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“Shouldn’t Be The Victim’s Responsibility”: If Tech Companies Wanted To End Online Harassment, They Could Do It Tomorrow

If someone posted a death threat to your Facebook page, you’d likely be afraid. If the person posting was your husband – a man you had a restraining order against, a man who wrote that he was “not going to rest until [your] body [was] a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts” – then you’d be terrified. It’s hard to imagine any other reasonable reaction.

Yet that’s just what Anthony Elonis wants you to believe: That his violent Facebook posts – including one about masturbating on his dead wife’s body – were not meant as threats. So on Monday, in Elonis v United States, the US supreme court will start to hear arguments in a case that will determine whether threats on social media will be considered protected speech.

If the court rules for Elonis, those who are harassed and threatened online every day – women, people of color, rape victims and young bullied teens – will have even less protection than they do now. Which is to say: not damn much.

For as long as people – women, especially – have been on the receiving end of online harassment, they’ve been strategizing mundane and occasionally creative ways to deal with it. Some call law enforcement when the threats are specific. Others mock the harassment – or, in the case of videogame reviewer and student Alanah Pearce, send a screenshot to the harasser’s mother.

But the responsibility of dealing with online threats shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of the people who are being harassed. And it shouldn’t need to rise to being a question of constitutional law. If Twitter, Facebook or Google wanted to stop their users from receiving online harassment, they could do it tomorrow.

When money is on the line, internet companies somehow magically find ways to remove content and block repeat offenders. For instance, YouTube already runs a sophisticated Content ID program dedicated to scanning uploaded videos for copyrighted material and taking them down quickly – just try to bootleg music videos or watch unofficial versions of Daily Show clips and see how quickly they get taken down. But a look at the comments under any video and it’s clear there’s no real screening system for even the most abusive language.

If these companies are so willing to protect intellectual property, why not protect the people using your services?

Jaclyn Friedman, the executive director of Women Action Media (WAM!) – who was my co-editor on the anthology Yes Means Yes – told me, “If Silicon Valley can invent a driverless car, they can address online harassment on their platforms.”

Instead, Friedman says, “They don’t lack the talent, resources or vision to solve this problem – they lack the motivation.”

Last month, WAM! launched a pilot program with Twitter to help the company better identify gendered abuse. On a volunteer basis, WAM! collected reports of sexist harassment, and the group is now analyzing the data to help Twitter understand “how those attacks function on their platform, and to improve Twitter’s responses to it”.

But when a company that made about $1bn in ad revenue in 2014 has to rely on a non-profit’s volunteers to figure out how to deal with a growing problem like gendered harassment, that doesn’t say much about its commitment to solving the problem.

A Twitter spokesperson told me that WAM! is just one of many organizations the company works with on “best practices for user safety”. But while Twitter’s rules include a ban on violent threats and “targeted abuse”, they do not, I was told, “proactively monitor content on the platform.”

When WAM! and the Everyday Sexism Project put pressure on Facebook last year over pages that glorified violence against women, the company responded that its efforts to deal with gender-specific hate speech “failed to work effectively as we would like” and promised to do better.

On Sunday, a Facebook representative confirmed to me that since then, the social network has followed through on some of these steps, like completing more comprehensive internal trainings and working more directly with women’s groups. Harassment on Facebook remains ubiquitous nonetheless – and even the most basic functions to report abuse are inadequate.

So if those who face everyday online harassment can’t rely on the law, and if social media companies are reluctant to invest in technologies to scrub it from their platforms, what then?

Emily May, the executive director of the anti-street harassment organization Hollaback, told me that, like many women, “I don’t want to be on YouTube or Twitter if every time I open up TweetDeck I see another rape threat.”

Do you?

 

By: Jessica Valenti, The Guardian, December 1, 2014

December 2, 2014 Posted by | Domestic Violence, Social Media, Violence Against Women | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It’s Difficult Not To Think About Loss”: Face It; Thanksgiving Is Depressing This Year, And You Don’t Have To Give Thanks

This Thanksgiving, it’s difficult not to think about loss.

For a lot of people, this time of year brings more sadness than cheer – thinking about the kinds of relationships you wish you could have with family or friend, thinking about loved ones that aren’t there. And as injustice prevails in Ferguson, as another young man of color is killed with seeming impunity, as sexual predators are given standing ovations and sexual violence across the US continues to be unearthed, it’s hard to remember how to be thankful. It’s easier to ask what we are supposed to be thankful for at all.

Hard times can bring out the best in people – whether it’s a national tragedy or an individual loss, some of us comfort each other and try to send hope even when it feels like there is none. More than once this year, as people in my life have suffered losses, I’ve sent around this Rumi quote: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

But what if there are just too many wounds? What if we can’t see any light?

