‘Violence Against Women Gets Treated Differently’: A Congresswoman Battles Online Harassment

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ELISE AMENDOLA
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ELISE AMENDOLA

When Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) was swatted in January 2015, she had an advantage over the average victim: She already knew what swatting was.

“Swatting” is a type of harassment in which someone calls the police to summon SWAT teams to someone else’s home, inciting panic and fear while wasting police resources at the same time. In Clark’s case, the caller that lured police to her door told the cops that there were multiple gun shot victims at Clark’s address and an active shooter was still in her home. Actually in Clark’s home: her children, asleep, and her husband.

One of Clark’s initiatives, the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act of 2015, co-sponsored by Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA), combats those attacks by leveraging existing federal laws against using telecommunications systems to falsely report bomb threats or terrorist attacks, arguing that falsely reporting other emergency situations should be illegal as well.

Since 2014, Clark has been one of the leaders in Congress on the issue of online harassment and the ways in which the internet can be a toxic hellscape for women, LGBT individuals, and people of color. She has implored the FBI to prioritize Gamergate — one of its best-known victims, Brianna Wu, is a Clark constituent — and, last year, introduced a bill asking for each U.S. Attorney’s office to designate one or more assistant U.S. attorneys to investigate and prosecute cybercrimes, for 10 additional FBI agents focused on investigating cybercrimes, and for the implementation of “a regular and comprehensive training program to train FBI agents in the investigation and prosecution of, and the enforcement of laws related to, cybercrimes.” Clark also spoke at SXSW’s Online Harassment Summit and brought another high-profile Gamergate target, Zoe Quinn, to speak at a Congressional briefing.

Just weeks ago, Clark sent a letter to Tom Lehman, CEO of Genius Media Group, in response to his company’s latest product, the News Genius Web Annotator. The tool allows anyone to add commentary to any page on the internet. The product received backlash from the get-go; it was introduced to the world in March, and journalists, familiar with the vitriolic sludge that can plague even a well-moderated comments section, were quick to point out that the tool could easily be a weapon of abuse. At launch, Genius did not provide a way to block users or for users to report abuse or harassment.

Genius Wants To Let Readers Annotate Any News Article. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?The News Genius Web Annotator is a tool that allows anyone to add any commentary to any page on the internet. Users…thinkprogress.orgIn her letter, Clark wrote that while the Genius online annotation platform “is a potentially powerful tool to educate, clarify, and provide context… it can be used as a tool to harass, intimidate, and silence.” She emphasized the “lack of safeguards” in place and the apparent inability of websites who would rather not participate in this editing free-for-all to opt out. “During your development and review process, did you consider how Genius could be misused to harass and intimidate?” she asked. Lehman replied, writing, in part, that “Genius does not enable abuse” and the suggestion that it could “is a false narrative that has taken hold on Twitter and other outlets.”

Pew Research studies — and anecdotal evidence from anyone who has ever been a woman or person of color on the internet, or knows someone who has — reveal that 40 percent of all internet users have experienced online harassment. The most likely victims of harassment are young women, who “experience certain types of severe harassment at disproportionately high levels.”

Clark spoke with ThinkProgress by phone about the nature of online harassment. Her insight: That there is a direct connection between the almost all-white, all-male Silicon Valley scene and the fact that so many platforms on the internet tend to be particularly nightmarish for women and people of color.

I want to start with the question that is really underneath all of the more specific issues we’ll talk about in a bit: Why is the internet so hostile to women and people of color?

That is a good question! The internet is this incredible tool because it can connect us. But the ability to be able to connect and to be able to use it anonymously has some effect that is not very positive on some people. And we’re seeing that women and especially women of color and LGBT communities really suffer abuse online, serious abuse online, at far greater rates — at some estimates, they’re 27 times more likely to experience online abuse than a man — to be subject to very harsh abuse online. And I think it’s tearing out the powers for good. Sometimes they turn into powers to have a real effect on women’s safety online as their trying to conduct their professional and personal lives.

When we talk about online harassment, the focus is often on the perpetrators and victims of that harassment, understandably so. But when you think about how these structures even came to be — who builds and designs these platforms where all the harassment takes place — how much of an impact does the fact that Silicon Valley is dominated by white men have here?

