The Internet has become an important space for activism, whether we use it for organising within our movements or trying to reach outwards and create broader change. Online harassment makes this more difficult, especially for women, trans people, people of colour, people with disabilities, and other marginalised groups. This takes different forms around the world – just as Internet use varies significantly – but it is increasingly recognised as a deep and challenging problem.
Whether online harassment is subtle or extreme, it’s unhelpful to imagine that there’s a firm line between ‘offline’ and ‘online’. Whatever form or severity it takes, it can make it difficult, or even impossible, for people to use the Internet to create change. It can also affect people’s professional work, family, relationships, and mental health.
Some online harassment is low-grade, a gradual but relentless trickle, including seemingly-earnest requests for women and other marginalised people to explain or justify their experiences. Many activists will be familiar with the phrase, “but how can I learn if you won’t teach me?” At other times, it may come as strange forms of attention: someone commenting on year-old posts and photographs, for example. Even these actions are often enough to make communicating online tiring and uncomfortable for many people, particularly women.
There are also more extreme forms of harassment and abuse. For example, sending a flood of graphic threats, often from many sources at once, or releasing details of someone’s workplace, home, or where their children go to school. These forms of abuse can make it impossible for those targeted to stay online, and can put their physical safety at risk.
While all forms of online harassment can be harmful, different forms may require different responses. Strategies that may be effective for blocking overt abuse can be all but useless when it comes to seemingly well-intentioned questioning. What works on one platform, or in one context, may not work for others. Practical considerations, like how to block abuse or ensure personal details are kept private, are only one part of the problem.
Another, deeper problem is how we understand – and get others to understand – online harassment. Feminist activists have been trying to raise awareness of the problem, and have been pushing social media platforms to develop better policies around harassment, remove features that facilitate it, and give users more ways to protect themselves. Activists within this movement have tended to ground their discussions of the problem with reference to free speech discourse.
This is partly in response to claims that any attempt to block, moderate, or otherwise control online spaces are attacks on free speech. Internet freedoms advocates have been justifiably suspicious of many past attempts by governments or corporations to control what people can post online. This suspicion has also, at times, spilled over into concerns that attempts to prevent online harassment will lead to diminished freedoms online. There are also times when those engaging in online harassment use the language of free speech Thinking Beyond ‘Free Speech’ in Responding to Online Harassment deliberately, claiming that any attempt to stop them is censorship.
Feminist activists have, therefore, frequently drawn on the language of free speech themselves. They point out that online harassment pushes users offline, makes it more difficult for them to share their ideas and content, and has many of the same chilling effects as state censorship and surveillance. They argue that the best way to protect free speech online is to build in protections for vulnerable users, who would otherwise be silenced.
Feminist activists have, therefore, frequently drawn on the language of free speech themselves. They point out that online harassment pushes users offline, makes it more difficult for them to share their ideas and content, and has many of the same chilling effects as state censorship and surveillance.
Feminist activists have also pointed out that free speech is fundamentally about protection from the state. It is about being able to engage in political dissent without being thrown in jail, tortured, or otherwise punished by the government for your ideas. Describing activities such as moderating comments on a blog or blocking users on social media as 'censorship’ is therefore a failure to understand the concept of free speech. However, many activists working to address online harassment do see large social media platforms as public spaces which might need free speech protections.
These arguments are important. Picking up powerful ideas and repurposing them is a useful tactic. Activists in many places know the value of wrapping their resistance in the national flag, literally or metaphorically. There is strength in these symbols: in flags, in constitutions, in anthems, in words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’.
At the same time, though, we need to recognise that these symbols come as part of a package. Flags come with borders, histories, with an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, even if for a while we wave them in the hope of change and renewal. Similarly, the idea of free speech is tied to a very particular set of political ideals.
Free speech doesn’t guarantee a fair and equal treatment of different voices, because it’s part of a package that includes tremendous economic inequality. Those with more money are likely to have their voices spread, and widely heard. Some people can afford to share their ideas on billboards, in the mass media, in universities, and other venues, while others can only write on walls in chalk. There has always been a gap between free speech as an ideal, and the reality. Even the most liberal of states have censored some forms of speech, such as blasphemy and even websites that share illegal material such as torrents, and some groups of people, including those deemed a threat to the state.
Free speech doesn’t guarantee a fair and equal treatment of different voices, because it’s part of a package that includes tremendous economic inequality.
This is not to say that free speech advocacy, either around online harassment or more generally around Internet freedoms, should stop. Seeking protections from state censorship will continue to be important, drawing on the symbolism of free speech discourse is frequently tactically advantageous, and it is useful to consider the ways in which large social media companies might be shutting down democratic dissent.
However, we should also be looking for alternative political ideals and traditions to draw on, expand, and nourish. In looking for these alternatives, it is useful to begin by unpacking what free speech is meant to achieve. Firstly, free speech protections have a value in and of themselves, in preserving personal autonomy from a repressive state. Secondly, free speech is seen as integral to democratic participation and deliberation. Thirdly, free speech is, as mentioned above, meant to aid in truth-seeking, as the expression of unpopular and even incorrect ideas can lead us to discover new truths or reconfirm old ones.
