The Ms. Q&A: Cynthia Lowen Puts Cyber Harassment in Focus in “Netizens”

Brooklyn-based attorney Carrie Goldberg’s ex sent her hundreds of text messages and e-mails, hacked her work computer and sent her emails with naked photos and videos of her—claiming he’d BCC’ed judges and colleagues. West Palm Beach business owner Tina Reine’s ex created a website with harmful information about her that employers found when they googled her name. The infamous Gamergate cybermob doxxed and relentlessly harassed San Francisco-based Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian with rape and death threats.

NETIZENS tells their stories—and offers an in-depth look into the impact of digital violence and how women are fighting back.

The film will be available in wide release on Oct. 22nd and is currently available for pre-order from Apple TV. You can request a screening in your community and visit the Netizens website for an online security guide and other resources.  

NETIZENS marks the directorial debut of Cynthia Lowen, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and award-winning writer who previously produced and wrote the 2012 documentary feature BULLY. She talked to Ms. about what led her to her latest, and how she hopes the online world responds.

What inspired you to make this film?

In the fall of 2014, I heard about Anita Sarkeesian being targeted and that there had been no effective intervention from either law enforcement or any of the tech companies that were involved. I was like, this is wrong. How is this happening? How is this possible that people can send really specific death threats and that there is nothing being done? This project started so I could understand why and how that was happening. What were the systems that were allowing this to proliferate? 

How common is online harassment?

The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative recently came out with a research revealing that one in eight Americans have been targeted with the release of private intimate pictures online. I think it’s something that we see all the time in our digital communities. Whenever I go on Youtube, I can look in the comments section and see any number of abusive comments on any number of videos that I’m likely to come across on a certain day. The same thing for reading comments on newspapers articles. It’s something that is really ubiquitous. It permeates so many facets of our digital lives.

How is online abuse a gendered phenomenon?

Women are targeted in unique ways that I think plays on existing gender inequalities and forms of discrimination. It’s often very sexually violent. Women are disproportionally targeted by image exploitation, aka revenge porn. Women are also targeted as a form of domestic violence. Abusers use cell phones for stalking and surveillance and use keystroke software to go through every email that a woman receives and to get her passwords. 

You describe the film as taking a cinematic verité approach. Can you explain that? 

A problem that I was facing as a filmmaker is how do you depict online harassment. When I started filming the women featured in the film, I realized that every part of their lives was affected—their ability to work, to go out and feel safe, to date, to do their jobs, their whole lives had been transformed by this. What I realized really quickly was it is so important to make this concrete. This is not abstract. Online violence is not a figment of someone’s imagination. These women are not imaging that they’re under threat. They are under threat. Their lives have been totally transformed. I was able to capture that by taking this approach of being just a fly on the wall, bearing witness to what’s happening. 

Several of the women in the film talk about how police refused to act on reports of online harassment, or how judges see online harassment as “free speech.” Why don’t they take this behavior seriously?

It remains a really big problem. When police hear it’s on the internet, they say, “Just turn off your computer.” Sometimes the officers are digitally illiterate. But even if you have a sympathetic officer, it can be hard for them to get the necessary support they need from people higher up to adequately investigate. 

There is an attitude that is really pervasive that is like why does that nude picture exist. What were you doing? Why were you naked? Why are you sexual? It’s the same thing we hear about rape and sexual assault. What were you wearing, how many drinks did you have, what did you talk about with the person involved. So women have to overcome all this bias and victim blaming.

You’ve described the internet as the next frontier of civil rights. What do you mean by that?

In this day in age, the internet is where we go to work, to go to school, to express ourselves, to participate in public space, to take advantage of all the internet offers. Targeted people are denied access to life opportunities like employment and education because of what’s happening online. Because of what was posted online about Tina, she has been un- or underemployed for seven years. Whenever she tries to get a job the employer googles her name and finds the stuff. Even after the sites came down, she has to explain why she has such an odd gap in her resume away. 

What can people do to help others targeted by online harassment? 

In online spaces, there are so many things we can do as individuals. It can be as simple as making sure if you see someone who is being targeted in your digital community you can direct message them saying I saw that, are you okay, I’m supporting you and I’m here for you. You can not pile on, you can not join mobs. If someone is sharing an image that violates someone’s privacy, don’t share it. If someone has been the target of a high-profile celebrity photo hack, don’t click the link, don’t be part of it. 

More broadly, law enforcement needs to catch up with the digital frontier and with digital crime. It’s a part of almost any crime and yet law enforcement and police departments often remain really under equipped. I’ve been working at different levels to get people involved in policy and law enforcement to invest more in tools and resources, or just screen the film and have a conversation.

Employers need to understand how they are unwittingly being used by abusers to target their victims. Often what will happen is that the first thing an abuser will do to a woman is wreak havoc on her digital footprint because they know if a woman can’t get a job, if she can’t support herself, if she can’t support her children, that she will be vulnerable to staying in an abusive relationship. I think it’s important for employers to understand when someone’s digital footprint is a sign of abuse and to evaluate that candidate based on their skills. 

How do we protect ourselves online?

The easiest thing we can do is use two-factor authentication whenever it is offered. Another common sense thing is to not reveal your address. Be careful about how much personal information you are giving out. Be mindful of what is in the background of your photos. Consider whether you want people to be able to identify where you are at a certain moment in time. Having a good handle on the amount of information you are giving out is important. 

The other thing is locking down your privacy settings so people can’t see who all your friends are. Something that often happens to people who are targeted is that a perpetrator sends a picture or disparages you to everyone in your network and if you’ve made your settings so someone can’t see who all your friends in your network are, it makes it much harder for them to do something like that. 

Third, Google yourself. You really need to know what’s out there. It’s not just being vain, it’s important to know what your digital footprint looks like. Cause other people are looking at it. If you are trying to apply for school, they are looking at it. If you’re trying to get a job, they are looking at it. And you should know what that looks like because if someone has decided to use your digital footprint to abuse you, you can’t do anything about it until you are aware of it. 

If you could change the internet, what changes would you make?

I would make the internet a place where people aren’t afraid to express themselves. The idea of free speech has been so co-opted by abusers. What is counter-speech to a non-consensual pornographic image of you? What do you do with threats to your life? There isn’t counter speech for that. 

I’ve talked to so many young women who want to start a blog, or a podcast, or a project, but are really afraid of being targeted. I know that feeling with this film. But I think it’s important for young women and all women to know that we stand strong together and if you are being targeted that there is a whole coalition of women and men who support you. Also, if you feel like you’re going to be targeted and are afraid to put your name out there, there are great ways to use anonymity or a pseudonym to put your ideas out there in a way that’s safe for you.

What is your goal with the film?

I think that my greatest hope is that we no longer think of online harassment and digital abuse as normal or inevitable. We need to hold tech companies and law enforcement accountable for our safety and our privacy. I want policymakers to get up to speed on their digital literacy and hold tech companies accountable. We need to understand that this is perhaps the greatest public space and public asset that we all have and we are all stewards of it. 

About

Carrie N. Baker is Professor and Director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Her 2007 book The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment won the National Women’s Studies Association Sara A. Whaley Book Prize. Her second book, Fighting the US Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race and Politics, tells the story of activism against youth involvement in the sex trade in the United States between 1970 and 2015.