In Numbers Too Big to Ignore

I am woman, hear me roar,” sang Helen Reddy over thirty years ago. Based on two recent developments involving high-profile women, that roaring comes at a price: the risk of public shaming via social media.

Monica Lewinsky and Ashley Judd
Photo of Monica Lewinsky by James Duncan Davidson of TED/Reuters from the TED website. Photo of Ashley Judd by Dave Martin of AP from an article on USA Today.

In a TED talk delivered on Thursday, Monica Lewinsky described herself as one of the earliest victims of cyberbullying. She also called for more compassion from Internet users, joining the large number of those already looking for solutions to online harassment. Four days earlier, actress Ashley Judd received an “avalanche” of sexually abusive tweets for remarks she made on Twitter during a University of Kentucky basketball game.

Monica Lewinsky is a curious name in American history, given the events that made her famous and her resulting legacy as a media figure. Her reemergence as a compassionate spokesperson is unfairly overlooked, however, particularly her efforts to raise awareness of issues relating to digital abuse. “Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop,” she told the TED audience on Thursday, asking that Internet users exercise judgment where the efforts of tech companies to police abuse have proven inadequate.

The case of Ms. Judd is interesting, because she is a respected actress and humanitarian who also happens to be a die-hard University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball fan. While watching her team play on Sunday, she posted a since-deleted tweet suggesting that the Wildcats were being subjected to “dirty play.” The responses she received were violently sexual, often resorting to vulgar name calling and threats. And yesterday, she was ridiculed for bringing a working dog to the game.

Later in the week, Ms. Judd announced on CNN that she would press formal charges against the Internet trolls harassing her on Twitter. “Everyone needs to take personal responsibility for what they write and not allowing this misinterpretation and shaming culture on social media to persist,” she said. In a subsequent article on Identities.Mic, Ms. Judd (herself a survivor of sexual assault and incest) detailed the level of verbal abuse to which she was subjected:

I read in vivid language the various ways, humiliating and violent, in which my genitals, vaginal and anal, should be violated, shamed, exploited and dominated. Either the writer was going to do these things to me, or they were what I deserved. My intellect was insulted: I was called stupid, an idiot. My age, appearance and body were attacked. Even my family was thrown into the mix: Someone wrote that my “grandmother is creepy.”

In a bullying culture that reserves its most vitriolic ammunition for the female gender, misogynistic cyberattacks are rising with alarming velocity. According to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, women between the ages of 18 and 24 experience severe types of online harassment (with a quarter of cases being of a sexual nature), and 26% have been stalked.

Chart demonstrating the disproportionate number of sexually charged online harassment cases against women. The key figure represented here is the 26% of women who claim to have been stalked, versus 7% of men and 8% overall.
Young women are particularly vulnerable to severe forms of online harassment, with 26% having been stalked and 25% sexually harassed. From a Pew Research Center study on online harassment.

While it’s easy to attribute female-directed cyberbullying as another in a long line of masochistic atrocities, there is something deeper and perhaps more sinister in digital harassment. We are living in a time where online interaction is learned at an early age, often before interpersonal skills can be cultivated as a form of common etiquette. As a result, abhorrent behavior can be explored anonymously, free of the consequences we risk when behaving badly during face-to-face contact. Unfortunately, Silicon Valley has done little to improve online decorum on user-generated content sites; even Twitter CEO Dick Costolo acknowledged this week that “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform.”

Possibly the most disconcerting aspect of the Judd case is the demarcation it exposes between male and female sports fans. Consider this hypothetical: if a man had tweeted the exact same remark at the exact same time, would it have been subjected to the same level of vitriol? Or would have been viewed as exactly what Ms. Judd intended: an innocuous comment by a passionate, loyal sports fan in support of his favorite team.

Update 03/22/15: there is a fascinating story in today’s Sunday New York Times on Monica Lewinsky’s reinvention, touching briefly on the digital harassment she received and her historical importance in exposing “humiliation as a commodity.” Recommended.

Understanding Digital Dualism

“If you create the Internet as false, then you create the not-internet, which gets to be real.” So says sociologist and writer Nathan Jurgenson in a piece written last week by Kyle Chayka for Pacific Standard. Mr. Jurgenson introduced the term “digital dualism” in 2011 to describe the gaps that exist between how we depict ourselves online, and how we present ourselves when all the screens are turned off.

