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How to Stop the Online Harassment of Female Journalists

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“Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.” That’s a tweet Slate writer Amanda Hess received from her stalker. Unfortunately, Hess’ situation is not uncommon. In fact, female journalists being harassed and threatened online has become an epidemic.

Hess recently wrote a lengthy piece on the subject for the Pacific Standard. She discovered that of all the people who reported being stalked and harassed online from 2000 to 2012, 72.5 percent were female. “No matter how hard we attempt to ignore it, this type of gendered harassment — and the sheer volume of it — has severe implications for women’s status on the Internet,” Hess argued.

How can we change this situation? Ann Friedman has some ideas. Friedman, a columnist for New York, among other publications, often espouses on controversial topics (gender, politics, sex) and has had her share of harassment online. 10,000 Words spoke with Friedman about trolls, Tumblr and the true meaning of masochism.

“My first online home was at Feministing.com, and nothing has managed to come close to the amount of hate mail I got for writing for that site,” Friedman said. “I had a guy who would come to events, who was clearly mentally ill and thought everything we were writing was about him. At Feministing we had an appointed FBI agent, who we forwarded all our hate mail to. So I wrote this guy and told him I was forwarding his info to our agent. He backed off after that.”

We asked Friedman what she thought of Hess using the term “civil rights” to discuss women’s sexual harassment online. Friedman said she understands why Hess used the term, but that it’s actually more complex.

“There’s a bunch of different layers here. There’s people, most of them men, who publicly try to silence women. There’s also private communication,” she said. “A lot of the stuff isn’t really a threat. Obviously, Amanda’s situation is horrifying and many pro-women sex writers I know have been threatened at some point in time. But the bulk of it is just hate mail… supremely nasty reactions that are gendered and disturbing.”

We asked Friedman what she thought of Tumblr’s new and improved terms of service, which gives a detailed overview on what is and isn’t acceptable on the blogging platform.

“It goes a little further than a lot of sites’ community guidelines do in terms of what we expect from our users,” Friedman said. “Twitter, [on the other hand] isn’t active in policing users on any number of things. I use the block button reflexively. I feel like having those types of settings is absolutely imperative. Women [need to] be able to get the attention of Twitter or Tumblr to get that person’s access revoked when it comes to communicating with them.”

What about taking away the comments sections on articles altogether, as some publications have recently done? Will it just make the trolls angrier?

“I don’t really care about their feelings,” Friedman said, laughing. “I write for lots of different outlets. If you asked me which have active comments sections [and] which don’t, I would not be able to tell you. I don’t read them. I think it’s just masochistic to read the comments at this point. No site really has the [ability] to the do the kind of super-involved moderation necessary to create a really awesome dialogue. I would say the one exception to that rule is The Hairpin, where my pie charts run. I will look at the comments there because it is a small community. It’s not like writing for a major site.”

Friedman said one way to stop trolls and harassers from taking over the comments section is to make it harder to sign in.

“I think it’s worth having a conversation about how sites can have more accountability in comments,” she said. “I do think that sites where you have to sign in through Facebook, so your real identity is showing up next to the comment, has a pretty good effect. Or even if you have a sign up barrier. That’ll weed out a lot of people who are just there to troll. There are some low-level things that sites can use to decrease hate speech.”

What do you think? Is there an effective way to prevent the harassment of women journos online? Let us know in the comments below.

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