Rape GIFs and the pernicious problem of sexist online trolls

Globe and Mail
August 13, 2021
By Emma M. Woolley

Web-based service corporations love to say that they care about people and are dedicated to preventing abuse, but their actions frequently suggest the contrary.

On Monday, the staff at the Gawker Media blog Jezebel announced that they have a “rape GIF problem.” Users have been signing up with anonymous burner accounts to post images of hard-core pornography and physical violence in the comments, which can only be manually removed by moderators. In their statement, they write:

“This practice is profoundly upsetting to our commenters who have the misfortune of starting their day with some excessively violent images, to casual readers who drop by to skim Jezebel with their morning coffee only to see hard-core pornography at the bottom of a post about Michelle Obama.”

This is just one more horrible, visual version of the harassment (more commonly called “trolling”) that women already receive online. Threats are common, especially on feminist sites or blogs. They are such a regular part of being an Internet feminist that the writers come to expect them, refer to them as a rite of passage, or make a habit of ridiculing them (like on Feministe).

The abuse can be shockingly cruel, and it can happen at any moment. Take what happened to Zelda Williams – daughter of deceased comedian and star actor Robin Williams – when she posted a message of mourning on Twitter: a couple Twitter users abused her and her father’s memory in the foulest of terms. Telling a grieving public figure that she is a “whore” who should “get cancer” was too much, even for sometimes slow-to-move Twitter: the company banned some of the users amid the uproar. Ms. Williams vowed to quit the network and also Instagram altogether, maybe for good.

What’s important to note is that kind of filth is thrown on social media services every day, every hour, at women both in and out of the public eye. Both Facebook and Twitter encourage users to use the block function to escape abuse – the ol’ “ignore it and it will go away” tactic. On Twitter, only the individual being harassed can file a report that can hope to be read, and even then, parts of it might be shared with the abuser.

Wired writer Laura Hudson writing in response to the Gawker problem highlighted the indifference of corporations to the disproportionate levels of abuse women receive. “Although nearly any writer or public figure endures their share of unpleasant feedback on the Internet – Gawker’s tech site Valleywag, for example, certainly gets its share – the ugliness of the harassment experienced by women is more pernicious because it echoes the inequality we experience in our daily lives,” she writes.

For months, Gawker Media did not attempt to address the issues raised by Jezebel staff. “In refusing to address the problem, Gawker’s leadership is prioritizing theoretical anonymous tipsters over a very real and immediate threat to the mental health of Jezebel’s staff and readers,” they wrote.

It was only after Gawker Media was publicly called out that there was an appropriate response. Joel Johnson, Editorial Director at Gawker Media, tweeted that he’d “dropped the ball” and didn’t have a solution yet, but it was his problem.

He later announced that Gawker Media was disabling image commenting until a better solution is sound. On Wednesday staffers at Jezebel wrote an appreciative update, announcing the creation of a “pending comment” system for pre-moderation. “This ordeal has been unpleasant, but we’re lucky to work at a company where raising hell gets you results instead of getting you canned.”

But outside of feminist spaces, discussions and identities, women are far from safe online. In a Wired piece published in May, Ms. Hudson wrote about the unequal distribution of online harassment, noting: “In a 2013 Pew Research survey, 23 per cent of people ages 18 to 29 reported being stalked or harassed online; advocacy groups report that around 70 per cent of the cases they deal with involve female victims, and one study of online gaming found players with female voices received three times as many negative responses as men.”

This mirrors the stark realities of harassment in the real world: In U.S. schools some 83 per cent of girls aged 12-16 reported sexual harassment; while in the EU 40 to 50 per cent of women reported some form of violence or unwanted contact in the workplace. Globally, the World Health Organization has reported that at least 35 per cent of all women “experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.”

Online, even the most mildly feminist articles receive a huge volume of offensive, negative or off-topic comments. Editor Chris Elliott from The Guardian recently discussed this, quoting one moderator as saying: “There seems to be a huge backlash against the Guardian’s increasing coverage of feminist issues, from more frivolous pieces (body hair, sunbathing topless, anything to do with Beyoncé) to pieces on domestic violence, FGM etc.” Elliott discusses the impressively thorough moderation practices at The Guardian and goes on to wonder if the solution is disallowing anonymous accounts, therefore forcing people to post under real names.

It is a shame that people abuse anonymity in order to be malicious without consequence, but Gawker’s public shaming is far from the first time a company has only responded to requests to set tighter guidelines when the issue was publicized. In May 2013, Women, Action and the Media, The Everyday Sexism Project and Soraya Chemaly ran a campaign to have Facebook properly address gender-based hate speech. Facebook representative Marne Levine eventually stated that the company would update the criteria for hate speech and do better, which would be more admirable if it hadn’t taken contacting advertisers to get anything done.

What’s unfortunate is that except in moments of crisis, the people behind these corporations don’t seem to prioritize the safety of their users, and this is especially true when it involves women. Until we treat online harassment as something serious, preventable and an action with consequences, it’s not going anywhere.