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Listening to Women in the World: Anita Sarkeesian, Ashley Judd, & More Discuss Fighting Online Threats

"You really lose your faith in humanity if you spend a little time online," Katie Couric.

StopTheTrollsLast week I attended a portion of the 6th annual Women in the World Summit at Lincoln Center in New York to catch the panel “Stop the Trolls” featuring someone very familiar to TMS — Anita Sarkeesian.

Women in the World partnered with the New York Times this year to further expand the summit which was definitely jam-packed with corporate sponsors. For instance, the “Dove Choose Your Beautiful Lounge,” or the “Toyota Courtesy Shuttle.” That aside, while I came for a panel which specifically spoke to our coverage, there were tons of interesting stories being told that day.

“Stop the Trolls” had Emily Bazelon (Staff Writer, New York Times Magazine), Kamala D. Harris (California Attorney General), Ashley Judd (Actress, Activist, Humanitarian), Anita Sarkeesian (Founder and Executive Director, Feminist Frequency), and was moderated by Katie Couric.

To be sure, most of what I heard was not new to me and I’m sure it’s not to you either if you’re a frequent TMS visitor. But I’m sure it was surprising to most of the audience to hear personal stories from both Sarkeesian and Judd about their experiences and the steps they’re having to take to ensure their personal safety and mental well-being.

“Is this how you speak in front of your daughter and is this the environment in which you’re choosing to raise her?” Judd said was how she replied to one “pornographic” comment she received, taking the hold the trolls accountable stance. Judd said in this case, the individual was able to self-correct but it’s sadly not how everyone can or should respond. The actor has actually hired a social media firm to scrub her account and also decide which threats are “legally actionable.”

But as we all know, not everyone is fortunate enough to have that sort of help at their disposal. “When women experience this and they don’t end up with the microphone of the media, they can have more trouble with the police and prosecutors than they would have with [Judd],” said Bazelon.

Besides many law enforcement agencies not knowing how to deal with (or even understanding the workings of) these types of situations, Harris said “The obstacle is having the victim come forward. Because there is still so much about the issue of sex and sexuality in our society that when it is raised in connection with a woman, causes the victim herself and the people around her to judge her. And judge her on a moral standard and judge her in a way that suggests that she invited it upon herself.”

This was familiar to Sarkeesian who related stories of police responding to her complaints with “‘Why don’t you just stop doing what you’re doing if you’re being threatened?’ Like, how is that an appropriate response when someone is being threatened, their family is being threatened?”

It’s something echoed by many others being habitually harassed via the internet. In a recent Boston Magazine piece detailing her specific place in this “Game of Fear,” Zoe Quinn said “In 2015, that’s like saying, ‘Oh, there’s an angry mob camped outside on your sidewalk, just don’t ever go outside again.'”

While law enforcement needs work (Harris had experience after getting elected in 2004 with 2/3rds of her lawyers not having email, while the San Francisco Police Department only rolled out that particular bit of technology in 2011, “this is the reality,” she said.) the panel also expressed how companies like Twitter have been making progress against harassment.

“There has to be a price to these companies,” said Bazelon, “they have to be worried, in some way, about their bottom line. I think what’s happening at Twitter is a sense that if Twitter deteriorates as it already has in some of its corners into a place where it’s full, it’s just a cesspit and full of misogyny, that that will turn off users. It’s not part of the brand and the image the company wants to project.”

She also wondered if Twitter’s actions would have a ripple effect to Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram which could be likened to the Wild West when compared with Twitter. Harris noted that 90% of those affected by this kind of abuse are women and that in January of this year she and about 50 companies, law enforcement, and victims joined in a conference to discuss a type of “industry standard” for dealing with online harassment. “The pressure is on,” she said.

“The comments on YouTube,” said Couric, “I mean I can’t believe some of the comments I read… not only about myself but just about people in general. Then they start fighting with each other and they start, you know, cursing out each other. It’s just, you really lose your faith in humanity if you spend a little time online.”

That reaction may be exactly what any regular human would have upon discovering the dregs of the internet for the first time but for many who work online, it’s gone on far too long.

While Sarkeesian notes a drastic change in how fast her reports of harassment are responded to now versus a year ago (six months response versus 20 minutes). “It’s late in the game but I’m impressed with what they’re doing,” she said but also made sure to add, “Don’t clap for Twitter, they’re actually starting to do their job, they don’t need a cookie for that.”

“I think the word trolls is kind of a problem. I think it reinforces the juvenileness of all of this,” said Sarkeesian specifically referencing the title of the panel, “I think that comments like ‘don’t feed the trolls,’ ‘don’t read the comments,’ ‘get over it,’ ‘grow tougher skin,’ ‘it’s just boys being boys,’ ‘it’s just the internet.’ All of these comments work to make online harassment normal.”

She continued, “But we don’t have to accept it and none of us should have to jettison our humanity in order to participate because that’s ultimately what those comments are saying.”

There was so much more being offered that weekend, I’m sorry I couldn’t take it all, but I’ll have another report up tomorrow of the other panels I watched.

(top pic via my personal Twitter)

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