November 8, 2014
With the increasing number of reports of high-profile cases of harassment in social media, it might be tempting to believe that we humans are losing our capacity for civility.
I’m not so sure that’s true. Technology provides opportunity for change, but it is not the change itself. There has always been a certain number of jerks among us, but a medium such as Twitter provides them with the opportunity to band together from around the globe and concentrate their efforts.
I mention Twitter, because it has become the tool of choice for those who can’t stand to see an opinion that differs from their own and hope that by making threats or hurling invective they will prevent that view from ever being voiced again.
In some cases, this strategy likely works. For example, I hesitate to even mention the Twitter hashtag gamergate for fear of getting unwanted reaction from the many people who take this controversy seriously. If you’re not familiar with #gamergate, search the hashtag. You might not find this enlightening because no one seems to be able to agree on what exactly the controversy is about, except that it involves video games.
Most will agree, though, that many hateful words have been exchanged, and many have been directed toward a few select victims. In other words, harassment abounds.
Harassment of this type is disproportionately directed toward women, as this survey by Pew Research shows. According to the summary:
Young women, those 18-24, experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26 per cent of these young women have been stalked online, and 25 per cent were the target of online sexual harassment. In addition, they do not escape the heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general.
In the past, there has been plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest this is the case, but a survey like this makes the problem a lot harder to ignore.
Twitter has a function that allows users to report abuse, but the company has now taken a big step forward by collaborating with a group known as WAM! Women, Action & the Media.
WAM! is running a pilot project to support all Twitter users experiencing gendered harassment and abuse on the platform, including abuse that intersects with racial, lgbt and other kinds of oppression users face on Twitter.
All you have to do is fill out a form.
I had never heard of WAM! before, but browsing their website shows they are about social change. Here is their vision:
Gender equity in media access, representation, employment and ownership — and a world in which a just media is considered essential to a just society.
While based in the U.S., the group has a chapter in Vancouver.
It remains to be seen whether this alliance between Twitter and WAM! will bring about tangible results, but I have my fingers crossed that it will.
For me it’s a question of free speech. People should be allowed to speak their minds without fear of being shouted down by those who disagree with them. It’s difficult not to be cowed into silence when a group of unknown people is threatening to harm you. Twitter, if it is to survive, must build a reputation for being a forum of free discourse — not a forum where only the loudest, most obnoxious voices are heard.