There is a definite connection. I think as we look at high tech that does not do a good job of hiring and retaining women and people of color, it is very hard to design applications or social media platforms that are designed to be used universally by people. If you don’t have people on your design team in the room thinking about how they could be misused, how they could effect the end user in a negative way, we end up with products that, it seems obvious once you look at them, but nobody thought of it, because there wasn’t that perspective on the team that was designing these products.

It is huge connection and one that we are really trying to work with companies in tech that we say: What is your process? How do you evaluate how a product can be used? Who is in the room making those evaluations? And what do you do for your own employees who might be suffering this type of abuse? What sort of protocols have you put in place? How do you think those can be reflected in the apps or social media platforms you put out? I think the issues are so intertwined. And I also think that our laws and our enforcement of it hasn’t kept up with the use of the internet and how important it has become to conducting our professional lives.

Is part of the challenge that law enforcement isn’t fluent in internet-speak? Just the idea that, say, I have to be on Twitter or online all day for my job, I sense that there is still a big disconnect there — that there is still a lot of, “Well, just don’t go on those platforms if you don’t want that abuse.”

One thing we have come to realize is, there are many good laws on the books already, at the state and federal level. But there’s a real disconnect between having those laws and having them enforced, because people aren’t fluent in what it means to have to be on Twitter for your job, or that you make a living writing blog posts that turn into appearances and other types of income coming in. And we have had victims who are talking to very well-intentioned local law enforcement who want to be helpful and who said, “We don’t know what Twitter is. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So that’s why we filed the bill that would give $20 million worth of grants a year to local law enforcement to develop training programs, to buy technology if they need to, to really understand not only the nature of these crimes and how they’re being perpetrated, but the best practices around investigations and enforcement of those laws.

Beyond the internet, are we just, as a society, willing to accept the fact that any public space will be at least marginally negative if not actively violent toward, or dangerous for, women? Because when a public space is dangerous for men and women, we react as if that is a huge problem, and it is. But if a woman says, for instance, she doesn’t feel safe in a certain place or walking home at night, the attitude can often be, “Well why were you IN that place? Why did you walk home at night?”

Sadly, I think that’s true. And we still are hearing, most recently from a judge in Massachusetts who said to one of the victims that we work with, “You simply have to get offline.” As if, somehow, she had asked for the unbelievable abuse that she has suffered, which has cost her not only lost income but legal fees. She actually moved from where she was. Her family has been targeted and harassed. And we still have that. I certainly saw it as a prosecutor back in the early ’90s, when we were really still looking at domestic violence as something that was a family matter, that happened behind closed doors, and there wasn’t a role for law enforcement. Violence against women gets treated differently, and we know this. What we can’t do is continue to accept that. Looking at online harassment, looking at these threats of violence, that can turn into real, physical violence, we have to make sure that the internet stays open to everyone. So it has to be a safe place, and we can’t perpetuate our attitudes towards women.

I understand that you were already invested in this issue before it became personal for you and you were swatted at your home. But how did having that experience influence the way you thought and felt about this?

Anything that you experience personally, the effect that it has had is to make me more committed than ever. I think that there is something different when it’s your family that is asleep in their beds when the police are on your front lawn with guns. That’s just a different scenario. And as sympathetic as your can be to hearing the terror from victims of swatting and online harassment, it’s a different feeling when it happens to you, and it has certainly made me more determined than ever that we start to change this culture, that we start demanding more of the companies who are creating applications and technologies and social media platforms, and we have to do a better job of enforcing the laws on the books and making sure we’re creating a safe environment.

You had a bit of a dialogue with Genius and in a public-facing way they were sort of receptive to your criticism. How invested do you think these tech companies are in actually making substantive changes?

I think they really wish that I would go away more than anything else! But I think they’re realizing that this is part of continuing to grow. They want to have an interesting social media platform that people use or an application that people use that they can make money on, and they can’t achieve that ultimate goal if it is not safe for women, or if it subjects people to abuse that is dangerous and frankly horrifying.

