“credible threat: attacks against women online and the future of democracy”: a q&a with sarah sobieraj

In her new book Credible Threat: Attacks Against Women Online and the Future of Democracy, Sarah Sobieraj takes a deep dive into the experiences of women who have been targeted by online attacks in response to their participation in public dialogue about political and social issues. She documents the personal and societal-level costs of this harassment. Sobieraj shows how this abuse is at once focused (especially on non-white women, and on women who engage in arenas dominated by men including sports, gaming, and politics), but generic in its content (consisting of an unending stream of largely interchangeable threats of violence, often sexual violence, alongside vague attacks on women’s credibility and expertise). Women responded to these threats in different ways, making use of an array of largely ineffective tools provided by internet platforms and the legal system (where online threats are routinely dismissed as “not credible”). Many also ceased working on certain topics, or limited their public presence, forgoing the career opportunities associated with such a presence. In addition to creating considerable personal and professional consequences for the women targeted, Sobieraj argues that these attacks diminish the public sphere by forcing women out of it, and especially out of the male-dominated spaces where their voices are most needed. The book ends with a series of recommendations for how platforms can better enable users to respond to threats, and how the legal system can better react to such abusive speech.

The following is a Q&A with Soberiaj about her new book.

Q1: Some of your earlier (and also amazing!) work focused on the “Outrage Industry” associated with right-wing talk radio and Fox News, among others. In this book, you switch focus to talk about the targets of a more diffuse sort of outrage. How did you decide on this project? And what relationship, if any, do you see between the rise of the outrage industry and the pattern of sexist harassment faced by women online? 

A1: Oh, it’s all linked! I’m interested in patterned inequalities in political voice and visibility. Soundbitten, my first book, focused on a group of political actors –activists clamoring for news coverage– who were relegated to the margins, and The Outrage Industry looked at political personalities whose inflammatory rhetoric had been amplified (and rewarded) via radio and TV opportunities. In 2012 and 2013, as that was winding down, I started seeing stories in the news about women such as Anita Sarkeesian (pre-Gamergate), Zerlina Maxwell, and Caroline Criado Perez who were being attacked online. So many elements of the phenomenon spoke to work I had been doing — the vitriolic rhetoric, the trivialization of activist voices, the complexities of political visibility — I couldn’t stop thinking about it. 

In terms of the relationship between extreme political talk media and online abuse: Sometimes it feels or looks as though outrage-based media drives digital abuse. The attacks I just mentioned against Zerlina Maxwell happened after she appeared on the Hannity show, where she argued that rape prevention efforts would be better served by teaching men not to rape than by arming women. But it would be a mistake, I think, to see the relationship as causal. Both are born of similar elements in our political culture, particularly the extent to which those who have traditionally taken their political and economic security for granted feel –consciously or subconsciously– threatened by and resentful toward those who they perceive as destabilizing that taken-for-grantedness. That sense of being under siege is what drives ratings and propels identity-based abuse. Having said that, people with large audiences can mobilize that rage and turn it, whether intentionally or unintentionally into a weapon. Of course, as we have seen with the attacks against “the squad,” that power isn’t it limited to cable news hosts.

Q2: The solutions you discuss in the end of the book are aimed primarily at reforming the legal system (courts, police officers) and at the governance of the handful of large platforms where much of the abuse occurs (Twitter, Facebook). But you also note that some of that abuse is coordinated in much harder to reach and less public spaces, like forums on Reddit or 8Chan. Sociology even has its own version of this, in the form of the anonymous job market rumor mill (patterned after the even more horrific site for economics). Are there ways to target sites like these? More generally, how can we address the “supply” side of sexist abuse? Some kind of coordinated cultural effort to delegitimize this behavior? If you could dream big, what would you propose? 

A2: Supply side? Is there actually a demand side? ;-) 

I’m not sure how you dispel pent up resentment and hostility in a context where it is so regularly stoked by political elites, so limiting the opportunities to harass and working to shift the balance of risk and reward for being abusive are essential. The dynamics in more cloistered and often non-monetized spaces (like the rumour mills), where smaller numbers of contributors interact regularly in the absence of even the pretense of rules, are different. But in the end, whether you are in a forum or on Twitter, the same logic holds.  

