An interview with Cynthia Lowen, director of online harassment documentary ‘Netizens’

Wmc Fbomb Cynthia Lowen Netizens 52718

Online harassment is undeniably a gendered issue. A 2014 Pew study confirmed that women are disproportionately targeted by harassers: 25 percent of young women online have been sexually harassed and 26 percent have experienced stalking on the Internet. Another study found that 70 percent of the people who reported severe online harassment between 2000 and 2013 were women.

And yet, even though women have been speaking out about their experiences with this phenomenon for years, there is still so much we don’t understand about how harassment truly permeates and shapes the lives of its victims.

Filmmaker Cynthia Lowen decided to explore this phenomenon in the new documentary “Netizens.” She recently spoke to the FBomb about what she learned about gendered online harassment through the filmmaking process and where we go from here.

Why did you decide to make this film?

In the fall of 2014, there were a lot of high-profile cases of women who were being targeted online around the gaming community. A lot of them were being forced from their homes and have really serious safety concerns and privacy violations. The [response to that harassment] I heard was “It’s just the Internet, turn off the computer, these aren’t real threats, these aren’t real acts of violence.”

Having come off the experience of producing and writing the film Bully, I had been doing a lot of work in this area of peer abuse and kinds of violence that we expect in our cultures and communities that are really ubiquitous and that we all see happening all around us all the time, and yet we accept as normal. A lot of the same alarm bells were going off: The victim is being asked to change their life and be constrained by the abuse. Bystanders were being told this is a normal part of life on the Internet. I really wanted to challenge the idea that online harassment is normal or something we should accept as part and parcel of our communities online.

Did you notice any other parallels between online harassment the more “traditional” bullying you’d observed throughout making Bully?

Again, this idea that it’s up to the victims to remove themselves from the places where the abuse and violence is happening. Something you’d hear all the time is “get off the Internet.” As anyone would know, that’s not so easy. We can’t remove ourselves from the Internet. We need the Internet. It’s a tool for everything we do in life. There [was also a] response that [gendered online harassment] is just “boys being boys” — the sort of attitude that minimize the seriousness of the privacy violation taking place.

We were really catalyzed to make Bully after it was revealed several young people who had committed suicide had endured years and years of bullying that nobody ever prevented or stopped. It took these suicides to nationally shift, [to say] “wait a minute, this is really serious.” There have been very serious cases of young women whose sexual assaults were videotaped and disseminated in their communities [online], [which] have resulted in young women taking their own lives or harming themselves. Those cases have resulted in communities being utterly shattered by acts of physical violence that totally snowballed when they hit the Internet. The seriousness of [harassment] is taking a long time to sink in, which is another real common thread between digital abuse and what we have seen around bullying.

How did you find the three main subjects this film focuses on? Of the vast number of stories of online harassment out there, why did you choose theirs?

When I started doing research for the film, the first thing I did was speak to attorneys who represent women who have cases [of online harassment]. There aren’t a lot of attorneys [who defend cases like these], which may not be that surprising because this area of law has just been very underrepresented. Part of what the film exposes is just how hard it is to get justice [in these cases], and that it’s a huge systemic problem. I started talking to attorneys who were taking on these cases and in the process met Carrie Goldberg, who is one of the three main women in the film.

When Carrie and I started talking she said, “I work with a number of women [who have cases of online harassment], but the thing I haven’t talked about yet is that I have also been targeted and intimately relate to this issue, and am ready to start speaking about that.” So that’s where our filming together started and took off from.

I met Tina [another subject of the film] because she had called to get help from one of the few advocacy organization that exist for this arena called the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, who put me in touch with her early in her process of trying to get some kind of intervention from law enforcement and the justice system after someone tried to destroy her personal reputation online. She had no idea what to do, what kind of support there was for people going through this. When I met her, she was still at that place of being like “This is a thing? Other people are going through this? There’s a word for what’s happening to me?”

