Thursday, May 24, 2007

Keeping Online in Line: Online Harassment and Cyberfeminism

Can Radical Feminists create an effective online community that furthers feminist aims while remaining relatively free from misogynist harassment?

What remains here at The Den, are a few pages of my journal, some pieces of torn and ruined fabric, and the dust that they left when they ransacked my sense of safety.
- Biting Beaver[1]

For every Feminist issue in the real world, the same issues apply in the cyberworld. And more.
- Susan Hawthorne & Renate Klein[2]

CONTENTS
  1. INTRODUCTION
  2. ONLINE HARRASSMENT
  3. CYBERFEMINISM
  4. COMMUNITY
  5. IDENTITY
  6. ANONYMITY
  7. OPEN/CLOSED
  8. PRESENT METHODS OF REGULATION
  9. CONCLUSION

INTRODUCTION Online harassment is a relatively new phenomenon. Feminist internet theory texts from the 1990s do not even list it as an issue for women and the Internet.[3] However, online harassment of radical feminists is becoming a serious problem in the community, with some bloggers retreating from the blogosphere, and others restricting (or disallowing) comments and screening emails. For some radical feminists, their safe haven from the misogyny of the rest of the world has been invaded and destroyed. Others, due to the online harassment they have received, cannot leave their houses from fear of being murdered or raped. In this essay I have explored the issues related to the need for regulation of the internet, in order to protect the victims who are not benefiting from the present system of anonymity. Such issues include definitions of online feminism and the feminist community, identity, anonymity, and the debate between open or closed online networks. Finally I will explore methods radical feminists are presently using to regulate their blogs and communities.

ONLINE HARASSMENT

When I first began researching this assignment I began with a radical feminist blog I had heard about. I clicked on the link to Mad Sheila Musings and a
flashing warning sign appeared saying I now had five viruses on my computer. A second sign said I had downloaded 694 pornographic images. Then the porn started flipping up, one window after another, too fast for me to close them down quick enough. Faith commented on a radical feminist blog discussing the issue that
I had something similar happen with one of my old blogs. I shut it down due to an overabundance of trolls…it was taken over by a porn directory with the search term “forced girl undressed”…within about two days, I believe.[4]
Apparently, it is the norm now that the URLs of former radical feminist blogs are snatched up by pornographers as soon as they are closed by their (original) authors.[5] Similarly, online harassment of radical feminist bloggers also appears to be a fairly normal occurrence. Such abuse could range from anonymous comments such as the “get raped, bitch” type, of which Witchy Woo, a radical feminist blogger, receives “plenty”,[6] to threats of rape and murder that others receive. I will briefly describe two examples of the latter case below.

Online harassment became such a serious problem for one radical feminist blogger that when the violence erupted it caused her “to fear for not only my existence, but the sanity and existences of my children as well.”[7] Biting Beaver was well known in the radical feminist blogging community, and helped to create a “small hideaway from an insane world filled with violence”.[8] She describes how the misogynists were “screaming” at her through comments, and swearing that “they’d rape me with knives and cut me open if I didn’t allow them access.”[9] Then the emails began, and the death threats mounted, while “the graphic descriptions of what they would do to me when they found me continued to escalate.”[10] Finally the death threats began to involve her children, and that is when she finally gave in. The blog quoted above is her last entry, and she has now completely retreated from the blogosphere.[11] Another recipient of extreme online misogynist harassment is Kathy Sierra, blogger, programming instructor and game developer.[12] Sierra writes how she received death threats for a month, but “what finally did it was some disturbing threats of violence and sex posted on two other blogs.”[13] It is the threat, she writes, “that leads you to a psychiatrist and tranquilizes just so you can sleep without repeating the endless loop of your death by: throat slitting, hanging, suffocation, and don’t forget the sexual part…”[14] This is the photo that pushed her “over the edge”:[15]


Sierra has cancelled all speaking engagements and now stays at home, “with the doors locked, terrified.”[16] What did these women do to deserve such violence? Biting Beaver was perhaps too effective in commanding too large an audience in the feminist community. And Sierra? Other than being a woman she can only think of one other reason for the abuse, “’they thought I was just too damned optimistic.’”[17] Online harassment of women that challenge the dominant structure has reached the point where it is actually forcing women out of the blogosphere (at least as anything but lurkers). I will now address the issues that this brings up in relation to how much regulation we need in online communities.

