Online vs. offline harassment: Are there blurred lines?

| February 17, 2014
Image: flickr/petesimon

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We're going to get a little nostalgic up in here.

Remember when you had to "log on" to the internet and listen to your modem make all those wacky noises? And before you started surfing the interweb, you had to tell everybody in your household because it meant the phone line would be busy?

Long before social media was a thing, we believed that there was a clear divide between what happened online and "real life."

Those days are over. Eight out ten Canadian households have internet access and it's no coincidence. We do our banking online, read our news, buy clothes, apply for jobs, download music, find a date; you get the point. We're wired.

The lines between the online world and what net users call In Real Life (IRL) are blurry, except, it seems, when we talk about online harassment. Suddenly, the Internet is no longer a necessity and people who can't take the heat are told to leave the kitchen.

There is an incredibly bizarre cognitive dissonance at play here. If Internet access is so important to us, why are we so quick to dismiss harassment that happens online?

This isn't simply an interesting theoretical exercise. This hypocrisy has a deep impact on the lives of marginalized people. Namely, women, people of colour, queer people and people with disabilities.

Because it happened online, it didn't happen?

When a group of women came forward to report repeated harassment by a Toronto man, one journalist said the "alleged victim and the accused" were "cut from the same cloth."

The journalist's comments are shocking but sadly, quite common. Women who report their experiences of violence are rarely believed. But in this case, the comments also highlight our current dichotomous thinking about online harassment; namely, that the violence the women "claim" to have experienced could not possibly have happened because it happened online.

Widespread discussion of this ongoing case hinges on whether or not online harassment is a thing and that people are continuously shocked that what happened online could have "real life" consequences.

For feminist activists, both online and IRL, the only thing surprising about the Toronto case is that the police went ahead with charges. The harassment we receive online is rarely taken seriously by our friends let alone the police.

For example, when community activist Kira-Lynn Ferderber called out the horror of student money being spent on a concert by rape-apologist Rick Ross, they received a barrage of threats from strangers online. When they approached the police about them, the police responded that "there's no way to know who wrote that" and "'you should be raped' is not a direct threat."

When Anita Sarkeesian received every threat under the sun for her work online, it was of little comfort to her that no one followed through on their threats to physically harm her.

When Caroline Criado-Perez was threatened with rape for being a feminist campaigner, she was told that was the price to pay for having a voice online. Eventually, two of her harassers were arrested and charged, but she defined the experience as "psychologically scarring."

Feed the trolls until they burst

How the criminal justice system responds to cases of online harassment is incredibly important, but of equal importance is the way in which we talk about it.

Current discussions of online harassment are rife with hypocrisy. We are outraged when we discover our favourite news source is now charging for online access to stories and we mock our government's inability to "get with the times" when it comes to social media.

But our collective knee jerk reaction to online harassment is to downplay its severity and force its victims to leave. Even our supposed allies tell us "Don't feed the trolls"; don't engage with the harassment; don't internalize it; block them and step away. And never, ever read the comments.

Some argue that in ignoring online harassment, we're slowly making the Internet a haven for abusers. Through complicity, we're telling women, queer people, people of colour, people with disabilities and anyone who dares to support us: You don't belong here. This is our space.

It also has an impact on the way credible news stories are perceived.

Popular Science decided to shut down all comments on its site after it discovered that "Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story." They realized that for every positive and insightful comment they received, they would get an equal amount of negative and irrational comments. By allowing even the slightest amount of outrageous comments to appear below their stories, they were slowly changing the way readers perceived the facts within the story.

By accepting comments like "Don't believe that feminazi," readers of the original news story could slowly internalize the idea that "Hey, I don't think that person should be believed."

Online or offline violence: does it matter?

This is all assuming that the threats, harassment and nasty comments made online are being made by some harmless jerk who never intends to follow through on anything.

By allowing all forms of harassment to thrive online, we blur the lines between the harmless, but annoying, threat and the credible threat to someone else's safety.

When we create a world in which being online is imperative but being a woman online means the expectation of abuse, we are systemically reinforcing misogyny, not to mention racism, ableism, homophobia, trans*phobia, etc.

When we ignore harassment online, we're not only silencing its victims, we're also perpetuating the same victim blaming that permeates all discussions of gender-based violence.

Our reaction to this type of violence is a reflection of our broader attitudes.

Dr. Rena Bivens an expert on social media and gender, isn't surprised by the cognitive dissonance in discussions of online harassment because we live in a world that is constantly excusing gender-based violence.

It's unsurprising largely because it's completely in line with mainstream attitudes towards every issue relating to gender-based violence. Experiencing online harassment is not seen as a big deal on its own because it's largely happening to a subsection of the population that mainstream society deems worthy of an inferior position anyway. Experiencing micro-aggressions on a daily basis is not seen by mainstream society as a big deal, but the lived realities are real.

If we think the internet is essential when we want to connect with our allies across the globe, then we need to collectively denounce all forms of harassment online.

We need to draw links between what happens online and offline.

To do otherwise is to condone the violence that too many of us experience.

Julie S. Lalonde is an award winning social justice advocate based out of Ottawa. She works with various women's organizations on the issues of sexual violence, reproductive justice and feminist gerontology. You can follow her rants about rape culture, Canadian politics and VW Beetles @JulieSLalonde

Image: flickr/petesimon

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