Disseminating private information and threatening violence cannot be trolling when it's waged against a woman but terrorism when it's waged against a corporation.
Hello, hi. I am a woman who is on the internet. Like many women on the internet, I get told that I should be raped or murdered or set on fire or smote by a vengeful God or choked to death by Satan's dick with much more frequency than most people would be comfortable with. And for years, people in positions of power have told me (and others who have it much worse than me) that this isn't a big deal, that we should ignore it. That it's not real.
Now that people in power are the ones being threatened on the internet, we're talking about online threats a little differently.
While I'm not sure that abandoning The Interview a week before its release was necessarily the bravest of calls, I understand the reasons why Sony would opt to scuttle the release after hackers threatened to unleash further havoc on the studio, and the world at large. The people who broke into the company's computer systems have a demonstrated track record of being good at fucking shit up for entirely insane reasons, like cartoon villains on North Korean crystal meth. And while it's dubious that hacking prowess translates into the sort of tactical prowess necessary to execute their threatened 9/11-style physical retribution against the US, I can understand why threats feel real. And if I were Amy Pascal, between firing off bitchy emails about Angelina Jolie and fawning emails to Angelina Jolie, I'd urge my colleagues to act in the interest of their own safety. Even if those actions were irrational in the face of available intelligence.
When the threats are flying at you, even if there is no concrete data to back up the threats, the fear you experience is just as real as the fear you'd experience facing down a threat you could see. Fear only comes in one flavor. That goes for anybody being threatened on the internet, whether it's on a small scale—like a woman being told that somebody is sending a bomb to her apartment building because she wrote something mean about pick up artists—or a large scale—like corporate executives being told that releasing a film will result in having a bomb sent to movie theaters.
Back in October, video game critic Anita Sarkeesian was the target of similarly menacing threats. Before a scheduled talk at Utah State University, she received a letter promising that her speech would be the site of a mass shooting, that the shooting that ensued at her speech would be the biggest in American history. The school refused to ban guns from the talk (Utah is an "open carry" state), and so Sarkeesian canceled her speech. Prior to the canceled engagement, she'd thrice spoken despite specific bomb and death threats issued for specific events featuring her. Other women in the video game industry—most notably Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu—were also displaced from their homes after threats on their lives and safety this year.
For Quinn, Sarkeesian, and Wu, so far the terrifying threats involving the publicizing of their personal information, being bombarded with harassing messages and images, and having information on their homes and loved ones publicized haven't led to physical violence, but they've wreaked emotional havoc on the women's lives. They weren't "just" threats—they were threats that led to real fear, whether or not they actually bore out. As Amanda Hess wrote for Pacific Standard earlier this year, Sarkeesian, Wu, and Quinn are far from alone.
Here's just a sampling of the noxious online commentary directed at other women in recent years. To Alyssa Royse, a sex and relationships blogger, for saying that she hated The Dark Knight: "you are clearly retarded, i hope someone shoots then rapes you." To Kathy Sierra, a technology writer, for blogging about software, coding, and design: "i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob." To Lindy West, a writer at the women's website Jezebel, for critiquing a comedian's rape joke: "I just want to rape her with a traffic cone." To Rebecca Watson, an atheist commentator, for blogging about sexism in the skeptic community: "If I lived in Boston I'd put a bullet in your brain." To Catherine Mayer, a journalist at Time magazine, for no particular reason: "A BOMB HAS BEEN PLACED OUTSIDE YOUR HOME. IT WILL GO OFF AT EXACTLY 10:47 PM ON A TIMER AND TRIGGER DESTROYING EVERYTHING."
But sometimes they're not "just" threats. Back in May, Elliott Rodger preceded his deadly attack on University of California-Santa Barbara with a video warning that he was going to kill women as retribution for not sleeping with him. His friends, days after the crime, expressed a desire to exact similar revenge. Marc Lepine spent seven months planning his 1989 attack on École Polytechnique in Montreal that killed 14 women and injured 10 women and 4 men. Charles Carl Roberts left notes for his family before he killed five Amish schoolgirls in a one-room schoolhouse in Pennsylvania and then took his own life.
Hess and others who have written about the problem facing women online have noted that for as long as the internet's been a place where women get threatened, law enforcement have chosen to respond to those threats with incredulity, skepticism, and idiocy. Administrators of sites like Twitter have also been reticent to characterize direct threats aimed at women (or at the entire staff of websites like this one) as "harassment." Professional idiots like Chuck Johnson have used the forum to release personal details of an alleged rape victim, and direct invective at a woman whom he misidentified as that rape victim, with little consequences, even on the forum where the moral infractions occurred. The objects of these threats are told to suck it up, that the threats aren't credible, that the people threatening us are just "trolls," that they're telling "jokes." The real effects of harassment and threats on the real lives of real women are minimized as easy-to-ignore tomfoolery.
While a similar cry of "suck it up!" is being aimed at Sony in the wake of yesterday's announcement, now that a corporation is in the virtual crosshairs, the tone has changed. Senator John McCain and his fellow elderly saber-rattlers who rule the legislative branch chastised Sony for capitulating to the demands of "terrorists" and "cyber criminals." McCain even blamed Obama for not getting America to an acceptable state of readiness for "cyber war." (Ugh, learn to code, McCain! As long as you've got fingers, you can fight this, too!)
That's some progress, I guess. At least outraged Congressmen are acknowledging the fear and havoc the hackers are wreaking on the lives of Sony employees by actually referring to the perpetrators as "terrorists" instead of dismissing them as puckish merrymaking trolls. At least they're acknowledging what's happening to Sony employees and moviegoers as a violent act of terror and intimidation, something that should be tolerated by law enforcement, or the US government. At least they're outraged on the behalf of the targets of cyber threats (although I highly, highly doubt that McCain and his family would be first in line to see The Interview had Sony decided to go ahead with the release, anyway).
If we're taking the threats leveled against Sony seriously, then why can't we take them seriously when they're made against women? Imagine how much better we'd have it if we'd incorporated our wombs when we had the chance.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.