CYBERFEMINISMAt the very outset we must examine what ‘an effective online community that furthers feminist aims’ would be. In my research there was a strong emphasis by both self identified feminists and male researchers writing about feminism online on “non-unified notions of subjectivity”,[18] and uncritical feminist interventions with cyberspace.[19] Gender is assumed to become superfluous online, resulting in the collapse of the status quo.[20] However, cyberfeminism must go further than repeating old feminist’s mistakes of heralding technology as the saviour if it is to be practically useful for women around the world.[21] Renate Klein and Diane Bell, notable radical feminists, define a feminist future as one “of justice, dignity and above all safety from all forms of violence.”[22] Cyberfeminism must contribute to this, including critiquing and revolutionizing social norms and constructs. In this light we can see definitions of cyberfeminism such as the following to be rather lacking in revolutionary potential: “feminists need only keep popping up in unexpected places in unexpected guises to put a virtual cat among the virtual pigeons.”[23] Nancy Paterson provides a useful definition which may be more effective in promoting a feminist future through the internet:
Cyberfeminism as a philosophy has the potential to create a poetic, passionate, political identity and unity without relying on a logic and language of exclusion. It offers a route for reconstructing feminist politics through theory and practice with a focus on the implications of new technology rather than on factors which are divisive.[24]
With this in mind, we can now turn to some of the main issues that arise when we discuss the need to prevent online harassment of radical feminists through regulation of the internet.

COMMUNITYThere is much debate in internet communications theory about virtual communities, and whether their dynamic and elusive nature is prompting the need for a redefinition of community,[25] or whether virtual communities reduce the complexities of human engagement and detach the user from political and social responsibilities of real life (RL).[26] Indeed, some theorists claim that the internet is in fact the epitome of the postmodern community where multiplicity of the self is enhanced and differences proliferate.[27] However, from a radical feminist viewpoint, the virtual radical feminist community must be an extension of local and embodied experiences.[28] Susan Hawthorne, a radical feminist, argues that we become activists through real life experiences of prejudice and abuse, so to become an activist online we must connect with other like minds online, sharing information and resources.[29] Furthermore, the online radical feminist community is essential to feminist survival. Penny Weiss argues that female support networks are essential in maintaining feminist commitment in a hostile environment, thereby enabling continuing activism.[30] In this way, the virtual radical feminist community is a space where women can discuss their experiences of abuse and discrimination in the RL patriarchal environment, communicating across cultures and bypassing the main routes of male-dominated media. The virtual radical feminist community is engaged, embodied, and critically aware.

IDENTITY It is worth exploring arguments of identity briefly, as they are important in debating how we will regulate the virtual radical feminist community to reduce (and eventually eliminate) online harassment. Cyberspace has reshaped some aspects of identity, and a lot of attention has been given to ‘gender play’ in academic circles.[31] One example of this is a quote from Ann K Renninger and Wesley Shumar:
[The use of images] renders the Internet a rather dream-like existence where identities can be re-imagined at will and can be condensed or diffused by images of other identities, where one can become oneself or more than one really is.[32]
This break with reality has allowed the physical nature of sex to be overwhelmed with the theoretical ‘deconstruction’ of gender, so the actual oppression of real women is minimalised.[33] It does not matter whether a woman identified as masculine for a day (or longer), she would not earn the same amount as men, and she would continue to be the victim of sex-based discrimination in RL. We can see the dangerous result of ignoring how sex differences are reproduced online in the work of Michele Wilson, who claims that although harassment of female ‘characters’ are a common experience on the Internet, “the version of gender as constructed or directed in virtual communities is not equivalent to experiencing embodied gender.”[34] This ignores the fact that few people pretend to be the opposite sex online,[35] and that the effects of the harassment are real in the lives of the victims, and almost indistinguishable from RL identifiable threats.[36] The participants in virtual radical feminist communities are embodied as they discuss what it means to be born into a sex that is discriminated against both in RL and online.

ANONYMITY If we accept that our identity is embodied online, especially in virtual radical feminist communities where our politics specifically originates from such an embodied identity, where does that leave the question of how much anonymity should be afforded online? Indeed, anonymity and the internet are often seen as inseparable concepts, encouraging and reinforcing each other.[37] A conference assessing anonymous communication on the Internet held a general consensus that positive values of anonymous communication (such as investigative journalism, law enforcement, self-help, and personal privacy protection) offset the harms of it (including hate mail, impersonation, online financial fraud, and the global marketing of prostitution and pornography).[38] The conference concluded that anonymous communication should be permitted to the extent that the technology allows, and the burden of proof should lie with those who want to limit anonymity.[39] Before accepting such conclusions we must consider that the majority of the conference members were most likely male (as the field is dominated by male experts), and therefore not as likely to appreciate the harms of anonymous communication online that are predominantly inflicted upon women. For example, the victims of hate mail I have discussed in this essay, as well as the vast majority of children and adults exploited by the pornography and prostitution industries are female. Further research is needed from feminists into the harms and benefits of anonymous communication for women. Witchy Woo stated that anonymity is important to her in order to protect her from the misogynists finding out her RL identity.[40] It seems that the reality of misogynist hatred means that in the short term at least we must keep our personal details private online. Other measures must be investigated that would allow officials to track online records in order to make abusers accountable for their actions.

