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Why women tackling online hate speech are internet heroes

Courtney Tenz
March 8, 2017

Insults, rape and death threats: Even though the internet was supposed to be the great equalizer, hate speech online has led women to take a more passive role. In Germany, the search for solutions is on.

Image: Antonioguillem/fotolia.de

Hate speech has steadily been increasing online as more of our lives are spent on the internet and especially on social media channels. While awareness of such harassment, which can run the spectrum from name-calling and insults to death threats and doxxing - the act of attempting to incite others to violence by publicizing a person's address and other personal information - has grown, solutions have lagged.

Especially for women, who are disproportionately on the receiving end of targeted harassment.

In an Australian survey of more than 1,000 women released in 2016, nearly half reported experiencing harassment. Of those women surveyed who were under 30, that number increased to 76 percent. In a similar global survey conducted by the organization No Hate Speech Movement, 83 percent of the 6,601 respondents said they'd encountered online hate speech.

Driven to silence by threats

Barbara Steffens, Minister for Emancipation in NRW
Barbara Steffens, Minister for Emancipation in NRWImage: picture alliance/dpa/M. Hitij

"Cyber violence is a real threat to physical and mental well-being," said Barbara Steffens, Minister for Health, Emancipation, Care and Aging for the state of North Rhine Westphalia in her address to a conference in 2016 aimed at combating hostility online. "Women and young girls are especially impacted by it. … We desperately need to have a debate in our society about sexism and hate speech towards women online." 

That debate has grown in urgency over the last year as prominent women writers, actresses and feminists have been driven offline due to threats of violence.

While online harassment is not new for feminist blogger and founder of the website Feministing, Jessica Valenti, who began experiencing it as early as 2006 after she published a photo of herself at a media event with Bill Clinton, it has grown both in its scope and in its veracity.

Valenti has been targeted throughout her career, taking a break from social media channels in July 2016 after receiving rape threats aimed at her then-5-year-old daughter.

That follows on a highly-publicized hate campaign, including rape and death threats directed at comedian and actress Leslie Jones after she appeared in an all-female remake of the blockbuster, "Ghostbusters."

Sexualized hatred 

"It would be inaccurate to say that only women or specific groups of people experience rage online. All genders are confronted with this harassment; it's just that the hatred directed towards women comes across as more sexualized," Austrian journalist Ingrid Brodnig said in an interview with the website "Trending Topics" about her book, "Hatred in the Net."

"For women who are in the public eye, it's less about whether or not something you said was smart. It's quickly: you dumb ****, you slept your way to the top. All the way through to rape threats. Which means women are experiencing a type of personalized hate. And we can often see that tactic used to silence them."

In the case of both Jones and Valenti, a complete silence was only temporary. Effects of the intimidation, however, can be seen in both their and other women's decisions to limit their social media usage by employing privacy controls and limiting what mentions they see from strangers.

While actress Lena Dunham still uses Twitter, she told a radio podcaster in 2015 that she no longer looked at her feed due to the death threats and body shaming comments posted there.

A man's world

Ulrike Schmidt
Ulrike Schmidt founded Lizzynet in 2000 to get more women interested in the internetImage: Alexander Quaet-Faslem

"It's not that men don't want women online," said Ulrike Schmidt, founder of the online community Lizzynet, aimed at getting young women more active in the computer world. "It's that they want women to stick to traditionally women's domains: fashion, celebrity, lifestyle. The hate speech comes when they write about politics or gaming."

That's something the world witnessed with GamerGate already back in 2014, when several women involved in the gaming community received specific death threats that were so realistic, at least one of them had to move. Another independent game developer, Zoe Quinn, took out a restraining order against and tried to prosecute her ex-boyfriend who'd initiated a months-long online harassment action.

"These aren't trolls," Quinn told "Boston Magazine" in a 2015 interview. "It's not online bullying. Bullying is something that gets you a pink slip in high school. These are people stalking, sending death threats, trying to get the cops to raid homes. These are criminals."

Germany's culture reflected online

Such extreme cases as seen in GamerGate have proven rare thus far in Germany, though that may be more emblematic of a cultural issue at play: women not being as present online as men.

"Women in Germany tend to take on a more passive role online. Men, both on- and off-line, are opinion-makers in Germany," Valentina Kerst, founder of the digital strategy company topiclodge, told DW. "They speak louder, are more frequently writing blogs and on Twitter. Especially when it comes to topics like politics, or other topics not necessarily considered to be in the 'female domain.'"

"It's somewhat disappointing to see that although women are online at the same ratio as men, they are more removed from the discussions. Which means that those three or four women who do dare to speak out bear the brunt of the hostility."

Fighting back against hate

Dunja Hayali profile
Women and minorities bear the brunt of harassment; as a TV moderator with a Turkish name, Dunja Hayali is frequently targetedImage: picture alliance/ZB/K. Schindler

Over the last year, those hostilities have included targeted hate campaigns against several prominent women activists, including television moderator Dunja Hayali and outspoken feminist Anne Wizorek.

After yet another instance of such harassment being brought to the public's attention, a closed Facebook group, #ichbinhier was formed. Based on a highly successful model started in Sweden, the group comprises individuals who are committed to supporting those who are under attack online.

Within the group, a call is sent out for support for someone experiencing a lot of hate speech on either their Twitter or Facebook account. Members of the group are requested to hit back against that person's abusers in a rational, fact-based manner. It's quickly caught on, increasing to more than 18,000 members since December.
Lizzy Net, the closed community for young women, also held a creative competition last year called #Netzheldin, or Internet Hero, to draw awareness to online hate speech, which CEO Ulrike Schmidt said had increased noticeably in 2015. "It wasn't just about speech directed towards women, but about racism as well so we wanted young people to engage with the topic, find creative solutions."

Stronger protective rules?

Thus far, however, these solutions have felt more like a band-aid slapped on an open wound than a means of addressing the hate and its impact. While organizations like nohatespeech.org have cropped up, making it easy to report harassment online, men are more likely to do so than women, again highlighting the imbalance of who proves active online.

In Germany, then, lawmakers including Barbara Steffens have called for rules for the constructive use of the internet. Manuela Schwesig, the Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens and Youth went so far as to say that online platforms and service providers need to ban extremist messaging and those who promote violence.

Anas Modamani in court
Anas M. had taken Facebook to court for the dissemination of an image of him with Chancellor MerkelImage: Reuters/R. Orlowski

While the ruling on Germany's first court case against Facebook's lack of moderation that came out on Tuesday supported Facebook's argument that they were not responsible for the hate speech, experts have said that now would be an ideal time to put in place rules that could protect and prevent online hate campaigns.

An internet hero's self-protective measures

In the meantime, young women like Kim Salmon, the 2016 winner of the #Netzheldin contest for her work against hate comments on her blog, will continue having to fight the harassment they face online.

Speaking at a conference in Cologne held in honor of International Women's Day, she told a room full of women about the measures she's taken to protect herself online. "I'm not on social media. On my blog, I've given myself a gender-neutral name and changed my profile picture to something innocuous. I'll just keep monitoring the comments on my blog so I can see the ones my friends and grandpa sends me. And ignore the rest."


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