I don’t have to tell anyone how online abuse has become part of the landscape of social media. Whether it’s a child being told to drink bleach and die, or a celebrity hearing their movie is so bad that “it’s not rape worthy,” or the former First Lady being called an ape in heels, the current culture of online cruelty seems to know no bounds.
Actress and activist Ashley Judd brilliantly articulated what it’s like to be a celebrity, an activist, and a woman on the Internet today in her TEDTalk last October, “How Online Abuse of Women Has Spiraled Out of Control.”
In an interview with TIME.com, Judd shared that her abuse started the minute she went online. She joined Twitter six years ago, in 2011, and was subjected to unrelenting harassment and abuse on a daily basis. But it wasn't until 2015 that she discovered just how sadistic the dark-web could be.
An avid sports fan, she tweeted out a comment about her feelings when a rival basketball team was playing dirty.
This tweet invoked a malicious cyber-mob attack that took a on a life of its own. From hate speech, to rape and death threats, Judd became the victim of the kind of cyber-violence that no one deserves.
Let's pretend for a moment that Judd wasn't a celebrity, or that she wasn't even a woman. Would that have made a difference? Being a sports enthusiast isn't, and shouldn’t be, reserved only for those who fit a narrow stereotype.
Thankfully There Are Good Guys Online Too
Last summer after reading an article in the Charlotte Observer about online trolls and fighting back, I met (virtually) @SupportiveDude. He loves his sports and will go to bat for anyoe being abused online! (No pun intended).
He happened to check Twitter during a Hornet’s game and had had enough of the bashing a sports media star was getting. As he told Cristina Bolling of the Observer, “I saw someone I follow dealing with an Internet troll. This person was just coming at him with this angry and unprovoked vitriol,” he said. “I wondered to myself what the counterpoint to this kind of online behavior would be. I started the account in that moment on a whim.… I like simplicity, so I just named it “Supportive Guy.” (The handle @supportiveguy was already taken, he said, so he went with @supportivedude.)
I've been following @SupportiveDude, and fortunately for him, he's never been subjected to the blow-back that Judd has had to contend with. I would venture to say that he would be one of the first to come to her digital rescue or anyone else who might be in need.
Online Gender Violence
When it comes to cyber-thrashing, women have largely been the receivers. When Judd talks about her experience, she ignites the stage with her colorful description of the foul language she is confronted with online on a regular basis--four-letter words that should be banned from our vocabulary and that no one should have to be subjected to.
Sadly, as we have learned in Judd’s case, one tweet can set off the cyber-mob. But we have see this gang-like mentality get sparked by other digital interchanges too. Remember when Suey Park tweeted #CancelColbert? Like Judd, she found herself on the receiving end of volatile comments, including death threats, and she eventually became a victim of doxxing. Park's world was turned upside down from just one tweet that was taken out-of-context.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The fact is, hate is hate, online or off. Whether it's targeted at women or men, it's never okay. The reality that a simple tweet can spark an explosion of vicious and contemptuous comments online or threats towards a person's life is unacceptable.
As Judd reminds us in her TEDTalk, "there are solutions."
"Number one: we have to start with digital media literacy, and clearly it must have a gendered lens. Kids, schools, caregivers, parents: it's essential. Two... shall we talk about our friends in tech? Said with dignity and respect, the sexism in your workplaces must end."
Digital media literacy is to the key to curbing online abuse -- no matter what your age, you are never too young or old to learn about cyber civics.
Many schools are now incorporating this into their curriculum and I believe should be mandated (so do some states, with new media literacy legislation being introduced every year). Cyber Civics is the three-year comprehensive curriculum that teaches all aspects digital literacy to middle schoolers—from digital citizenship, to information literacy, to how to spot fake news. This educational program was created by Diana Graber, co-founder of Cyberwise, and it is now being taught in 24 U.S. states and internationally.
When kids get these classes in school, the lessons trickle up to their parents. These are life skills that we all need today.
Being a Voice.
Judd also recognizes she has the ability and platform with her celebrity, to make a difference in this violent cyber-world.
“So, I have all these resources that I’m keenly aware so many people in the world do not.”
But this doesn’t meant that the average person can't speak-up too! I applaud Judd as she discusses that she will be meeting with tech giants to continue this dialogue to end online abuse, but we must all do our part too.
· Meet with your school board and PTA: Be sure digital literacy is taught in your district.
· Organize Kindness and Upstander Clubs in schools and communities.
· Demand digital Literacy for all ages: Encourage your local school or college to give classes for young adults and seniors too.