OPEN/CLOSED There is a frenzied debate in Internet theory about the extent to which online communities should remain open, or closed to others. Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter advocate large organized networks, comprising of between 50 to 500 participants, in which “disengagement is pushed to the limit.”[41] They are intensely critical of blogs, because
…it is not open, it cannot change, because it closes itself to the potential for change and intervention. With the blog, you can comment but you cannot post. Your comments may even be taken down.[42]
The authors state that “blogs can thus be understood as incestuous networks of auto-reproduction.” [43] Another prominent media scholar argues that closed communities may serve as breeding grounds for extremism, because of the evasion of the obligations to deal with difference, diversity, power relations and inequality in the real world.[44] However, others recognize that an open organization can not be realized without a prior radicalization of the sociopolitical field in which it operates.[45] Bruckman, Flew and Klein report instances where because of the lack of regulation of feminist communities, women have gone elsewhere to participate in spaces free from either men or misogynist harassment.[46] While debate and difference is essential to a flourishing feminist community,[47] in a society where feminism is so intensely hated, misogynist harassment and violence online is harmful in creating fear and preventing speech. Therefore, some regulation is essential to ensure that hostile aggressors be prevented from participating (or even lurking) in virtual radical feminist communities.

PRESENT METHODS OF REGULATION Online radical feminists are presently employing different tactics to avoid online harassment. Biting Beaver and Laurelin in the Rain (another radical feminist blogger) have a ‘rules’ page, where they list the rules commenters must follow in order to get their comments published. Laurelin in the Rain states “be sweet or I’ll delete,”[48] while Biting Beaver states that “if you’re rude, nasty, or hurl insults your comment WILL be deleted.”[49] Needless to say, these did not prevent the online harassment of her or her children. Amy from the Feminist Reprise, a radical feminist blog, does not have comments, and thus receives very little hate mail.[50] She also has all of her email screened by another person to avoid exposure to online harassment.[51] There is also a blog called Trollbuster, run by a radical feminist, who “names and shames” the trolls harassing “other anti-pornstitution radical feminists”[52] Radical feminist bloggers can regularly access Trollbuster, and preemptively block troublesome trolls. Witchy Woo describes the various
…private radfem [radical feminist] communities where membership has to be applied for. They’re mostly message board format and trolls and spammers are largely kept out. The difficulty here is that radfems can only become members if/when they find out about the groups and the groups, being private, tend not to publicise themselves because that attracts trolls so the larger radfem community becomes splintered off into ‘cells’.[53]
One exception is Genderberg, an anti-prostitution activists group. Anyone who wants to register as a member must go through a vetting procedure before they are accepted into the private area of the board.[54] Even this, as Witchy Woo states, is not foolproof.[55] Finally, much online harassment originates from other bloggers, often women who claim to be feminists,[56] demonstrating the point that women-only space is not always safe space (although safer than mixed space as most extreme harassment originates from male misogynists).[57] Present methods seem to have limited success, apart from the private invitation-only forums.

CONCLUSION
Online harassment of radical feminist bloggers is a concern, as it is resulting in the closing down of some blogs and causing women to fear for their lives and their children. The online radical feminist community is essential to provide support for radical feminists, and will become more so as more women seek out others online who are angry at the discrimination and inequality they suffer. I have argued that total anonymity does not prevent online harassment, and may be simply benefiting the harassers. Therefore new systems of regulation must be developed that will hold users accountable for their actions while protecting their privacy from being invaded by violent perpetrators. Renate Klein argues that
In order to survive with our real bodies in cyberspace we must develop feminist CyberEthics which take as their starting point that embodied bodily integrity has to be upheld in cyberlife, precisely because cyberlife is no less ‘real’ than the world the computer worker inhabits since they are the same. In practical terms, this would mean an end to assuming stolen identities, from pretending to have a different gender, a (dis)abled body, different age or race [emphasis in original].[58]
More feminist research is needed to investigate whether technology exists to apply such feminist CyberEthics online, in order to regulate the internet, or only those groups which agree to such regulations. Remaining free from misogynist harassment is essential in creating an effective, safe online community for women that furthers feminist aims.

