Never have online attacks on women been more visible, more denounced, or more effective

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SilenceAs I read this piece in the Washington Post yesterday I felt sicker and sicker. It’s about the deep psychological toll that many feminist writers endure when they publish online.

The underlying problem is well documented. Thanks to the Internet and social media, a message can reach more people, via fewer gatekeepers, than ever before. But that freedom of movement for information has also allowed groups of highly organized trolls to pummel and pummel in highly targeted and efficient ways they couldn’t before. Often the targets of those trolls are women.

Women who receive this kind of daily onslaught are often faced with two possible outcomes: The first is that they stand their ground, knowing that the attacks will keep coming, and that they’ll likely spend the rest of their lives battling the damage to their psyche. Or, they agree to be silenced and spend the rest of their lives in a mixture of guilt and sadness that they “allowed” the bullies to win.

The Post article, by Michelle Goldberg, is about how, too often, the bullies are winning. You should really read the whole thing, but here’s a clip:

This is a strange, contradictory moment for feminism. On one hand, there’s never been so much demand for feminist voices. Pop stars such as Beyoncé and Taylor Swift proudly don the feminist mantle, cheered on by online fans. After years when it was scorned by the mainstream press, the movement is an editorial obsession: Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” Lena Dunham’s “Not That Kind of Girl,” Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist” and Amy Poehler’s “Yes Please” occupy, and sometimes top, bestseller lists. “Stories about race and gender bias draw huge audiences, making identity politics a reliable profit center in a media industry beset by insecurity,” Jonathan Chait recently wrote in New York magazine — a proposition that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

On the other hand, while digital media has amplified feminist voices, it has also extracted a steep psychic price. Women, urged to tell their stories, are being ferociously punished when they do. Some — particularly women who have the audacity to criticize sexism in the video-game world — have been driven from their homes or forced to cancel public appearances. Fake ads soliciting rough sex have been placed in their names. And, of course, the Twitter harassment never stops.

It’s a point that I’ve been making for much of the last year about women in tech and Silicon Valley. We are in a strange place where there is both more opportunity for women than ever before, but also more disgusting and overt hate, whether it’s from anonymous trolls or senior executives and founders of the largest most powerful companies in the Valley. Worse are the excuses the industry makes for those in power, whether they’re justifications that being an asshole is just part of winning — cue the reference to Steve Jobs — or that young founders are just going through a misogynistic “phase” which will soon be dealt with (read: covered up) by media handlers.

The Post article explains that the demand for women to write about their experiences as women has never been greater, but neither has the toll for doing so. The first part of that is certainly a positive development. A mainstream audience has far less appetite for witnessing and accepting the bullying of women than it did ten years ago. When I joined TechCrunch there was an online poll predicting how long I’d last because abusive, sexually aggressive commenters had driven so many other women from the site with their attacks. Happily, that’s no longer an accepted expectation of writing about iPhones online.

And yet, where gendered bullying does appear online today — be it in the form of GamerGate-style campaigns or Twitter mobs or executives at Uber — it’s far more extreme and more shocking, often taking the form of specific and direct threats against the women targeted. While that escalation horrifies people who might not have thought sexism was really a problem in <pick an industry>, it also creates, and then emboldens, a tribe of people who genuinely hate women and didn’t have a way to express it.

Put another way: While the extremity of this stuff has in some ways helped to drive home exactly how bad the problem is for women on the Internet, it has also been effective in driving many women to decide it’s not worth the psychological pain of continuing to speak out. And that’s before we consider the likely thousands more young women who decide they don’t want to pick the fight to begin with. It’s a victory for the bullies, even as more of the population are disgusted by the bullying.

The debate about whether the Internet is good or bad for the world has raged since its inception. As always, it’s not entirely either. It’s merely a tool which allows humanity to express itself. If you believe humanity is mostly good, the Internet is mostly good. If you believe humanity is mostly bad, the Internet is mostly bad. On some days, it’s hard to tell where that balance lies.

What is clear however, is that, when it comes to the treatment of women on the Internet, the battle between the “good” and “bad” sides has never been more fierce. And hatred always flares up in the ugliest ways before society really changes.

[Image credit: Alberto Ortiz (Creative Commons)]

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