This is a reality, and it doesn’t go away if we don’t talk about it.

s.e.smith has an important and powerful post up at Tiger Beatdown regarding our collective habit of silence about the hate mail bloggers receive. Bolded sentences below are my emphasis.

It’s concerted, focused, and deliberate, the effort to silence people, especially women, but not always, as I can attest, and particularly feminists, though again, not always, as I can attest, online. The readers, the consumers, the fans, may not always notice it because people are silent about it. Because this is the strategy that has been adopted, to not feed the trolls, to grin and bear it, to shut up, to put your best foot forward and rise above it. To open your email, take note of the morning’s contents, and then quickly shuttle them to the appropriate files for future reference or forwarding to the authorities. To check on the server, fix what needs fixing, and move on with your day. To skim the comments to see what needs to be deleted, to know that when you write a post like this one, you will have to delete a lot of heinous and ugly comments, because you want to protect your readers from the sheer, naked, hate that people carry for you. To weigh, carefully, the decision to approve a comment not because there’s a problem with the content, but because you worry that the reader may be stalked by someone who will tell her that she should die for having an opinion. And when it happens to people for the first time, they think they are alone, because they don’t realise how widespread and insidious it is.

All of the bloggers at Tiger Beatdown have received threats, not just in email but in comments, on Twitter, and in other media, and the site itself has been subject to hacking attempts as well. It’s grinding and relentless and we’re told collectively, as a community, to stay silent about it, but I’m not sure that’s the right answer, to remain silent in the face of silencing campaigns designed and calculated to drive us from not just the Internet, but public spaces in general. To compress us into small boxes somewhere and leave us there, to underscore that our kind are not wanted here, there, or anywhere.

Here at HaT we’ve had our threats. We’ve had our cyber-stalkers. We’ve had folks participating here who have later turned out to be not who they said they were. People who write in the same styles as some of those fake personas have written to some of us and included details of our offline lives which we have not revealed online. We are far from alone in experiencing this – I don’t know another female/feminist blogger who has not received at least some hate mail and often far worse. If it’s happening to you, I regretfully welcome you to a club you never expected to join which has a huge and growing membership.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

It’s something I regularly get asked about in person at blogmeets because we are one of the feminist blogs which has addressed this with some frequency, by publicising it when other bloggers do commit the rare event of writing about it and by writing a few things ourselves. It’s one of the reasons that I wrote this post – How I minimise the online abuse I receive – earlier this year.

The technology that gives cyberbullies a virtual bullhorn to swamp you with hate is a two-edged blade: you can use exactly the same technology to block out the bullhorn, to filter their interruptions and interferences, so that you can literally no longer see nor hear them (or at least the worst of them). Once you’ve put an effective barrier between their harassment and yourself, they won’t get a reaction from you, they’ll realise they’re having no effect, and eventually they’ll get bored and move on.

So here is an assortment of technical tips & tricks whereby bloggers can cut down the volume and the repetition coming from this cyberbullying cadre of keyboard jockeys, making the harassment little more than a tiny hiss of background noise instead of an overwhelming flood of spite.

Some bloggers prefer to keep more stuff on the record than I do, as evidence of the harassment. I prefer to just block as much as possible so that I simply don’t even see it. Whichever way handling the threats and hate works best for you is the way you should do it for you. If anybody has any new tips/tricks for blocking undesirable contacts, please do feel free to share.

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tigtog (aka Viv) is the founder of this blog. She lives in Sydney, Australia: husband, 2 kids, cat, house, garden, just enough wine-racks and (sigh) far too few bookshelves.

This author has written 3457 posts for Hoyden About Town. Read more about tigtog »

11 responses to “This is a reality, and it doesn’t go away if we don’t talk about it.”

  1. Mary

    I started a comment, but it turned into a post.

  2. Chris

    Believe it or not, programmers in the open source world get them too – perhaps because they are easily contactable. Frankly I’m amazed at the amount of time and effort people out there are willing to put into hate mail emails. Whatever you do, don’t reply to them – they have much more free time than you do.

  3. tigtog

    I believe it, Chris. One of the most famous cases of cyberbullying/stalking/threats over the last few years after all was Kathy Sierra, who wrote and spoke about software usability, FFS. There was no political reason for what happened to her, somebody just decided that they wanted her to shutupshutupshutup.

  4. Mary

    Whatever you do, don’t reply to them – they have much more free time than you do.

    Chris, sure, insofar as their particular engagement matters. In cases like that of s.e. smith’s experience it sounds like whether or not any individual harasser gives up is not actually the foremost concern: there are so many of them that there is always a replacement for someone who has given up/moved on/got bored/seen the error of their ways.

    I want to fully acknowledge how much damage having a single dedicated harasser can do. It’s not a lesser harm. But emphasis on not replying or provoking or encouraging etc is really more suited to situations where there’s an individual (or possibly several coordinated individuals). (It also needs to be very nuanced because it’s easy to victim blame: oh you replied, well, more the fool you then.) Where there’s a mass of harassment by unconnected or loosely connected individuals, there’s no strategy that I’m aware of that correlates at all with the threats stopping.

  5. Mary

    There was no political reason for what happened to her, somebody just decided that they wanted her to shutupshutupshutup.

