In her role as Senior Reporter for BuzzFeed, journalist Rossalyn Warren dedicates her time to documenting the unfair discrimination against—and unsung achievements of—women around the world. The following is an extract from her new e-book Targeted and Trolled: The Reality of Being a Woman Online, which investigates the everyday harassment of women on the internet (and what exactly is being done about it). Pick up the whole book here.
It is often said that those who commit online abuse get a thrill from being anonymous. Trolls take advantage of the freedom to be cruel to strangers without their identity becoming known, so there’s no accountability, and without having to look their victim in the eye. But trolls don’t always hide their identity behind a fake account or an egg avatar on Twitter. Sometimes they use their real name, email address, and even include a photo of themselves when leaving sexist or hurtful comments.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more noticeable than in the world of online dating. The various dating apps and websites have become a minefield of sexist and creepy comments, one more place where sexism is the norm. Dating apps, such as Tinder and OkCupid, have inadvertently provided an environment in which some men—who use their real name, photo, and location—think it’s acceptable to talk to women this way and they’re confident there’ll be no fallout.
This is something Alexandra Tweten knows all too well. The 27-year-old from Los Angeles decided to set up Bye Felipe, an Instagram account that shares screengrabs of conversations with men who verbally attack and insult women when they’ve been rejected or ignored online.
Tweten says that she felt it was important to show men who don’t send abusive messages what women are subjected to by some of the men who do on dating apps, texts, and Facebook messages.
“Men don’t know what it’s like, and they never will, unless it’s presented to them,” she explains. “A lot of the time, women don’t even talk or think about the harassing messages they receive because it’s expected. I felt that attention needed to be drawn to it. Men who don’t send those messages have no idea what’s going on.”
Tweten believes many women online have received messages like the ones she shares—”I have 5,000 submissions in my inbox right now that I haven’t even opened yet”—and that by sharing them, she’s amplifying the voices of ordinary women.
“A lot of feminists who are vocal online get a lot of hate mail,” she added, “but regular women receive violent messages just for existing online, and I don’t think that’s acknowledged enough.”
The Bye Felipe Instagram account shows that many men have no hesitation in using their real name and photo when posting these sexist messages. Treten believes this is because they’re not expecting the women to say anything back.
“They think there won’t be any consequences, which is why they’re not afraid to say horrible things, despite having their picture next to it,” she explained. “They think, ‘Oh what is she going to do?’ That’s why I hope my account will make guys stop and think, ‘Should I send this horrible message to another person? This could come back to me.’”
“I hope my account will make guys stop and think, ‘Should I send this horrible message to another person? This could come back to me.’”—Alexandra Tweten, creator of Bye Felipe
Bye Felipe joins other projects, such as Straight White Boys Texting and Dudes of Tinder, that collect and archive the misogyny and creepiness women endure online. The owners of these sites insist their purpose isn’t to shame men. Instead, they want to show men and women the scale of the problem and offer a glimpse into the dating world as experienced by women.
But as another project proves, that can be accomplished through humour, too. Artist Anna Gensler was getting tired of the sexist and unsettling messages being sent to her on Tinder, and so she decided to do something a little unusual.
“When someone does something I think is rude, I always want to give them a taste of their own medicine,” said the 24-year-old in an interview with online magazine Slate. “I’m an artist, so I thought, ‘What is something I can do to make them feel the way that they’re making me feel?’”
Gensler figured out exactly how she wanted to do that: draw the man naked (using her imagination!), write the message they sent her alongside the sketch, and send the culprit the portrait.
Her project—called Instagranniepants—collects her amusing doodles of the men and shares them with the thousands who follow her Tumblr and Instagram accounts. Followers can scroll through sketches of (mostly miserable and dowdy-looking) men alongside opening lines like, “Let me get a look at those fun bags,” and “Anna, is that short for anal?”
Gensler believes that by “objectifying the men who objectify the women” she is showing those who think it’s okay to send demeaning comments to women that their behaviour is unacceptable.
Online dating services aren’t the only places where sexism and harassment have become normalized to the point that those responsible don’t feel the need to hide behind a cloak of anonymity. It’s a trend that can be seen right across the spectrum of social media.
In just a few clicks on Vine, Tumblr, Twitter, or Facebook, it’s pretty easy to stumble onto videos, tweets, groups, and images that put women down. It’s something I often come across in my work as a writer who reports on internet culture. One day it might be a video of a men’s rights activist claiming women lie about rape for attention on YouTube. The next day, it’ll be a Facebook image posted on a public page with thousands of followers that says “she’s a bitch for putting you in the friendzone.”
