It's becoming a familiar story. A prominent woman expressed an opinion on the Internet was not only subjected to criticism, but also horrific threats of rape and murder, many of them on Twitter. She took to the press and the Internet to tell her tale. But Ashley Judd, the latest victim of online troll misogyny is taking the fight to the next level. During a TV interview about the experience, she commented: "By the way, I'm pressing charges."
Can she do that? I wondered. It was a natural question, given my own experience. I've never been stalked on Twitter, but I have been stalked in real life by a (now) ex-husband who had also beaten me up, broken into my apartment, and threatened over the phone to shoot me and my whole family. It was a long time ago and I'm happily married to someone else now, but I still recall what a struggle it was to get a prosecutor to take me seriously.
When Amanda Hess, spooked by a Twitter account devoted solely to planning her murder, called the police, the office who arrived asked what Twitter was. After she showed him, he suggested she simply stop looking at it. So you might reasonably wonder if law enforcement can or will do much about threats on Twitter. You might also wonder if such threats are even illegal.
Yes, it turns out, they are. Federal law allows for prosecuting someone who uses "any interactive computer service, or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce to engage in a course of conduct that causes substantial emotional distress to that person or places that person in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury." And about half the states have also updated their criminal law to allow for such prosecutions. Do such prosecutions happen often? No, they don't. But the laws are on the books, so they could.
Ashley Judd, who has been researching her legal options for legal recourse knows this. And she's prominent enough that law enforcement will likely take her very seriously.
But what should a non-celebrity do when faced with sexual harassment and threats on Twitter or elsewhere on the Web--as more than a quarter of young women report experiencing? It may not feel like enough, but there are several things you can do to respond to online trolls.
1. Speak up.
A year ago, Amanda Hess published her account of being cyber-stalked on Pacific Standard (it has now mysteriously disappeared). That started a conversation that has been building ever since. Robin Williams' daughter Zelda, journalist Imani Gandy, game designer Brianna Wu, and now Judd have all gone public about suffering threats and/or gender-based harassment on Twitter and elsewhere on the Internet. All these voices have have helped to move the needle, at least a little.
Each of these accounts was either met with silence from Twitter, or a bland statement that it was "reviewing its policies." But then the feminist Lindy West published a moving piece about confronting a particularly cruel Twitter troll who impersonated her recently deceased father. That article started a conversation on an internal Twitter forum, and it turned out CEO Dick Costolo has been listening all along.
"We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years," he posted on the internal forum. "It's no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day." He went on to fully claim responsibility for Twitter's shortcomings at dealing with abuse, and concluded: "We're going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them. Everybody on the leadership team knows this is vital."
Twitter's follow-up to this promise is a new tool that allows those reporting abuse to click a button and have a summary of the offending tweets emailed to themselves for later forwarding to law enforcement. It's a pretty wimpy response, given the ferocity of abuse that takes place on the service. But it's better than nothing and it wouldn't have happened without so many Twitter abuse victims speaking out about their experiences.
2. Call on law enforcement.
Ashley Judd absolutely has the right idea about pressing charges against online harassers. Perhaps the enforcers you call will do something about your complaint, perhaps not. But you'll get it on the record, and the more women who do so, the fewer cops there will be out there who need someone to explain to them what Twitter is, or why "just don't look" is not an acceptable answer.
Involving law enforcement means you must resist the urge to delete unsavory messages or tweets you receive. Unfortunately, that material is evidence and must be preserved. At least you now have Twitter's new email tool to make that easier.
3. Call it hate speech--because it is.
There are plenty of laws on the books that provide for harsher penalties when harassment includes an element of bias based on gender or race, among other factors. But these provisions usually don't come into play on the rare occasions when online harassers are prosecuted. It's as if threatening women with rape or sexual abuse is so ubiquitous it doesn't count as gender bias. But it is, and we need to call it that, over and over again, until law enforcement gets it.
4. Don't blame yourself.
Ashley Judd's deluge of threats followed her tweet, during an NCAA game, that accused one of the teams of playing dirty. She has since deleted the tweet for any offense it may have caused.
That was thoughtful of her, but it leaves open the interpretation that women who express an opinion--any opinion--in the online world bring harassment on themselves by doing so. Complaints about harassment are invariably followed by tweeters and commenters telling women who've been harassed that they should have a "thicker skin."
That's crap. If someone calls your opinion stupid and you let it upset you, yes you should have a thicker skin. If someone tweets an image of your dead father or that they're going to decapitate you--or publicly posts your address--that should upset you. And if it doesn't upset your social media service, or your local law enforcement, then they're the ones who are wrong.