I contacted Anita Sarkessian because I heard about her case in the news. I was struck by how [news stories] were all super sensationalized. I really wanted ... to explore what her life was like, what her work was like, and how she was continuing to produce this great work in spite of this ongoing wave of harassment.

Of course I filmed with other women over the 2.5 years in production, but the thing for each of these three individuals was that they had been really transformed by their experiences and had taken their experiences of harassment and were really constructively confronting them. Carrie’s experiences led her to start this Internet privacy firm that blew up, and you see it taking off over the course of the film. Anita’s work continued to get at really systemic, widespread institutional discrimination and bias and also [began to] look at how women have historically been silenced or how women’s work has been written out of history. I think Tina’s transformation was much more personal in terms of publicly coming out about her own experiences and own past to take control of the story of her life after someone had used her life story against her.

Although these women experience very different kinds of online harassment, did you see commonalities that connected their experiences?

Whether you’re being targeted by an online mob or a guy you dated for five months, it really struck me that these guys always go after women’s careers. Tina’s perpetrator, and ex-boyfriend, intended for her to not be able to get a job because of what potential employers would find when they Googled her name. Carrie’s perpetrator threatened to share damaging material with other judges and attorneys [her professional colleagues], and made false reports about her professionally. The cybermob that targeted Anita for years constantly tried to report her to the IRS for some kind of fraud, went after her bank accounts, threatened people associated with her colleagues, and sought to undermine her professionally. That’s the playbook.

When I started making the film, I expected to film more people being targeted by a mob, or by people they didn’t know for something they had expressed online — people being targeted by people not known to the victim. What I found is that you can’t talk about online harassment without talking about intimate partner violence. I would say by-and-large most women who are targeted are targeted by someone they know and who they’ve had an intimate relationship with.

I think deep at the core of misogyny is a resentment for women being successful or an attempt to deprive women of key life opportunities. For example, preventing a woman from making money is a great way to disempower her from leaving an abusive relationship. Often abusers think if [their partner] can’t make money, can’t survive without [the abuser’s] support, she won’t leave the relationship or, if she does, will have to come back. Economic control is a huge dimension of abuse, and that’s something you see happening here.

In the broader sense, for online mobs who are not necessarily former intimate partners, there are very deep-seeded misogynistic attitudes that women are stealing men’s jobs or that women don’t belong in the workplace — that women are somehow a threat.

Have any legal changes been made in regards to this issue since you started filming?

While all but 12 states now have some form of law or policy regarding “revenge porn,” the laws vary really widely. Often these laws are rendered ineffective by clauses that include “intent to harm,” which is a high bar to meet. Nonconsensual pornography is now banned in the armed forces, following what was called the “Marines United” Facebook page, where members of the armed forces were trading exploitive images of women in the military. Search engines now will de-index images reported to be nonconsensual pornography, so those images (ideally) won’t show up in a search term under your name. Those are good developments, but we have laws for stalking, impersonation, computer hacking, and privacy violations — law enforcement is just really lagging behind in applying these laws when the vehicle involves technology.

What are your hopes for this film’s future?

In the bigger-picture sense, we’re going to launch a robust community screening program and an impact and engagement campaign. We’re going to work with communities that are really affected by the issue — colleges and universities, with tech companies, with law enforcement, women’s rights advocates, domestic violence advocates — so they can really take this as a jumping-off point for the work they’re doing in this sphere.

My biggest hope for this film is that it can really transform what we think of as a normal part of our lives online. I think so many of us witness online violence all the time. My hope is that we can be better witnesses and better upstanders. We’ve had a real cultural transformation around more young people feeling empowered to stand up and get help when they see physical violence or physical bullying, but I think we can also transform our digital spaces in the same way. We can disagree, but we can do so respectfully and constructively. My hope is that this is the generation that will stand up to the tech companies and also find creative, constructive ways to support people who are being targeted. I think for young women in particular, we want your voices online. One of the things we always say is just “log off,” but instead we’re saying, “don’t log off, speak up.”

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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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