Posts of this kind, mocking or degrading women, can be shared thousands of times. This sort of content would once have remained unseen by most people, but it’s now widespread on social media. As its presence becomes an everyday fact of life on the internet, those who see it gradually come around to the view that this sexism and violence against women is the norm, whereas similar content featuring males being targeted is rarely seen and certainly not widely shared.
Social media and the internet cannot be blamed for the existence of misogyny, but they have helped perpetuate the culture that gives rise to it. These platforms have allowed those responsible for such content to promote their misogynistic views and make this unpleasant brand of sexism widely accessible. Some accounts openly state that they are anti-women. Twitter accounts for ‘Meninism’—the antithesis of feminism—have hundreds of thousands of followers who retweet their tweets about women belonging in the kitchen, photos of half-naked women, and ‘edgy’ jokes about rape and sexual harassment.
“The fact photos and videos of rape and graphic violence are allowed to stay on Facebook, while photos of breastfeeding and nipples are removed, shows that the process in which content is moderated is very much gendered.”—Soraya Chemaly, writer and activist
Sure, we could block and report the content and un-friend or unfollow those who share it. But simply blocking out the sexism from our own feeds doesn’t make it disappear. Thousands of reports of offensive material are made every day to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Many of these reports, however, complain of harmless images such as a mother’s nipple exposed while breastfeeding, or women with mastectomies, or hashtag searches for ‘Love Your Curves.’ Meanwhile the tech companies seem unable to prevent genuinely disturbing sexist content being shared online.
Feminist writer Soraya Chemaly feels it’s important to understand the context in which these companies operate. While Facebook and the other social media sites cannot be expected to review content as it comes in, Chemaly reminds us that these privately held companies have a decisive role in constructing the ‘norm’ as to what constitutes offensive, violent, or threatening content.
“The fact these photos and videos of rape and graphic violence are allowed to stay on the site, while photos of breastfeeding and nipples are removed and considered ‘pornographic’ or “obscene”, shows that the process in which content is moderated is all very much gendered,” says Chemaly.
She points out that tech companies have demonstrated they are capable of addressing certain issues very swiftly and efficiently, proving rapid action can be taken when the will is there.
“When someone on Facebook is reported because it looks like a user may commit suicide, or there’s evidence of child exploitation, that goes down a path at Facebook that nothing else does,” Chemaly explained. “They need to track domestic and gendered violence content in the same way.”
“Men felt comfortable filming [these] abusive videos, because they didn’t have any fear of being caught.”—Soraya Chemaly
Several years ago, Chemaly was spurred to take action after a number of Facebook users complained about pages titled ‘I Kill Bitches Like You’ and ‘Domestic Violence: Don’t Make Me Tell You Twice’ sharing violent and sexist videos and photos. What made it all the more shocking was that, alongside sick images of abused women and jokes about rape, these pages featured adverts for iTunes, Dove, and other big brands, unbeknownst to them.
The users reported the issue to Facebook moderators, but despite their best efforts the adverts for multi-million pound corporations remained intact and the pages stayed online.
Struggling to be heard, the Facebook users turned to feminist activists and writers Soraya Chemaly, Laura Bates (founder of the Everyday Sexism Project), and Jaclyn Friedman (executive director of WAM!). All three had been receiving emails from people across the world about rape videos and other examples of extreme graphic violence that they’d stumbled across on Facebook.
“The stuff people were sending us was so brutally violent that we were stunned,” Chemaly said. “It was mortifying. What was even worse was that the men in the videos felt comfortable filming the abusive video, because they didn’t have any fear of being caught.”
The trio launched a social media campaign that called on Facebook to recognize that the graphic and violent content violated guidelines. In a savvy move, they targeted those companies that advertised on Facebook, tweeting screenshots of the offensive content displayed alongside their advertisements.
As soon as companies began pulling their advertising money, Facebook sat up and listened. In a public letter cosigned by 160 organizations and corporations, they told Facebook that the removal of the content was not hampering free speech, but that the content itself was contributing to a culture of violence, and in many cases violence against women.
The campaign didn’t stop there. It later succeeded in getting Reddit, Facebook and Twitter to redesign their approach and policy to non-consensual pornography. “Enforcement of these policies is a whole other issue,” Chemaly said, “but the fact they recognized it was a huge difference between now and what we would have achieved three years ago.”