In UK, rising chorus of outrage over online misogyny

Recent events in Britain draw more attention to endemic hostility towards women online.

Alastair Grant/AP
In this Wednesday, July 31, 2013 photo-illustration, the home page for Twitter is displayed on an iPad and a laptop computer. From the UK this week comes more news of online abuse of women.

From the UK this week comes more news of online abuse of women who dare to complain about online abuse of women. The hostile locker-room culture that pervades many corners of the Internet discussion forums has been a source of hand wringing for some time.

Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman got the ball rolling this time by daring to write on Tuesday:

There's been a lot of focus of late on the weirdy-weirdos who send rape threats on Twitter, and rightly so. But much of the coverage makes several misguided assumptions. First, that angry misogynists only communicate on Twitter (allow me to introduce you to something called Reddit). Second, that this is a man-versus-woman thing. Some of the angriest messages I've ever received on the Internet have come from women, usually telling me how ugly I am. Lovely to meet you, too! And third, that legislating against rape threats on the Internet is a contravention of freedom of speech. Seeing as legislation against hate speech in the real world has not, as far as I know, contravened anyone's right to freedom of speech, this argument makes no sense, except, maybe, to people who make rape threats and whose grasp of logic is, perhaps, not whipsmart.

Ms. Freeman soon received a bomb threat on Twitter. Also in the UK last week feminist writer Caroline Criado-Perez and Labour Party politician Stella Creasy received rape threats via Twitter. After Ms. Criado-Perez complained to police she'd received dozens of sexual threats over the Internet, a 21-year old man was arrested.

This is hardly the first case of violent, sexualized harassment made in response to criticism of online misogyny. Wikipedia, with its vast reach and lack of editorial controls, also offers up examples of the reptilian id of this side of the Internet. (Full disclosure: I'm a trustee of Wikipedia criticism site Wikipediocracy and a critic of Wikipedia's internal culture.)

When novelist Amanda Filipacchi wrote a New York Times op-ed complaining about the creation of a Wikipedia category called "American Female Novelists" and the exclusion of all women from Wikipedia's "American Novelists" category in April this year, her own Wikipedia article was immediately subjected to a bout of revenge editing.

Last year, feminist writer Anita Sarkeesian had a similar experience. She's a critic of sexism in video games and online culture more generally, and had been in the process of starting a project designed to criticize the way female characters in video games are frequently reduced to helpless sex objects. What she describes as a "coordinated cyber mob" soon descended on her Wikipedia biography, and turned it in to such a hate-filled and vicious attack that I can't think of a way to even summarize it here without being offensive. Her YouTube channel was also filled with a torrent of sexually-charged and violent commentary.

And it didn't end there. Later in 2012, a Wikipedia editor going by "Niemti" (anonymity generally protects people from being held responsible for their actions), who until then had mostly concentrated on Wikipedia's vast number of video game articles, decided to make a project of watering down Ms. Sarkeesian's Wikipedia biography. He (or perhaps she) wrote at the time, arguing that her Wikipedia article should be deleted (emphasis mine): 

"She was basically unknown before the controversy (she was known only in some feminist circles)... the notability (also on Wikipedia), and the money (from donations), all of it was only due to the massive trolling response to her trailer video for a Kickstarter project, which she then media-savy [sic] way used to start a huge moral panic (a smooth move, I’ll admit) instead of just ignoring it."

People are often told to ignore abuse online, particularly so-called Internet libertarians that feel their "freedom" to say whatever they want is supreme, and that suggestions that people be forced to take responsibility for their threats and behavior is beyond the pale. And note the suggestion that there's something sleazy or manipulative about complaining of this kind of treatment, rather than the treatment itself.

Andreas Kolbe at Wikipediocracy has a good rundown of the problems Sarkeesian experienced. These sorts of problems are common at popular sites like Reddit. Or Twitter. Or, well, pretty much anywhere that anonymity and the Internet mix.

And in many Internet communities, a sort of tolerance for violent and abusive language has developed. In more recent Wikipedia news, a Wikimedia Foundation (The foundation owns and operates the website) community liaison named Oliver Keyes – who frequently goes by the nickname "Ironholds" – got into a dust-up with a Wikipedia editor after he joked on one of Wikipedia's semi-official Internet relay chat (IRC) forums that he'd like to douse the editor in oil and light him on fire.

I write "semi-official" because while Wikipedia and Wikimedia say they don't run the service and disavow any responsibility for what goes on there, they nevertheless direct editors to go to IRC for help, conduct Wikimedia Foundation business on IRC, and use private channels restricted to administrators to make secret decisions about what to do with problem editors. Mr. Keyes' IRC comment attracted more attention, and upon some digging he was found to make another joke on IRC to a fellow Wikipedia editor apparently frustrated with a woman in his life. Keyes wrote: "You should however have instead taken your pen, punched a hole in her windpipe and looked on as her attempts to wave for help got increasingly feeble."

This is a community liaison for one of the ten most heavily trafficked websites on the Internet. Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner, Keyes' boss, was also found to have engaged in some sexualized banter with Keyes on IRC. When it was suggested that Kat Walsh, chair of the Wikimedia board of trustees, could answer a question, Gardner wrote "we could ask Kat right now :-)" followed by "(Pinning her up against the wall, as Ironholds likes :-)."

Gardner wrote she didn't see a problem with that exchange, or with much else of the "kibitzing" that goes on at Wikipedia.

This was an informal jokey exchange on IRC among people who know each other well: Ironholds, Kat and I have all known each other for years, and we are friendly. That's the context. A slightly broader point: IMO IRC is a medium that lends itself to, and is often used for, casual kibitzing -- it is essentially a social medium that provides a way for people to collapse physical distance and hang out together as though they were in the same room. In the same way that I don't think it would be useful to, years later, play back sections of a phone call or office water-cooler conversation, I also don't think it's useful to quote back sections of IRC dialogue. It's an ephemeral medium.

This would seem to conflict, however, with Gardner's role as the standard bearer for making Wikipedia a friendlier environment for women. The Wikimedia Foundation's 5-year plan, released in 2011 reported that: "Four out of five editors are male. Half are under the age of 22." Gardner has made attracting and retaining more women editors to Wikipedia a top priority, since the theory of "crowd-sourcing" appears to hold that Wikipedia's articles can only truly be neutral and comprehensive if its contributors are reflective of real world demographics.

The results? No improvement, largely thanks to a culture that is hostile and dismissive of women and weak at policing itself.

There's a cultural problem in many corners of the Internet and until the leaders of powerful websites like Wikipedia start taking the lead, it's unlikely to change.

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