Cathy Young is the author of two books and a frequent contributor to Reason, Newsday and RealClearPolitics.com.
Online abuse has become a major issue in the past two years. Numerous media reports have focused on cyberharassment, particularly toward women. The problem was discussed at a congressional hearing in April and a United Nations panel in September. Politicians have called for better law enforcement solutions while Internet platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have taken steps to curb abuse.
As worthy as these initiatives may sound, they have aspects that carry worrying implications for both fairness and freedom.
The recent conversation on online harassment has been shaped almost entirely by feminists and “social justice” activists whose perspectives, while valuable, are often skewed by bias. Take the notion that cyberspace is a particularly hostile environment for women, as argued in journalist Amanda Hess’s acclaimed 2014 article, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” Hess’s piece featured disturbing material, including her account of being cyberstalked. But her bigger picture is questionable.
Hess cited a 2013 Pew Research Center survey in which 5 percent of women said something had happened online that put them in physical danger. She did not mention that the figure for men was only slightly lower.
Since then, another Pew poll found that more online abuse is directed at men; more women reported being sexually harassed but more men reported getting threats of violence, and both were equally likely to have experienced sustained harassment. Moreover, Internet users surveyed overwhelmingly felt most online spaces are female-friendly.
Feminists and other activists who take on controversial topics, from abortion to race, get a lot of online vitriol, which can escalate into frightening harassment. But so do many other people with provocative opinions.
In 2012, several male right-wing journalists and bloggers involved with a documentary attacking the Occupy Wall Street movement, Occupy Unmasked, said they got numerous threats and had their home addresses posted online. One, Breitbart writer Lee Stranahan, was also among several men cyberstalked by a left-wing writer who posted graphic murder fantasies about his targets and made bogus allegations of child abuse.
While threats and invasions of privacy are clearly illegal, most of what is defined as cyberharassment is far murkier. The label can be applied to harsh critical feedback, contentious arguments or mockery, particularly when it’s many mobbing one. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic of videogames who has received death threats, told the recent U.N. panel on “cyberviolence” that harassment includes the “day-to-day grind of ‘You’re a liar,’ ‘You suck’ ” and “hate videos” that incite such comments. Popular definitions of harassment also extend to “sealioning” — a recently coined term based on an Internet comic, “The Terrible Sea Lion” — which seems to mean little more than unwelcome attempts to engage someone in debate.
A barrage of hostile comments can be dispiriting. But nearly all this speech is protected under the First Amendment. While private companies can impose speech restrictions, such curbs by the Internet’s main platforms could imperil public discourse, especially if imposed in a biased way.
Too often, the progressive activists who dominate initiatives against cyberabuse — and advise major companies — openly advocate favoritism based on identity politics. One model code of conduct for digital communities that has served as a basis for companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook takes a tough anti-harassment stance but explicitly “prioritizes marginalized people’s safety over privileged people’s comfort” and rejects complaints about “reverse racism,” “reverse sexism” or being attacked for “oppressive behavior or assumptions.”
Indeed, Internet “social justice” activism with its culture of “call-outs” and pile-ons can itself be a harassment machine. Recently, a 19-year-old comic artist reportedly attempted suicide due to bullying by bloggers who relentlessly attacked her for perceived “fatphobia,” racial stereotyping and other sins. In May, film director Joss Whedon left Twitter after a nasty backlash against supposed anti-feminism in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” (While Whedon denied he was driven off, he certainly faced a barrage of ugliness.)
Yet most discussions of Internet harassment omit such toxic behavior and even more egregious abuse with a “progressive” face. Two years ago, there was much media sympathy for a so-called hacktivist facing legal trouble for cyberattacks targeting residents of Steubenville, Ohio, to bring attention to the rape of a teenage girl. Never mind that the online vigilantism hurt many innocent people who had their records exposed and were threatened or smeared.
Criminal harassment online, from threats and stalking to defamation, is a real problem; we need better tools against it. But it is essential to separate the criminal from the obnoxious. This doesn’t mean we should accept nastiness and bullying as an online norm, but such behavior can and should be discouraged through social disapproval. (For starters, we can stop condoning nastiness for a supposed good cause.) Anti-abuse policies by social media platforms should be carefully watched to ensure that they don’t trample unpopular views. And creeping censorship — such as proposals by some anti-harassment advocates to repeal a provision in federal law that shields Internet providers from liability for user content — needs to be firmly rejected.
Finally, it is essential to approach this issue in a way that doesn’t treat some victims, and some harassers, as more equal than others. A truly inclusive conversation on Internet abuse must include not only diversity of race, ethnicity and gender but also diversity of viewpoints.
Recent events at Yale University and several other college campuses have highlighted the extent to which well-meaning social justice concerns are chilling freedom of speech in the academy. We should not allow the Internet to go the same way.