Monday, August 31, 2009

Cyber Gender Harassment and the New Campus Gossip Sites

University of Maryland law Professor Danielle Keats Citron has an interesting article on SSNR, "Law's Expressive Value in Combatting Cyber Gender Harassment." Also at vol. 108 Mich. L. Rev. (2009). (A nice coincidence that this pops up right after Marie's post about the new dean at U. Maryland!) The abstract reads:

The online harassment of women exemplifies twenty-first century behavior that profoundly harms women yet too often remains overlooked and even trivialized. This harassment includes rape threats, doctored photographs portraying women being strangled, postings of women’s home addresses alongside suggestions that they should be sexually assaulted and technological attacks that shut down blogs and websites. It impedes women’s full participation in online life, often driving them offline, and undermines their autonomy, identity, dignity, and well-being. But the public and law enforcement routinely marginalize women’s experience, deeming it harmless teasing that women should expect, and tolerate, given the Internet’s Wild West norms of behavior.

The trivialization of phenomena that profoundly impact women’s basic freedoms is nothing new. No term even existed to describe sexual harassment of women in the workplace until the 1970s. The refusal to recognize harms uniquely impacting women has an important social meaning — it conveys the message that abusive behavior towards women is acceptable and should be tolerated.

Grappling with the trivialization of cyber gender harassment is a crucial step to understanding and combating the harm that it inflicts. My previous work "Cyber Civil Rights" explored law’s role in deterring and punishing online abuse. This Essay emphasizes what may be law’s more important role: its ability to condemn cyber gender harassment and change the norms of acceptable online behavior. Recognizing cyber harassment for what it is — gender discrimination — is crucial to educate the public about its gendered harms, to ensure that women’s complaints are heard, to convince perpetrators to stop their bigoted online attacks, and ultimately to change online subcultures of misogyny to that of equality.
The article is important and timely, partly because campus gossip websites are proliferating. The granddaddy of them all, JuicyCampus, went under for lack of advertising revenue. But that has not deterred imitator sites from springing up, proclaiming their intentions to fight all attempts by attorneys generals or university general counsels to shut them down. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education Technology section for Aug. 31, 2009, "They're Back and They're Bad!" (in print at A-20). The various sites, such as CampusGossip, are planning back to school marketing stunts at different schools. One, CollegeACB, paid the owner of JuicyCampus $10,000 to redirect traffic to their website. Despite the fate of JuicyCampus, the new web entrepreneurs must anticipate making money with their ventures. These sites remind me of AutoAdmit, which caused quite a stir in law schools a couple years ago (see OOTJ post 3/27/07 on Cyberbullying and Virtual Rape which includes some discussion and links about Autoadmit).

When victims, school administrators, parents or reporters ask about the sites', the website owners often characterize them as spoofing celebrity tabloids, and attempting a light-hearted ranking of, say, Greek organizations by the best parties, or the best-looking members. But the always-anonymous posting leads to downright nasty entries that name individuals and make truly slanderous allegations -- too often about women.
A discussion thread on CollegeACB lists "sluts" at California State University at Chico, naming women on the campus whom the anonymous posters claim to have had sex with. A recent posting at Peoples Dirt expresses a wish that a group of girls listed in a discussion thread would "die in there sleep and everyone just forgets about them."

In some cases, postings on the sites may cause harm to reputations, with serious impacts on students if the messages are seen by future employers or potential suitors. Unlike slurs scrawled on bathroom walls, online posts can be more public, and more lasting.

"Internet shaming creates an indelible blemish on a person's identity," wrote Daniel J. Solove, a professor of law at George Washington University, in his 2007 book, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (Yale University Press). "It's similar to being forced to wear a digital scarlet letter or being branded or tattooed. People acquire permanent digital baggage. They are unable to escape their past, which is forever etched into Google's memory."

Site administrators for both Campus Gossip and CollegeACB say they will remove abusive comments and respond to complaints from readers—something JuicyCampus rarely did.

Peter Frank, a sophomore at Wesleyan University who runs CollegeACB, told me he tries to "minimize damage while still maintaining the site's purpose" by complying with such requests.

