Staff Columnist

In 2019, bring the sisterhood

Not feeding the 'trolls' hasn't worked; let's try something else

A man types on a computer keyboard in this illustration picture taken in 2017. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters/Illustration)
A man types on a computer keyboard in this illustration picture taken in 2017. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters/Illustration)

Serious question: Why do you think some people engage in online abuse, and why are women often the preferred targets?

I hope you aren’t expecting my wisdom because, dear readers, this is a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly for more than a decade. I still don’t have a good answer.

What I do know, from personal and professional experience, is online abuse is getting worse. It’s getting uglier on nearly all platforms of social media for women, especially those of color, who dare to express a remotely political opinion. And ideological bent makes no difference.

Amnesty International surveyed 778 female journalists and politicians, placing the results in a new report, “Troll Patrol.” Just over 7 percent of Twitter messages, also known as “tweets,” sent to the women were “problematic” or “abusive.” And while 7 percent may not seem like a large number, that percentage represents 1.1 million tweets in a year — or one “problematic” or “abusive” missive every 30 seconds.

The researchers found women of color were 34 percent more likely to receive such a message. Black women had an 84 percent higher chance of being targeted for abusive tweets than white women.

As for female journalists? Well, researchers found one out of every 14 mentions on Twitter was either problematic or abusive. I’d like to report shock, but it follows my experience.

Most of what we are discussing, thankfully, isn’t a direct or veiled threat of violence. It is more along the lines of dismissive and dehumanizing. And I want “progressive” readers to pay particular attention to this: These types of messages are more often sent to female journalists on the perceived right of the political spectrum than to journalists on the perceived left.

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Part of this, based on messages that have been shared with me, stems from instances when the journalist expresses a viewpoint, or delivers information, that pushes against a fairly common belief. For instance, when a female journalist perceived as right-leaning writes about climate change or reproductive rights in a way viewed as combative by right-leaning readers. Gender-based heckling (i.e., “shut up and iron my shirt”) often ensues.

But there is also the flip side of the coin; when left-leaning readers who otherwise profess to support equality and value diversity lash out.

If I had to make one professional wish for the upcoming new year, it would be for people who truly support equality and value diversity to become a vocal force, especially on social media. We’ve been dutifully following advice to ignore these yahoos for years, and to no avail. When you see a person being unduly belittled and personally attacked, say something — even if only a private message to the targeted person to let him/her know you think the attacker is full of crap.

Because the end goal of all of this negativity is to marginalize or silence a specific group of people. And, if it goes unchecked, it can be successful.

If you don’t believe me, ask your friends what they are afraid to post on social media. We all have our lists, which too often include thoughtful opinions on public policy.

It’s time to start talking, and to have each other’s backs.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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