What are your thoughts on the ongoing identity crisis feminism seems to be going through? I think there’s a strong emphasis on this point in your book. You write that feminism has to evolve by capitalizing on its ideology, but if we don’t capitalize on it without any effective action, that will stunt feminism’s progress. How is feminism being stunted?
What I’m seeing are two parallel spheres of feminism that exist now. There’s one that is very robust and activist-based, that is largely online, but not totally online, through campuses, advocacy groups, and action committees. Feminism today is also much more diverse, intersectional and wide-ranging than it’s ever been before. But the parallel sphere of feminism is this corporate, commercialized, consumerist brand of feminism that is being pitched by celebrities and advertisers. It’s very “surfacey.” This is getting the most notice because it’s the one that looks sexy - it’s the most fun. It’s the one celebrities are associated with. Feminism itself isn’t stunted, but it’s much more amplified with a glossy, feel-good feminism that in many ways is pulling focusing from the idea of feminism as an ideology. Feminism is a social movement, and it’s still an unfinished project.
I’ve noticed that a lot of the feminist scholars I’ve been studying from the early 90s have come to a general consensus that technology offers an important tool for empowerment. Do you think that’s true? Do you think it’s almost instinctive for women to come together when they’re facing oppression?
Absolutely. I think that technology has offered a way to connect past iterations of feminism. There is an overall raising-of-consciousness to feminist movements of the past, especially related to second-wave feminism. The idea that a lot of experiences, oppressions and issues that we have been led to believe is ours alone, but is in fact shared, is incredibly powerful. It’s an important catalyst for actually doing stuff about it. I think technology has provided that space for the past two decades. Once you have that sense of not being alone, once you have a shared sense of purpose, and once you have a sense of community, it becomes much easier to do something about it. I don’t think feminism today would be where it is without the Internet. People wouldn’t have the level of awareness that they do if it wasn’t for the technology we have now.
How would you describe your version of feminism, especially since social media is so integral to how we interact online and has raised everyone’s level of awareness about the movement in general? The term cyber-feminism is often used to describe how the Internet has been a driving force behind women’s liberation. Where do you see yourself on the spectrum?
My activism has always been based on writing, critical thinking and advocacy. Online in particular, I feel like I am part of something bigger. I feel like I am part of a movement of people who want their media and pop culture to be better, and they are using a feminist lens to work towards that. Sometimes I wonder if I’m really doing that much since I’m just focusing on media and pop culture. Media criticism is great, but there are also so many real life, common ground, immediate, emergent issues that it’s easy to feel like, ‘is what I’m doing really making a difference?’
And I think many people feel that way too. As someone who works in the media industry, how do you think feminist writers and speakers should remain relevant? How can they continue to stay relevant to the challenges women face today, especially with problems like Internet trolls and harassment?
Often there is this sense that harassment is not happening in real life because it’s online, or it’s just the written word. One of the most pressing feminist issues is that women are just not able to survive and feed their families, and are unable to get anything but really low-wage jobs. Reproductive justice is another feminist issue. I think it can be very overwhelming to be a feminist, particularly for young people. I speak at a lot of colleges and universities and I see this first-hand. There is this stress about where their energy is going to be best spent and how it can really make a difference in every place that they want to make a difference. That’s an impossible question and I think that’s a question that has always dogged any sort of activist in any social movement. Because so much day-to-day, minute-to-minute activism is happening online, the sector of feminist voices feeling silenced or threatened by online harassment is a crucial issue. It’s connected to the idea of having a voice and making change, and speaking out. Online harassment, online trolling, death threats, and rape threats have been monstrously harming to feminism. It’s making a lot of people feel like there is no place for them online, and that their families will be under attack if they keep speaking up and doing what they’re doing.
I do think there is a more widespread awareness of the problem of online harassment and how it shuts down discourse. I think a lot of feminists and activists felt like they were shouting into a void when they talked about it five or ten years ago. In the past several years I think we are seeing harassment being taken a lot more seriously, partly because of the efforts of those activists to raise awareness about it. People like Anita Sarkeesian are speaking out about it, and people are starting hashtag campaigns to raise awareness, and I think all of that is very effective and gets people invested.
There are anti-women accounts like @MeninistTweets, which has 1.2 million followers. One tweet reads: “Top five most unattractive things girls can do: act like a hoe, fight, smoke, drink too much, and get out of the kitchen.” Do you feel like your activism or your journalism is being bogged down when you read things like this?
Yes and no. As depressing as it is, it’s probably good to just be aware of that and get used to it. I think what gives me hope is the way I’m seeing people respond to that behavior. It’s so much smarter, it’s so much more sophisticated, and it’s so much funnier that it makes me feel like there’s no way these trolls are on the right side of history. They’re just desperate. They’re grasping at whatever they can grasp at, and it’s coming out in the form of mean-spirited and boring sexism. It’s not even interesting. If you see enough of it, and if enough of it is directed at you, it’s horrible, and it doesn’t feel good no matter how trite, stupid or underachieving it is. At the same time, I see so much witty, smart, rapid-fire response that shuts this behavior down, and I end up feeling more energized about it.
