A few years ago, I was doxxed by angry people on the internet. (I’m not going to rehash what happened. You’re reading this on a machine that has google.) After that, I started getting asked to do talks. How can we fix online harassment? How can individuals protect themselves? How can newsrooms better prepare themselves, protect their employees, and respond in the moment?
Before each talk I would get sweaty and shaky. Having to tell rooms full of strangers about one of the most stressful things that has ever happened to me isn’t fun. And in the back of my mind there was the constant fear that some of my enemies would be in the audience. Was I safe? Was the conference going to live-stream the talk without telling me? (Yes, that happened.) Was I going to be able to keep it together as I showed the audience exemplary messages describing all the ways people would like for me to die? Afterwards I would try to make small talk but I just wanted to run away and take a cold shower and sleep for four days.
(I should say that my experience is tame compared to what other people have experienced. Sure, people made my home address public and told me they were going to come murder me, and even sent me photos of themselves outside my house, but it’s been worse for others. Read Zoe Quinn’s new book Crash Override if you want to know what it can be like for the hardest hit.)
Doing these sessions and talks is exhausting and traumatic. But I did them because I wanted to help. If I had to go through this, I could at least try and channel my energy (and my privilege as a white lady) for good to try and help other people.
I don’t do those talks anymore. Because I now think that they don’t really make a difference.
Every time I would look out into the audience, and I would be met with faces who already knew about this problem. Women, LGBT folks, POC, and every combination of those identities. They came to the session because they already knew it was an issue. It was largely young people, entry level employees who know they are targets because it’s easy to fire them if the company gets flustered by too many phone calls. There is certainly a value in building a space for marginalized folks to come together and plan and commiserate, but that can’t be the only way we approach online harassment.
But it’s worth noting who didn’t show up to those sessions. Senior white male editors were never there. Publishers, CEOs, managers, they skipped. Male journalists who cover technology don’t show up to those talks, don’t seem to have any real interest in understanding what these kinds of campaigns feel like.
I get it, there are lots of things going on at conferences, you have to make choices about what to go to. And for some people when they see a session on “combating online harassment” they think “oh, that’s not about me.” And they’re kind of right — they’re never going to be targeted the way the people who do come to those sessions are. This doesn’t seem relevant to them, so they skip out.
And when I read and listen to media, that becomes so clear. Men are still constantly oblivious and surprised by how frequent and intense online harassment can get. Several podcasts recently did segments that laughed off 4chan as “just guys trolling for lolz.” These guys are just having a good time online! They’re not really Nazis, they’re not really that bad, they’re just kind of weird!
I can’t help but wonder if those stories would have been done the same way, had the reporters ever attended a single talk about online harassment.
Conference organizers might mean well, but they also see these sessions as a checkbox. Look, we had a talk about harassment, we did good! Nobody ever asked me what I might need to feel safe before and during one of those sessions. Nobody checked in afterwards. And then two months later I would get another request — can you talk about harassment again? For free, of course.
So now my answer is no. Unless you can prove to me that I won’t just be speaking to people who already know everything I’m going to say, no. Unless you have thought about how and why you’re doing this, who you’re doing it for, and how it will move the conversation beyond commiseration with other people who already know full well what this is like, no.
Maybe this is the lazy thing to do. There are women out there fighting this fight better than I am. But if you’re a journalism conference and you want someone to come and share their story, maybe think about how you’re making it more than just lip service.
Image by Aris Express