Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online
Potomac Books, 2016
It would be idiotic if not monstrous to contend women do not endure the constant threat of real violence (both physical and emotional) every time they share, engage, or even exist in online spaces. There is an enduring myth that the Internet “was created as a blank slate–a neutral tool.” From the very beginning of the Internet to now, neutrality has always been a smokescreen or, perhaps more accurately, a fable we all desperately wanted to be true.
However, the reality is there’s a “distinct lack of neutrality in Internet spaces” allowing “men to frame women as interlopers in what are perceived as male-only online spaces and to justify men’s abusive reactions to women’s presence, even though men have not been the primary users of the Internet for more than two decades.” Quite simply, there is no online platform, no social media site where the reality of harassment, abuse, and violence doesn’t loom over women like the sword of Damocles. What makes this situation untenable and one that must be confronted is the fact it’s impossible to have a complete, full relationship with the world without having an online presence. Our work, recreation, culture, community, and family exist in a matrix augmented and intricately bound with our online presence, because like every other kind of media, it makes us who we are.
Bailey Poland’s first book Haters explores how “representations of casual sexism and racism in media become part of the way viewers see the world around them.” Although clearly and predominantly focused on harassment, abuse, and violence perpetuated by men upon women, Poland has the awareness and academic skill to show casual sexism/racism infects all genders. Feminism and cyberfeminism is not immune, “white feminists and trans-exclusive radical feminists are known to engage in racist or transphobic attacks on other women,” nor are anti-feminist women who “are comfortable engaging in the same types of cybersexist harassment as men, positioning themselves as allies to men’s rights activists and other misogynist groups.” Thus, Haters positions itself and states unequivocally “A modern cyberfeminism must be an intersectional cyberfeminism.” In prose both lucid and lucent, readers are taken through common tropes, excuses, and common-sense responses to online harassment, abuse, and violence. At each moment, Poland succinctly breaks down not just the logically flawed and unapologetically disingenuous but also our culture’s quiet complicity.
Online harassment, abuse, and violence grows out of “Policing the ways in which women interact with men–the very ways that women talk.” Too often this policing is done by those who refuse “to critically examine media or acknowledge its effects.” This “third-person effect” occurs to
people who assume that they are not affected by stereotypes in media are often the ones who are most likely to absorb harmful messages and beliefs from it, because they do not interrogate the messages presented by the shows and movies they watch and the video games they play.
In online spaces, this ‘third-person effect’ is typically deeply flavored with misogyny because
A failure to examine something like sexist messages leads to passive acceptance of them as reflection something true about the world, often leading to a reinforcing and strengthening of sexist attitudes about women.
To further parse out how “Cybersexism is intended to wear women down, erode their individual defenses and confidence, and make the psychological cost of online visibility too high a price to pay,” Poland couples this third-person effect with the concepts of deindividuation and autotelic experience.
According to Poland, deindividuation “involves a reduced sense of self-awareness, lowered inhibitions, and poor impulse control,” which serves as a means for persons to “lose their sense of individual identity and, as a result, any idea that they have individual responsibility for their actions.” We see this happen online when groups dox individuals but also in somewhat benign ways when we are a part of any group or social tribe. In online spaces, deindividuation leads to and/or reinforces autotelic experiences. These experiences
involve ‘the loss of self-awareness that can occur in repetitive, challenging, feedback-rich activities’ such as gaming, coding, or even scripted and structured patterns of harassment. Autotelic activity usually involves engaging in the same action repeatedly, escalating certain aspects of it, and receiving environmental responses that encourage certain behaviors and discourage others.
These aspects all contribute in a sort of feedback loop to the creation of an environment and person not just able but willing and eager to harass, abuse, and violate others, most especially women.
As such, Poland rightly shows that the advice to ‘Don’t feed the trolls’ is doomed to fail because trolls “assume that they should get to dictate not only the content of their statements but also the emotional reaction those statements elicit, as well as the content of any responses, and that any negative reaction is entirely the fault of their target.” There is no scenario where someone can ‘win’ against a troll thus confronting us with the questions “How do we create an Internet that has fewer incentives for abusers? How do we reach the people who take pleasure in causing pain? How do we develop effective consequences for abusers without gutting the ability for people who truly need anonymity to be anonymous?” It is this interrogation that gives Haters its unique strength and intense value.
Poland expertly connects trolling with sexism (both cyber and otherwise), which assumes “free speech also includes the ability to be free from criticism or social repercussions.” This is perhaps the most common and damaging logical error in our culture, one that has turned many and most towards an aggressive adolescent libertarianism. The author deftly and swiftly dismantles this,
Being blocked from mentioning someone on Twitter, commenting on their blog, or posting on their Facebook wall does not restrict their free speech in a legal sense; those individuals are still completely capable of continuing to discuss the topic with other people in other venues.
while pushing further to assert
Free speech and the right to free association also encompass the ability to opt out of talking to another individual–something that those who like to insist the Internet is a public form prefer to ignore.
This brings us back around to the myth of Internet neutrality. Poland demonstrates for readers through case studies, personal experiences, and a wonderfully thorough reference list that “Women’s experience of cybersexism is that of a constant negotiation between wanting to claim space online and having the right to exist in cyberspace at all, as well as figuring out which opinion is the least likely to generate harassment and how to minimize exposure to abusers.”
Participating, claiming space, and/or even existing online is labor intensive and deeply draining emotionally for women, women of color, trans and non-binary persons. Yet for the troll, the abuser, it is merely a game. We are left with the grim realization that “Currently there is no good solution that enables women to use the Internet without risking exposure to harassment or closing themselves off to the point of losing the opportunity to interact at all in order to avoid it.” Knowing and feeling just how vital online spaces are, Poland’s study addresses us to act.
Poland quite simply believes that “Those of us with the power to do research, educate other, enforce consequences, and build safer spaces have a responsibility to do so.” Her book is a sort of clarion call to all of us who exist online tacitly endorsing the harassment, abuse, and violence of others by not confronting it in others and ourselves to emend our moral failure.
Haters is one of those rare beautiful books serving not just as a compelling manual, an eloquent critique, and a meticulous study but also a profound moral call to action.
Bailey Poland is a communications analyst, writer, and feminist activist. She completed her undergraduate degree in creative writing at Ohio University, and is currently working towards a Master of Arts in Rhetoric and Writing at The University of Findlay. She can be found tweeting about feminism, books, and coffee @