Earlier this month I found out that a friend (with whom I’d fallen out of touch) had killed himself. I struggled to reconcile the memories I had of him – equal parts kind and hilarious – with what his last days or weeks must have been like. He was an artist, and I still have one of his paintings – it’s chaotic and beautiful, and I wish I could find some answer in it as to why he is gone. But all I see is paint.

Sometimes it’s all we can do not to let our losses eat us whole.

It’s incredible, really, that those who experience tremendous loss and injustice have the strength to go on fighting. It’s amazing that people – parents – whose children’s lives and futures were stolen from continue on with grace. But I wonder how the rest of us can think to ask them, even for one day a year, to be thankful. To look on the bright side. To be positive.

Whether their wounds are fresh or years old, asking such a thing of hurt people feels a bit selfish – like we don’t want to bear witness to their pain, so we ask them to put a happy face on it. Maybe asking people to think about what they’re grateful for can be a way to help them to move on or be happy despite their hurt – or maybe that’s just what we like to tell ourselves. But doing so requires enough self reflection to be sure it’s about what someone really needs instead of our desires to do something.

As I prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family this week, I’m acutely aware of how incredibly lucky I am to have a family that loves me, to have food on the table.

But I’m not thankful, and this year – for reasons much more important than my own – I don’t believe we should ask anyone else to be either. We can be there for each other, and we can comfort each other, but let’s not demand gratefulness from one another in a time of sorrow.

 

By: Jessica Valenti, The Guardian, November 27, 2014

November 27, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Thanksgiving, Violence Against Women | , , | Leave a comment

“Stony Silence”: On Bill Cosby, Hard To Keep The Faith

A few weeks ago, I spent a delightful afternoon and evening with Bill Cosby. I was the emcee of a gala for historically black Claflin University, which is in my home town of Orangeburg, S.C.; Cosby was the headliner. Both of us were donating our time to a worthy cause.

It was just the second time I had met him, so I certainly don’t claim to know him well. It was apparent that he’s having serious problems with his eyesight; a young man was at his side to help him navigate. Otherwise, Cosby was just what you’d expect if you ever watched an episode of his eponymous television show — warm, funny, avuncular, mischievous, wise. He was Cliff Huxtable in winter.

Cosby does his stand-up routine sitting down these days, but he had the audience roaring. I was floored by his talent — the way he spun out multiple threads of narrative until he seemed hopelessly lost in digression, then somehow pulled everything together at the end. He’s still got it.

So was I having a jolly old time with a serial rapist?

It is possible that all the women who accuse Cosby of sexual predation are lying, in the sense that anything not prohibited by the laws of physics is possible. But it doesn’t seem very likely.

I confess that I’m having trouble squaring the allegations with the man I was with that day. I suspect many people may be experiencing the same kind of cognitive dissonance. Cosby has spent his long, groundbreaking career in the entertainment industry being such a good guy. How could he possibly be such a bad guy, too?

I still remember the electrifying night when “I Spy” debuted in 1965. It was the first network television series to feature an African American in a leading role, with Cosby co-starring alongside Robert Culp. They played a couple of secret agents who pretended to be an itinerant tennis pro (Culp) and his trainer (Cosby).

The writers made Cosby’s character the brainy one. “I Spy” never once, to my recollection, dealt head-on with the issue of race. It didn’t have to. Seeing an intelligent, well-spoken black character, with no hint of subservience or buffoonery, was statement enough.

Cosby’s image as a paragon reached its apotheosis nearly two decades later in “The Cosby Show,” which began its eight-year run in 1984. One of the greatest sitcoms in television history, “Cosby” took viewers into the lives of a middle-class African-American family. The cultural references were specific and revelatory — familiar music, historically black colleges, the “code-switching” that upwardly mobile African Americans learned to perform. Oh, and the sweaters.

“The Cosby Show” was a soapbox. Cosby used it to preach universal truths about love and family but also to deliver targeted messages about the value of education for African Americans.

In recent years, his insistence on the theme of black self-empowerment has bordered on the shrill. At times, it seemed to me, he went overboard in “blaming the victim.” But his heart was in the right place.

Or seemed to be.

How am I supposed to reconcile this history with allegations of sexual misconduct and rape that span more than three decades? Five women, including supermodel Janice Dickinson, have come forward in recent days to charge that Cosby lured them on the pretext of mentoring their careers, plied them with alcohol and perhaps some unknown drug and forced them to have sex when they were unable to resist.

