The Daily Northwestern

Vargas: Online harassment is a form of censorship, inhibits public conversation

Alani Vargas, Columnist

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As someone who loves social media and is constantly on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, I’ve come across my fair share of online trolls.The threat of online harassment has often stopped me from posting certain articles or opinions because fighting with someone hiding behind their computer screen is usually a losing battle.

I remember the first time I was harassed online. I had just written a column for The Daily about feminism and how I have personally been empowered by such an important movement in our society. The day that I tweeted about my column I learned the easiest way to attract trolls and harassment to your feed is by including “#feminism.”

I tend to become intensely anxious when I receive negative and unfounded comments online. It’s not that I hate it when people disagree with me. I enjoy discussions with people of varying opinions, even when they are a little aggressive. However, when I experience name calling and intentionally hurtful language from people I don’t know, the comments cross the line from critical statements to personal attacks.

Everyone is subject to criticism and negative comments on the Internet, especially if posting about topics that may induce a lot of opposition. But in my personal experience and from what I’ve witnessed, women get the brunt of online harassment. Although men are more likely to encounter name calling and physical threats online, the Pew Research Center reported women are more likely to experience “severe forms of online harassment.” According to Pew, 26 percent of women ages 18-24 have been stalked and 25 percent of them have been sexually harassed, an occurrence that can come in the form of rape threats.   

The anonymity of the comments section on any YouTube video or popular Facebook post often brings out the worst in people. This issue has become even more relevant to me in the past couple weeks because of the column Jessica Schwalb wrote in the The Daily earlier this month about the banner controversy. Her column tackled the issue of the continuing lack of tangible efforts to address sexual assault in fraternities and elsewhere campus. However, the comments section turned into a forum for men and women alike to throw around insults and condescending remarks, without engaging in any productive criticism. For example, one commentator wrote, “a failed generation. Once 18 year olds stormed the beaches of Normandy facing death. Now they are looking for their safe space.” These comments fail to generate constructive criticism, as they do not provide a substantial counterargument or an understanding of the author’s original opinion.

Men are also victims of online harassment, of course. 40 percent of all Internet users have suffered from online abuse, with the rate increasing to 70 percent when focusing on users aged 18 to 24. The fear of being attacked online definitely hinders some some users from sharing important ideas and posting more controversial opinions on social media and Internet sites. Pew found that from 2000 to 2005, the percentage of Internet users who participate in online chats and discussion groups dropped from 28 percent to 17 percent. Moreover, a survey of more than 3,100 college women found that about 19 percent of respondents said they were deterred from sharing their views on feminism because of the backlash they could receive.

Harassment is a mechanism used to silence people. I believe women as a group have been silenced throughout history, and this continues to play out online. And there are certain topics, such as sports, that people think women do not have the authority to speak on. Women journalists and sports journalists in particular encounter a lot of judgement for just doing their jobs.

I appreciate criticism, maybe even more so because I am a writer. But when the worth of my ideas is being questioned because of my gender, or when I start to feel unsafe because of slurs hurled at me online, that’s when it becomes harassment and that’s where it needs to end.. The sooner we understand that hateful speech hinders real dialogue, the sooner we can have a productive online conversation.

Alani Vargas is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at alanivargas2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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