How Do We Defend Against an Invisible Enemy?
Eric Schmidt, known primarily for being the CEO of Google, once said that “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.” Anarchy, of course, being the dysfunction in a society as a result of a lack of authority. I don’t think anarchy is quite specific enough for the Internet, however— I think that authority does, in fact, exist on the Internet, just not in the way we are used to. There are people who have surface level power on the Internet; the influencers, the YouTube stars, the viral Twitter users. There are also people who hold a different kind of power on the Internet, and this is the kind of power that rings of authority. These are the people who have no qualms about the abuse they level on other, often innocent, often unsuspecting, users. This is in part due to the relative anonymity afforded by the Internet (though, anymore, can anyone really remain anonymous), but it’s largely in part due to the ability of what would ordinarily be a bully terrorizing a single playground to suddenly be able to terrorize anyone he can load up on his computer screen.
This is where my story begins: where for a brief moment, I was one of the people with the first kind of power, someone who had a viral video on YouTube. The first poetry video of mine that went viral was published in 2016— I was not quite 21 at the time. The poem was filmed at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, where I was representing the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. I was only a junior in my undergraduate degree when the video was filmed. When it went up, it was early evening, and I was at my job waiting tables. I didn’t know the exact day the video would be published, just that it was going to happen. I spent the next hours largely ignoring my tables and refreshing the video to watch the views grow exponentially. Along with the views, however, came the comments.
The poem published, “The Girl Becomes Gasoline”, is largely about my inability as someone in a woman body to comfortably take up space without the male gaze, or, often, the male touch getting in the way of that. It goes through several uncomfortable interactions I’ve had with men touching me without my consent. The poem ends on a sort of violent (but in a warranted way in the context of the rest of the poem) note- “Each unwanted touch is gasoline / each prodding hand, / flint. / Each time a man assumes my space / he is just stoking the flame. / And a spark, / stoked enough, / will burn down the whole house.” As the views rolled in that night, so did the comments. Bizarrely enough, the bulk of the comments (which was a pattern that has remained steady to this day) were written about the way I’d chosen to do my makeup on the day I was filmed. They ranged from “sorry but her highlight>>>>>” to “words just as beautiful and intense as your highlight <3” to “i kinda hate how people are more intrigued by her make up instead of the poetry”. And those are the benign comments.
I know it rings of some kind of privilege to be kind of annoyed by the bulk of the comments being about my appearance, but the entire poem was about my struggle to be perceived. Button Poetry, the channel that my video was published on, has someone in charge of monitoring comments, so the truly gross ones don’t get left up for very long. On a night where I’m refreshing the page every few minutes, though, I see all of those comments before they can get taken down.
In the article “Identifying Women’s Experiences With and Strategies for Mitigating Negative Effects of Online Harassment”, the authors note “[h]arassment of women is widespread; the problem has persisted for as long as women have ventured out in public spaces… Certainly this seems to be the case online where, according to Jane , women are targeted by discourse that “is more rhetorically noxious and occurring in far broader communities than earlier iterations of gender-based harassment documented in scholarly literature” (p. 284)” (1232). This is to say that, yes, as a woman, I expected to be harassed by daring to exist in a public space. This is not an experience I am unfamiliar with. What I was unfamiliar with (and, frankly, continue to be shocked by) is what the authors specifically name here as “rhetorically noxious”. There is a difference between men yelling “hey baby” at me on the street and men sitting behind their computers and commenting on a video of my image about how much they would like to rape me. Some men (and I do mean specifically men) even went so far as to find my personal accounts on Twitter and Instagram and use those as outlets for their rhetorical violence. These are the same kinds of men who gleefully let women know how easily they can find their home address, or their work address, or where they attend school. How easily the Internet, though technically a public space, becomes intensely threatening to the private. I suppose it could be argued that I brought this on with the feminist bend of my poem, but I think it has more to do with my audacity to exist as a woman with an opinion in a public space.