A 2005 civil suit by a Philadelphia woman alleging that Cosby sexually assaulted her — and offered her money to keep quiet about the attack — was settled out of court.

It is important to note that Cosby has never been charged with any crime. It is also important to note that statutes of limitations have run out on most, if not all, of the alleged attacks. It may be unfair, but a rape that goes formally unreported for too long is no longer legally considered a rape.

Is it fair to Cosby, then, that his alleged victims come forward now, knowing they will never have to prove anything in court? Cosby’s defenders should be aware that some of the women have spoken publicly before; the difference is that now they’re being listened to.

Cosby’s new sitcom project has been canceled. “The Cosby Show” has been yanked from the rotation on TVLand. I’d like to believe the man I met is incapable of such monstrous acts. But his stony silence makes it hard to keep the faith.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, November 20, 2014

November 24, 2014 Posted by | Bill Cosby, Rape, Violence Against Women | , , , , , | 1 Comment

“When Does Fox News Apologize?”: After Years Of On-Air Idiocy, Why Walk Back Your Business Model Now?

Nearly two years ago, Fox News luminary Shepard Smith delivered a memorable apology. On a slow-news afternoon in September 2012, Smith’s afternoon program followed a protracted car-chase in the Arizona sticks. Its coverage of the drama was so intense that producers failed to cut away from the scene when the driver got out of his car, staggered through a desolate area and shot himself.

Tonal perfection characterized Smith’s mea culpa: “We really messed up, and we’re all very sorry. That didn’t belong on TV. … I personally apologize to you that that happened,” said the host.

The theme of Fox News’s capacity for apology surfaced this week, after “Fox & Friends” co-hosts Brian Kilmeade and Steve Doocy joked about the Ray Rice situation. On Monday’s program, the two were discussing the emergence of the TMZ.com video showing Rice assaulting his then-fiancee in the elevator of an Atlantic City hotel. To wrap up the discussion, Kilmeade quipped, “I think the message is, take the stairs.”

Doocy, in the jocular spirit of a cable-news morning show during a discussion of domestic violence, joined in: “The message is when you’re in an elevator, there’s a camera.”

With that, “Fox & Friends” prepped public expectations for a stone-faced apology. Tuesday morning, that didn’t happen. Instead, Kilmeade appeared to be blaming viewers for using their eyes and ears: “Comments that we made during this story yesterday made some feel like we were taking the situation too lightly. We are not. We were not. Domestic abuse is a very serious issue to us, I can assure you.”

CNN, like a good competitor network, found newsworthiness in the depravity of “Fox & Friends.” In a chat with host Carol Costello, CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter said, “It’s a cheap try yo pretend to apologize but then again, Fox News tends not to come out and apologize when their hosts say offensive things.”

Cue the Google and Nexis searches for “fox news apologizes.”

In August, Fox News’s Shepard Smith apologized for having called Robin Williams a “coward.” (Hat Tip: Johnny Dollar)

In April, Fox News apologized for a graphic that painted a distorted picture of Obamacare enrollment numbers.

In March, Fox News host Clayton Morris apologized for “ignorant” comments that he’d made about gender. (Hat tip: Johnny Dollar)

In October 2013, Fox News apologized for reporting — based on a bogus story — that President Obama had pledged to personally donate to the International Museum of Muslim Cultures during the government shutdown.

In February 2013, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson apologized for ripping Wiccans. (Hat tip: Johnny Dollar)

In July 2012, Fox News apologized for showing a picture of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels in a discussion of convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky.

In July 2011, Fox News apologized after its politics Twitter account was hacked, resulting in a false message about the assassination of President Obama.

In November 2009, Fox News apologized for misrepresenting some footage of Sarah Palin.

So there’s a sampling of Fox News’s regretful moments of recent years (we don’t claim it’s comprehensive). The circumstances behind them vary — some correct factual mistakes, others remedy stupid, ill-considered remarks made in the error factory that is live television.

Does the network under-apologize for “offensive” remarks, as Stelter suggested? Who knows — a claim that broad and subject to value judgments is both unprovable and irrefutable, a perfect thing to say on cable news. Perhaps there is a contrast to be drawn with MSNBC, a network that went on an apologetic tear starting last November after offending the likes of Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, the “right wing” and others.

Despite the squishiness inherent in this debate, it’s clear that there’s an entire industry of apology demands directed at Fox News. Here’s a demand that Fox News host Megyn Kelly apologize for her comments about Santa and Jesus being white. Here’s a demand (from now-Fox News guy Howard Kurtz, in 2009) that Fox News apologize for using “partisan propaganda” on air. Here’s a demand that Fox News apologize for its Steubenville rape coverage. Here’s a demand that Fox News apologize to all Canadians for mocking their country’s military. Here’s a demand that Fox News apologize to John Kerry for catching his off-mic remarks (see comments section). Here’s a demand that Fox News apologize for some allegedly transphobic remarks by Dr. Keith Ablow (who produces apologizable statements in just about every appearance, it must be noted).