During the 70s and early 80s, subway graffiti was a contentious political issue in New York. There was a thriving artist subculture driving a seemingly unending supply of tags and murals in and on the trains. Elected officials and the transit authority desperately wanted it gone (it was seen as a symbol of lawlessness, crime, etc.). They tried heavier policing, installing fences, adding razor wire, and a number of other efforts, with little effect. The way they eventually got some traction was by systematically washing the cars every night. The artists wanted their work to be seen.

This is all to say that reducing the ability to distribute is a reliable way to reduce the supply. That’s why platform adjustments –the kind that motivate them to enforce their own policies— would have the greatest impact. If your clever racialized rape threat is removed before the targeted person or your twenty followers see it, there isn’t much point. For truly unregulated places, legal recourse and properly equipped law enforcement are essential. 

Q3: Credible Threat focuses on the experiences of women who are public figures of one sort or another – journalists, academics, which really helps to make the case about the chilling effects of sexist abuse on political speech. What connections do you see between this kind of pervasive sexism and the and other forms of sexism that women encounter in their day to day lives?

A3: Oh, it’s all connected! Just like street harassment or sexual harassment in the workplace, digital attacks against women who are politically vocal are really about refusing their attempts to be taken seriously as colleagues, experts, interlocutors or peers. The lewd commentary, identity-based epithets, and intimidation are part of an uncomfortable game of public degradation as sport that most women have encountered throughout their lives. 

These strands of sexism also share a counterintuitive impersonality. The Biden/Harris memes about “Joe and the Hoe” would have been used if Tammy Duckworth or Gretchen Whitmer had been the nominee as well, right?  You can often distinguish an attack as the kind of abuse pointed at Black women or Muslim women, but you can rarely find a connection between the content and the specific Black or Muslim woman who received it. This generic quality is a red flag pointing out that digital attacks are much better understood as a form of patterned resistance than as interpersonal bullying. The rage is rooted in hostility toward the voice and visibility of individual speakers as representatives of broad groups of people. 

Q4: Over the past couple years, I’ve spoken on a few panels about engaging in public sociology online aimed at graduate students who are considering joining twitter, starting a blog, etc. In doing so, I’ve felt a tension between wanting to encourage students to participate and enrich the public sphere with their knowledge (and potentially reap career benefits from doing so, in the form of networks, collaborations, visibility, etc.) and the need to warn students, especially students who are not white men, about the pushback they’ll face if they succeed at building a public presence. My own experiences here are of limited value – I’d estimate that I’ve received about as many threats and hostile messages in my decade on Twitter as your typical respondent experienced on an unremarkable day. What advice do you have for those doing public sociology and for those asked to advise others on how to become more public? What do our grad students need to know as they think about becoming more vocal on twitter, writing op-eds, etc.? And how do we navigate this tension where, as Sara Ahmed describes in a related context, warnings themselves can have chilling effects?

This is tricky, because there is so much to be gained! Not only does publicity help emerging scholars share research and ideas, build professional networks, and learn about opportunities, it also gives the rest of us access to the perspectives of young scholars who enrich our thinking in critical ways! But it’s important that senior folks not be glib about the risks. A tenured professor at a respected university may be able to brush off defamatory content in a way that a graduate student simply can not. And most students don’t have the institutional or financial resources necessary to support themselves if they are doxxed, hacked, or deluged with upsetting content. Still, I would never suggest someone stay at the sidelines if they are eager to put themselves out there. Instead, I would encourage them to proceed with caution. Among other things, it is a good idea to evaluate and minimize potential digital security risks, ask folks already addressing similar topics online about their experiences, set up alerts to notify you if/when your name appears online, and develop a plan about what to do in the event of an attack (perhaps in conjunction with IT at your institution). There are lots of resources out there that provide guidance on these issues. These are not fool-proof tactics –many tech-savvy folks have been targeted despite having taken precautions– but they are useful places to start for those thinking about their online presence.







Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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