If you are familiar with the internet, you have no doubt become familiar with the phenomenon of cyber harassment, abuse and online stalking. While digital technology has become a powerful tool of innovation and progression, underneath the good stuff lies a murky underworld of mostly anonymous hate and verbal abuse, that sometimes takes extremely dark and twisted turns by affecting people’s real lives.
Some of you may have even experienced online harassment or become victims of constant abuse. It’s almost inevitable that if you have any form of digital footprint, you will come across this kind of ugliness. Whether it is the infamous leaked nude images of female celebrities, various revenge porn incidents going viral, or the well-known gamergate movement targeting women gamers and game developers. Online harassment is no joke, as we have seen with the problem of doxxing. This is where hackers and bullies release personal and private information about a target to the public with the intent to cause physical, mental and emotional harm.
The most difficult and frustrating aspect of this digital phenomenon the the lack of progress in equal measure from law enforcement and the justice system in terms of understanding the detailed mechanics of these crimes and punishing it accordingly.
One woman who does understand this problem is filmmaker Cynthia Lowen, who is the award-winning co-creator, producer and writer behind the 2011 documentary ‘Bully’. This film went on to win multiple awards for the way it exposed the current state of bullying in schools across America, while also touching on the digital aspects of the epidemic most students today would be familiar with.
Cynthia is now working on a new project called ‘Netizens’, which delves into the sordid world of online harassment and digital abuse. As the director of this film, which is currently raising money via Kickstarter (RUN, don’t walk to support this important project!) Cynthia profiles the lives and experiences of various women who have been targeted and viciously attacked online in such a way that it has deeply affected their lives.
We had an opportunity to speak with Cynthia about the project and we did not want to miss the chance to help promote this timely film. It is is described as the next frontier in civil rights activism, and for good reason. Read the full interview below where she explains just how insidious online harassment is, and what part we can play in defeating it.
What prompted you to make a film about cyber harassment and revenge porn?
In the fall of 2014, there were several high-profile stories about women who were forced from their homes, or had to cancel public events, due to threats of violence online. These stories struck me deeply: if women couldn’t do their jobs, or express themselves without fearing for their lives, what did that mean for our society and culture?
Like bullying, online harassment has long been so ubiquitous, it’s perceived as a “normal” part life on the internet. Another similarity between online harassment and bullying, are the ways in which the onus is put on targets to change their lives to accommodate abusers. Women are told to stop writing that blog, or publishing their research, or sharing intimate photos, and walk away from their computers.
I thought that if I could show what online harassment really looks like, and how it profoundly impacted women’s educations, their jobs, their ability to feel free to express themselves on the internet, and their personal safety, perhaps I could change the perception that it’s normal or acceptable, and push for comprehensive responses.
You have tackled the issue of bullying previously in ‘Bully’. Can you explain how cyber-bullying is a whole different ball-game to what we see in the school yard?
Technology amplifies and multiplies harassment; nude images go viral, threats of violence snowball with cyber-mobs, websites designed to destroy your reputation become the top Google hit of your name. For targets it’s a total loss of control: it’s impossible to know who has seen your most intimate moments, or where death threats are originating from, or who is reading false information about you. The inability to pinpoint the origin of threats, or to stop material from spreading makes digital abuse hard to contain and creates enormous stress and trauma for victims.
It is shocking to hear so many awful stories from victims, yet such a huge lack of policy around this. Why is the legislature so slow to catch up on this trend?
There’s a long history of our justice system underplaying crimes that disproportionately impact women. Laws exist that regulate stalking, extortion, impersonation and threats, but all too often, law enforcement officers don’t enforce these laws when it comes to the internet.
They may not know how existing laws apply when technology is used to perpetrate these crimes, they often lack digital literacy and familiarity with the workings platforms where harassment happens, and often they are not equipped with the tools to effectively investigate. It can be really hard for officers to get judges to issue subpoenas for IP addresses; it can be really challenging for targets to find lawyers to take their cases…
This is a systemic problem, and we need a systemic approach to solving it: the justice system hasn’t kept up with the digital age and we need to update laws and resources for officers, judges, prosecutors, lawyers and advocates to deal with the reality that the internet has become a very real dimension of our communities, and that most crimes today have a digital connection.
Laws are one thing, but how do we hold privately-owned businesses like certain social media sites accountable for taking action?
Twitter, reddit, Facebook, Google and others have spoken out against harassment on their platforms, but the fact remains that the way these sites are designed makes it much easier to harass than to prevent or stop ongoing harassment. Many of these platforms were programmed without taking into account they ways people would abuse these tools, and so the remedies are more of an afterthought, than deeply ingrained into the technologies.
The tail is wagging the dog: WE are the raw materials these platforms rely on, our data is the currency they traffic in, yet we have very little say in how we are protected. I think we must make much greater demands on site operators to respond to abuse effectively and quickly, to create tools that inherently discourage harassment, and to respect our requests for information that has no purpose other than to harass, defame and abuse us, to be removed from their platforms.
The recent election proved in a very overt way just how accepted and normalized bullying has become in a number of areas, sadly. How do we encourage each other to take a stand, in light of electing a bully as the leader of the free world?
The fact that one of the most controversial ads of this campaign season called Donald Trump a bully, signaled to me that we’ve entered an era where bullying is no longer normalized, but is considered a major flaw. This doesn’t mean bullying is no longer happening in our schools and communities, but it’s now recognized as something other than a “normal” right of passage, or just “boys being boys.”