And on and on: Some of the demands are perfectly ridiculous, some compelling.

Of all the moments for which Fox News has apologized or received apology demands, none appears as regret-worthy as what went down on Monday’s edition of “Fox & Friends.” In advising “take the stairs,” Kilmeade appeared to be counseling domestic abusers on how to do their thing. Or perhaps he was counseling women not to get into elevators with their boyfriends. Abominable either way. Fox News — and “Fox & Friends” itself — has apologized for much less. Absent an explanation from Fox News itself, only pure arrogance can account for why the network whiffed on its responsibility to viewers. Years and years of on-air idiocy, after all, have propelled “Fox & Friends” to the top of the morning cable-news ratings. Why walk back the show’s business model now?

 

By: Erik Wemple, The Washington Post, September 10, 2014

 

September 12, 2014 Posted by | Domestic Violence, Fox News, Violence Against Women | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The NFL’s Twisted Sense Of Justice”: The Priorities Are Wildly Out Of Proportion

Where would NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell have gotten the idea that a two-game suspension was an appropriate sanction against a player who beat up his fiancée? Maybe from the example set by prosecutors and the criminal justice system.

Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice yesterday was cut from the team and suspended indefinitely by the NFL. But that obvious punishment came long after the attack, and only after the NFL – rather improbably – said it had just seen a damning video of the event.

The grainy, jerky tape is sickening. There’s a beefy professional football player, beating his then-fiancee Janay unconscious and proceeding to drag her out of the elevator like she was a too-heavy sack of potatoes.

For this behavior, Rice initially got a two-game suspension – not much to complain about when you have a $35 million contract and have collected more than $28 million from the league already. He avoided not just jail, but even probation, and was instead slapped on the knuckles with a “diversionary” program. What’s more, the Ravens stood by their domestic abuser, tweeting that “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.”

It’s hard to separate out who is the worst actor here. Rice himself is an obvious choice. There’s no way to interpret the terrifying video other than to conclude that he beat the woman he supposedly loved until she fell helplessly onto an elevator floor, unable to even get out of the car, while her husband-to-be slung her onto the floor and pushed her legs together with his foot. That’s the sort of behavior that will get you, at the least, a personal foul in the NFL – that’d be 15 yards – when done to another muscled and football-padded man. But little happened to Rice when he did it to a much smaller and weaker woman.

That brings us to the Ravens, who had the insensitivity to treat the abuse like it was just a little couple’s spat, and worse, suggested that the victim herself was at fault. The fact that Janay Rice commented on her “role” in the assault only proves how endangered she was and is – and anyone who has an elementary school level of education, or who has watched even a single episode of “Law and Order: SVU,” ought to know that.

Then there is the NFL, whose authorities claimed not to have seen the videos – a more detailed one was revealed this week – that show the brutal assault. One wonders how that is even possible, unless Goodell was determined to stick his head in the AstroTurf to protect the right of players to be violent, and the mission of teams to keep them amped up and aggressive.

But Rice still avoids time behind bars, which is no surprise. The criminal justice system takes the same distorted and twisted view of infractions as has the NFL. A first-time drug offender in the NFL, for example, can get a four-game suspension without pay; a third-timer could go a year without pay. That’s much worse than the penalties imposed – and recently increased, in light of the Rice incident – for pounding your fiancée into unconscious submission.

And in the criminal justice system? Rapists, who do the math, can feel pretty confident. Just three out of 100 rapists will spend a day behind bars, according to an analysis of Justice Department statistics by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, a victims’ advocacy group. While one in five women will be raped at least once in her lifetime and one in three women will experience some kind of domestic abuse, the Centers for Disease Control recently reported, fewer than half of rapes are reported, since victims are afraid to come forward. A fourth of reported rapes result in arrests, and a fourth of arrests end up with a felony conviction or incarceration, according to the victims’ advocacy group.

But for drugs? The average sentence for a federal drug offender is about six years and for a crack cocaine violator, eight years.

The NFL – and Goodell’s – priorities are wildly out of proportion, putting abuse of a person’s own body ahead of the assault of a woman’s body. But the example set by prosecutors and the criminal code are just as bad.

 

By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, September 9, 2014

September 10, 2014 Posted by | Domestic Violence, National Football League, Violence Against Women | , , , , | Leave a comment

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