There are also a lot of Twitter accounts that act like the antidote to this kind of vitriol. There is one Twitter account called Badass Woman Alert, which speaks to the larger movement we’re trying to address of women taking positive steps to find empowerment. One of their recent tweets was about an all-female orchestra in Afghanistan that fights the Taliban with music. Do you think things like this are helping move the feminist ideology forward? What do you hope to see push the boundaries of feminism?
Feminism is not one kind of action. It’s a constant movement on a number of fronts. Some are very concrete, like representational policy making. But I also think the movement is really changing people’s hearts and minds. I think all of these things are happening simultaneously. Feminism has come to a place where it’s very immersive, where a lot of people are engaged with it, and feel inspired by it. I think this is because it’s not just happening in one area. It’s not just happening in the streets in marches, and it’s not just happening in academic classrooms. It’s happening everywhere throughout the day in very commonplace and very extraordinary ways. When I was writing this book, I kept thinking that we can’t become complacent; we can’t look around and think, ‘okay, so we have a bunch of celebrities who say they’re feminists and we have advertisers realizing that feminism sells. Feminism has broken into the mainstream, so now let’s see what happens.’ Once you let your guard down, you’re in danger of seeing this movement coopted. It’s already being coopted on some level so I do think pushing back against that and making sure that enough focus stays on the ways in which feminism is still an unfinished project is really crucial.
You wrote a piece in Time magazine last year about the problem with comparing male and female harassment. You discuss the threat of violence towards women online and how this violence disproportionately silences them. Why is this happening regardless of the platform, whether it’s online or offline?
I think that there’s a very long history of drumming women out of public space through the threat of violence and through harassment. I don’t think there’s anything new about that. A lot of people, especially people like Mary Beard, have written excellent historical overviews of how that works. What we’re seeing now is the contemporary manifestation online, which is a new public comment. The issue with the Internet, however, is that it is qualitatively different from any medium that we’ve engaged in before. The scope of the Internet and its amplification abilities are very different. The Internet is kind of liberating at first for girls and women, but it’s equally brought forth new dimensions to violence against women. One of the problems with comparing the harassment of men versus women online is that we’re really comparing apples and oranges if we just focus on things like name-calling. We have to be really specific when we talk about what’s happening and what kind of abuse is being experienced.
So you think women are socialized to act differently than men online?
I think the socialization that we see really does affect our interactions. If you look at speech dynamics and linguistics, there are some marked differences in the way girls and boys learn to engage and to speak. Boys in general are given a lot more leeway to be disruptive in their language; they aren’t subjected to quite as many rigid politeness norms about things like cursing, yelling or joking. There are lots of studies on self-regulation and gender in children that show girls are expected to regulate themselves more, and to calibrate themselves to the people around them. I think we are seeing those patterns online in these online interactions.
We passed Twitter’s tenth anniversary in March. Do you think the platform has progressed or has actually gotten worse? What is inherently wrong with the ways Twitter, and social media platforms in general, are structured?
I think Twitter is an interesting case because it started to really grow at a time when a lot of private moderated spaces were becoming more regulated. It’s arguable that some of the people on those platforms shifted to Twitter because Twitter had no rules, right? You could say anything you wanted and I think Twitter has had to come to terms with the idea that Twitter as a neutral platform falls flat. People are not equal offline and they’re definitely not equal online. The platform itself reflects ideas related to that. Making sure that the product meets the needs of the people using it has become a higher priority at Twitter.
In 2013 you ran a public campaign with Jaclyn Friedman of ‘Women, Action, and the Media,’ and Laura Bates of ‘Everyday Sexism,’ demanding Facebook recognize instances of gender-based hate and gender-based harassment. What was the outcome of that initiative?
I think the initiative did several positive things. One was that it really raised awareness about what women were encountering online and how corporations were ignoring what was happening. So in the case of this campaign, what we did was bring to the public’s attention a profusion of content that depicted violence against women very graphically, which wasn’t considered harassing or abusive according to Facebook’s own rules. As writers and as activists, the pictures being sent to us of women being raped, battered or trafficked, gave advertisers a clear understanding of what was going on. We went to advertisers and said, ‘do you really want your advertising to be sponsoring this content?’ So we tied it very clearly to the economics of the platform and I think that was the first time that this had ever happened, so it got a lot of attention because it was an effective mechanism. Other than the public awareness, I’d say the campaign was successful as a social media campaign because it had legs on the ground that continue to yield results today. We have the broader coalition continuing to work very effectively with Facebook, and they have proved to be very responsive to some of our concerns, so that’s been a fruitful engagement. The same coalition that we put together after that campaign now works closely with Twitter and Google. I think our ability as activists, advocates and technologists in civil society organizations to engage with these companies was enabled by a campaign like that.
Why does there seem to be a divide between online safety and free speech? Aren’t they both equally important? How do we strike a balance between the two?
This is interesting because the first time I remember talking to Facebook, I said that for many people in the world, safety and free speech aren’t juxtaposed; they are actually on the same side of the equation. For some people it’s easier to take their safety for granted, so getting to a point where companies like Facebook or Twitter are actively acknowledging that, and saying, ‘yes, safety and free speech both have to happen simultaneously,’ is huge. Freedom of expression for certain people will not happen unless they are safe. I’ve really seen that shift happen in the last four years. The mantra we used to hear over and over again was, ‘we can’t restrict people’s speech because we believe in freedom of expression,’ which I think is pretty ironic because as a feminist and as a writer, I really value freedom of speech and freedom of expression. We never asked a company like Facebook to create new rules about speech. We just said, ‘your rules are disproportionately negatively affecting girls, women and other marginalized communities.’ A lot of people think feminists want to censor the Internet, and nothing could be farther from the truth. We’re actively engaged in trying to liberate spaces online. We need to be able to explain to people the connection between online interactions and the violence that we encounter and that we have to adapt to offline every day. This space is not a virtual disconnected space; these are seamlessly related spaces.
