A recent report released by The Guardian for its "The Web We Want" project confirmed what most media professionals already know to be true: that women writers receive the most abuse in online comments. If you are a woman writer publishing work online, there's a pretty good chance you know which articles are likely to garner the most comments — and if you are a woman writer, there's also a pretty good chance that you include online harassment under the umbrella term "comments." And the fact that none of this — the results of The Guardian's analysis, the fact that we automatically include abuse in the term "comments," and more — is surprising is really, really messed up.
The study, which explored the 70 million comments left on The Guardian's website since 1999, found that of the 10 writers who faced the most consistent online abuse, eight were women, four of whom were white and four of whom were women of color. Both of the male writers were Black. Members of the LGBTQA+ community and writers of both ethnic and religious minorities also experienced a disproportionate amount of abuse, regardless of their article topics. The 10 writers who faced the least amount of harassment, meanwhile, were all men.
Analysts began their investigation by looking at the spectrum of blocked comments for the approximately 12,000 contributors they've featured over the past decade. Of the 70 million comments total, the majority of which were written post-2005, 1.4 million are unavailable to the public. That is for one of two reasons: Either they've been deleted, or they've been blocked by The Guardian's moderators for violating their community code, which essentially requires that you not be a d*ck — more specifically, no abuse, no threats, and no troll-like or disruptive behavior.
Analysts regarded blocked comments as a sign of abuse. They found that while women faced more abuse across all of the sections, areas with the fewest female contributors — sports, technology, and the like — featured the highest percentage of blocked comments on female-penned pieces. In addition, articles about feminism and rape also featured disproportionately high numbers of abuse.
As someone who writes for the Lifestyle sections of predominantly liberal, feminist-minded publications, I haven't experienced an extensive amount of online abuse because, to be honest, the people who would be most offended by my articles aren't reading them. And yet, the first "hate tweet" I received coincided with the first article I published with the word "feminism" in the title. Obviously.
For a while, I tempered my articles with the simplest, broadest terms I could, sensitive to the ghosts of commenters past hanging around my keyboard. But that makes for boring pieces that are insincere. That erases the whole point of creating an article. That allows the trolls to win. To be a writer you have to have thick skin — with the rise of online, anonymous commenters, resilience is now, more than ever, a requirement.
None of that makes the abuse OK, though. In an interview that accompanied The Guardian's piece, Jessica Valenti, a prominent feminist and one of the "top 10" targeted writers, said, "To get to that place where you're used to being called a c*nt every day — that's a terrible thing to get used to. That does something to who you are." And it is. And it does. And it shows how badly something needs to change — an enormous paradigm shift in how we respond to opinions we don't agree with, and how we interact with people online in general.
The goal of The Guardian's study is to open up a dialogue about the nature of anonymous commenting, of internet trolls, and also to begin an exploration behind why women are so often the targets of online harassment, why it has become such an acute issue, and why absorbing and withstanding abuse has simply become part of the job description. Here's hoping that it accomplishes its goals — because although there are services now that aim to help those targeted online, we clearly still have a long, long way to go.
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