    I actually view her harassment as extremely politicised. She’s a woman, and she was, in my reading, actively advocating against automatic assumed programmer-expertise in designing user interfaces. (That is, that user interface design should not be automatically trusted to highly skilled programmers, that it’s a separate skill and expertise that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in the same person.) In geek politics, this is certainly not an unheard-of opinion, but it’s a major challenge to power structures.

    Or, to put it another way, there was a woman saying that she should be listened to, in fact that she possessed unusual or unique expertise (not in software usability alone, but that in combination with her public speaking and writing skills). She was a leader and she was associated with the non-geek perspective (users). Cue attacks.

    There’s also I think a suspicion of being “unfairly persuasive” there. That is, there is suspicion being a rehearsed public speaker with catchy images and slogans and gestures, having a conventionally attractive woman’s body and so on. This is positioned against “fairly persuasive”, which involves arguing in textual form and therefore being judged solely on the merits of your argument. To argue in any other way is manipulating people, being non-geeky. (In actual fact of course, in textual technical arguments one is also judged on the apparent gender and ethnicity of one’s name, on one’s leadership status, on one’s ability to write standard university-educated English, on exhibiting an humorous and condescending attitude to one’s opponents rather than hurt at their tactics, and other things. The construction of textual arguments as de-personalised is false.)

    I think here geek feminism is a very useful lens: it wasn’t (only/mostly) a fight between geeks about something techie, it was an attack on a woman geek who claimed status while not adhering sufficiently to geek status markers.

  6. tigtog

    When you lay it out like that, the gender politics and geek politics are both extremely clear to see.

    I think at the time blogosphere people (including me) were reading it as “non-political” simply because they were only used to seeing that level of vitriol regarding partisan political and/or social justice opinionating. I guess not enough of them had spent enough time on non-blog forums to see just how vicious all sorts of discussions can become (an excuse I didn’t have then and certainly haven’t acquired in the meantime).

  7. Mary

    I think I understand the politics of it much more clearly now than I did then. There is still some hurt or disaffection from the GF space (I’m thinking of this question in particular) that ‘mainstream’ feminism didn’t understand how typical it was of the geek woman experience and why. (Note on the cis/trans discussion in comments: I get what Restructure! was trying to say a lot better now, I think!)

  8. Chris

    tigtog @ 3 – yes, what happened to Kathy Sierra was very very bad. Though I was thinking of people who have much lower public profiles. Probably all the people who send them hate mail know of them is their email address and what they work on. And still they seem to work up such a high level of hatred.

    Mary @ 4 – I didn’t mean to insinuate blame. Just I’ve never seen a case when the harassment was high on the ranty scale where further communication with the person actually helped. It all ends up being a big waste of time.

    Or, to put it another way, there was a woman saying that she should be listened to, in fact that she possessed unusual or unique expertise (not in software usability alone, but that in combination with her public speaking and writing skills). She was a leader and she was associated with the non-geek perspective (users). Cue attacks.

    Thankfully I think there’s a reasonable consensus these days that unless you’re designing an interface for other programmers then you should be taking advice from user interface experts. Its one of the really big things that has been holding back use of open source software.

  9. SunlessNick

    There’s also I think a suspicion of being “unfairly persuasive” there. That is, there is suspicion being a rehearsed public speaker with catchy images and slogans and gestures, having a conventionally attractive woman’s body and so on. This is positioned against “fairly persuasive”, which involves arguing in textual form and therefore being judged solely on the merits of your argument.

    This makes me think of the hatestorm Rebecca Watson is getting, as her Skepchick blogging includes podcasts as well. “Pussy power” is used to excuse all kinds of misogynistic abuse, but these geek/techie and atheism/skeptic are fields that are heavily invested in themselves as rational, so I wonder if they might (ironically, perhaps) be espcially fertile ground for that particular sort of irrationality.

    More generally, seeing it laid out like that, that pervasiveness is nothing short of monstrous.

  10. christyn

    this is a topic i’ve seen popping up on a number of blogs in the last week. i liked this one from the nerd corner.

    http://gomakemeasandwich.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/double-header-destructoids-new-editor-harassment-of-feminist-bloggers/

  11. tigtog

    Thanks for the link, christyn – wundergeek is always worth a read. The discussion got through some interesting points on gamer usage of “rape” and the connexion to the mindset of harassers etc too. This comment from Renee regarding rape culture/myths is a particularly good one:

    I think you’d be surprised at the profiles of the average rapist and/or sexual assailant, though. Lack of education around the idea of consent along with a general culture of misogyny that rewards men for sexual dominance means there are a lot of guys out there perpetrating this behavior. 1 in 6 women will experience rape in their lifetimes; a lot more will experience sexual assault that doesn’t legally qualify as rape but is nonetheless sexually violent. Those numbers are shocking, but the thing we don’t ask about is who is committing all those crimes? A lot of rapes means a lot of rapists! Consider, too, that most sexual assaults and rapes are not stranger crimes…their crimes of opportunity perpetrated by someone the survivor is familiar with. As someone who volunteered for two years as a sexual assault and domestic violence first-responder, I can tell you that the vast majority of perps aren’t seedy misshapen monsters lurking in the shadows of darkened alleys…they’re our brothers, our fathers, our boyfriends, or our husbands. And one of the things that keeps us from really tackling this is problem is that as much as we think this could never happen to us or someone we know, we’re even more unlikely to believe someone we know and like is capable of doing this. When the truth is, we probably all know and like someone who has already done this.

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