Women like yourself get more attention online because you are already a voice people can trust on issues of gender imbalance. What about the women who remain silent?
So that’s the reason we do this work, because it’s really difficult to capture that loss. But we know that from surveys and different countries, women are experiencing high levels of hostility online and we know that they have different emotional and practical responses to that hostility. Among those are that they alter their behaviour, they stop engaging in certain ways, and they stop sharing political opinions. Many that I’ve spoken to, who are writers, stop writing about certain topics or they stop writing in certain platforms. I think that we need to be paying attention to that because we need to create spaces where women can be civically engaged instead of penalized for sharing their opinions. I want to stress that for most people who are not writers, they’re being harassed in ways that are more diffusive in their lives; probably related to things like intimacy and partner violence, sustained harassment, stalking, electronic surveillance, or non-consensual pornography. Those things are happening as part of what I would call ‘traditionally understood violence against women.’ Now we’re just seeing that take on new life online, and these women don’t necessarily have a voice or a platform to speak. They just want the problem to stop so they can go on with their education or with their job and not be subjected to this kind of pervasive, invasive and threatening harassment.
You mentioned more traditional forms of violence against women, whether that is online or offline. Could you take us back to the discriminatory roots of where this violence stems from?
I really want to begin with, ‘well in the beginning there was darkness.’ I think it depends on what direction you want to come from. If you think about intersectionality and patriarchy, it’s very clear that violence against women keeps women uniformly and universally in a subjugated role. Women are not safe in any country in the world to walk in the streets; very often that’s true in the middle of the day. While great strides have been made in one hundred years in terms of women’s health, safety and security, the fact remains that we still live with a huge number of gaps. Whether it’s safety gaps, media gaps, political gaps, wage gaps, wealth gaps, or time gaps, in every instance we see the effects of male dominance. But you can’t really have that male dominance unless you have the violence that makes it possible, and the violence that makes this possible is now manifesting online.
How would you define an online feminist today? What is an ideal, inclusive definition to explain that term? I find a lot of people, around my age especially; call themselves “online feminists.”
That’s interesting because I don’t really make a distinction between the two ideas. How can you just be an online feminist? You’re either a feminist or you’re a sexist. So I’m not sure what the qualifier of an online feminist is. I do believe that the Internet has created our ability as feminists to connect in unprecedented ways, which is a huge virtue to us because women don’t have to be isolated anymore. We can form global networks that are extremely effective for political action. I suppose if we’re trying to define what an online feminist is, I would say it’s a feminist who uses the Internet as an effective tool for furthering the aims of her feminism. I wonder if a lot of people split their personalities and compartmentalize their lives. I have a feeling that for many people, the disembodiment that they experience online enables them to express themselves in ways they may not in their own homes or in their workplaces. It’s almost like having an alter ego. I think that works for the terrible people online – the everyday racists and sexists. They’re dentists and mailmen; they’re your neighbour. By the same token though, when I hear ‘online feminist’ I think this is a cohort of people that struggle to articulate clearly in their ‘real lives,’ some of these things, but they’re very happy to engage and share with a different community online. Do you think that’s valid?
I do, but if you’re openly a feminist why would you hide it in your real life?
I think a lot of people still pay a pretty high personal penalty for claiming to be feminists online. Teenage girls have approached me after I’ve done a talk or a presentation, and said things like, ‘I can’t talk about feminism at home or I’m actually punished. If I talk about some of these issues at home, my Internet is turned off for a week.’ There are different scenarios that make it clear that there’s hostility to them having these opinions. So I think they’re able to get online and use platforms like Tumblr and Twitter to communicate in different ways with people who may not be part of their schools or their families. That’s why I always say anonymity is a friend for young women. A lot of abuse resides in anonymity because many harassers use anonymity to their advantage. We need to have a more nuanced way of dealing with this problem because marginalized voices very often, just to be able to be heard and to safely communicate, need that. I think there are a lot of girls and women, trans people, and broader members of the LGBT community around the world who need that as a shield.
What kinds of barriers have you faced as a Pakistani writer in your pursuit for solidarity online?
Some of the most consistent, recurring barriers that I’ve faced as a woman of colour, and as an American Pakistani, is the lack of compassion - or at least compassion-based study or understanding for what I face versus what another woman faces. My biggest contention with the lack of solidarity online is that many feminists, and it’s usually a predominantly white liberal feminist demographic, fail to understand that our oppressions are not exactly the same as theirs. In order to have solidarity I think that you need a more nuanced approach, and sometimes that’s not there at all.
However, Kasana emphasizes that limiting ourselves to online activism is counter-productive.
I don’t think we should limit solidarity to the Internet. I’ve seen this happen a lot with online activism where we just limit ourselves to the virtual sphere, and I think that doesn’t really help. We need to take it offline and to the streets, and to people who don’t have access to these kinds of platforms. Sarcasm happens to be my favourite tool when it comes to talking about these issues because it really slaps the narrative left, right, and up and down. It’s just really mean, and it’s just right in your face.
