TechnologyFrom “interaction erection” to troll safari: how women can combat online abuse

    From “interaction erection” to troll safari: how women can combat online abuse

    Nina Jankowicz, disinformation expert and author of the book "How to be a woman online.  Surviving bullying and abuse and how to fight it".  Credit: Pete Kiehart
    Nina Jankowicz, disinformation expert and author of the book “How to be a woman online. Surviving harassment and abuse and how to fight it.” Credit: Pete Kiehartpete kiehart

    Researcher and disinformation expert Nina Jankowicz, 33, published her book How to be a woman online in English in April. She had been the victim of harassment campaigns and she wanted to share her strategies to help other women. She then she did not know, however, that the worst was yet to come.

    On April 27, she was appointed director of a new Office of Government Disinformation to coordinate threats against the US. When she announced it on Twitter, a Republican opinion leader tweeted to her 1.7 million followers that they had created the “Ministry of TRUE”. Thus she began a campaign that jumped to television and that led to “pausing” the work of the new office and the resignation of Jankowicz. “Not even in my wildest dreams did I think there was the possibility of being the target of a national campaign of harassment,” she says by video call to EL PAÍS from her home near Washington.

    Jankowicz also wrote the book, still without a Spanish translation, because he had verified the difference in online harassment between men and women. “With a man in my position it would have been totally different,” he says. “That I was a young pregnant woman who had a very strong online presence was something they could destroy.” In the book, Jankowicz explains the difference in abuse received by two journalists who write the same story when one of them is a woman and younger.

    In a 2021 Pew Research survey of online harassment, 61% of women say online harassment is “a major problem,” while 48% of men say the same. Women who have been harassed online are more than twice as likely as men to say they are “extremely or very upset” about their last encounter.

    In his text, he explains how to deal with less complex attacks than the campaign that led him to close his Instagram and Facebook accounts and maintain a smaller presence on Twitter. These are some of the key points.

    1. Why don’t you just ignore them?

    The book begins with a description of a woman being harassed in real life, with people yelling in the street and threatening her in the car. No one would allow that, of course. But on the internet it is different. When Jankowicz complained to his relatives, they also told him not to pay attention. It’s not that easy: “I don’t overreact, these things affect me. The first time, in 2020, even my husband and mother did not understand. They told me: ‘turn off, don’t look’. If you haven’t been through something like that, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like,” she explains. “And I think especially of men, who are often the ones who tell me that I exaggerate. They don’t understand what it’s like to be a woman or feel that visceral threat,” she adds.

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    To better understand the magnitude of the harassment, in an interview in May with NPR radio, she detailed the type of insults she received after being named: “There were accusations that I am transgender, speculation about my fertility, men who said that I should leave security issues national and go have babies. There was also a fixation with my pregnancy. Why would I take a job like this before I go on maternity leave? Or my weight gain, how my body has changed. There was, in general terms, sexual abuse, which I cannot repeat now, but which is easy to imagine. There were threats to release my personal information, which they succeeded in, and now those details have been acquired by people who wish to do me harm,” she listed, in an accelerated summary.

    Jankowicz has found that, although there is a lot of abuse on minority networks or pages such as 8kun or Parler, bullies hope that their victim sees it in the hope that it will affect them. And they are right, he sees it and it affects him: “I must say that it affects me, as if someone said something horrible to me. Just this morning I posted a thread about the cost of having a baby in the US, and someone said ‘oh this is misinformation, feel bad for your child with a mother like you’. And I think: but if he is a weeks old baby. It does not make any sense. But that stays with you. And it is somewhat trivial compared to those who tell me that I have committed treason and should be hanged, ”he explains.

    2. But you can’t leave the networks either

    Jankowicz has reduced her exposure, but today being active online is an essential part of a researcher’s job. Giving up is not an option. “In some way they affect my right to work. Without Twitter I wouldn’t have the audience that I have for my work. That is where I have had opportunities to write, to speak, where members of Congress meet me to invite me to testify,” she says.

    3. The interaction boner and the troll safari

    What interest do so many people have in messing with a woman like Jankowicz? There is something that is structural: “The misogyny that exists in society is amplified in the networks because you can say things with impunity. The worst thing that can happen to you is that you lose your account,” she says. But in the cases of women with a public presence, whose opinion counts and is heard, there is something more. For some reason they think they shouldn’t be there, that they don’t know enough: “They think that if they continue trolling you, they will evict you from your place on the pedestal, and they will be the ones with the blue verification and the tens of thousands of followers”, He says.

