by Homa Khaleeli
April 15, 2016
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Lindsy Van Gelder: ‘The online world seemed like a utopia.’ Photograph: Brad Torchia for the Guardian
Lindsy Van Gelder, journalist, San Diego, 1985
When I bought a computer, in the 1980s, it was a different world. I joined Compuserve, the first major commercial online service in the US, in 1982. It was like Facebook, but all text. Now we would complain it was slow and expensive, but at the time it was radical to be able to sit in your house and talk to people all over the world.
The online world seemed like a utopia; you had no idea of the race or gender of the person you were talking to, yet it was intimate. Compuserve was quite intellectual, but we had silly chats. It was mostly men using it. If you got on with someone you could go into a little corner of the site to text privately. That’s where the “compusex”, the sexting of its time, happened. I never did it myself, because my partner at the time was not keen.
It certainly taught us the online world was not all rainbows and unicorns
Joan was a kind of celebrity on Compuserve; a brilliant neuroscientist in her late 20s who was disabled and disfigured after a terrible car accident. She could no longer talk, but she could type, and she was surrounded by admirers. She formed close friendships with many female users, although she often tried to talk them into having Compusex. For one woman in particular, Janis, Joan was a real support. Janis had ongoing health problems and was mourning the death of her brother. The two became very close. A year later Joan enthusiastically introduced Janis to another Compuserve user called Alex. Janis and Alex, an able-bodied, male, New York psychiatrist in his 50s, met up offline and started a relationship.
Meanwhile Joan wrote about her own whirlwind romance, meeting and marrying a police officer. But other Compuserve users became suspicious of Joan’s dazzling romance and success. Months later Joan was confronted by one distrustful user and admitted she was not just friends with Alex -– she was Alex. Traumatised and angry, Janis said at the time she “wanted to jump off a bridge”. To me that was everyone’s nightmare of betrayal by a lover.
When I contacted him as a journalist, Alex refused to return my call. He continued to be a prominent psychiatrist who won major honours for his work, until his death a few years ago. I wrote about the story for Ms magazine, in a piece called The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover. Although I knew his real identity, Ms wouldn’t publish it because they were in a financially precarious position and a lawsuit –- even if they won -- would have finished them. Alex claimed he wanted to try communicating as a woman. Some people on Compuserve felt sorry for him. Me? I think he was despicable.
It certainly taught us the online world was not all rainbows and unicorns -– that creepy people could take advantage of the most entrancing things about the medium. Now everyone knows what the online and offline worlds are. It’s not a rarefied, weird corner of life. It’s certainly not an escape anymore.
Ellen Spertus, professor of computer science, California, 1996
This was part of the beginning of the fall -– the realisation this was not a safe place
I first used the computer network Usenet as an undergraduate in the late 1980s. There was no commercialism -– no spam, if you can imagine that - and it was mostly used by students or people who worked in technology. It seemed like a pretty safe place. I used my own name, and so did many other people. There were discussion groups divided into sections. Some were high minded, about science or maths, but others were more lowbrow.
There was a kerfuffle around a group called rec.humour.funny, for instance, because the moderator accepted racist and sexist jokes. People argued that there shouldn’t be censorship online. Back then we all thought that the online world would be more egalitarian because we weren’t judging people on race or sex. Instead there has been a dehumanising effect because we don’t see people face to face.
In 1996, a man called Robert Toups started a site called Babes on the Web, displaying the names and photographs of women who had home pages (which had just begun), along with ratings based on the attractiveness of their photographs. When they asked him to remove them, he refused. He claimed he was being satirical.
I was one of the women listed. I can’t say I was shocked, but it was unexpected and unpleasant. It was part of the beginning of the fall –- the realisation this was not a safe place, that it was not true that the online world would be sexism-free. Some women responded by changing their image to that of a “beefcake” picture. Someone else created a site to get people to rate Toups.
I was a graduate student and wrote a paper called Social and Technical Means for Fighting On-Line Harassment, including this as one of the first major incidents of sexism that occurred on the web. I wanted to try to improve the situation for others. I thought social pressure would solve issues like this; because Toups would be lowering his reputation in front of women who would go on to be in positions of power.
To some extent it’s true -– I went on to become a professor and an engineer at Google. But my prediction that social pressures would solve the problem was wrong. Today I would say the situation for women online is just horrific.
I advise my female students to use a pseudonym if they are writing about something like Gamergate. If you write about sexism or racism, people who have a powerful social media following can harass you. Take the case of Adria Richards; she tweeted about two men making sexist jokes at a tech conference, and one of them was fired. She received death threats and rape threats for speaking up. She had to leave her home because it was so terrible. I have offered a place to stay to women who can’t stay in their homes because of threats they receive. I am glad I am no longer on the frontline.
Jill Filipovic, lawyer and writer, 2006
Jill Filipovic: ‘I stopped going to class. When I did go, I would wear a hooded sweatshirt or hide my face.’ Photograph: Siegfried Modola for the Guardian
Towards the end of my first semester of law school, a classmate mentioned a website where my name came up a lot. When another acquaintance mentioned the same thing I Googled around and found a message board for law school students called AutoAdmit. I read a couple of the threads, and they just seemed a little weird and creepy. If something came up about my law school, they would mention me. For instance, when someone wrote “Someone barfed in the law school library” the first comment would be “Was it JillF?”