I don’t mean that in an attempt to place blame on myself, but rather to recognize that I went into the experience of having a poetry video on the Internet with my eyes wide open. At the time my video appeared, I’d been working for Button Poetry for almost two years, and had seen exactly what kinds of videos we needed to spend extra time protecting. All were women. Most were feminist poems. In 2011, a study was published in The Information Society that discovered that “feminist and other nonmainstream online forums are especially vulnerable”, and specifically that “when women gather online, and especially when they attempt to discuss feminism, they are not uncommonly the target of negative attention from individuals, mostly men, who feel threatened by or otherwise uncomfortable with feminism.” (Herring et. al)
When I was fifteen, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror most days. By eighteen, I had battled an eating disorder. This is without having access to the Internet in a way even comparable to the way teenagers have it now, because I didn’t get my first smart phone until my senior year of high school. By the time I was receiving hateful comments on my YouTube videos and threatening messages in my DM’s, I was an adult who had gone to therapy and had a support system in place, as well as a complex understanding of the situation I was in. If I had received those same kinds of comments as a fifteen year old battling severe depression and acute body dysmorphia, I wonder about my chances of survival. This is to say that I do not have an understanding of what it is to be a teenager in the truly digital age, and am therefore only left with respect.
I, like most of America, spend most of my time scrolling through Twitter and reading the news. It's not that youth have never made a difference in the national context before, but more than ever they are elevated to a national platform in an extraordinarily visible way. And, the reality is, unfortunately, that just because someone is a minor, people won’t lay off in the comments. I think of young women like Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai, both of whom gained notoriety because of their usage of their powerful voices. As many people are praising these young women for their brilliance, there are just as many abusing them on the Internet. There were entire subreddits and Twitter accounts dedicated just to abusing Greta Thunberg. People drew explicit sexual images of her, which I will not include here or cite out of respect to Thunberg, who is a girl who was not quite sixteen when she reached international prominence. These images and entire corners of the Internet were created solely in an effort to further describe the kind of violence they would like to inflict on her— a literal child.
So what are we to do? As adults? As educators? As parents? As fellow users of the Internet? I think the answer comes with preparation. We want youth, no, encourage youth to use their voices, which sets them up for immense harm. However, the generation that is in high school right now is no stranger to receiving news that they have to brace themselves for, and news that they realistically have no control over. I think of my students during both the 2016 and 2020 American presidential elections, neither of which they could vote in, and their despair in being as well informed as a person can be while having no way to affect the outcome. It is imperative that students know what might be coming their way, so it’s not a debilitating shock when it happens.
As adults, we must also prepare ourselves. Not just for what is coming our way, but for what is coming the way of people who deserve defending. In the digital age, there is no foolproof plan for protecting those most vulnerable to attack. Humans have always found a way to terrorize each other, and now it happens in a way that is so large and ever-changing it is almost impossible to adapt to. All we can do is what we have always done: our best. Our kindest. Our most loving. This doesn't sound like an answer necessarily, but at the end of the day, next time you find yourself in a comment section gone bad: try engaging with kindness. See what happens.
“A Quote by Eric Schmidt.” https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/259999-the-internet-is-the-first-thing-that-humanity-has-built.
Herring, Susan, Kirk Job-Sluder, Rebecca Scheckler, and Sasha Barab. “Searching for Safety Online: Managing ‘Trolling’ in a Feminist Forum.” The Information Society 18, no. 5 (October 1, 2002): 371–84.https://doi.org/10.1080/01972240290108186.
Reagan Myers - “The Girl Becomes Gasoline” (CUPSI 2016). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ckc21Cdblsc.
Vitak, Jessica, Kalyani Chadha, Linda Steiner, and Zahra Ashktorab. “Identifying Women’s Experiences With and Strategies for Mitigating Negative Effects of Online Harassment.” In Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, 1231–1245. CSCW ’17. New York, NY, USA: Association for Computing Machinery, 2017.https://doi.org/10.1145/2998181.2998337.