SXSW Put On A Harassment Summit After It Was Threatened By Gamergaters. Here’s How It Went.AUSTIN, TEXAS – A police officer scanned the room as Brianna Wu, a video game developer and blogger, was…thinkprogress.orgSo I think that using my position as a member of Congress, not just for legislation but to tease out, what is this connection between a lack of diversity and these products, and how are you addressing that, and how are you designing for safety for universal use, for all users? And you have to look at the First Amendment and free speech from both sides of the same coin. We want, of course, to protect the right to express opinions, but there have always been limits on that, and we’re seeing women’s First Amendment rights being chilled. We’re seeing that, when they go online, especially if they are in a male-dominated profession, like the gaming area, they subject themselves to really hateful speech coming their way with very specific threats of violence. And it is a very different type of effect when these threats can come so rapidly and from so many different people, all anonymously, and it becomes very difficult to decide who lives next door, who might be the person who could show up and harm you and your family, and who is just participating in a group bullying exercise, and it’s terrifying. I think we have to continue to work with these companies and show them the downsides of what they’ve developed, and to show them best practices, to people who are committed to diversity and tech. I think we have a role in keeping that pressure on the industry.

Twitter and Facebook have taken the stance that they don’t want to be in charge of deciding what is and is not harassment; it’s really been their go-to excuse for staying out of this issue as much as possible. Are you worried at all about these companies getting too involved in determining what speech is and is not okay? Or is that really not a concern when compared to the urgent, pressing issue of hate speech and abuse toward women and people of color that’s already in play?

I think some of that we’re going to litigate and we’re already seeing those cases come up. I don’t think it will, ultimately, be up to Facebook and Twitter to completely make the rules for what is free speech on the internet. But because they are ultimately private companies and they have user agreements, they have a lot of authority over this, and that is where we’ve tried to be the voice for women and people of color and LGBT users of their different platforms to say: You’ve got to do a better job of making sure that everyone is able to participate and be safe, and that starts with diversity in your design team and how you actually bring these products to market, and what you think about. We don’t expect that you can prevent everything; that’s not the standard we’re holding people to. But we can definitely do a better job, and I think some of the big industry players are beginning to see that that is not only good for the users but good for their bottom line.

What’s missing from this conversation about online harassment, even as it grows in volume? What aren’t people noticing or understanding about this issue?

I think people are beginning to pay attention, but I think it’s going to take a long time. We’re trying to find some ways to speed that up. One of them is really doing training for local law enforcement, for judges, to say: This is a tool that is vitally important to just about everyone, so we need you to understand this, and this is something that is critical for when you are evaluating cases in your courtroom, when you are evaluating 911 calls that are coming into your police station. We’ve got to keep this pressure up because it does make a difference. It can be a very isolating experience to suffer severe online abuse and we have to make sure that people know their story is not unique and that people are interested in changing what happens online.

But I think what we haven’t reached yet is this connection between the lack of diversity in tech and this harassment. And we are starting to see some examples of companies that are rethinking their pipeline for their engineers and who they hire, and I think those are the important areas where we have to encourage and keep getting the word out: We are going to have, over the next decade, the most diverse workforce our country has ever had. And we have to make sure that our tools and especially tools on the internet that can reach millions of people globally are designed by people of diverse backgrounds, both genders, and make sure that we are taking those considerations into effect when we are designing these products.

Do you think there’s anything specific about the mentality in Silicon Valley that makes it a particularly hard arena to diversify?

I think there is a strong culture that really discounts coming at it from a privileged place, and that surrounding yourself with people who are, no doubt, talented and bright, but why aren’t you looking at other schools other than the Ivy League and Stanford, where you can also find incredible talent that might add to the diversity of your workplace? Those are the sort of programs we’re seeing companies in Silicon Valley work to. But I do think there’s a bit of a bubble there, and a bit of an echo chamber, talking among themselves, and people who criticize that culture, however constructively, there’s a bit of a feeling of, “You just don’t understand.” They’re really not evaluating how they’ve created this culture and the downsides of having a very homogeneous workforce.

Nobody is saying disruptive technology isn’t amazing and that the ideas are good. But the point is, when you are designing for universal application, you have to have a diverse workforce. And ultimately that is not threatening; that is going to lead to better products, more profits for them, and a better culture within their workplace. We have to get them to a place where they can acknowledge that and see the results. I’m hopeful that we can get there, but these are big historical forces. It’s a lot to take on and a lot to change.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.