For the most part, we’ve become so accustomed to the online space that the personas we present retain at least some fragment of our real selves. Furthermore, it’s likely that we have contacts with whom we’ve never actually met face-to-face. With 71 percent of online adults having used Facebook in the past ten years, it’s not impossible to have a reasonably high number of “friends” whom we wouldn’t recognize on the street. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, just an interesting anthropological detail.

Where things get tricky is when the persona we put forth online is markedly different than our real life selves. A friend of mine is an avid gamer. As a random experiment, he switched the gender of his character to see what sort of reaction would take place. The female avatar’s level of play was not well received by other players (especially when he/she was winning), even though my friend’s game tactics were exactly the same as when he represented himself as a male character.

male and female avatars of an online game

Those who believe the online gaming world to be saturated with masochistic tendencies will not be surprised by the above account. That being said, there is a bigger issue at play. Digital dualism exists as a belief due to one’s personal assumption that online and offline worlds are separate, and thus distinct, realities. However, technology is now so engrained into our daily lives that the overlap between the virtual and physical worlds are indistinguishable, almost to the point where one is expected to reflect onto the other.

I believe this is why my friend was on the receiving end of so much anger, even beyond the rote “boys will be boys” stereotype that permeates online gaming. Maybe it was less about anger than betrayal; what they saw was not what they got, and this digital duality had a significant impact on their appreciation of my friend’s performance during the game encounter.

Single Tweet, Lifetime Consequence

Twitter bird tarred and feathered
Photo illustration by Andrew B. Myers for the New York Times Magazine. The prop stylist was Sonia Rentsch.

The Justine Sacco case is an example where one stupid decision can lead to a long-term, disastrous outcome. This story by Jon Romson in the New York Times Magazine last month details the entire sordid encounter. In short: Ms. Sacco tweeted an unfunny and inappropriate joke while boarding a plane to Cape Town, South Africa. Thirteen hours later, the tweet had gone viral with the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet and the public relations professional was out of a job.

There are two items of interest here. The first concerns the relative anonymity which Ms. Sacco believed would shelter her from consequence. As someone working in public relations, she really should have known better. The second, though, is possibly more disturbing: our suspicion that lurking in the digital shadows are paid professionals whose sole job it is to expose and slander the people who instigate these events, no matter how benign their intentions.

Just as the shroud of anonymity provides a false sense of protection, so too does the Internet’s transient quality as an evaporative medium. We are creatures with short attentions spans; we spend 12 to 24 hours enthralled by the spectacle before moving on to something else. Social media journalists who break stories about the Justine Saccos of the world understand this. As Sam Biddle, editor of Valleywag (the Gawker Media outlet who first reported the tweet) put it in an email to Mr. Romson:

“The fact that she was a P.R. chief made it delicious. It’s satisfying to be able to say, ‘O.K., let’s make a racist tweet by a senior IAC employee count this time.’ And it did. I’d do it again … I never wake up and hope I [get someone fired] that day — and certainly never hope to ruin anyone’s life. [However,] everyone’s attention span is so short. They’ll be mad about something new today.”

Welcome to the Dark Side

In March of 2013, I submitted what would be the final camera-ready draft of my book Digital Outcasts. The book covered numerous case studies related to disability and technology, employing a tone I intended to be uplifting and instructional. It took me five years of research, two years of pitching to publishers, three months with a consultant to craft the proposal, three different acquisition editors, six months of writing, seven content reviewers, one editorial screening and three months of revisions.

Although a lot of people said (and wrote) very nice things about the book, the last thing on my mind was writing another one. When my publisher inquired about doing a revised edition, I let the question go unanswered. Writing books is hard work for smart people, let alone someone like me. I also had no shortage of doubts whether, given the unlikelihood of lightning striking twice, I could expect the outcome to be of sufficient quality.

Fast-forward two years, and I am now beginning the journey again. Only this time, my mission is to investigate the seedy unpleasantness of online behavior. It should come as no surprise that the anonymity of cyberspace can bring out the worst in people, with no evidence of shame, empathy or decorum for one’s fellow humans. I want to explore these weird modalities to better understand why and how these things happen, and to perhaps make sense of this emerging trend before any damage to our culture is cemented.

I invite you to join me on this path, but I can’t promise it won’t get messy.