The problems at Jezebel are only one manifestation of the risks women face online.
I have much respect for every woman who dares to use her real name when posting online. As a comment moderator for several years, I saw just how dangerous that can be.
What women can expect online was highlighted recently when women who work at Jezebel, a blog aimed at women, complained publicly that the site’s parent company, Gawker, wasn’t doing enough to police comments there. The site is being targeted by one or more people who post pornographic GIFs. As things now work, the women of Jezebel must sift through the comments and delete them individually as well as disabling accounts. Though it sounds like Gawker has some defenses in place, the trolls have figured out ways around them.
Last year, a contestant in the Great British Bake-Off — about as innocuous an event, one would think, as is possible in reality TV — was so deluged with online insults, both general and sexist, that she had to flee the Internet.
During my years as a comment moderator, I found that women — whether those we wrote about, those who did the writing, or those who ventured into our comments — could expect at least three different kinds of abuse simply for being female.
The first was basic sexism — comments that questioned why a woman was qualified to hold a particular job, write a particular story, express an opinion. It was somewhat encouraging to me that these comments were mostly confined to sports (The Plain Dealer, where I worked, had several women on its sports staff, including the main beat writers for pro football and basketball). Even there, such comments were scarce.
The second type involved comments about appearance. About men, commenters might mention obesity; about women, every aspect of their appearance was considered fair game: their hair, their clothes, whether they were smiling in their byline photo. And unlike basic sexism, remarks about appearance were common. Even some commenters who were generally OK failed to see such comments as untoward.
But all of those comments, while bothersome, were not threatening. Yes, it was annoying when commenters would insist that one of our female columnists must have been merely parroting her husband’s opinions, but you can walk away from that.
The third and worst kind were sexualized comments. And again, disturbingly, some commenters who obeyed all our other rules could not stop themselves from breaking this one, or so it seemed. It wasn’t just the comments aimed at particular women — those were the worst individually, but the greater impact came from the posts of provocative photos, the casual remarks.
I am a firm believer in allowing anonymity in comments, and the treatment of women that I saw is one reason why. As the Jezebel situation shows, those who want to make horrible comments will defeat automated measures, and they are motivated to do so. But what about a woman who simply wants to express an opinion? Being able to do so behind the shield of a username offers her a better chance of being listened to — and almost no risk of being stalked in real life.
Women who worked for the paper could not opt for total anonymity, but several did choose to use a generic byline avatar rather than their photos — an option I always emphasized.
I’ve explained before why I think sites have a responsibility to police their comments. That responsibility is even greater in regard to those who are most likely to come under attack.