We were under attack. It was late on an August night. I was trying not to come down with a cold and just about to go to bed. But I was also guest-blogging at Feministe that week, so I logged on to check my e-mail and moderate comments one last time before I turned in.
I was already overwhelmed. I’d done my fair share of blogging, but never before on a site with so much traffic or such active commenters. Between writing timely posts, separating the trolls and spammers from the innocents in the moderation filter, and trying to maintain a civil debate between polarized commenters on my threads, I was marveling that anyone could do this week in and week out and still keep a day job.
Then I got word that a loosely organized cybermob known as Anonymous was attempting to crash feminist sites, including Feministe, flooding comments sections with misogynist rants and threatening feminist bloggers with rape and other violence. This had happened before, but never with such organized force. No one was sure which systems would hold and which would fail; we didn’t even know which site would be attacked next. Privately, we worried about our safety and strategized about how to defend our sites and ourselves. Publicly, we decried these attacks in blog after blog. We knew our attackers wanted to silence us, and we refused to give them that satisfaction.
It turned out that we were wrong. Wrong about what their goals were and wrong about what our response should have been.
A little background I lacked at the time: Anonymous was not formed to carry out an antifeminist agenda. Anonymous exists to create hostile chaos on the web—or, as Anonymous itself likes to put it, to produce “lulz.” Lulz, a corrupted form of “lols” (chat-room speak for “laughing out loud”), at its simplest translates to “laughs.” It’s used by a group of websites and message boards that are dedicated to a very particular brand of humor. What brings on lulz? Teenage suicide attempts, obscene experiments in Photoshopping, and anything else that will get a strong reaction of shock or outrage from someone. In the past year, Anonymous’s activities have included posting a fake BDSM ad in Craigslist’s Women-Seeking-Men Casual Encounters section, and then publishing the responses, photos, and e-mails of every man who responded; attacking and successfully disabling several white-supremacist websites; and hacking the account of a popular young woman on YouTube in order to replace her videos with their own sexually violent ones and to issue damaging and embarrassing communications on her behalf. As this piece went to press, Anonymous was making national headlines with an attack on the Church of Scientology’s site. One of their many mottos is, “Anonymous: Because none of us are as cruel as all of us.”
When they turned their attention to feminist websites, their goal was not, in fact, to silence us. Just like a schoolyard bully, Anonymous was out to get a reaction from us and brag about it. But also like a bully’s actions, their attacks had real and damaging consequences for us. So react we did.
Even as the attacks were happening, there was much debate within the feminist blogosphere about how to respond to them. Part of the issue was that some people had greater knowledge of Anonymous than others, but it went deeper than that: While Anonymous’s targets may be random, their methods are not. The culture of lulz is saturated with juvenile, racist, misogynist, and homophobic language and imagery. They use “fag” and “faggot” as blanket insults against each other and everyone else, even appending it to other words to make compound insults (like “newfag” for a newbie). They make jokes about raping your mother, and define rape as, among other things, “commonly known as black sex (as that is how it is traditionally done in Africa).” They even use the term “image raep” (wacky spelling and intentional typos being another hallmark of the Anonymous community) to describe one of their favorite methods for trying to take down a website: using a program to automatically reload any and all images on that site over and over until the monthly bandwidth for that site is used up and the site host is forced to take it down.
So when they decided to get some lulz out of feminists, they didn’t exactly have to work hard to find the strategies that would piss us off the most. In addition to launching what’s known as “distributed denial of service” or ddos attacks, in which the goal is to use up the bandwidth of the site or otherwise interfere with it technically so it can no longer be accessed by readers (“image raeping” being only one of numerous ways to accomplish this), they flooded comments sections and bloggers’ inboxes with hateful rants and threats of violence:
Heart, this is horrible. I’m sorry that this is happening to you. These people want nothing to do but to hurt you and your cause. I feel for you.
In fact, I want to feel you now. I’d like to tie you down, take a knife, and slit your throat. I’d penetrate you over and over in all orifices, and create some of my own to stick myself in.
They zeroed in on one particular blogger, whose online name is Biting Beaver, posting her home address and calling for Anonymous members to kidnap her son and place damning phone calls to her neighbors and her local police.
These attacks were hardly taking place in a vacuum. They came only months after violent, gendered threats on technology writer Kathy Sierra made international headlines when they blossomed unchecked on popular and respected tech blogs, even going so far as to include her personal address and phone number, and ultimately causing her to withdraw from public speaking and shut down her blog. They came less than a year after the law-school website AutoAdmit was sued for supporting a culture in which female law students were systematically harassed and threatened in discussion threads that invited commenters to vote on the relative hotness of nonconsenting women, discussed some women’s daily routines in terrifying detail, and threatened to “hatefuck” them when the women dared to object.