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    In the book, she gives five profiles of men who usually interact with her and who should be left aside. Most often suffer from what the Australian columnist Van Badham explains in the book: the “interaction erection”. As Bandham explains it: “They make it harder for them than ever in their lives when you, a celebrity, talk to them, interact with them. That means you are at least equal to them, probably inferior.” “It’s hard to calm men with erections by interaction,” adds Jankowicz.

    The five types of trolls that Jankowicz describes are, one, the know-it-all professor, who always knows a little more than you and uses the mansplaining often; two, the fake ball, who praises his future victim and when he responds simply “thank you” already seems to imply that they are friends; three, the bum, who believes that Google doesn’t exist and that woman’s duty is to explain things to him as if he were Wikipedia; four, the old man who only writes in capital letters; and five, incels and protofascists, who do not leave any physical aspect uncommented.

    4. The lack of easy answers: don’t bomb a town

    In the book Jankowicz explains that the best option is often to silence: you don’t see it and he doesn’t know it. Jankowicz calls them “mosquito men” who keep buzzing in the void without knowing they are being ignored. But a lot of times blocking is unavoidable for someone who is gross, though then the attacker finds out and can use it to gain visibility. In the US, there is a tool called BlockParty which serves to massively block people who use infamous language.

    The usual response when someone insults is “don’t feed his ego by answering him”, even if it is to ridicule him. Sometimes it’s not that simple. One option Jankowicz likes to use to publicly criticize his harassers is a screenshot with hidden user data: it makes his ridiculous posts look like he doesn’t get any benefit from the interaction. However, with his growing fame, he has chosen to do it less and less so as not to “open up new attack vectors.”

    Another strategy to avoid in order not to appear too powerful is to avoid laughing at accounts with hardly any followers, so that it does not seem that you are “razing a town” without regard. Jankowicz also recalls the difference in how men’s and women’s reactions are measured: “When men encounter behavior they don’t like, they swear. They block. They throw shit or openly troll. And the world thinks they are more macho because of it. Women, on the other hand, if they call attention to much worse behavior, we are told that we are ’emotional’, ‘weak’, ‘exaggerated’ or ‘hysterical’.

    5. So what can I hang?

    Jankowicz had a marching band in college that dressed up as Harry Potter. Photos and videos from the time have been used against her. She already knows that she will never return to that innocence. But not only that: she often watches if she praises someone’s tweet or book because it may involve throwing her into the pack. Of course, she does not publish any photos of her newborn son on open networks.

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    These are some of the reflections he makes before posting: “I think, if I say this, how will it be interpreted by these different types of people who love to hate me? Sometimes I don’t care and I throw miles because I’m passionate about bringing something to light. I used to post photos of hikes, but I did it after the fact so people wouldn’t know I was there. Now I probably won’t do it anymore because it sets a pattern of behavior. Another thing that I haven’t had to deal with yet, because I’m on maternity leave, is that I’m going back to lecturing. I used to advertise them and not anymore. It’s sad for me because it’s one of the things I like about my job, connecting with people,” she says.

    6. Look for like-minded communities

    A great remedy that Jankowicz found for the worst moments is that of communities of women who suffer similar situations. She has a small group on Twitter direct messages and talks often with others who have been campaigned.

    “In the group we are about 25”, he says. “Those relationships have been very important to me, and it’s something that, when I mentor young women, I tell them to do as well, because you never know where it might lead. Those support networks of people who understand it from your perspective, where you don’t have to explain to them and create these metaphors like I’ve had to do for people in my life. It really matters,” she adds.

    7. Protect your real life

    An important part of the book is dedicated to simple online strategies to protect accounts, passwords and real data scattered on the Internet. Jankowicz pays for a service that is dedicated to deleting your information from public pages. In the last campaign, for example, he realized that if he had to buy another house he would do it through a company so that his name would not be encrypted. They are precautions that until now did not enter his head.

    One of his essential reflections is why only women should bear the weight of harassment. Neither the police nor the platforms, at different levels, act. “In the US, given free speech laws, unless there are credible threats of violence, women rarely have any recourse for online harassment. And the police are not prepared to deal with this. They tell you: what do you want me to do? This person could be in Timbuktu,” she laments.

    Then there are the social media companies: “They profit from this really outrageous content. It is a lack of economic motivation. They know they should, but they make money off of crappy content because it keeps users hooked,” he explains. And the problem is that in his career he has only seen things get worse, in networks, he says, basically created by and for men: “It is getting worse. Our democracies are the ones that suffer and the representation of women in the marginalized communities of society”, she adds.

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    Source: EL PAIS

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