One of the stickiest issues in the conversation about combating online harassment is the fact that it's, you know, online. The perpetrator is inside the victim's computer, not under their bed. It's easy for law enforcement and the public at large to dismiss cyber-stalking as "just trolling," as "boys will be boys," as something clearly less dangerous than the "real thing"—even when perpetrators dig up personal details and deluge victims with explicit threats. Hey, don't feed the trolls, ladies! Calm down, that's just the internet!
But it's not "just" the internet. It's real life. For a lot of us, the internet has become the primary mode of remote communication, and the idea that threatening tweets should somehow be less alarming, less dangerous, and less worthy of investigation than threatening phone calls (wait, what's a "PHONE CALL"!?!?!) is absurd. I also think that a lot of men—as evidenced here, for example—simply have no idea of the magnitude of what women go through online.
To be perfectly clear, I have trouble drawing the line myself. How do you know when a persistent troll becomes a real-life danger? When does hysterical overreaction suddenly transform into prudent self-preservation? How many rape threats is too many, and how specific do they need to be to constitute something "real"? And how do we keep victims—especially victims in places with less rigid free speech laws—from being silenced by the very systems put in place to protect them?
We can't begin to answer those questions if we can't even agree, in the public consciousness, that online threats are real threats. Sexual aggression, online stalking, gendered verbal abuse, racially-motivated harassment—when these things play out online they should be taken as seriously as any other harassment claims. They should count.
A few years ago, I had an online stalker, who, upon further investigation, proved to be an ex-convict who had served time for attempting to murder his girlfriend. He wasn't supposed to even be online because it was a violation of his probation. So I contacted his probation officer, and he was dragged off the internet.
In the interests of registering, publicly, that online harassment disrupts human lives in tangible ways, we want to hear more from you, especially about instances when being "trolled" crossed the line into IRL fear. We want to see your tweets and e-mails and OKCupid screengrabs—because, yes, it's fun to commiserate about weirdo internet goobers, but also because this conversation is genuinely important.
I'd like to be able to point to this post and say, "See? This. This is what we're talking about."
Share your experiences below.
Image by Jim Cooke.