Social Media Pillory

This week a friend of mine posted about her experience on a dating website. In doing so, she posted screenshots of her interactions with an extremely crude individual on Facebook. She is not alone; see the Instagram account, Bye Felipe. After posting the screenshots, one friend called the guy a “Douche.” My friend responded thusly, “Yeah. It’s a pretty common occurrence, and it shouldn’t be. Public shaming it is!”

This interaction sparked two responses for me. Let’s start with the first one. The amount of violence and sexually explicit language directed toward women online is atrocious. Douche2Women must be careful about their interactions online because men routinely threaten them with rape, hate f*cking, or just outright physical violence. As the screenshot my friend posted online shows, the guy behaves like a classic abuser and moves from “Please forgive me” to “Speak when spoken to” within a few hours.  Of course, this degenerates into vulgar descriptions of his penis, which also seems extraordinarily threatening when capped with “Dumb bitch.”  Almost every woman I know on a dating site, reddit, or other forms of social media has been threatened and called a bitch.

Conversely, my gay male friend who is also on an online dating site reports a different experience. He talks about purposefully teasing other members about their profiles. When I asked him about retribution, he was shocked.  He said, “Yeah, sometimes they say stuff back, but nobody threatens me. Does that happen to women?” I think his experience highlights how high the stakes are for women online.

However, my second response to my friend’s post is equally problematic. Sharing the experience and showing how women are treated on dating sites is a legitimate way to start a conversation on Facebook. In fact, describing the the experience seems like an overtly feminist move by uncovering systemic oppression. This setup video of men catcalling their mothers shows how effective a little shaming can be.

And yet, when my friend posted the screenshots, she shared his photo, his user name, and his city of residence. In effect, she placed him in a pillory. Now the wider public can share in humiliating him for his crimes. Unlike the real pillory that is tied to a specific location, the pillory of the interwebs is everywhere.  Social media has taken public shaming to a global level.

In a perfect world, a man would never send threatening messages to a woman. Nevertheless, we live in this world in which these activities happen all of the time.  As we move forward, we may need to think about the effects of public shame. If our goal is to reform these men and change their behavior, I am not sure the Facebook pillory is the best answer.

Online Violence against Women

It’s crazy coming back from a Conference on College Composition and Communication and trying to readjust to the real world.  While at C’s, I had the privilege of working at the Feminist Workshop and meeting with women at the Women and Working Conditions Special Interest Group. Women from all over the country in a variety of academic positions shared their experiences.

With all of this positivity, I was shocked when I read the news about Ashley Judd’s experience on Twitter. The story begins when, like any other American caught up in March Madness, she tweeted a comment about the success of University of Kentucky’s basketball team. Her tweet was immediately met with a vile and violent response.  She was threatened with rape, called every nasty name in the book, and reduced to a sexual object. Like women calling out other games for sexism in gamergate, Judd became the target of sexual threats.

Judd published a response to the hate in this article entitled, “Forget Your Team: Your Online Violence Toward Girls and Women Is What Can Kiss My Ass.” Judd does a great job of cutting through the crap and getting to the heart of the issue – misogyny. She was targeted with sexual threats because she’s a woman.

Some of her detractors claim this is an issue of free speech and that she part of the idea police. However, I wonder if this is a free speech issue. If someone said, “I’m going to rape you” in the real world, the police could take the threat seriously. I think she’s right to question whether a digital space permits any language.  At the same time, I am loathe to infringe on anyone’s right to free speech. Surely there’s a balance?

Bullying Has No Boundaries

The news is full of stories about young people being bullied to the point of self-harm and suicide. Unfortunately, bullying isn’t a new phenomenon. For example, John Hughes‘s movies (Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club) rely on the tension of the bullied vs. the popular.

The big difference today is the constant presences of the interwebs. While Molly Ringwald can curl up in her bedroom and decide not to answer the phone, many students today cannot escape the hate. As their peers post hateful comments on Facebook and Twitter, their phones buzz every time. The tiny chime indicating that you have a new message may begin to feel like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells.”

The Canadian Safe School Network recently produced a video of young people reading mean tweets. 

They are playing with Jimmy Kimmel’s Celebrities Read Mean Tweets segment. When famous actors and athletes read petty comments, we laugh because their success demonstrates how ridiculous the comments are.  However, the humor found in Kimmel’s show falls apart when vulnerable teenagers read tweets about themselves.

Dealing with mean tweets is more difficult for teens. Teenagers do not have the resilience developed through decades of life. Worse than that, Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t have to face her haters every day in class. She does not have to experience teachers turning a blind eye, or worse participating in bullying. Teens are vulnerable and still shaping their identities. In the digital age, part of that identity is online. Unfortunately, bullying has expanded to make no space safe.