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Anonymity and Online Abuse

I just read wikiman’s post on gender and the digital divide and it is pretty decent, especially since he does not buy into one of the modern myths about online abuse, namely that anonymity both enables and intensifies the abuse.

However, the things that always interests me about this kind of story is the way that they are almost always single issue. Moreover, so much of the popular press – well, I guess wikiman isn’t necessarily ‘popular’ press – focuses almost exclusively on the experiences of abuse that women get. I’m not sure if this is a result of the fact that the tech/online community is – decades after the fact – finally starting to grapple with feminism, sexism, and misogyny.

One of the things he notes is that

there’s no real preparation for dealing with it. It’s not really discussed much.

Which is interesting since in some of the corners of the internet that I inhabit, this sort of thing is frequently discussed.

As he further points out:

the problem of abuse is exacerbated by the internet in general (it allows disconnected contact in a fashion which allows cowards to flourish), social media in particular (it allows direct access and potentially even the feeling that you ‘know’ someone and so are entitled to comment on their appearance, etc) and is much much worse if you’re female, gay, or in an ethnic minority

In feminist (and other anti-oppressive) discourse, Crenshaw’s idea of intersectionality has become nearly ubiquitous. And it would enrich many discussions about this sort of thing (online harassment), if more people writing about it were to actually take it into account. This quotation treats these all as if there were discreet identities (they aren’t, since some magical people manage to be gay women of colour).

So, to partially answer wikiman’s statement about the lack of preparation for dealing with online harassment: some people are already prepared. I never needed any preparation for dealing with online harassment. Mostly because my offline life adequately prepared me for dealing with anything from microaggressive behaviour to violent threats (I’m including sexual violence here, btw).

Online abuse can be tough because it can come at far greater quantities than real life, but it is also much easier to block, ignore, escape safely. And, while it may happen with less frequency, there is still no good way to deal with someone shouting slurs at you and threatening you with violence. To your face.

He rightly notes that it isn’t about anonymity, since people are perfectly willing to sign their names to their abuse. This is unsurprising when we live in a culture where people are perfectly willing to behave in abusive and oppressive ways offline. They do it in public, in the workplace: anywhere, really, that they feel like it. They do it because, by and large, there are no consequences and, in many cases, they are supported and encouraged.

But few people will speak out because it breaks the minority bargain – where we are tacitly allowed to participate in public life so long as we remain silent.

Which creates the illusion that wikiman thinks is actually reality:

It’s not really discussed much. There’s a tendency to laugh it off or, worse, to feel misplaced guilt about it – maybe I inadvertently led them on? So it doesn’t get shared, and you don’t get the relief and understanding that comes from realising other people are getting this abuse too, and it’s not your fault.

It speaks a lot to the sorts of discussions and spaces that he regularly inhabits, since who are the agents in this? I can guarantee you that I’ve had many, many, many discussions with other people of colour about this sort of thing. That, when we can we talk about this sort of thing, but we do it amongst ourselves and when we feel it is safe to do so. Just because you’ve not been party to a certain kind of discussion, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Above all, I just wish that there was more effort to connect offline abusive behaviour with online behaviour. That more people really understood that the Internet is not presenting us with a new phenomenon of abuse. Instead it give us better and more transparent records of it happening (and perhaps that is what all the shock and feelings of newness are about, since the Internet lays bare what has been happening offline all along). Fretting about how anonymity may or may not make abuse worse online, doesn’t help the people dealing with abuse and threats from people they know but are powerless to stop.