You’re cruising around your Twitter feed and some random guy with a wacky profile picture is hounding your favorite female journalist. What do you do?
First, let’s get one thing clear: Violence, abuse and harassment toward women on social media should carry the same weight for you as in the offline world. Feminist YouTuber extraordinaire Marina Watanabe reminded me recently that the term “trolling” is a dangerous euphemism. “When people hear the term ‘trolling,'” she explained, “they assume it’s exclusive to online spaces, which ignores the real world ramifications of online harassment and the way that it’s connected to a larger pattern of abuse and misogyny against women historically.”
Let’s call it what it is: harassment—and a particularly toxic kind. Amnesty International’s recent report on online harassment noted that “women rely on social media platforms like Twitter to advocate, communicate, mobilize, access information and gain visibility,” and that dealing with sexist diatribes has a silencing effect—leading three-quarters of women to self-censor what they post, limit their interactions and even abandon the platforms completely.
One vile example of this was a violent threat against feminist writer Jessica Valenti’s daughter in 2016. Valenti’s description of the day-to-day harassment she and other women face is equally deserving of intervention: “The abuse on Twitter feels like a constant stream,” she posted on the site. “It can include general nastiness or name calling (you b*tch, slut, c*nt).”
Unfortunately, social media affords men numerous and near anonymous opportunities to spew general nastiness. I see it everyday. Offline, this general nastiness is like a mosquito bite. On Twitter, it’s more like a swarm of mosquitos blanketing your arm and chewing it off. It shouldn’t take a woman’s daughter being threatened with rape to stir us to action.
Like all millennial feminists do, I follow my favorite thought leaders, journalists, and activists on Twitter. Last week, this subtle insult caught my attention:
The general nastiness can take the form of insults like the one above. It also may come in the form of genuine ignorance masked as honest engagement. These kinds of online interactions drain our feminist sisters by questioning the validity of their oppression.
How exhausting was it for you to explain the wage gap to Uncle Johnny at your last family get-together? The time and energy investment to explore these complex issues is heavy. What lightens the load is when we all take an active role in spreading the word, especially men. While all of us online can challenge sexist behavior and harassment, men have a unique role. That’s because online misogyny, harassment, and violence toward women are a men’s issue.
Just like in the offline world, men are the primary harassers. Remember, being a man comes with significant power in our society, on and offline—and just like we have the power to harass, we have the power to quash harassment, man-to-man.
There are five specific strategies men who believe in equality can take to make social media a safer space for women to thrive: They can report it, name it, crush misinformation, provide emotional support and respect the target’s views.
Documenting harassment is an important first step and can help social media platforms take action to protect their users. Labeling harassment makes clear that the behavior is inappropriate, offensive and problematic—and men can follow up with describing why it’s a problem directly on the thread where it rears its ugly head. Donating some time to engaging other men in dialogue about feminism is particularly helpful for comments from men who use the label “feminism” as a weapon; simply endorsing feminism as a man has power, and men can follow-up with an invitation to continue the conversation off the thread, perhaps in direct or private message. Letting the target of the harassment know you’re there to listen—through a DM, an email or even via text—reminds them that they’re not alone. And when more subtle forms of misogyny appear, and men take the extra step of knowing the lens from which the target likely views it, they’re better enabled to respond on the target’s platform. Staying inclusive and intersectional in our rebuke is generally good strategy.
We’re not “good guys” simply because we’re not taunting women online if we scroll past a demeaning YouTube or Twitter comment and just shake our heads. If you’re silent, you’re condoning our unruly brothers and their harassment. Our goodness comes from standing up and speaking out, especially when it’s not the easy or comfortable option. That means when we’re online, too.
Be a part of the solution. Take action. Talk back.