Female bloggers writing on not-explicitly-feminist sites, even progressive ones, knew that no matter what topic they were addressing, comments would inevitably devolve either into discussions of their fuckability, or of their extreme status as “feminazis.” And, according to a 2006 University of Maryland School of Engineering study, female-named chat-room users got more threatening and/or sexually explicit messages than male-named users—25 times more, in fact. The phrase “blogging while female” had already entered the cultural lexicon, and every feminist blogger knew it.
So, though coolheaded techies familiar with Anonymous suggested we ignore them until they went away, most of us were angry and scared, sick of being angry and scared, and ready to take a stand. We would never consent to being bullied or silenced in “real life,” and we weren’t going to take it online either.
But what does “not taking it” look like online? It’s nearly impossible to find agreement. Reporting threats and harassment to authorities is much easier said than done in a world where identities are invented with the click of a key and making one’s location untraceable is second nature to a seasoned cyberstalker. Add in the global jurisdiction issues that plague most Internet crime, and a law-enforcement infrastructure that in many instances discounts women’s claims in the physical realm, let alone online, and there’s not a lot of justice to be found through official channels.
Meanwhile, the personal toll on bloggers was mounting. I was losing sleep and getting sicker worrying about my safety and the safety of the site, to the point where I missed two days of work. A blogger who declined to be named for this article pulled out of a conference appearance because she didn’t want to sacrifice her anonymity. Mary Borsellino, who runs the site Girl-Wonder.org, one of the first sites to be attacked, hit a more serious breaking point: “Health-wise, the attacks were yet another stress in a stressful workload—I ended up in the emergency room because my body stopped coping with my weariness, and I became very ill.”
These costs are common when women are attacked online. Sierra’s widely publicized case, aside from causing her to quit blogging, ultimately led her to fear leaving her house. Jill Filipovic, a house blogger at Feministe and one of the targets of the AutoAdmit threads, has sought therapy to help her cope with the stresses of online attacks and their aftermath. Even veteran techie and pop culture writer Annalee Newitz confesses that after a particularly ugly comment thread about her weight erupted on Slashdot she responded by losing 15 pounds.
And the systemic costs are just as troubling. A Pew Internet & American Life Project study reported on in the Washington Post in April 2007 found that the number of Internet users who took part in chats and discussion groups plummeted from 28 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2005, due to women dropping out in response to “worrisome behavior in chat rooms.” When the Anonymous attacks hit, many bloggers scrambled to install comment moderation, beef up their online aliases, and improve their privacy settings on social-networking sites like Flickr and Facebook.
This naturally resulting defensiveness not only takes time, energy, and skill, it also squelches discourse and makes it harder to organize for change. “I would have loved to have established some sort of private e-mail conversation between Biting Beaver, Heart, Kathy Sierra, and other feminist and female bloggers who have faced harassment,” says Filipovic, “but that becomes difficult when the first logical reaction to harassment is to hide all of your personal and contact information, and to immediately distrust strangers who contact you.”
So what’s a web-savvy woman to do? Some see the very fear created for women online as the greatest danger, and advise women to disengage from it at all costs.
“Women are often told to be more afraid of things like [online threats] than men are. It’s part of a culture that wants to keep women from being part of the Internet community,” says Newitz. “It’s propaganda. There’s going to be that tiny percentage of time when a guy who’s being a wanker turns out to be a serious threat, but that’s always going to happen, whether you’re on the Internet or walking down the street. Most of the time, these are tactics used to intimidate women into being afraid to speak out online. I just don’t want to have any of that. I’d rather take the risk.”
Her colleagues working in tech fields tend to agree. Tara Hunt of Citizen Agency, a consulting group that helps companies strengthen communities online, advocates “taking it like a man”: “The ‘boys’ get harassed, threatened, bullied, etc., every day and just brush it off. They concentrate on the positive feedback (or those who are successful do).”
But “taking it like a man” is easier said than done when we not only don’t get attacked the way men do online, but also have different real-life contexts for understanding those attacks. Many women have already been victims of sexual and other violence long before they start speaking out online, which makes it nearly impossible for some to just “brush off” explicit threats, no matter how infrequently anyone makes good on those threats. (For the record, everyone I spoke with for this article agreed that online threats are almost never acted upon in real life.) It’s a heck of a lot easier to “take it like a man” if you’ve got the life experience and privilege of, well, a man.
Women of color have it particularly bad, as they’re attacked racially as well as sexually in ways that painfully mirror real-life experience. Jenn Fang, author of the blog Reappropriate, describes her experiences online:
When I participated in a popular APIA [Asia & Pacific Internet Association] forum…feminist voices were shot down by male participants who threw around words like ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ within their counterarguments. In another forum, men angry that I am unabashedly partnered in a stable, eight-year-long interracial relationship have accused me of ‘loving to suck white dick,’ having ‘daddy issues,’ and worse. They re-posted photos of my loved ones (that I used to host on this site to share with real-life friends) and made racially and sexually derogatory remarks about the people in them, including mean-spirited mockery of my boyfriend’s mother. I no longer host personal photos for this reason. Still others have e-mailed me hateful judgments and presuppositions of my personal life while assuming materialistic, superficial motivations for all Asian-American women. In all these behaviors—commonly received by many women in cyberspace—it is the woman and her experience that becomes decentralized; even in assaulting us, male aggressors shift the focus from a female blogger’s feminism to a denial of her self-worth based exclusively upon the men in her life. It is certainly enough to make any sane woman question why she exposes herself to such treatment.