One of the most important things I learned in making BULLY is that the leadership sets the tone; now more than ever, we need leadership that models integrity, compassion, inclusion and justice. Even if it does not come from the top—especially if it doesn’t—we must take the opportunities in our everyday lives to lead and demonstrate these values, and elevate our communities.
This issue disproportionately affects women and minorities both online and off. How can we dismantle the harmful victim-blaming narratives that always seem to be present?
Targets of online harassment are often blamed for bringing the harassment upon themselves: for having written or expressed something online, for occupying spaces they’re not “supposed” to be in, or for having shared intimate information with the expectation of privacy.
These narratives reinforce the attitude that women, and particularly women of color, do not belong on the internet. Yet the internet is perhaps the most important public space in our communities, and is integral to expression, education, employment and opportunity. The prejudice that women and people of color experience online, and which profoundly impacts their offline lives, is intrinsically bound to the deep-seeded prejudices that exist throughout our communities.
The fact that targets are blamed for whatever happens to them online evades the painful truth that what happens online is happening in our schools, on the streets of our communities, and reflect the power structures that minimize acts of violence that maintain the status quo. The internet is an incredible window into people’s attitudes and prejudices: what online harassment has exposed is just how much work remains to be done for justice, equality and civil rights.
Who are some of the women featured in ‘Netizens’ that we should know about?
–CARRIE GOLDBERG is an attorney who launches an internet privacy firm in the wake of her own cyber harassment
–ANITA SARKEESIAN is the creator of a popular web-series, “Feminist Frequency”, critiquing representations of women in video games, who is the target of an ongoing campaign of rape and death threats.
-After having intimate images shared to over 3,000 websites, ANISHA VORA became a victims outreach coordinator with the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.
–MARY ANNE FRANKS is a law professor at the University of Miami and is the Tech and Legislative Policy Director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, helping to craft state and federal anti-harassment legislation.
–DANIELLE KEATS CITRON is a chief legal scholar on cyber civil rights and author of the groundbreaking book, Hate Crimes in Cyber Space, exploring how the law can be used to prevent and redress harassment.
–SORAYA CHEMALY is the founder of the Safety and Free Speech Coalition, advocating for women’s freedom of expression online and working with tech companies and policymakers.
–EMILY MAY AND DEBJANI ROY – Emily is the co-founder and Debjani is the deputy director of Hollaback!, a movement to end street harassment. Hollaback recently launched HeartMob, a platform where targets of online harassment can document harassment and get support from the community.
–FLORIDA STATE ATTORNEY KATHY RUNDLE was behind the state’s recent passage of legislation criminalizing non-consensual pornography, making Florida one of 34 states with such statutes.
–CONGRESSWOMAN JACKIE SPEIER is the sponsor of the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, a federal bill introduced in July 2016 targeting perpetrators of non-consensual pornography.
AND MANY OTHERS!
What are some of the companies now taking a stand against cyber-bullying?
Why it was important to you to have an all-female crew for this documentary?
The women participating in this film are putting their trust in me to tell their stories with integrity and respect; I take this responsibility very seriously. Many women in NETIZENS have had their intimate photos and images used to harm and exploit them, or have had their identities disfigured by what has been posted about them on the internet. It was critical for me that each participant in this project to feel safe in sharing private information, and that the process of making this film would not replicate the exploitation or sensationalizing they’d already endured.
(Several women shared with me that other news outlets had asked to see their nude pictures!) So creating an environment where the entire production team consisted of women made sense. In addition, gender discrimination continues to be an enormous obstacle for women in the film industry, and so it was also important for me to collaborate with women cinematographers and others, and champion their work.
What do you hope ‘Netizens’ will accomplish once it is released?
Building on my experience co-creating The BULLY Project Social Action Campaign, I intend to develop a robust engagement campaign for NETIZENS, using the stories from the film to catalyze meaningful impact and change. I have three distinct goals for this movement: to shift online social norms; to champion policies that prevent digital abuse; and to connect targets, advocates, site operators and those in criminal justice with tools and resources to effectively respond to cyber harassment.
This is a joint effort to be accomplished through partnership with advocates, policymakers, organizations, tech industry leaders and a diverse range of citizens working to make the web a just, accessible and equitable space for all. Initiatives include:
- Creation of an online community hub with tools, resources and support for targets, advocates, law enforcement, educators and citizens
- Cyber harassment response training in all 50 states for law enforcement, criminal justice officials, advocates, tech professionals and educators
- Policy and tech summits with industry leaders and key stakeholders focused on cyber harassment prevention and response implementation
- Development of impact modules derived from the film’s stories for use by partners, advocates, educators and citizens to educate and engage the public
- Wide-spread community screenings with diverse audiences and key stakeholders resulting in concrete action-items and takeaways
What are some simple action steps we can take to do our part against online harassment?
Although online harassment transcends borders, faiths, cultures, ethnicities and economic class, it still comes down to the choices we each make when we get online. We can choose to act constructively and with respect, or we can be abusive. It’s my hope that this film will be part of a movement changing our attitudes about what online discourse can look like.
As with bullying, digital abuse is ripe for bystander interventions: if you see abuse, report it, call it out, support the target, and do not perpetuate it by sharing materials intended to harm or humiliate, or contributing to threatening or violent behaviors. I think this is an incredible turning point for the internet, and we are witnessing the web being transformed by a wave of courageous individuals who are confronting digital abuse.
You can help the fight against digital abuse and online harassment by supporting the ‘Netizens’ Kickstarter campaign.