As someone who is trying to actively change the dialogue online when it comes to gender-based and ethnic-based harassment, you started a blog with other Muslim women across the Middle East called Oppressed Brown Girls Doing Things. Do you think blogs like this are successful in countering how the west seems to view Muslim women?
I don’t think they materially counter everything. I didn’t see a revolution happen after [the blog was created] but I think the sarcasm of it, and the sardonic imagery; the very dry, ‘oh look at us, I’m picking up a spoon, how radical,’ tone of the blog, made people realize we have a sense of humour. I really enjoy how social media can prove to be that little place where [we] can counter some really intense state media or private media just by a simple tweet.
You have a very impressive Twitter following of over 24,000 followers. A lot of people will argue that Twitter can mobilize real change but it has also become a breeding ground for more sexism. How did Twitter become vital to your activism?
The funny thing is I never connected my activism with my Twitter. I definitely wanted to associate both with each other but I quickly realized that only a particular group of people were benefitting from this. While social media is very important in getting the word out and materializing support, and getting funds for good causes, it's also very limiting as a medium. There are many people who don't have access to [social media]. I think that my hesitation to connect my Twitter to my activism comes from a Marxist point of view. I don't want to sit online all day long. I think I have to go offline and talk to people on the streets. I have to talk to my people, my friends, and my students.
What made you decide that the idea of the make up tutorial was ready to be shown from a comedian’s perspective?
I used to go on YouTube and watch makeup videos and I loved them. I’m a comedian so it made a lot of sense for me to marry something that I really like that’s already existing on the platform, with comedy. It’s a really fun little sub-genre of the make up tutorial YouTube genre banner.
How did you start getting interested in comedy writing?
I started studying comedy when I was fifteen, in high school. I wasn’t really good at sports, so I went into comedy. I started at Second City and trained there for several years. I came to Ryerson and studied TV production in the RTA School of Media – what used to be Radio and Television Arts – and studied comedy writing. I also studied comedy writing at the Second City in Chicago. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how comedy works and how specifically comedy would work for me, and how I could tell a joke and make it mine.
How has YouTube allowed you to create your own comedic voice that people are now so drawn to?
I think the lovely thing about YouTube is that it thrives on the ‘you;’ the ‘you’ part of YouTube. People are attracted to and drawn to authentic people on YouTube and I think the medium really holds you to being as authentic as you can.
You tackle a lot of difficult subjects like sexual assault and police brutality with humour. Even though you might be upset about an issue, you present it in a funny and clever way, which is a tricky balance to strike. What was the process behind creating your Ray Rice video, which has over two million views?
I think one thing that’s really important to keep in mind when doing topical comedy is the power dynamics that are involved. Usually, comedians cite a rule called ‘punching up,’ when the focus of the joke is the person who is in the position of power or the person who is affecting the oppression or negativity. When I’m writing a script, I make sure that I’m always ‘punching up,’ that I’m always going for the kind of person who is creating some sort of negative climate for a lot of other people. Ray Rice and the NFL are people in positions of power. These are the people who would be your targets if you wanted to affect positive change. So I try and keep that in mind, but it’s a very difficult thing to do.
What do you hope a viewer will walk away with after seeing a video like the Ray Rice one?
I sort of explain my videos as a heavy meal disguised as a light snack. That’s kind of how I explain it to people when they ask me how I fit so much information in a short time. I just make it look like a rice crispy treat, when it’s actually steak and carrots…what do you eat with steak? Potato? So I hope that people walk away from the Ray Rice video feeling entertained and feeling like they’ve had a good time. I also hope that maybe they have just the seeds of information that they need to look into something and learn more about a news story or be prepared to research it on their own time.
When you started gaining momentum from your YouTube channel, did this give you an opportunity to connect with likeminded YouTubers, like other feminists and comedians? Obama’s official Twitter account follows you, which is really cool.
Oh yeah, Obama and I are like best friends. Totally kidding. One thing that’s really great about the YouTube community is that so many YouTubers are just so excited to talk to other people who work on YouTube and are part of this community. It really is an online community and I think joining it and going to YouTube events in person to meet other content creators has been such a positive experience for me.
There’s been a lot of support in the comment sections of your videos, but obviously, because it’s the Internet, people have said some pretty nasty things as well. I read in an article, someone wrote ‘condemn yourself to an eternity in hell’ because you made fun of Christians. Do you read all the comments in your videos? Do you just laugh them off? How do you deal with that?
YouTube is becoming an interesting space for me as my career on it progresses because I feel like I’ve reached a place where these types of comments don’t deeply affect me anymore. At the same time, I know it took me a vector ry long time to get to that emotional point where I could read something mean about myself and think, ‘okay, this is a stranger on the Internet I’m never going to meet.’ I just have to compartmentalize it and know that it’s going to happen. My primary concern with the comment section is that I have a lot of viewers who are younger women. I used to leave the comments up, but other people may read these comments and I need to be held responsible for that. So now I delete the comments that I think could be potentially harmful to younger women, or comments that are particularly hateful, racist or sexist.
