Monica Lewinsky returned to the public spotlight this week with an impassioned TED Talk, describing herself as one of the earliest victims of cyberbullying following her affair with President Clinton. On Thursday, Ms. Lewinsky called on Internet users to be compassionate and consider a person’s humanity before attacking him or her online.
“Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop,” she said.
As Internet use became commonplace over the past two decades, cyberbullying also became a regular occurrence. And while men can be the victims of cyberattacks, misogynistic and sexualized bullying against women has received widespread attention for being especially vitriolic. According to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, women ages 18 to 24 experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels, with 26 percent of them having been stalked online.
“An aspect which is particular to our historical moment is that anonymity, coupled with high-speed broadband connections, has enabled the Internet to become a cauldron of hate and vitriol, led by men against women,” feminist writer Lola Okolosie told the Guardian in response to Lewinsky’s talk.
Others are also calling attention to the issue.
“I realize that writing for a national newspaper is bound to incite criticism," wrote journalist Sarah Rainey. "But there is something particularly upsetting about receiving comments focused entirely on the fact that I am a woman. And as the years go by, they’re getting worse.”
But while many have put a spotlight on misogynistic online bullying, the solution has been elusive. The efforts of tech companies to police abuse and trolling on their sites have often proved inadequate, and ignoring the issue does little to make it go away or to counter the pain sustained by victims, experts say.
“While the abuse of women on the internet has been a hot topic in the last couple of years, very little has actually changed on sites in terms of reporting abuse or blocking users.... User-generated solutions like Block Together and The Block Bot, which are managed by users rather than a single moderator, have come under fire for trying to fill the gaps left by the lax policies held (or not) by social media sites,” wrote Dr. Brooke Magnanti for the Telegraph.
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has acknowledged that his company has a less-than-perfect record of controlling online abuse. "We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years," Costolo wrote in a February memo, CNN reported.
However, the attention that certain celebrities have called to the issue may be motivating the company to do something about it.
This week, actress Ashley Judd announced she would press 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," said Ms. Judd, according to CNN.
And last month, baseball pitcher Curt Schilling personally tracked down the Twitter trolls who made suggestive comments about his daughter, which resulted in one of the Twitter users being fired from his job.
“These boys have yet to understand one of life’s most important lessons,” he wrote on his blog. “In the real world you get held accountable for the things you say.”
This month, Twitter has updated its terms of service to directly combat any sexually explicit material that may have been posted without the consent of one or more participants. And on Wednesday, the company debuted a feature it says will allow users to report abusive tweets to law enforcement more easily. Now, every time a user reports an abusive tweet, the site will e-mail the user a report that can be shared with law enforcement.
Meanwhile, some of the women speaking out say they hope their efforts will make cyberbullies rethink their ways.
“I’ve had to deal with some really horrible bullying and cyberbullying. But I’ve tried to fight the good fight and to do something about it on a bigger scale, especially because I kept meeting others who were struggling, too,” wrote Sarah Ball, a teenager who created a project for the Cyberbullying Research Center called Unbreakable, to support those speaking out against cyberbullying.
For her part, Lewinsky has called on Internet users to #ClickwithCompassion.
“I hope that today, we have taken a step further in the fight against cyberbullying and harassment and that people know that you can insist on a different ending.”