Threats by Online Trolls Stirs Rising Concern

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Emma Watson at UN Women's HeForShe campaign event in September.

Credit: UN Women on Flickr, under Creative Commons

Emma Watson at UN Women's HeForShe campaign event in September.

NEW YORK CITY (WOMENSENEWS)–As Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, actress Emma Watson fearlessly faced down evil wizards and Death Eaters.

In real life as ambassador for UN Women and its , the 24-year-old English actress recently encountered the monster of online misogyny, a force harder to overcome.

After a to the United Nations in late September about the need for male allies in the fight for women’s equality, the website 4chan–an imageboard site often loaded with sexist and racist rhetoric–struck back at Watson by starting a website–since deleted–with the threatening name . Posters on the site said that after a countdown was complete they would upload hacked, nude photos.

It turned out to be a hoax but the hostile forces lurking on the Internet, ready to pounce on women, cause real harm.

"You kind of go into hibernation and don’t know who to trust in your personal relationships," said therapist and author Sherry Amatenstein, who moderated an October panel, "The Care and Feeding of Trolls" at Bindercon," a symposium for empowering female writers. "It’s frightening, to your soul. It’s very frightening. You don’t want to be a victim so you don’t know what to do or how to address it."

Amatenstein said it is hard to know which online threats are real and whether to respond to them. "These are not necessarily easy questions. Because if you engage, that can give the person an idea that they’re reaching you and they’re going to continue."

Jill Filipovic, a senior political writer for Cosmopolitan.com, discussed her own firsthand experience with Internet harassment at the panel.

Recently on , she was inspired by the GamerGate scandal to link to a of hers about those personal experiences. She described it as "maybe the most difficult and personal piece" she’d ever written. In the story, she wrote about an incident in 2006 when, as a law student at New York University, she came across hundreds of "threads," or topic posts and replies, about her, mostly judging her appearance and her "rape-ability" on an anonymous message board for law students.

‘Details About What I Wore to Class’

"They had details about what I wore to class and what I said," Filipovic wrote. "I felt very suddenly like there wasn’t enough oxygen in the room to fill my lungs."

Taking legal actions against such threats is difficult, especially when anonymity rules on the Internet. Threatening speech is not protected speech under the First Amendment but tracking down everyone who leaves a disturbing comment online isn’t feasible. Even figuring out the people who hacked into the Cloud system and posted nude photos of female celebrities is nearly impossible.

Within the past two months 4chan users had posted nude photos of famous women, including Jennifer Lawrence and Rihanna. Users are able to hack iCloud to obtain the pictures and spread them to humiliate and discredit female celebrities.

Male trolls, or anonymous Internet users dedicated to posting threats and hateful language to shock and anger, abound on many websites. Women routinely receive threatening or sexual messages over social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, particularly if they speak out against hate speech against women.

An Oct. 9 in The Atlantic explored the threats and terrifying pictures, comments and reactions women face on the Internet every day. Pictures of beaten women and videos of rapes in progress are posted and even sent to women who speak out against sexual assault, in or out of a journalistic setting. Revenge porn such as the hack and release of celebrity nude photos is also common and used as a tactic to scare female Internet-users into submission. Men, the story says, film their rapes with their cellphones and then threaten to post them online if their victims tell their families or the police.

Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic and the founder of the Feminist Frequency YouTube channel dedicated to exposing sexism in video games has received countless death and rape threats. A threat of a mass shooting even caused Sarkeesian to cancel a lecture she was set to give at Utah State University.

Gamers Gang Up

An entire online movement called #GamerGate was created specifically to criticize her.

It has now become riddled with "trolls" that terrorize female video game critics or women involved in the gaming industry.

The attempt to humiliate Watson stirred media support. Editors ran headlines laced with outrage. Feminist celebrities including Taylor Swift and Chloe Moretz circled the wagons in solidarity around Watson. Swift and Moretz both made statements praising Watson’s feminist ideals and purporting their asserting their own support of feminism. Actress and model Cara Delevingne led a model protest on the catwalk at Paris Fashion Week and backed Watson with signs bearing the slogan "HeForShe".

Male celebrities such as Tom Hiddleston, Jared Leto and Harry Styles also came to Watson’s side, posting selfies with the hashtag #HeForShe on Twitter, starting a trend and celebrating the message of Watson’s HeForShe campaign and speech.

"The more I have spoken about feminism, the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with ‘man hating,’" Watson said in her Sept. 22 speech. "If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop. It’s about freedom. I want men to take up this mantle."

UN Women launched the HeForShe campaign as a feminist call to action aimed at men.

The campaign, according to its site, is "a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all."

The HeForShe petition, launched Sept. 20 to gather the signatures of male allies, attracted 100,000 signatures within a few days of Watson’s speech. In the latest tally, nearly 184,000 men around the world have signed the campaign’s petition which is posted on its website.

Iceland also rallied around Watson after her speech, calling for a special, all-male UN conference about gender equality in honor of the HeForShe campaign. After criticism for going to an extreme in calling for a sex-segregated event, Iceland opened the gathering to women.

To date, the HeForShe campaign has not responded to the threats against Watson. They have made no official statements and emailing the address on the website has yielded no response. Perhaps the campaign, for better or for worse, will choose to follow the No. 1 piece of advice when it comes to "trolls:" Pay no attention.

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