Oh man, I did not pick the right time to start reading Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online (yay Oxford comma!). I started this two days before the American Election Day, and then after those results, I just had to kind of … put it down a bit. I was planning to read it over a week or so, because like Indigenous Writes, this is an academic-but-accessible book about some heavy stuff, and reading it in one or two sittings wasn’t going to do me any favours. Bailey Poland speaks knowledgeably and constructively about exactly what it says in the title. She grounds the book both in academic theory and in recent, important examples of targeted abuse and hatred campaigns online. The result is a book both illuminating and, at times, galvanizing—but it’s also a heavy subject. Trigger warning for abusive, misogynistic language and gendered insults.
Poland acknowledges her own privileges upfront. Moreover, she repeats this throughout the book. I really like this. She says near the beginning:
Sexism as it affects online life is the major focus of this work, with the key caveat that online harassment and abuse are rarely—if ever—linked to gender alone.
(It’s at this point that I started to think I’d really like this book.) Towards the end, as she examines the explicit theoretical roots of cyberfeminism, Poland adds:
A modern cyberfeminism must be an intersectional cyberfeminism, with room to examine how technology and the Internet can be used to combat multiple oppressions, rather than creating easy metaphors that erase variety and disguise problems that have many roots.
I appreciate that Poland acknowledges her privilege and some of the privilege and biases present in the work of her predecessors. In doing this, she avoids some of the “white feminist” problems that plague a lot of feminist discourse, particularly within the spaces of tech and the Internet. Poland attempts to spotlight and centre the struggles that Black women and trans women, in particular, face, without trying to speak for these groups (as she does not belong to them).
The first part of the book is devoted to defining, explaining the origins of, and categorizing cybersexism. Although Poland mostly discusses explicit examples of misogynistic acts and utterances, she also mentions the unconscious bias that pervades online spaces:
For example, the design of technology to suit an ideal user (presumed to be male) or to make it more difficult for women to access and use is also cybersexism. Some examples include making smartphones too large for the average woman’s hand, health and fitness tracking apps that exclude menstruation (or regard the tracking of menstruation as only for cisgender women and aimed only at pregnancy) or designing a “revolutionar”y heart implant that works for 86 percent of men and only 20 percent of women.
I’ve long been fascinated by science and technology, but I also grew up believing science was this objective, neutral pursuit. Even after I started understanding gender issues and feminism, it took me a long time to come around to the idea that science is as much of a social construct as something like gender. So this is a theme that is close to my heart, because even though I don’t go around cussing out women on the Internet, my behaviours can still be sexist. The mostly-male teams designing the technologies Poland mentions above are not sitting around going, “Hey, how can we make the world more awesome, except for women?” This is being done because people aren’t stopping to think about how users other than themselves might experience the technology—and, of course, because not enough women are represented in the field.
Poland goes on to examine some specific examples of massive abuse campaigns, most notably Gamergate. (I had totally missed Christina Hoff Sommers’ involvement with Gamergate, so that was interesting to learn about.) With well-cited reference to studies and philosophers of technology and power, Poland notes how “online spaces have always been, and remain, areas where dominance and control remain deeply important”, and so:
In many ways that’s the true purpose of cybersexist abuse; to wear down individual women so that they give up and leave the space to the men.
This type of silencing is so troubling to me. It’s not just outright physical threats of violence. It’s more pernicious than that. And for those of us who are not exposed to such levels of abuse, this silencing is even easier for us to overlook, ignore, and erase. In doing so, even those of us with the best of intentions unintentionally contribute to the silencing of women, and that makes online spaces all the poorer.
Fortunately, Haters is not just about the harassment that women experience. It is also a call to action. Poland addresses multiple stakeholders who can solve this problem. She calls on social media platforms to take more responsibility for preventing harassment without putting the onus on the victim. She calls on politicians and law enforcement to recognize online harassment for the serious problem it is, and to educate themselves so they understand what it means when someone reports being doxxed or is worried they’ll be swatted.