In light of the recent Gregory Elliott harassment case on Twitter and even dating back to Sam Pepper allegations in 2014, do you think there’s been a boost for female creators on YouTube to speak out against abuse and sexism? Do you feel like you have a bigger role to play now that you’ve established yourself as a woman on YouTube who is a social justice activist?
One thing that’s changed since Sam Pepper is that women on YouTube have each other’s backs. It really is a community of women who will call someone out if a member of the community is being unreasonably harassed. I think harassment is now a more apparent problem, and I think more people are noticing it. I think something still needs to be done about it, but I don’t really have the answer. I am trying to stand as a positive force on the Internet and trying to remove as much of the negativity from my own channel as I can. I’m just trying to keep my channel a good place for people to be.
As a full-time Youtuber, I’m sure you’ve noticed the pick-up and prank culture that has flourished on the platform. I think you can definitely argue that the same toxic culture of entitlement, narcissism and misogyny can be found on all online spaces, even outside of YouTube. Do you think that in an ideal world, banning this pick-up and prank culture is the solution?
I think it’s hard to put a blanket ban on a giant website like YouTube. The only thing I can really do to affect change immediately is try and control my little slice of the Internet. This slice of the Internet is like my house and my front lawn. It’s my job to keep it clean. I can help create a warmer, safer, climate on YouTube.com/meganmackay and also talk about the wider issues affecting all of YouTube.
In trying to keep your YouTube community positive, how is #UnTrollTheInternet doing so far?
I’m looking at transitioning it into something that’s a bigger event than what it currently is. Right now it’s a weekly thing, but I would like to designate a specific day to rally around. I’d like to untroll our timelines just for one day so we can have one great day online. I think that has a lot of impact. The response has been very positive. It’s now a case of, ‘great, we’ve created this, but where can we go next to make it even bigger and better?’
For listeners who might not fully be aware of the role of a public editor, how do your responsibilities differ from that of more traditional newsroom editors?
I think it’s done differently at almost every news organization. At the Toronto Star, the public editor is outside of the newsroom. They do not report to the editor; they report to the publisher. The role of the public editor is to be an intermediary between readers and the newsroom. I often say that I explain journalism to readers and I explain the concerns of readers to journalists. The public editor at the Star does all the corrections, is responsible for accuracy, and is responsible for assessing any complaints holding them up to the standards the Star has stated for itself in its journalistic standards guide.
What was the reaction like from readers after the Star’s comment section was removed?
The readers I heard were overwhelmingly positive. Perhaps those who complained just gave up in despair and walked away, but the readers I heard from were quite positive that the Star had made this decision to end them on the site. There was a very small vocal minority who at least expressed they were upset, but the feedback that was received throughout the organization was far more positive than negative.
As a public editor, you’re part of the Organization of News Ombudsmen. In their guide, it states that ‘trust is the common currency that media organizations require for their continued credibility.’ Has removing the Star’s comment section helped increase the paper’s journalistic standards of trust and credibility?
I don’t know if I can draw a direct correlation between trust and online comments. I think that online comments were problematic from the get-go. The Toronto Star launched them in 2008 with much optimism. This was a way to bring readers into the conversation. From the outset, there were issues with the commenting standards that had been established. People felt that they should have an unfettered right to say whatever they wanted in the Star’s comment section. I don’t know if trust is the right word, but certainly there were issues related to the Star’s brand, as the paper for the people that looks for community and social justice. There were comments that were frankly racist, sexist, and problematic for the news organization.
I imagine issues of distortion, reporters getting personally attacked, and the spreading of misinformation are some of the barriers the Star would face with comments on a site. What are some of the other barriers you could speak about that news publishers face - especially when they’re trying to stay true to the brand of journalism that readers have come to rely on?
To me there was a basic issue with inaccuracy. A reporter would spend a lot of time reporting a story, and getting their facts right. They’re held to account to get their facts right, and a reader could go in and put a comment in that had the wrong facts. So how does another reader coming to the site reading the story, looking at the facts, and putting contradictory information that the reporter knows is just not right - how does that square with a news organization’s commitment to accuracy? It’s virtually impossible to police every comment despite a fairly vigorous moderating team. The idea that every comment can be checked out and verified in a way that journalists are held to account for can’t happen.
You mentioned a moderating team. I think it’s interesting to talk about the New York Times and their comment moderation system because I’ve noticed quite a difference in how they approach comment moderation versus how Canadian news outlets seem to be. In Nov. 2015, the Times ran a great piece highlighting a core group of commenters, ranging from church ministers to engineers; all these voices that are enhancing their journalism and offering insight and analysis on today’s pressing issues. It seems like their goal is to attract an audience that embraces the brand so that they become paying subscribers, meaning there’s a higher chance of revisiting the site rather than turning to Facebook or Twitter to launch a conversation. What do you think about that? From what I understand, the Star is trying to shift their conversation more towards social media. Do you think that’s necessarily the best way to go about it?
I think the New York Times puts tremendous resources into its comment moderation. I think that anyone who has done comments well, and has built an audience that isn’t full of nasty, racist, sexist people, has to put the resources into it. I was not part of any of the discussions, but my understanding is that part of the Star’s decision to end online commenting is due the resources involved to keep it going. Certainly we’re in a tough time in the news business, and any expenditure has to be weighed against the benefits. The view was that the benefits were not enough. Is moving to social media commenting the answer? I don’t know. Certainly you don’t have people within your site anymore. The Star does not have a pay wall anymore either, and I think all of these decisions are connected. Again, I haven’t been part of the decision-making.