The liberal democratic political model has failed, in important ways, to achieve these goals. Personal autonomy remains deeply constrained by economic inequality, and women, trans people, people of colour, Indigenous people, and other marginalised groups find their personal expression and physical autonomy is frequently under threat. Democratic participation in the formal political system is, in many Western countries, limited to voting for one of two major parties with overlapping policies, or for a minor party with limited ability to achieve change. Those speaking difficult and uncomfortable truths frequently find themselves shouted down in the mainstream media and facing imprisonment and physical violence. We see this repeatedly, in the harsh policing of anti-racist and anti-pipeline protests in the US; the arrests of academics and other government critics in Turkey; police violence and arrests of students protesting anti-Dalit universities in India; and a multitude of other cases.
The liberal democratic political model has failed, in important ways, to achieve these goals. Personal autonomy remains deeply constrained by economic inequality, and women, trans people, people of colour, Indigenous people, and other marginalised groups find their personal expression and physical autonomy is frequently under threat.
Free speech advocacy (as far as it’s successful) creates spaces that are at least temporarily and partially free from state censorship. We need to use these spaces to explore models of political participation and truth-seeking that are more creative, inclusive, and sustainable than what we have available now.
This also means taking a deeper approach to calls for intersectionality in feminist movements. Flavia Dzodan’s call for intersectional feminism has been incredibly influential online, but the call for intersectionality is often treated shallowly. We can resist this tendency by drawing on the radical calls to action from authors like Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, the Combahee River Collective,The Combahee River Collective Statement and Kimberlé Crenshaw. It is not enough to register that race, gender, class, and other structures of oppression are interlinked. In responding to online harassment, we must also see the ways in which these structures underpin the foundations of Western political ideas and practices, and look for alternatives that draw on different traditions.
Doing so is made challenging by the naturalisation of liberal political discourse. I majored in Political Science at a well-respected Australian university. In my entire degree, we spent less than half a lecture exploring political alternatives to liberalism. I certainly was never taught anything about Noongar political and economic systems, despite living on Noongar land. This is, of course, no accident, given the efforts made by colonisers to erase Noongar culture. There are many other political systems that have been lost, or forcibly scattered, by colonisation. Personally, I have also found that anarchafeminism provides useful frameworks for thinking how we might reorganise political, social, and economic structures. There are political alternatives, even if substantial effort has gone into making us believe otherwise.
We need to be aware that alternative political analysis may not fit the models of knowledge that academia (or even activist spaces) privilege. It will take active work to piece together other histories, and other models. We can learn from the practices of those around us, even when these are not explicitly configured as political: Mujeres Creando, an anarchafeminist group, have said that they are anarchists, ‘by our grandmothers, and that’s a beautiful school of anarchism’.
We need to be aware that alternative political analysis may not fit the models of knowledge that academia (or even activist spaces) privilege.
There are already hints of other possibilities emerging in many of the practices used to manage online (and offline) harassment. For example, there has recently been increased discussion of ‘safe spaces’, which are set up to facilitate better conversations and organising. Safe spaces might be temporary (such as a once-off workshop addressing sexism in a particular community) or more ongoing (like an attempt to create an anti-racist safe space within an organisation). Discussion of safe spaces frequently accepts the free speech model for public political debate, but argues for a different set of practices in more private spaces. In talking about the value of safe spaces there needs to be a recognition that historically, the public democratic debate has been ‘safe’...for some people (particularly white, well-off, educated, cis, heterosexual, able men). Safe spaces are, therefore, ‘safe’ for a different set of people and ideas (while being less receptive to racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise oppressive ideas). What might it mean to extend this further, and also imagine a broader political system which is safer for those voices which resist oppression, as opposed to those currently in power?
In asking this question, and calling for alternatives, I don’t imagine that there can, or should, be a single answer. The dominance of Western liberal political ideals should not be replaced with a new monoculture. Many different groups have practiced, and continue to experiment with, a wide variety of ways of making participatory decisions, and opening space for diverse voices. These may be more or less hierarchical and inclusive: each model has its own challenges, and depends heavily on context. Without assuming that any movement has all the answers, we can learn from Occupy, Black Lives Matter, anti-colonial, feminist and civil rights movements, from the many forms of anarchist organising, from Indigenous political practices and the ongoing resistance of Indigenous people to colonisation, movements for autonomy in Kurdish areas, and from many other traditions.
By exploring these scattered, hidden, and marginalised practices, we can find a multitude of different frameworks for achieving the same goals that free speech offers us, and might expect that some of them will be more successful than the approaches we currently privilege. At the same time, learning about these practices must take place within a framework where we remain aware of power structures. It is not enough to appropriate decontextualised aspects of other cultures without acknowledging members of marginalised groups as experts, and supporting their choices about how and when to share their knowledge. Hopefully, in doing so, we can start to imagine, build, and strengthen, political visions that offer us a better future.
Dr. Sky Croeser is an academic based in the Department of Internet Studies at Curtin University, Western Australia. She’s interested in the ways in which activists use, and reshape, key technologies. Her first book, Global Justice and the Politics of Information: the Struggle Over Knowledge, came out in 2015. You can find out more about her work at skycroeser.net.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Tactical Tech's editorial stance.
Thinking Beyond ‘Free Speech’ in Responding to Online Harassment
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