The online misogyny frequently leveled at women on the internet isn’t a new issue, but the topic has been back at the news lately thanks to Fark, a prominent link aggregation community launched in 1999, that recently announced it will no longer allow misogyny in its online forums. The site will be updating its moderator guidelines accordingly.
“If the Internet was a dude, we’d all agree that dude has a serious problem with women,” site founder Drew Curtis wrote in a statement about the change, adding that “this represents enough of a departure from pretty much how every other large internet community operates that I figure an announcement is necessary.”
Although it’s unclear how effective the new guidelines will be in practice on the overwhelmingly male site, Fark is garnering some praise for taking a stand against the issue of gender-based harassment and abuse. The move could also represent a step toward creating a healthier atmosphere on the internet.
These issues are sometimes written off as feminists whining or seeking to silence men. But there’s actually evidence that failing to address this type of online abuse can have serious consequences for users’ mental and physical health.
With the rise of the internet, there’s also been a rise in concern for the people who are tasked with moderating disturbing content online. In 2012, Buzzfeed published the account of one of the employees responsible for dealing with “sensitive” content for Google, like images of child pornography. “I had no one to talk to,” the tech worker explained. “For seven, eight, nine months, I was looking at this kind of stuff and thinking I was fine, but it was putting me in a really dark place.”
In light of those issues, a trade group called the Online Safety and Technology Working Group released a report to Congress recommending that companies that employ people to moderate this content find ways to “address the psychological impact on employees of exposure to these disturbing images.”
This is a problem in other professions where employees may routinely be exposed to disturbing content as part of their daily work, too. Multiple studies have found that reporters who sift through violent content — whether reader-submitted news tips, photos of major terror attacks, or images of natural disasters — can end up suffering from symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Attorneys who deal with legal cases that involve similar graphic images, like the material accompanying gruesome sexual assault or murder cases, often suffer from similar mental health effects.
“Definitely when you look at these images, you will have a stress reaction to that,” Heather Steele, the director of The Innocent Justice Foundation, which runs training programs for police officers and prosecutors, recently told Fast Company. “It’s not just whether you are a tough or not tough person. You will have a fight, flight, or freeze response, and chemicals will dump into your system.”
Fark’s policy change comes amid a larger conversation about sexist abuse on the internet. Just two weeks ago, staffers at the feminist site Jezebel announced they’ve struggled to deal with a flood of violent rape imagery taking over their comment section. Jezebel’s recent open letter noted that constantly being exposed to that misogynist content on the site posed a “very real and immediate threat to the mental health of Jezebel’s staff and readers.” Not long before that, the Guardian published a piece noting the “online abuse that follows any article on women’s issues,” proposing that the internet needs to find some way to better moderate anonymous comments. Plus, a report released at the beginning of this month found that online misogyny is a serious barrier to the potential social good that can be furthered by internet technology.
The very specific types of misogynist abuse directed toward women on the internet can fuel real-life acts of violence as well that threaten their health, their safety, and even their lives. Deeply rooted misogyny cultivated in the so-called “pick up artist” community appeared to play some role in Elliot Rodger’s recent shooting rampage in Santa Barbara that left seven people dead. In response to that tragedy, feminists pointed out that allowing these attitudes to flourish online contributes to the everyday violence and sexism that women constantly face.