There is a sense of losing control of a story on social media. You can’t control what merits digital curation and what doesn’t. A team is needed, and like you said, it’s a question of resources. How then, do you at least start to fix this problem?
The Star has a very small team compared to the New York Times. I think that once you move to social media, again, I'm not speaking for the organization because I don't know what our digital team's philosophy is on this, but my personal view is that you probably have lost some control and have to understand that that's just the way it is. Social media is the public square and just as you can't control what people are saying in your story, or in the bar down the street or standing in the metaphorical public square, you do lose some control. Things are going to be said, but it's not within your environment anymore and you are letting go of some control and some responsibility, I think.
This is sort of the broad question – but how can journalism remain important and relevant in a more collaborative and more community-led way to at least avoid some of the nastiness of the Internet? Is there really a happy medium that a news organization can come to?
I don’t really know. I’ve thought about this for a long time, and I think that the organizations that have this best are those where the journalists themselves are interacting with the public, where they are taking time to respond to comments, to provide more information, and to really make journalism interactive with their audience. That’s an ideal. Given the reality of journalists being asked to do way more than they’ve ever done before, I think it’s unrealistic to think that every journalist is going to spend their day interacting with their audience. Now is that an ideal form of journalism when we want to talk about a collaborative model? If journalism is going to move to that then it has to figure out what it isn’t doing anymore. Do you spend less time doing a deep dive into researching and verifying a story because you’re interacting with readers? There are only so many hours in a day and so much mental energy for journalists. We can all have this ideal of what would make great, collaborative journalism. I can vouch myself that if I could respond to every single reader with an intelligent, thoughtful response, whether that’s through email, on Twitter, or on Facebook, that would be ideal situation, but even the eyes of a public editor can’t do that.
How exactly does HeartMob work?
HeartMob is a platform designed to help people out when they are being harassed. If you’re being harassed, you can go onto iheartmob.org and you can tell your story and submit a case. The cool thing about HeartMob is that it’s not just like counseling. It’s about the ability to engage with the world in coming together to help you in your particular instance of harassment. You can ask a person to send supportive messages, which has been shown to reduce trauma, you can ask people to report the harassment to the platform where it happened, or you can ask people to document the harassment for you. You can ask people to do whatever you think would help. And then folks from all over the Internet can sign up as a HeartMobber. These are the folks who will be there to help you. While there are a lot of people on the Internet who are jerks, the idea behind this is that there are more people on the Internet who are good. If we can harness the power of these good folks to come forward and create an army of good, then maybe we can change this issue.
If I’m feeling threatened in any way online, and I don’t want to engage with the harasser, why wouldn’t I just use a website’s reporting tool?
We wrote these great safety guides in partnership with a bunch of different social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, and Tumblr. The goal was to try and break down exactly what can be done when you’ve been harassed on that platform. How do you report it? What does that process look like? The reality is these companies are all defining harassment in different ways. These companies aren’t always able to show up and help you out. They may not even define what you’re going through as harassment. HeartMob is designed to fill in the gaps left by these giant corporate infrastructures. Corporations are part of the solution, and they certainly need to step it up and do more, but the reality is if we want to change this issue, it’s going to involve us taking care of each other. It’s going to involve community accountability.
The Guardian reported that Yvette Cooper, who is a Labour Party MP in the UK, is joining forces with all political parties there to launch an online public campaign called ‘Reclaim the Internet.’ This seems to be more than just a campaign to end violent threats, misogyny, and sexism online. I think it’s more of a call to action by the government to finally address online harassment. What I find interesting is that she says she took inspiration for ‘Reclaim the Internet’ from ‘Reclaim the Night,’ a movement in the 1970s where women took to the streets demanding action against harassment and intimidation. This reminded me of ‘Hollaback,’ your anti-street harassment organization. How is HeartMob similar to that organization…or different?
This is all about the ways in which women and LGBTQ folks do and don’t have access to public space. Hollaback has been working on the issue of street harassment for ten years now. I am one of the seven original co-founders, and we’ve really seen an explosion of the movement. Unlike ten years ago, harassment is now broadly seen as something that is unacceptable. We took a lot of the lessons from our work addressing street harassment when we started to look at HeartMob. Street harassment is one of those things that can receive government intervention, and maybe some corporations will care somewhere, but for the most part, you’re talking about everyday people taking care of everyday people. The idea of bystander intervention is also really important. When you’ve been street harassed, even something as small as a knowing glance from somebody else on the street that saw it happen will reduce trauma. There’s a long and fraught history of women, LGBTQ folks and people of colour not having equal access to public space. When we look at public spaces as broader than just the streets or the subway, and to the Internet or the media, that’s when we can start to dig into doing some of this work. We can learn from lessons that organizers have been using forever, like the importance of telling our story, and of bystander intervention, as we journey into this new territory of online harassment.
You mentioned that volunteers, or HeartMobbers, are encouraged to help document harassment or report abuse on behalf of the victim. How do you foster that kind of engagement and bystander support? It seems like it would be difficult to foster bystander support so easily.
