Online abuse isn't going away, but you're not helpless to fight it

Anita Sarkeesian, who has gotten death threats since calling out sexism in video-game culture last year, has teamed up with two other women to create a guide to combat online harassment.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
3 min read

You can't really call 2015 the year of online harassment because the problem goes back so much further.

Just ask Anita Sarkeesian and Jaclyn Friedman, who have first-hand experience with how toxic the online world can be. The activists and authors each have had to cope with death threats for speaking up about how women and others are bullied, harassed and abused online.

Sarkeesian and Friedman ran into each other about a year ago and swapped horror stories about their experiences. They decided there needed to be a systematic, organized way to help others dealing with online tormentors. They soon teamed up with fellow author and activist Renee Bracey Sherman, who had reached out to Friedman for advice after she got online threats for being an abortion-rights advocate.

The trio's brainstorming led to the release this month of "Speak Up & Stay Safe(r)," a 30-page manual on how to prevent and cope with online harassment. The free guide is available in English, Spanish and Arabic.

"We've learned so much that we thought there's no excuse for others being harassed to endure what we went through," said Friedman, a Boston-based feminist who co-authored "Yes Means Yes: Visions of Sexual Power and a World Without Rape." "We want others to feel safe enough to be able to speak up."


Three women who've dealt with their share of online harassment have created a guide, Speak Up & Stay Safe(r) to help others in similar circumstances help protect themselves.


The guide is aimed at women, people of color, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, Friedman adds.

"These are voices marginalized from the conversation, but they are who we want and need to hear from online," she said. "These online spaces are now our public spaces where we have discourse as a culture. A lot of us need these spaces to do our jobs, so just turning it off is not an option."

Friedman, founder of advocacy group Women, Action & the Media, dealt with a barrage of abuse after she argued in 2010 that rape allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be fully investigated. Assange was never charged. Friedman also campaigned --successfully -- for Facebook to ban misogynist hate speech.

Bracey Sherman, author of a book about reproductive rights called "Saying Abortion Aloud," has received violent threats for her abortion-rights stance.

Sarkeesian received rape threats and death threats during last year's GamerGate controversy, an online campaign against Sarkeesian and others for challenging the way women are portrayed in video games. She was forced into hiding and cancelled a speaking engagement at Utah State University after the school got emails threatening the "deadliest school shooting in American history" if she appeared.

Women activists taking a stand in public are hardly the only ones who deal with online abuse. About a quarter of women between 18 to 24 have been the victims of either sexual harassment or stalking online, while 65 percent of Internet users under 30 have faced online harassment of some sort, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.

Even if you don't read the entire guide, the authors say there are three things you can do right away to reduce your risk of being harassed, starting with tips on fighting against "doxxing," which refers to the malicious use of someone's personal information online. They also recommend creating multiple email addresses with different, complex passwords and using two-step verification, a technique that requires someone to pass a pair of tests before getting access to an account.

In addition, there are tips on using security questions and how to go about the onerous process of removing personal information from the Web. For people who play video games online, the authors suggest using different gamertags -- nicknames and aliases -- for each video game platform.

Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor and author of "Hate Crimes in Cyberspace," said the guide can only do so much because harassers, who are able to operate anonymously, aren't likely to give up using the Internet to spread abuse. Still, taking steps to "prevent and minimize the spread of your personal information and securing your online accounts" is a good start, she said.

Just expect that it will take time and effort.

"It's a tax on women, people of color, queer and trans people and other oppressed groups for daring to express our opinions in public," the trio write in the guide. "None of this is fair. It should not be our meticulous labor and precious funds that keep us safe, it should be our basic humanity. But that has proven heartbreakingly, maddeningly insufficient more times than we can count."