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Activists make tool to fight online harassment

Molly Wood Dec 9, 2015
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The online harassment of women — especially women who work in tech — has always been around.

That’s according to Anita Sarkeesian, and she knows better than most. Sarkeesian created Feminist Frequency, a website that critiques representation and treatment of women in media and online. The site, in particular its “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series, has made Sarkeesian the frequent target.

In recent years, things have gotten worse for women online. Whether it’s leaked personal information, threats, “SWATting,” or any number of other tactics, online harassment seems to come with active online presence for many. Users don’t always think about it until it’s too late, and a lot of tech companies seem to fall short in the defenses they’ve built into their own platforms.

That’s why Sarkeesian teamed up with Jaclyn Friedman and Renee Bracey Sherman to create “Speak up and Stay Safe(r): A Guide to Protecting Yourself From Online Harassment.” 

“Ultimately, we created the kind of guide that we wish had existed when the attacks on us began,” Sarkeesian said. “It was really important to us that this guide be intersectional and acknowledge the varying complex levels of sexist, racist, homophobic attacks we were facing and continue to face.”

The guide starts out by suggesting three fast steps to take when you feel like you’re being targeted: Engage two-step authentication for all of your logins, up your password game, and remove information from your online profiles that could be used to leak sensitive information like your name, address, phone number, social security number and so on.

What else would Sarkeesian have appreciated having when she was first targeted in 2012? 

“One of the things with online harassment is it’s very isolating. You’re being threatened in really vicious ways, and you start to kind of hole up and isolate because you don’t know who to trust and you don’t know where you can go for help. Online harassment is still something we don’t take that seriously, that we don’t think is real. What I would have liked to have had and what would be really nice is these support structures, where there’s an acknowledgement is real, that this is traumatic and you’re not alone.”

Are things better three years later? Not really, she says. But the conversation around harassment is more public, and that might result in change. 

“I think what’s happening with social media is that it’s becoming way easier and way more pronounced. It’s becoming much more of a public conversation. More people are taking it seriously, and additionally, I think that that is creating a space where tech companies and social media companies are being forced to acknowledge that their platforms are being used to harass people.”

Does Sarkeesian hope that the guide she’s written is filling a void created by tech companies? 

“It’s kind of sad that we had to write this. We shouldn’t have to write this. This is a tax on marginalized people — just to engage online, just to participate online. I think that tech companies need to start building systemic structures and put systems in place that actively deter harassment on their platforms. Right now what’s happening is they’re going, ‘Oh crap, like this isn’t really good that people are being attacked on our platforms,’ and they’re sticking band-aids all over it.”

Sarkeesian thinks that systemic and cultural change is the only thing that’s going to make things better — that communities and companies need to actively push to create safe spaces to make sure that the online world of the future has equality as a built-in feature, not an afterthought. Perhaps “Speak up and Stay Safe(r)” is a step in that direction. 

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