Suddenly I realised those same people writing rape fantasies about me could be sitting next to me in contract law class
I don’t know why they started on me, but I think it was because I was a feminist blogger, who wrote for Feministe. I was used to nasty comments from the blog, but then I found a post called “The official Jill Filipovic rape thread”. Elsewhere there were long discussions about whether posters would like to “hate-fuck” me. One post read “I want to brutally rape that Jill slut.” Another: “I’m 98% sure that she should be raped.” There were a bunch of photos of me, my Facebook profile had been copied and pasted, my email address was on there.
The psychological turning point was reading comments like, “I saw her in class today and she said this… ” Suddenly I realised those same people writing rape fantasies about me could be sitting next to me in contract law class. It wasn’t just a nasty comment on the internet anymore. It felt very intimidating.
I corresponded privately with the people who ran the website, but they wouldn’t do anything about the posts. The university was very sympathetic, but said there wasn’t anything they could do. I stopped going to class for some time. When I did go, I would wear a hooded sweatshirt or hide my face. I felt very suspicious and isolated. My friends didn’t understand blogs or message boards so it was hard to explain it to them. In the end I went to therapy, which really helped.
There were two episodes when it crossed over into my real life. Once a man sent me an email saying he had been to New York University and spoken to my professors about what a “dumb cunt” I was. The second was when I was studying in the law school office with a friend. A man came to the door and asked me if I was Jill, then started screaming at me.
Finally two other women who had been posted about on AutoAdmit sued the men who ran it. One of the men was a law student, and when the case made the papers his law firm rescinded their offer of a contract. The forum had a lot of users, many who said they were practising lawyers, and the legal industry is small. I felt like my identity was being filtered through this one site. I worked in a law firm for four years, but at networking events whenever someone stared at my name tag I worried they recognised me from those threads. Had they seen the pictures of me in a bikini that were posted?
It had a huge impact on me. I spent years in fight or flight mode. Now I am very quick to be defensive online. I think having people who can support you (bloggers, or friends) is key. If I write something controversial, I give a friend my Twitter login so they can block abusive messages before I see them. I’m glad that harassment against women online is talked about properly now. I am so hardened to it, I don’t get upset about much anymore.
Natalie Farzaneh, 19, retail assistant, London, 2009
As a lonely teenager you will try anything and go anywhere to make friends so I tried another site
I was bullied at school, but being bullied online was even worse. Growing up I lived in a very white, middle class village outside York. My father is Iranian and that was always an issue. I was also bigger than the other children -– taller and overweight too. At school I was called Paki, Terrorist or Taliban and the children would make fun of my weight and my thick, curly hair. I was pushed down the stairs, and kids would throw chewing gum in my hair.
Because I was lonely, I joined Facebook. I got lots of friend requests. I didn’t realise they were just being sarcastic, taking screenshots of my page and laughing about it with their friends. Sometimes people would do weird Photoshopped pictures of my head on a pig’s body. One of the worst points was when someone wrote on the school’s Facebook page “That awkward moment when you realise you are Natalie Farzaneh”. I felt like I was being attacked from all sides.
As a lonely teenager you will try anything and go anywhere to make friends so I tried another site, Ask.fm. On it people can ask you questions anonymously -– I thought it would help show people I was a nice person. Instead I got horrible messages, saying “Why are you so ugly?” Or “Why are you so fat?”
I didn’t really tell my parents how bad things were. My mother and teachers knew I was picked on at school, and I had a youth worker who was great. But online things got worse. People would post things like, “Kill yourself tonight or someone will do it tomorrow” or “Watch your back” or “I hope your parents get cancer”. Because they were anonymous it made me paranoid. I would be sitting in a class full of people, worrying who was sending them. I started self harming and felt suicidal.
People who haven’t been bullied online will say “Why didn’t you just turn off your computer?” But they don’t understand. You want to know what people are writing, even if it hurts. One day reading my Ask.fm inbox I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My heart was racing. I went to my mum and said “I think I am dying.” She took me to the hospital, and said it was just a panic attack. Later I was diagnosed with anxiety -– I was about 12. When I was 16 I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
What helped was finding an online bullying charity when I was 14. I applied to be one of their ambassadors and I started doing media interviews. Although my parents were heartbroken when they heard how bad things had got, telling other people that help was available made me feel stronger. Other victims would say I made them feel less alone and had stopped them doing something stupid. I felt like I was turning a negative into a positive.
When the kids in school saw me on TV and in newspapers some of them also started realising the effect they’d had. Some would say “I hope you realise it was just banter.” Some of my teachers also said they hadn’t known how hard it had been.
Today I am very happy, living in London with my boyfriend, and being a body positive blogger. I might get the odd nasty comment online but now I am older I don’t obsess over hateful things. I still work as an anti-bullying ambassador and wish people would take online bullying more seriously. Bruises and cuts heal but you don’t forget the names people call you.