Finally, she passes on Leigh Alexander’s advice to men:
She suggests that men need to stop asking women what to do, stop expecting women to educate them about the abuse they are suffering, stop trying to explain the harassment, and stop telling women how to respond to it.
Again, this is another one of those times that even well-intentioned allies can get it wrong and exacerbate a situation. It’s really natural to ask someone to explain an issue to you, especially when, as an ally, you’ve just started to learn that you should listen to the voices of marginalized people instead of talking over them. But it’s not the job of women to educate men about the harassment they are facing. If women like Poland and Alexander and Quinn, et al, want to speak out about it, then hell yeah we should listen—but we shouldn’t demand it of them.
So I’ll amplify what Poland is saying in Haters (so you can get the gist of it, until you read it yourself, obviously). Men should be more aware of how their privilege helps them, blinds them, and affects those around them. We should help women one-on-one, without emphasizing their role as victims. We should reach out and help educate other men, because we shouldn’t assume that women are going to do it for us.
As I’m writing this review, I’m doing two things that demonstrate the paradox of the Internet. First, I’m watching Desert Bus for Hope 10, a streaming charity marathon where a large group of people play a boring video game 24/7 to raise money for Child’s Play Charity. During the run, the group interacts with people in a chatroom, busks by performing challenges to drum up donations, and runs silent and live auctions and giveaways. There are celebrity call-ins, and good times are had. It’s all for the children, and Desert Bus manages to raise an incredible amount of money every year. This marathon is one of my favourite annual events, and it is an example of how the Internet can help bring strangers together to help other strangers. There is a wonderful power here—but there are biases too.
The second thing I’m doing is watching a woman I follow on Twitter, an author, deal with days-long misogynistic and anti-Semitic abuse because she dared to email an elector with her opinion about why he shouldn’t vote for Donald Trump in December. She posted the rude response that she received, and this led to more hatred and abuse. She is far from the only woman I follow on Twitter whom I’ve seen deal with this or talk about it; and they all deal with it far more than I know about. And I’m really sad that this happens, that people feel it’s OK to do this—and that too many bystanders let it happen or don’t consider it a serious problem because “it’s online” and therefore not real.
I don’t experience this type of abuse. I’m a nobody, so I don’t get any abuse, and even if I did, I’m white and male and able-bodied and present straight, so I have a whack of privilege that insulates me from these experiences. I’m so insulated, in fact, that if I didn’t pay attention and go out looking for these incidents, and books about these incidents like Haters, I could miss them. I could believe that the problem is not as widespread, urgent, or harmful as women claim it is.
Here’s the thing about whether or not you should believe women when they say they’re being harassed.
Many, many women can tell you stories of being harassed. So either you believe them, or you don’t. If you don’t believe women, it means you think they are lying (or mistaken because aren’t they all overly-emotional and sensitive?). And the idea that women, as a category of people, are deceptive, is stereotypical and sexist.
Believing women is a prerequisite for feminist thought and, you know, being a decent human being.
Unfortunately, those of us with male privilege often have experiences that make it hard for us to understand the perspectives that many women have as a result of their experiences. And it’s for this reason that I feel Haters is essential reading for men more so than for women, for whom much of this book will probably feel very obvious and familiar. Not saying women shouldn’t read this book—academically it’s quite interesting—but it will hopefully be more useful for men like me who better want to understand these experiences that we just don’t have.
Haters does feel very academic, coming as it does with numerous references and a very dry, didactic tone. Unlike more polemical feminist non-fiction, then, it took a little longer for me to read—but that makes it no less useful. I wouldn’t recommend starting out here (go read Unspeakable Things first!), but if you want to continue to broaden your understanding of the complicated ways in which the Internet can be harmful for women and other marginalized groups, Haters is a great resource.
Thanks to NetGalley and the University of Nebraska Press for allowing me to read an electronic ARC of this book.