We’ve seen that it’s a lot easier for folks to come and say ‘I want to help somebody else out,’ than it is for folks to actually come forward and share their story. That might seem counter-intuitive. You might expect more people would want to come out and report it. This is an issue that disproportionately affects women and disproportionately affects women of colour. We’re told to just buck up and deal with it - that it shouldn’t hurt. If it does hurt it means that we’re weak. The idea of coming forward and publicly saying you need help is hard. A lot of times we see that folks only feel truly comfortable doing that when they see other people doing it too. I think there’s truth to the idea that a HeartMobber or a bystander can act as the hero that swoops in and saves the day. There’s also deep and significant truth to the idea that the people who are bold enough and strong enough to come forward and share their story and admit that it hurts, are ultimately the key to transformation on this issue.
In trying to create this positive environment, the idea of positive messaging behind HeartMob comes to mind. I read that what makes HeartMob really great is the warm and fuzzy feeling you get when you receive a positive message on the online service. What are some examples of this kind of positive messaging or community-driven support that you have found inspiring for yourself on social media?
When we were looking at the idea of supportive messages, we were really interested in the case of a woman named Zerlina Maxwell. Zerlina is a writer and a thinker, and she regularly speaks on national television. She came forward and publicly told her story of being raped. In response to that, people started coming out of the woodwork to publicly shame her and blame her. Folks saw this happening to Zerlina so they started a hashtag called #TYZerlina, or thank you Zerlina. They came forward and tweeted thoughtful, lovely, supportive tweets at Zerlina to counter-balance the hate that she was getting online. I thought this was amazing and beautiful and exactly what we want in response to the hate that we’re seeing online. Supportive messages are such a soft intervention. What is it really going to do? I had a case up on HeartMob from some harassment that we were facing for having launched HeartMob in the fist place. The idea of having random people say the kindest, most lovely things to me was awesome. It was just so powerful. I remember the first time I got a little note that said I had seven new supportive messages. I was in the middle of just getting harassed left, right, and center for starting HeartMob. When I read the messages I cried because it was just so wonderful. A lot of folks who are getting harassed online are getting harassed for being who they are or for having an opinion. You need a reminder that you shouldn’t just shut down who you are and you shouldn’t just shut down what you think about the world. What I love about the supportive messages is that they act as a way to account for the folks that you may impact but not even know.
I think it’s really easy to log in to Twitter and see all the hate, and forget that there are good people on the Internet. Is there a silent minority of people who are helping build an army of good for the future of the Internet?
You know, there are. There’s a new initiative called ‘Hack Harassment,’ which I love. From the perspective of people who get harassed a lot, it’s very easy to approach this issue with anger. I even had a supporter of HeartMob tell me this online service is lovely, but I should’ve called it ‘Dagger Mob.’ Anger might be a short-term way to mobilize people, but we’re in it to win it in the long-term. We don’t want to recreate this wheel of of hate we’ve been put into. We want to create interventions that are filled with transformations inspired by the world that we want to live in - not inspired by the world in which we do. These interventions, which have long been heralded as ineffective or overly optimistic, are the ones that Gandhi and Ella Baker put forward. It’s a long road, and we’re not going to see an instant viral take down of online harassment, but what we are going to see is a slow building of people who are dedicated to doing this. I see our role at HeartMob as facilitating that steady increase in supporters. But what else can people do? How else can people go into their communities, whether it’s online or in-person, and create transformation on this issue? We’re going to build this army of good and we’re going to be louder and prouder and more organized than the haters and the harassers that are out there right now.
I wanted to bring up a case a lot of people in Canada were talking about, which was the trial of Gregory Alan Elliott in 2015. It was the first Twitter harassment case to land in the courts. He was charged with criminal harassment for his interactions with two women on Twitter, but to a lot of people’s dismay, the judge did not find him guilty. What would you say to those who believe that curbing abusive content online means we’re actually limiting freedom of expression?
It’s freedom of expression for whom right? We’ve seen social media companies treat cases that are brought forward by white folks very differently than how they’d treat cases brought forward by people of colour. Cases brought forward by men are very different than cases brought forward by women. When we’re looking at these global corporations to administer this idea of free speech, we’re going to see gaps. I think what was so troubling about that case was just how stark a reminder it was that the courts aren’t necessarily going to have our backs in this. For me, it just reinforces the idea that we sisters got to take care of ourselves on the Internet. We can’t wait for corporations, and we can’t wait for the judicial system to catch up to the day-to-day trauma we face just being on the Internet, and just trying to do our jobs. It’s all about community accountability; it’s all about how each and every one of us can make change on this issue.
What was the driving force behind TrollBusters as an online service? There are tons of female writers and journalists doing their part to counter cyber abuse, but it’s not every day you hear about an app to fight trolls.
There were three different events that shaped my motivation and the direction of TrollBusters.
About ten years ago, I was a columnist at a newspaper in Florida. It was the first African-American column they had at the newspaper, and I received hate mail. The one that stands out for me was the letter writer who wrote to me continuously over the course of three years. There were several letters and packages that escalated in their hate and in their rhetoric. This drove me to think about ways we could make visible what was happening in both physical and online spaces. I ended up leaving the newspaper and going back into higher education.
A racial incident occurred on the campus where I was teaching and that made me think about my experience as a journalist. I shared that story in class with my students to help them understand how words and rhetoric can intimidate people and have a real emotional impact. The students came to class the next class period with cards and letters about how telling my story about my own trolling was. It helped them in their own understanding of the racial dynamics of a so-called post-racial America.