Darsh Singh, portfolio manager at an alternative investment company, Texas, 2015
Darsh Singh: ‘Becoming the subject of a racist meme can be incredibly toxic.’ Photograph: Ben Sklar for the Guardian
I first realised I had become a viral meme in 2011. As a student I was the first American Sikh to play for the National Collegiate Athletic Association in a turban. I was captain of the team in my final year, and my jersey was put on display in the Smithsonian. Because of this, there was a picture of me playing online, and someone thought it would be funny to put Islamophobic captions on it.
There were different versions but one read: “Nobody wants to guard Muhammed, he’s too explosive”. To be honest I just thought, “Here is another way people are expressing their hatred.” When you play sports at collegiate level, you get used to people yelling nasty things. It’s the usual names, which of course shouldn’t be “usual”; things like “towelhead”, “fucking terrorist” and lots of references to Osama bin Laden.
The internet is the worst place to argue with people –- it’s a wasteland in terms of logic and thoughtfulness
So when I saw the meme on the web I thought, “This is not a personal attack, it’s a stupid picture and an expression of ignorance.” I just wrote something like, “It doesn’t matter what you say, haha.”
My wife replied on Twitter saying something like, “That’s my husband and he’s a nice person,” which helped. If you put people in context –- someone’s husband or son -– the conversation changes. Without it you are just a concept, and people are more comfortable yelling at a concept.
The meme popped up again from time to time over the next few years, but I just ignored it. The internet is the worst place to argue with people -– it’s a wasteland in terms of logic and thoughtfulness. Would it have helped if I pointed out I was Sikh, not Muslim? Maybe, but saying, “I’m the wrong brown guy -– go catch those other ones!” is not in line with my beliefs. Sikhs stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters.
Last year the meme flared up again, and one of my friend’s brothers, Greg Worthington, wrote a long message on Facebook. He explained who I was and why my jersey was in the Smithsonian. The post was really, really kind. It got a huge reaction. Then the Smithsonian group created a new meme to share with Greg’s post, and a hashtag #BelikeDarsh, which went viral.
I was shocked. It showed me the power of online advocacy. I was interviewed by media outlets and TV stations and got so many messages and calls from sympathetic people. I found it very weird, but I realised that I had this megaphone so I should try and re-direct the love and attention.
I wrote a post asking people to take care of others, in line with Sikhism’s golden traditions; offer love to the people around you, be a voice for those who need it the most. Becoming the subject of a racist meme can be incredibly toxic. It is challenging to be in a world where people are anonymous and don’t show compassion. You need a level of support in real life that many people don’t have.
Cyberbullying: a brief and partial history
1973 The Community Memory digital service in Berkeley, California, charges 25 cents per post to reduce abuse.
1998 In the first successful US prosecution of a hate crime on the internet, a former California university student is convicted for emailing death threats to Asian students.
2003 Film of Canadian schoolboy Ghyslain Raza with a ‘light sabre’ is uploaded and the ‘Star Wars kid’ goes viral. Raza becomes a victim of a cyberbullying attack, and later speaks publicly about its impact.
2005 A student on the Seoul subway refuses to clean up after her dog and is vilified as ‘dog poo girl’ after a photo goes viral.
2008 First US cyber-bullying trial in US, the United States vs Lori Drew, follows death of 13-year-old Megan Meier. Drew, the mother of Meier’s friend (who posed as Josh Evans online), is acquitted but the case leads to the introduction of a Missouri state law. Unofficially known as Megan’s law, this takes a tougher stance on cyberbullying.
2009 A teenager becomes the first British person to be jailed for bullying on social media.
2010 Paul Chambers is convicted (overturned on appeal) for tweeting a joke about blowing up an airport in the UK.
2011 A man is jailed in Manchester for harassing his ex-girlfriend online via a series of blogposts ‘warning’ men about her.
2012 Lord McAlpine is defamed in tweets by Sally Bercow, who later agrees to pay undisclosed damages.
2013 Caroline Criado-Perez receives death threats after winning her battle to reinstate a woman on English banknotes. This leads to three arrests; Twitter announces a new one-click action to report abuse.
2014 Supporters of a disparaging blogpost about games developer Zoë Quinn, written by her ex-boyfriend, start a misogynistic campaign under the hashtag #gamergate, seen as a backlash against equality in gaming.
2014 Nude pictures of more than 100 celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence are published on 4chan.
2015 Luke King, 21, is thought to be the first man convicted of revenge porn in the UK; he is sentenced after pleading guilty to harassment after posting photographs of his ex-girlfriend on WhatsApp.
September 2015 A survey carried out by Vodafone and YouGov reveals one in five young people has been cyberbullied, according to research across 11 countries, making it a more common problem than drug abuse.
March 2016 NSPCC condemns ‘baiting out’ videos, where teenagers shame friends as promiscuous or disloyal.
• Are you a victim of online abuse? Go to stoponlineabuse.org.uk for help and advice.
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