In addition to dishing out trophies to the best of the best digital journalists from this past year, the 2015 Online Journalism Awards last week also hosted a series of presentations touching on important issues regarding the future of the industry. The keynote We Belong Here: Pushing Back Against Online Harassment engaged an expert panel in a conversation that may not be easy to have but is a privilege to be able to ignore.
These women were dynamic and inspiring. They immediately confronted the reality of pervasive, gendered harassment online for female journalists and how it is relevant to wider issues of oppression. They all shared stories of abuse that they have faced publicly in their Internet workplace and agreed that the severity of this problem is not questioned in the slightest by those who experience it every day.
The speakers were Soraya Chemaly, Dr. Michelle Ferrier, Amanda Hess and Laurie Penny, all superstar women who have worked to combat online harassment through personal essays, reporting, policy research, working with social media companies and building tools. Sarah Jeong moderated the discussion.
The language and rhetoric of online harassment is important. The speakers generally agreed that a working definition of online harassment that captures the essence of the serious damage it causes is the first step to addressing the problem. “We haven’t really defined those terms… and it’s important for us to decide on to make meaningful change,” Hess said. Input from the panel on what constitutes online harassment included extortion, stalking, impersonation, invasion of privacy, sustained sexual harassment, bodily harm, economic damage, silencing, intimidation and organized hate speech. Penny emphasized how online harassment has a “real impact on our sense of physical safety, our mental health and our ability to continue working” and the “emotional overhead costs” of being a female journalist. Using direct and explicit rhetoric around online harassment make it more difficult to dismiss its importance. “Not using the right language to describe what we’re talking about hurts us,” Chemaly said.
Online harassment is indicative of wider oppression in the media and in society. “Until we deal with the offline suppression of speech that results from violence against women, and connect it to what we’re talking about, we’re not going to move very far,” Chemaly said. All of the panelists connected online harassment to bigger societal issues of diversity and power structures expressed through organized hate and perpetuating a misogynistic rape culture. Ferrier spoke to her experience receiving threatening hate mail that caused her to switch career paths that was directly connected to both her gender and her race. “A woman’s opinion is like the short skirt of the Internet… If you flaunt it then you deserve everything that you get,” Penny said when describing the attitude of placing responsibility on women for the abuse they receive. They agreed that harassment is not happenstance or random. It's a systematic effort to suppress previously marginalized voices from the public space of the Internet, they said.
There is a direct correlation between online harassment and free speech. According to the panel, addressing online harassment in a meaningful way should be approached with a sense of urgency within the journalism community because it will affect the makeup of our media in the future. “We cannot continue to call ourselves journalists when we do not have a system in place that allows for diverse voices, gendered voices, people of different ethnicities to be able to speak out on the issues that are important to them,” Ferrier said in a call to action regarding the detrimental effects of online harassment. “If we don’t act as if this threat is something that is going to tear the very fabric of our democracy, if we as journalists don’t fix this and understand the impact of it, we are going to see the ripple effects of it for many years to come.”
This conversation was heavy. The panelists spoke to the potential that the Internet holds if the right structures are put in place to end harassment. As a young, female journalist, it was great to hear how the rules for digital journalism are still being written and how we have the chance to create a safe, welcoming space to appreciate the new, diverse voices of the future rather than shut them down.
I am a senior studying journalism and international affairs at Marquette University. I am a Milwaukee-dweller and a storyteller passionate about exploring the intersection between community-building and communication. I'd love for you to learn alongside me!