Last year when issues of gender representation in games were being featured across the web, I had my own trigger moment and recalled my own experiences. I said to myself, “I need to do something about this issue. It’s now been ten years and I’ve got a lot more experience and knowledge about how to better deal with this.” So at a Hackathon, I came up with the idea of TrollBusters using positive messaging from the cards and letters that I received from my students as a way to heal the emotional pain and impact of trolling behaviour online.
When you hear the word ‘Hackathon’ you don’t immediately think of a female digital entrepreneur. Did you face any barriers entering a space where you knew you were underrepresented?
The work that I do, both in my scholarship as well as in my service and project work, is all geared towards underrepresented communities; diversity in all its forms, whether it’s age, ethnicity, or gender. I’ve always faced barriers in my work, and the entrepreneurial work that I do is no exception to that. However, due to the nature of TrollBusters as a project, and the growing awareness of online harassment in the past year and a half, I think we’ve experienced less resistance to this project because it does affect more people than just women, or just minorities, or just African American women. It really is a problem that most people have seen online and experienced.
Why did you feel that you had to personally make the Internet a safer place for women? I only ask this because I think a lot of people who have experienced the darker side of social media and the Internet in general blame tech companies like Facebook and Twitter because they have so much money and power to influence change. In April, the Guardian reported an initiative that Google, Facebook and Twitter were going to foster a global grassroots counter-speech movement. Do you connecting with other countries around the world is the right approach? Or do you think real change only happens when we take it into our own hands?
I think the problem is complex enough that it requires a variety of solutions. TrollBusters is part of that hack-harassment initiative to try and work with tech companies to come up with a technological solution. TrollBusters is a counter-speech initiative designed to create a hedge of protection around those targets. However, I think we are naïve if we believe that technology alone can solve this problem. There are still significant problems reporting to platforms, and these companies need to address them instead of making users moderate this kind of behaviour.
I read that TrollBusters uses a technology developed by students at Ohio University called C.A.T.S.: Clustering Analysis and Targeting System. Could you explain what that is and how that works?
When we brought this idea to the Hackathon, we were attempting to use natural language processing, which is the basis of the C.A.T.S. system, to actually develop a more robust monitoring system. Right now we use a fairly rudimentary word systems to monitor the environment. We primarily rely on reports from targets and bystanders to let us know what’s happening. What we’re doing is building out those natural language processing systems and machine learning process to actually be more proactive in addressing targets in a timely manner so we can create a hedge of protection as soon as possible.
I find this idea of fighting the trolls with love through positive messaging very intriguing. What has the response been like from women who have used the service?
Just knowing that somebody has your back, and that somebody is there to support you, is enough for some people. Trolling can be a very isolating experience when you are fighting against it. Sometimes it’s not just one person, but smart mobs that are coming after you, which can be very overwhelming and isolating. So first and foremost, having somebody that’s there that you know is watching and monitoring the stream, and is stepping in with positive messaging to support you, is a big emotional step that has been a great help to our targets. When TrollBusters is operating in a stream, we send a warning message across the stream, letting the trolls know that TrollBusters is watching and monitoring the behaviour. We then begin our positive messaging campaign directly to the target. There is no direct message that goes to the trolls themselves. We don’t engage in any kind of dialogue with the trolls. Sometimes just letting the trolls know that we’re operating in the system is enough to make them stop. It’s kind of like having the high school principle come into the classroom saying, “Who are the kids that are acting up?” and all of the sudden the behaviour disappears. Once the trolls see that somebody else is in the fight and that the target is not alone, that can sometimes be enough for them to back off. That hedge of protection helps bolster the targets emotionally.
What are some of the challenges TrollBusters has faced?
Our role is to try and jump in initially as the activity is happening. We’ve been able to diminish the actual activity and minimize it, which is critical in keeping it from escalating. The most frustrating thing we’ve had to deal with at TrollBusters is the local law enforcement. Here in the U.S., they are locally unprepared and inadequately able to deal with the complexities of online behaviours that we’re seeing. They don’t quite understand the dynamics of smart mob. Their ability to investigate and then ultimately prosecute these kinds of cases is a long path for our targets. Oftentimes our targets have to choose between a short-term stop to the behaviour or a long-term decision to prosecute and let the behaviour continue while law enforcement is investigating. This puts our targets in an awkward and painful position since they have to decide how to respond to the activity of the troll.
Do you think that writers and journalists are actually trained enough about the online and offline dangers that are inherent to the job? Do you think that media outlets are really preparing reporters for the possibility that they might be targeted online?
As a journalism educator and as somebody who has worked in the media, I think our media organizations have been naïve to the types of problems that women have been dealing with for years; both offline, in my own case, as well as online, with the push for reporters to have a social media presence. This year our focus is to raise awareness and share best practices with media organizations on how to handle harassment. We want to work with journalism and mass communication educators to help them understand how to prepare students in classrooms before they even go into a newsroom. We want to help them develop their online identities while also protecting their online reputation from damage via online harassment.
What are the next steps for TrollBusters?
The training and education aspect of our work is critical. We’re also developing more rigorous research into how deep the problem is, specifically for women writers and journalists.