NOTES
[1] Biting Beaver, ‘A Bit of an Explanation,’ http://bitingbeaver.blogspot.com/, (Accessed 7 May 2007), 5 May 2007.
[2] Susan Hawthorne & Renate Klein, ‘Introduction: Cyberfeminism’, in S. Hawthorne and R. Klein (eds.), Cyberfeminism: Connectivity, Critique and Creativity, Melbourne, Spinifex, 1999, p.8.
[3] Scarlet Pollock & Jo Sutton, ‘Women Click: Feminism and the Internet’, in S. Hawthorne and R. Klein (eds.), Cyberfeminism: Connectivity, Critique and Creativity, Melbourne, Spinifex, 1999, p.42.
[4] Faith, ‘Mad Sheila Musings,’ Comment one, http://sparklematrix.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/mad-sheila-musings/, (Accessed 12 March 2007), 5 March 2007.
[5] CoolAunt, ‘Mad Sheila Musings,’ Comment Eleven, http://sparklematrix.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/mad-sheila-musings/, (Accessed 12 March 2007), 8 March 2007.
[6] Witchy Woo, witchywoo22@yahoo.co.uk, ‘Radical feminists…and community,’ private e-mail message to Bonnie Bickel, 12 May 2000.
[7] Biting Beaver, ‘A Bit of an Explanation,’ http://bitingbeaver.blogspot.com/, (Accessed 7 May 2007), 5 May 2007.
[8] Biting Beaver, ‘A Bit of an Explanation,’ http://bitingbeaver.blogspot.com/, (Accessed 7 May 2007), 5 May 2007.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Wikipedia, ‘Kathy Sierra,’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathy_Sierra, (Accessed 30 April 2007), 21 April 2007.
[13] Kathy Sierra, ‘What Happened,’ http://headrush.typepad.com/whathappened.html, (Accessed 30 April 2007), 16 March 2007.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] BBC News, ‘Call for Blogging Code of Conduct,’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/6502643.stm, (Accessed 30 April 2007), 28 March 2007.
[18] Patricia Wise, ‘Always Already Virtual: Feminist Politics in Cyberspace’, in D. Holmes (ed.), Virtual Politics: Identity and Community in Cyberspace, London, Sage Publications, 1997, p.190.
[19] Sadie Plant 1996 in Susan Hawthorne & Renate Klein, ‘Introduction: Cyberfeminism’, in S. Hawthorne and R. Klein (eds.), Cyberfeminism: Connectivity, Critique and Creativity, Melbourne, Spinifex, 1999, p.3.
[20] Susan Hawthorne & Renate Klein, ‘Introduction: Cyberfeminism’, p.3.
[21] Ibid., p.4.
[22] Diane Bell & Renate Klein, ‘Beware: Radical Feminists Speak, Read, Write, Organise, Enjoy Life, and Never Forget’, in D. Bell and R. Klein (eds.), Radically Speaking, Melbourne, Spinifex, 1996, p.xx.
[23] Patricia Wise, ‘Always Already Virtual: Feminist Politics in Cyberspace’, p.194.
[24] Nancy Paterson in Susan Hawthorne & Renate Klein, ‘Introduction: Cyberfeminism’, p.4.
[25] Ann K Renninger & Wesley Shumar, ‘Introduction: On Conceptualizing Community’, in K. A. Renninger and W. Shumar, Building Virtual Communities: Learning and Change in Cyberspace, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p.1.
[26] Michele Wilson, ‘Community in the Abstract: A Political and Ethical Dilemma?’, in D. Holmes (ed.), Virtual Politics: Identity and Community in Cyberspace, London, Sage Publications, 1997, p.159.
[27] Ibid. p.148; see for a good example David Holmes, ‘Introduction’, in D. Holmes (ed.), Virtual Politics: Identity and Community in Cyberspace, London, Sage Publications, 1997, p.1.
[28] Susan Hawthorne, ‘Connectivity: Cultural Practice of the Powerful or Subversion from the Margins’, in S. Hawthorne and R. Klein (eds.), Cyberfeminism: Connectivity, Critique and Creativity, Melbourne, Spinifex, 1999, p.125.
[29] Susan Hawthorne, ‘Connectivity: Cultural Practice of the Powerful or Subversion from the Margins’, p.125; & Susan Hawthorne & Renate Klein, ‘Introduction: Cyberfeminism’, p.14.
[30] Penny A Weiss, ‘Introduction: Feminist Reflections on Community’, in P. A. Weiss and M. Friedman, Feminism and Community, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1995, p.12.
[31] David Bell, et.al., Cyberculture: The Key Concepts, New York, Routledge, 2004, p.110.
