We’ve all seen them before, those rude, mean, unsolicited comments written by mysterious Internet trolls that seem to always show up at the end of articles, blogs, and Instagram posts. Perhaps we’ve even been the targets of these comments ourselves at some point. The anonymity and security of the Internet seems to have made trolling more popular than ever.
But studies show that negative online comments are disproportionately aimed at women. These comments span a large range, some of them often escalating up to threats of physical and sexual violence. Their affects are profound.
57 percent of women report being personally harassed online compared to just 43
percent of men across all age groups, according to data collected by the Stop Online Violence
Against Women Project. It's even worse for women of color, who must
deal with the intersection of gender and race, according to Shireen Mitchell,
founder of the project that helps to raise awareness and advocates for women facing
gender-based and racially charged online threats of violence. Often when women
speak up about the issue, it’s from a white, middle-class perspective, she
said. We spoke to Mitchell, who said,
“There’s this assumption that everybody can tell us [women of color] to be quiet. It’s very much this sense that anybody and everybody can tell us that we cannot speak up about our own truth and our perspective. It’s just worse when you are in a digital space.”
Mitchell, who remembers seeing cyberbulling as early as the 1990s, said this issue has existed for decades but that people are just now starting to take notice and take a stand against it.
“The comments are not going to go away. They will show up somewhere else. I think there are multiple reasons for that. Particularly in the tech industry we have allowed the boys to be boys for too long,” she said.
“Women are getting louder and louder and this is (becoming) more of a pushback. But also women of color are getting louder and louder and are pushing at their version of the story.”
Two Chicago-based women revived the conversation on trolling and online harassment just a few days ago. In a raw, often emotional and uncomfortable video produced by the online community Just Not Sports, everyday men were asked to read some of the most hateful online comments directed toward sports journalists Julie DiCaro and Sarah Spain, as the women sat across from them. They included threats of rape, assault, and murder.
One of them read, “Sarah Spain sounds like a nagging wife on TV today.”
“Julie DiCaro is a run-of-the-mill mediocre beat writer.”
“I hope your dog gets hit by a car.”
“Men get mean comments, too, but I think the context of it is quite different for women,” Spain told The New York Times. “It’s not just, like, ‘You’re an idiot, and I’m mad at you for your opinion.’ It’s: ‘I hate you because you are in a space that I don’t want you in. I come to sports to get away from women. Why don’t you take your top off and just make me lunch?’”
The website has created the hashtag #MoreThanMean in hopes of educating others about the harassment that women face in male-dominated fields, such as sports journalism.
Though men also face online harassment, young women disproportionately experience severe forms of online harassment; about 26 percent of women surveyed had been stalked online, and 25 percent were the target of online sexual harassment, according to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center.
“In addition, they do not escape the heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general,” the report said.
For Mitchell, addressing this long-standing problem starts with addressing the online experiences of women of color, which she said often go overlooked.
“There are more questions about what does this really mean and how this can be managed,” she said. “This is a problem that right now will not be solved until we start teasing out what’s happening to women of color.”