What’s more, not publicly discussing the ways we’re being harassed and intimidated online isolates the women who are most vulnerable from both community support and the know-how necessary to fight back. Even those who advocate ignoring harassment as the best defense acknowledged that the attention paid to attacks on women online in the wake of the Sierra case has helped women with similar problems find each other and begin to work on solutions.
Lisa Stone, cofounder of the conference and online community BlogHer, advises women to make like the Amish and shun cyberharassers, but concedes, “If there is a silver lining to the recent attention given to online attacks on prominent women, it’s that many women now know they are not the only ones receiving this kind of abuse.”
What the cacophony of opinion and experience suggests is a nuanced response, with consideration given to each situation, the people involved, and the perception of the risks at hand. “As a general rule, I’m a proponent of speaking out and shutting down those who harass, threaten, and attack people online, but context matters,” says Filipovic. “The AutoAdmit attacks are a good example—I knew about them for months and assumed that if I just didn’t respond, they’d go away. They didn’t; in fact, they escalated. When I finally responded with a post on my blog and had a bit of a back-and-forth with the commenters, the attacks initially escalated further but then petered out. I think a lot of people who leave comments on message boards like that can forget that they’re talking about real people who may be reading their words. Once you humanize yourself, some of them will knock it off. Others, of course, will just become angrier, but that’s the risk you take.”
Of course, in the case of Anonymous, that’s exactly what happened. Nearly every blogger who condemned the attacks became a target, because a reaction they could laugh about was exactly what Anonymous was after. (I’ll very likely be their next target once this article makes the rounds. Hi, Anonymous!) And the public debate between those who argued for ignoring them and those who argued against silence at any cost just amused them further.
There are some pieces of advice, though, that cut across situation and opinion. Here are a few principles upon which nearly everyone I spoke with agreed:
1. Don’t Silence Yourself.
Even the staunchest advocates for ignoring harassment support this stance, because they want women to keep writing online. Do whatever you need to do to feel safe, but don’t quit. Your silence gives every fearmonger and troll a thrill of victory. The more women who insist on being heard online, the better place the web will be for feminist voices.
2. We Must Change the Culture Together
Hold offending sites accountable for the culture they create, and if they refuse to respond, shun them in favor of sites that welcome women’s voices. Report the identities of attackers to authorities whenever possible, and shame them online whenever practical. Pressure media outlets to cover online attacks on women as a serious issue without contributing to the culture of fear that leads to the silencing of women. Call on the men who claim to be our allies to do this work alongside us, and hold them accountable for moderating their spaces responsibly and for reading and linking to women bloggers at the same rate they do men. Join a group that’s concerned with these issues, such as the feminist bloggers’ listserv (contact here) or Take Back the Tech. Make this their problem more than ours.
3. The Best Defense is Good Tech.
If we’re going to be challenging the cyber–status quo, it pays to be technologically prepared. Says Kevin Andre Elliott, who writes as Thin Black Duke and suffered heinous racial attacks when he dared to speak out against Anonymous, “I kept up on [Anonymous’s] boards for some time, and I remember at one point many of the members were lamenting that Biting Beaver and Heart were just too web savvy for them to effectively do what they wanted to do. That made me smile.”
There are many ways to protect your site from attack and shut down offenders before they start, including hosting your photos separately from your blog (so that “image raep” techniques don’t work), and hosting your site on a feminist-friendly ISP like MayFirst, which understands the political as well as technical issues involved and will work with you to keep your site safe on your terms.
4. Better Together.
Another way to stay protected is to blog in a group—that way you can share responsibility, support each other, exchange knowledge, and have greater coverage when it counts. Girl-Wonder.org’s Borsellino learned this lesson the hard way:
The moderators had been dealing with threads full of pornography for hours and hours—they had the power to delete the threads, but not to ban the posters. Only I, as the sole admin at the time, could do that. Needless to say, there are a lot more people with admin powers on the boards now! It’s monitored 24 hours a day, every day. The site was taken over by amazing people while I recovered, and so in the end it was a major boon for the site. But for me it was a huge cost, one I wish I hadn’t had to pay.
Several activists have floated the idea of forming a Tech Defense Force, available to help with preventive measures as well as to respond to female bloggers under attack with crucial tech knowledge and support. But without funding, it’s hard to imagine it coming together, as the radical techies required for such a project are already overstretched with good works and good work.
In the end, it’s no easier to imagine an Internet without misogyny than it is to imagine a world without misogyny. We’re working on it, but it’s going to take a long time to get there. In the meantime, as Borsellino puts it, “We’ll just get better at fighting back.”