she’s such an idiot, she’s pretty sexy. I would tap that.” “I don’t know who she is, but I can tell she’s a slut.”
The worst part is when her parents call, her mom is in tears, questioning her for her posts, asking her why she ever posted photos on her Twitter? She calls a lawyer, hoping she can at least get her school location taken down. She knows who posted it, but can’t prove anything. Sadly, there is no real course of action—it would be too difficult to press charges. She spends the whole day in bed, feeling horrible about herself and regretting her every decision.
She is the victim, and yet she feels the blame for online harassment that put her in danger. She was using social media like 74% of internet users do and yet she was victimized, harassed, and abused.
Many fail to see the actual harm from online threats and harassment. If there’s no actual physical attack, what’s the harm in saying what you want online? But the harm from this type of abuse is very real. It is meant to instill life-altering fear, and it is very successful.
After receiving online attacks, death and rape threats, Zoe Quinn would see people in public and think “Is this one of the people that’s been sending me threats for the last six months? Are they going to tell people where I am?” Zoe left her job, the video game industry entirely, and moved out of the country. Fear created by the abuse forced her to abandon her lifestyle, her livelihood, and her sense of safety.
What is the solution? Of course it is impractical and ineffective to prosecute every person who posts a negative comment on Facebook. That’s not the problem or the needed solution. However, there is action that can be taken. For one, we can shift internet culture to make these types of posts unpopular and unacceptable. But also, online abuse should be handled by social media institutions. Twitter and Facebook must respond to complaints of threats and abuse. Our lives are now online, and so as a community of social media users we must create change and demand action by the institutions that make up our lives.