So (ahem) let me begin with a question…
…what do you think of when you consider the following image:
A grimacing face?
Eyes wide shut?
Mouth stitched together?
EYEis not entirely sure what the Guardian had in mind but this was the image they went for to front a series of articles about the rising global phenomenon of online harassment under the banner the web we want.
Essentially this involved a week long conversation with their readers about: How can we end online abuse, and have better conversations on the web?
Maria Miller’s contribution conveniently enough offered up one possible answer as she called on the government to overhaul internet abuse laws and warned against internet providers being allowed to hide behind inconvenient inconveniences like free speech in democratic adult public forums.
And boy did the Guardian give her quite a portfolio to lay before her fellow Cabinet members.
Most significantly they presented their findings from specially commissioned research into the 70m comments left on its site since 2006 reporting a significant percentage of abusive comments in (cue scary music) the dark side of Guardian comments .
Unsurprisingly they found that articles written by women consistently attracted a higher proportion of abusive comments than articles written by men, that articles about feminism attracted the highest levels of blocked comments and that eight out of the 10 most abused writers eight are women.
What do we mean by ‘abuse’?: ‘Imagine going to work every day and walking through a gauntlet of 100 people saying “You’re stupid”, “You’re terrible”, “You suck”, “I can’t believe you get paid for this”. It’s a terrible way to go to work’ Jessica Valenti, Guardian writer
Online abuse is, of course, a very real and genuine modern day manifestation of a very ancient phenomenon. EYEdon’t seek to dismiss or undermine the significant impact that cruel and threatening digital messages from anonymous strangers can have on people in the real world.
That said, hopefully anyone paying the slightest bit of attention will have noticed that allegations of abuse can also be used as an excuse to censor or shut down opinions and perspectives that don’t toe the preferred party line.
No matter how polite it might be presented, reams and reams of fair and valid criticism that unwittingly share a platform with the occasional twat comment wishing sexual violence on someone can easily be conflated or spun into headlines about ‘torrents of abuse’ when it suits or helps to deflect said valid criticism.
Just ask the Member of Parliament for Yardley.
EYErecently did a case study on the sheer brass neck of some ‘abuse’ claims that can be made by intelligent professional women with a media profile and as many of those darned below the line comments constructively pointed out this week, the Guardian have very effectively provided another.
In a world where ‘revenge farts’ actually exists as an actual concept and Chief Constables are reporting that the “unimagined scale of online abuse” is threatening to overwhelm the police service, you’d think responsible journalists would want to be responsible with their words…but no…
Because without so much as a hint of doubt their methodology shamelessly clarifies that their findings are based on an analysis that counts any and all blocked comments as an indicator of abuse.
At its most extreme, online abuse takes the form of threats to kill, rape or maim. Thankfully, such abuse was extremely rare on the Guardian – and when it did appear it was immediately blocked and the commenter banned.
A policy of mercilessly censoring critical comments below the line of articles about feminism will inevitably enough lead to a finding that feminist articles have by far the highest level of blocked comments.
Just as predictably this week’s narrative has been so shamelessly one sided that the entire #gamergate controversy was simply and succinctly summarised as a misogynistic backlash against equality in gaming and Kate Smurthwaite is presented as high profile victim of abuse ‘for objecting when a men’s rights activist called her “darling” in a TV debate‘.
Again….abuse happens and there were genuine examples to be found amongst the conflation.
If neo-Nazis launched an orchestrated campaign that revolved around infecting me with HIV or if someone started sharing google map screen shots of where I lived with various other far-right accounts I would more than a little concerned (not to mention upset)
Owen Jones claims to have experienced such threats and he most certainly has a right to believe he has a right not to have to put up with that sort of shit.
Even so when he asked his audience: Is it too late to stop the trolls trampling over our entire political discourse? it’s hardly surprising that the general answer below the line was a resounding NO (obviously) and are you sure you’re not being a tad over dramatic?
And by the time it was revealed that (surprise, surprise) Jessica ‘I bathe in male tears‘ Valenti was top of the abused pops without the slightest nod to notions such as click bait or selective censorship, it felt that any meaningful discourse about online harassment had been undermined by a very one sided olde media propaganda piece.
The subtle conflation of actual criminal conduct with decent factual disagreement is what worries a lot of people, and what will indeed be a harbinger of doom for CIF Watchman80
Even so, at least it was interesting to get a slight peak behind the curtain, not to mention confirmation that ‘what about the menz’ is official Guardian policy…
My personal highlight of the week was a hilarious vision of what a locker room full of male Guardian writers might sound like…
Stephen Marche’s contribution talked about his experience of spending time wandering around the online reddit neighbourhood of The Red Pill. What he mostly saw were ‘feral boys wandering the digital ruins of exploded masculinity, howling their misery, concocting vast nonsense about women, and craving the tiniest crumb of self-confidence and fellow-feeling’.
But he also give us a bit of an insight into his notion of locker room banter Guardian style…
In brilliantly cliched fashion Marche proposes that in his early 20’s you’d have found him discussing the ample assets of the resident yoga teacher with a (probably) unpaid intern.
Locker-room talk goes like this: you say to your friend, my God, did you see the tits on that yoga instructor, and your friend says, it hurts you, doesn’t it, and you say it does, it does, and he says you know I’ve sucked tits like that before, and you say yeah right and he says really and you say who and he says in Brazil and you say of course it would be an unverifiable claim, and he shrugs and you laugh and he laughs. Stephen Marche
Naturally enough ‘the quantity of locker-room talk is inversely proportional to familiarity with women’, so he had become uncomfortable talking about lady parts by the time he got married, especially with a friend who worked with his wife because he didn’t ‘want him thinking about her cleavage when she’s firing him’.
Inevitably by the mid-30s a new type of banter emerged in a locker room now populated exclusively by men with female offspring which goes something like this:
‘you ask your friend what summer programming do you have your daughters in, and your friend says I’m trying to find something with science in it, and you say, yeah, you gotta fight those cultural assumptions about girls and STEM, and he says totally, and you say I’m just trying to do little things like nature walks and trips to the science center, and he says we should go together some time, and you say totally’.
Still at least they’ve stopped censoring me…