[32] Ann K Renninger & Wesley Shumar, ‘Introduction: On Conceptualizing Community’, p.13.
[33] Susan Hawthorne, ‘Cyborgs, Virtual Bodies and Organic Bodies: Theoretical Feminist Responses’, in S. Hawthorne and R. Klein (eds.), Cyberfeminism: Connectivity, Critique and Creativity, Melbourne, Spinifex, 1999, p.236.
[34] Michele Wilson, ‘Community in the Abstract: A Political and Ethical Dilemma?’, p.149.
[35] David Bell, ‘Identities in Cyberculture’, in An Introduction to Cybercultures, London & New York, Routledge, 2001, p.125.
[36] Kathy Sierra, ‘What Happened,’ http://headrush.typepad.com/whathappened.html, (Accessed 30 April 2007), 16 March 2007.
[37] Kling, et.al., ‘Anonymous Communication Policies for the Internet: Results and Recommendations of the AAAS Conference’, in R. M. Baird, R. Ramsower, S. E. Rosenbaum, Cyberethics: Social and Moral Issues in the Computer Age, New York, Prometheus Books, 2000, p.97.
[38] Ibid. p.99.
[39] Kling, et.al., ‘Assessing Anonymous Communication on the Internet: Policy Deliberations’, in R. M. Baird, R. Ramsower, S. E. Rosenbaum, Cyberethics: Social and Moral Issues in the Computer Age, New York, Prometheus Books, 2000, p.124.
[40] Witchy Woo, witchywoo22@yahoo.co.uk, ‘Radical feminists…and community’, private email message to Bonnie Bickel, 12 May 2000.
[41] Geert Lovink & Ned Rossiter, ‘Dawn of the Organised Networks’, Fibreculture, Issue 5, Sep 2005, p.2 & 6.
[42] Ibid. p.8.
[43] Ibid. p.7.
[44] Terry Flew, ‘Virtual Cultures’, in New Media: An Introduction, Oxford & New York, Oxford University Press, 2002, p.93.
[45] See for example, Jamie King, ‘Openness and its Discontents’, in J. Dean, J. W. Anderson, and G. Lovink (eds.), Reformatting Politics: Information Technology and Global Civil Society, New York & London, Routledge, 2006, p.53.
[46] See Bruckman 1996 in Terry Flew, New Media: An Introduction, 2nd Ed., Oxford & New York, Oxford University Press, 2005, p.70; Terry Flew, New Media: An Introduction, 2002, p.93; & Susan Hawthorne, ‘Cyborgs, Virtual Bodies and Organic Bodies: Theoretical Feminist Responses’, p.236.
[47] Scarlet Pollock & Jo Sutton, ‘Women Click: Feminism and the Internet’, p.39.
[48] Laurelin in the Rain, ‘These are the Rules – Trolls Beware!,’ http://laurelin.wordpress.com/these-are-the-rules-trolls-beware/, (Accessed 7 May 2007), 2 May 2006.
[49] Biting Beaver, ‘Da Rules,’ http://bitingbeaver.blogspot.com/2005/10/da-rules.html, (Accessed 7 May 2007), 27 October 2005.
[50] Amy, webspinster@feminist-reprise.org, ‘Radical feminists…and community’, private email message to Bonnie Bickel, 8 May 2007.
[51] Ibid.
[52] Trollbuster, ‘About Trollbuster,’ http://trollbuster.wordpress.com/about/, (Accessed 21 May 2007), 8 January 2007.
[53] Witchy Woo, witchywoo22@yahoo.co.uk, ‘Radical feminists…and community’, private email message to Bonnie Bickel, 12 May 2000.
[54] See Genderberg, ‘Registration Agreement Terms,’ <http://www.genderberg.com/phpBB/profile.php?mode=register&sid=4c45f303e9216205f456d2aaadd77893>, (Accessed 21 May 2007).
[55] Witchy Woo, witchywoo22@yahoo.co.uk, ‘Radical feminists…and community’, private email message to Bonnie Bickel, 12 May 2000.
[56] For a long argument in part resolving such disputes see Witchy Woo, ‘An Object Lesson…’, http://witchywoo.wordpress.com/2007/04/21/an-object-lesson/, (Accessed 21 May 2007), 21 April 2007.
[57] Dana Shugar, Separatism and Women’s Community, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press, 1995, p.15.
[58] Renate Klein, ‘The Politics of Cyberfeminism’, p.209.

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2 comments:

Mary Sunshine said...

Wow! Thanks for this.

:-)

And thanks to Amy at Feminist Reprise for giving us the link to you.

CareBear said...

I've linked to you too. Have you been to Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty? It's starting to happen to her as well.