When Internet comments turn hurtful: Online dialogue, women and violence

The Internet can be a weird place. Of course, as a Millennial, I can hardly imagine life without all the perks given to me by the Internet. Thanks to Skype, I can keep my sister company while she does dialysis 500 miles away; email allows me to keep in regular contact with the Cambodian father I adopted while visiting Siem Reap in college. And you know how I feel about playing the Kim Kardashian game on my phone.

And yet, the Internet can also be a vile and scary place, especially for women.

Last month, after some particularly terrifying threats, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian took to Twitter to share the types of comments she gets from male readers. I won’t share them here, but they range from graphically to sickeningly violent. Also in August, the staff of the women’s website Jezebel wrote an open letter to their parent company, Gawker Media, shaming the company for its refusal to keep trolls from posting graphic rape images in Jezebel’s comments section. ("Trolls" are people who comment excessively, share irrelevant and vulgar comments or who are paid to bait online discussions; Gawker Media later disabled photo comments and instituted a pending comment system.) And let’s not forget the post-assault photo of a 16-year-old girl that, after being posted to social media platforms, became one of this summer’s “hilarious” Internet memes.

Something about the Internet brings out the worst in some people, and the comments sections of many a website are full of cringe-inducing racist and misogynist language. (Maybe it’s the anonymity factor that brings out this nastiness. I don’ t know, and I think it  must be more complicated than that, although I do think this social experiment from The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon is a good case study.)

A lot of this language is targeted at women, and – according to a British report published this spring – a lot of that anti-woman rhetoric is coming from other women, at least on Twitter. Researchers found that women are more likely than men to tweet the words “slut” and “whore,” and that they commonly direct these words at each other.

What’s nice about the Global Sisters Report is that: A) we don’t have a comments section (although you can comment on stories you like on our Facebook page); and B) our readers are, for the most part, civil. We write pro-woman stories like this article from Joachim Pham about Vietnamese nuns working to end illiteracy and we give space to woman thinkers like Franciscan Sr. Ilia Delio – and no one is threatening to physically harm us for it.

Do people disagree with us? Absolutely! And we welcome you to share your disagreements in our new Letters to the Editor section. But even our critics are almost always polite. In fact, the meanest thing anyone’s ever said to me on Twitter is that an article I wrote was “cute but not factual.” Admittedly, I took umbrage against the word “cute” and ranted for a while about the sexism directed at female journalists, but I have never had to leave my house and hide because I thought an angry reader wanted to hurt me. I have never been called sexually demeaning names. And for that, I am thankful.

But none of us are off the hook. We may not be the targets of online abuse, but as long as there are other women who are, we are all responsible. I know my pacifist Mennonite friends would encourage peaceful and Spirit-led engagement with the people making the comments, but I’d like to know your thoughts! Find this blog post on our Facebook page and leave a (civil, obviously) comment about your thoughts on dealing with online trolls!

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is the staff reporter for Global Sisters Report.]