Online bullying is out of control

// 11 September 2012

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4476645306_9c243a2160_o.jpg Jen McCreight is a feminist, atheist activist who founded a Society of Non-Theists at her University. She responded to the news that Hojatoleslam Kazem Seddiqi, a religious leader in Iran, had blamed earthquakes on women dressing immodestly by founding Boobquake. Describing it as a scientific experiment, she stated that,

“With the power of our scandalous bodies combined, we should surely produce an earthquake. If not, I’m sure Sedighi can come up with a rational explanation for why the ground didn’t rumble.”

Some feminists didn’t like the idea of Boobquake, believing it would contribute to the sexual objectification of women. Others supported it, not least so that women could wear what they liked, safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be blamed for any more unexpected seismic activity.

Jen blogs at Freethought Blogs about atheism, science, sex, feminism, religion and politics. She also recently founded Atheism Plus.

A few days ago, Jen posted a moving and damning blog post explaining why she is going to take an indefinite break from blogging.

There’s a group of people out there (google the ironic term FtBullies to find them) devoted to hating me, my friends, and even people I’m just vaguely associated with. I can no longer write anything without my words getting twisted, misrepresented, and quotemined. I wake up every morning to abusive comments, tweets, and emails about how I’m a slut, prude, ugly, fat, feminazi, retard, bitch, and cunt (just to name a few). If I block people who are twisting my words or sending verbal abuse, I receive an even larger wave of nonsensical hate about how I’m a slut, prude, feminazi, retard, bitch, cunt who hates freedom of speech (because the Constitution forces me to listen to people on Twitter). This morning I had to delete dozens of comments of people imitating my identity making graphic, lewd, degrading sexual comments about my personal life.

The abuse Jen has faced has triggered depression and in Misandry: A How-To, fellow atheist blogger Rebecca Watson shared just some of the many experiences of misogynist online abuse she, too, has experienced.

Nicky Clark is a friend of mine. She is a blogger and she campaigns on disability rights issues and she is the parent of disabled daughters. One of the issues she is most passionate about is that of disablist language, challenging those who use it and explaining why it is wrong.

She has criticised comedians in the past, such as Ricky Gervais and Frankie Boyle for disablist comments and attitudes. She got immense torrents of abuse on Twitter as a result. Dozens of fans of the comedians devoted days to relentlessly sending her offensive messages. It was harrowing to watch and I cannot even imagine how it was to experience directly.

The thing with Nicky is that she fights back. I watch in awe at times, knowing I would be hiding under a table while she deftly retweets the abuse she receives, drawing attention to the injustice of it rather than letting herself retreat and feel humiliated by the gross insults.

This seeming bravado does not, however, mean that she gets out of these situations unscathed. Anyone looking at her recent tweets can see that hours, days and weeks of abuse take their toll. A discussion on a comedy discussion forum which was started to talk about how celebrities on Twitter can encourage their followers to abuse dissenters was soon full of pages of posts insulting Nicky, and the thread was tagged, “The day Nicky Clark lost her mind”. The thread criticising pile-ons became a pile-on itself, with the disablist tag adding to the abuse.

Nicky and I don’t always agree on disability politics. This is ok. It is possible to discuss and debate issues in a respectful way, and of course this is what we strive to do. There is no need to bring a disagreement down to the level of trolling and bullying.

But bullying is exactly what is happening to Nicky, Jen and Rebecca. These women are forces to be reckoned with. They are formidable, intelligent, articulate and passionate. And they have been bullied to the point of absolute despair.

This is not ever ok. Women being abused online has become so commonplace – it is highlighted regularly – that it is almost as if we are supposed to just accept it as a normal part of life. The abuse faced by these women in the last few weeks has escalated to ridiculous proportions, and for every woman who speaks out about it, there will be many more who don’t.

It has to stop.

[A graphic of the words “At least I’m not a bully” in a handwritten-style font on a bright pink background. It was created by Miss Blackflag and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

fur coat // Posted 12 September 2012 at 1:00 am

Hi, I was just wondering what evidence you have to support the claims you have repeated about your friend on Twitter?

Yakoub Islam // Posted 12 September 2012 at 7:09 am

I’m a Muslim, and atheist bloggers sometimes write stuff that seriously annoys me, but that is never ever an excuse for abusing someone online. In fact, I think it’s important for everyone, regardless of their gender or what they believe, to stand in solidarity with people who are bullied online. For Nicky, Jen and Rebecca: just to know we’re with you, dudes, and we share your pain and anger; and to send a message to all those trolls and fools who spew abuse online – the things you say make this world a grimmer, grimier place. It’s tougher trying to make a genuine, positive contribution. So why not try it?

Philippa Willitts // Posted 12 September 2012 at 12:13 pm

Hi Fur Coat,

The evidence I used to write the post was my historical knowledge of having seen the tweets sent to Nicky. Twitter does not store tweets after a certain period of time, I believe, so they are not possible to access but I, and hundreds of other people, saw them. The claims about the more recent criticisms of Nicky are based on having spent two hours yesterday evening reading ~27 pages of a thread on a Chris Morris fan forum. I hope that answers your question.

Mr. Rude Word // Posted 13 September 2012 at 4:31 am

In the non virtual World, one “expects” to be treated, by most people at least, with a modicum of respect & courtesy…most of the time this expectation is matched. However, in the virtual online World, all bets are off. You will face abuse…that will never change. Strategies for avoiding abuse are realistic, expecting people not to be abusive when the consequences of their abuse are not felt by them is not.

The internet is a stage, very often for those who do not merit one. You’ll see all kinds of acts up there. Internet users have to become used to sharing the stage with the worst of them or else leave the stage. People need to remind themselves that, no matter how repulsive the abuse may be, they are words on a screen…don’t allow them to become more than that.

sianmarie // Posted 13 September 2012 at 1:56 pm

Mr Rudeword

I think it will change. I think comments saying it won’t change are actually what’s holding it back. If we keep speaking out, keep revealing it, then it will become more and more visible and unacceptable.

I’ve had to call the police after a man threatened me online. i’ve had rape threats and all kinds of abuse. It has to change.

Amanda McIndoe // Posted 14 September 2012 at 11:30 pm

Mr Rudeword,

I wouldn’t call rape threats just words on a screen, they can be very harrowing and not to mention very triggering for some people.

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