Just how responsive the sites are to take-down requests remains to be seen, since students are just now arriving on campuses for the fall semester. "We technically don't have to take anything down, based on what we've been told by our lawyers," a leader of Campus Gossip told me recently. He refused to give his real name, explaining that every employee of the site goes by the pseudonym Lance Lohan. "We choose to do that just to stay on the safe side of things."
In March, 2007, in the OOTJ post on Cyberbullying, and considering both a griefing attack on Second Life and the AutoAdmit sleaze-fests, excerpts from the post are still pertinent:
In both the Second Life griefing attack and the AutoAdmit trash-talk attacks, the perpetrators remain anonymous. In fact, on AutoAdmit, the "hottest law student" contest was abruptly called off, not after the women being posted without their consent protested (they were trashed even more when they asked to be removed) – it was called off when a male commentator was inadvertently outed. Oooh.

On the other hand, what is most appalling in both sets of attacks is the misogynistic nature. The griefing attack used penises to disrupt an interview. The attacks on AutoAdmit, while including racist, anti-semitic and homophobic comments, certainly displayed attitudes that devalued women as a group, and specific individuals. There were comments that considered sexual attacks and punishments against these women, and discussed their physical attributes in overtly sexual ways. These are both specific examples of cyberbullying of a sexual nature.

The women attacked both on Second Life and on the AutoAdmit chat have said they felt demeaned, devalued and threatened. Women law students who have been the subject of AutoAdmit attacks have said they felt they could no longer go to the gym, and had trouble attending class. They felt violated and threatened.

At a class website, the professors, Marcia Cohen and Sherrie H. McKenna describe women's reaction to rape:

" ... but all victims feel varying degrees of fear, guilt, embarrassment and anger. These emotions will not surface all at once but will effect the woman for a long time after the attack. It is important for all those close to her, especially the men to understand her feelings and support her through the crisis.
The fear a woman feels may weave through all aspects of her life. More than likely she was attacked going about her business, feeling safe in her world. Once that security is invaded the woman may be fearful about the once routine activities of her daily life. She may approach strangers and even friends and acquaintances with a new caution.
A woman may feel guilt, wondering why she was the victim. She may question whether she really did “ask for it” or lead someone to the wrong impression. She may also be embarrassed about what other people think of her. These feelings may cause her to avoid sexual relationships for a time."

On the Wikipedia article about rape, these comments about the psychological effects of rape:

"Rape has been regarded as "a crime of violence and control" since the 1970s. Psychological analysis literature identifies control as a key component in most definitions of privacy:
• "Privacy is not the absence of other people from one's presence, but the control over the contact one has with them." (Pedersen, D. 1997).
• "Selective control of access to the self." (Margulis, 2003)
Control is important in providing:
• what we need for normal psychological functioning;
• stable interpersonal relationships; and
• personal development. (Pedersen, D. 1997)
Violation of privacy or "control" comes in many forms, with sexual assault and the resulting psychological traumas being one of the most explicit forms. Many victims of sexual assault suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, which also center around control issues. Therefore, some argue that it makes more sense to look at the issue of sexual assault as an invasion of privacy" (Mclean, D. 1995)

(Wikipedia, Rape, visited 3/26/07)

I think we should consider how virtual worlds -- whether Massively Multi-Player games like Second Life or chat and listserves, enable such attacks on individuals. We should also recognize that the effects of such attacks, whether you call it cyberbullying or virtual rape, are very bad, attacking the victim's security and sense of self.
So this finally leads back to Professor Citron's thesis, that cyber harassment or cyber bullying should be treated as a civil rights violation. The continued trivialization of the problem is disturbing. In my original post in 2007, I commented that cyberbullying and even virtual rape could happen as easily to males as to females. But apparently, it is still a prevalently feminine issue. I considered whether the problem might be taken more seriously if men were harassed online. And the answer is apparently not. On the other hand, we have had one teenaged girl who committed suicide after being harassed online through text messages sent pseudonymously. According to the Wikipedia entry, a number of Missouri municipalities passed ordninances making online harassment a misdemeanor. The state of Missouri has a bill in process creating a felony for online harassment, and some unstated number of other states may be considering similar bills. On the federal level, Congresswoman Linda T. Sanchez introduced H.R. 6123 as the "Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act" to "amend title 18, United States Code, with respect to cyberbullying." The bill was introduced in the 111th Congress on April 2, 2009 as H.R. 1966. (link is to and will not only give you the official and wiki summaries, the text of the bill, it will let you send a note to your representative about how you feel about this or any other bill, and check news coverage about whatever bill you are looking at. Great site!)

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