When harassment or threatening messages are characterised as “just the internet”, it’s doubly frustrating. On one hand, that’s a glib way to deny the reality of the harm caused and emotions experienced by the people on the receiving end. On the other, it assumes the internet is something you can switch off if you want – a harmless unreality that’s an optional extra, and not part of your real life.
The reality, however, is that many people on the receiving end of online abuse are being abused at work. The internet is not just a place of play and recreation; it’s also a work environment. Journalists, community managers of all kinds, marketers, and any number of other professionals cannot do their jobs effectively without the ability to access social media, and to speak freely there without being harassed for their presence.
Amanda Hess, in a long and excellent piece on women, harassment and the internet, speaks to this problem and a few others. She points out that online abuse, arguably, constitutes employment discrimination, as it discourages women from pursuing work online as well as causing significant distress to those who do and who are harassed in return.
Those who have reason to expect harassment are discouraged from promoting themselves and their work. They may employ particular strategies to protect themselves that aren’t necessary for those who are less likely to be abused, and that may hurt them professionally. (An illustrative example: I didn’t use my own image in profiles anywhere online for several years, because I was keen not to have my appearance used as ammunition, positive or negative. During that time I had more than one conversation with male social media journalists, seemingly unaware of these issues, who told me not using my own photograph was unprofessional.)
The prevalence of online abuse manages to put minorities who work online at a disadvantage in two ways: either they moderate their behaviour to be safer but take professional consequences, or they do not moderate their behaviour and risk more severe abuse. Either way there is an extra cost to working online, which is currently borne entirely by those on the receiving end of systematic harassment.
In addition to those employment issues, Hess also speaks about her experiences with police, and the fact that keeping track of her stalkers has cost her money. The police response to Twitter abuse is, in her account, frequently to tell her not to use Twitter. If your job requires you to use Twitter, or your work’s success relies on your personal ability to promote it, this advice is impossible to take without harming yourself economically and professionally.
Increasingly, for many careers, social media is not a space where participation is optional. “Just ignore it” doesn’t work and isn’t appropriate when a customer in a shop starts yelling abuse at a retail worker. It’s not appropriate online either. We work here.