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Women face disproportionate attacks online. One expert shares some of the details

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As you've probably heard, the tech titan Elon Musk has launched a hostile bid to take over Twitter, the social media platform favored by many politicians, celebrities and journalists. That's because he says he's a free speech absolutist. And he says the platform now has too many rules about what people can say. But our next guest says there's a group of people who are essentially censored on social media right now - women, especially women of color and public-facing women, because of the vicious, sexist and racist abuse they're subjected to online.

Nina Jankowicz is known for her research on online disinformation and its effect on democracy. Her latest book is called "How To Be A Woman Online." It describes in disturbing detail the vastly disproportionate attacks that women face compared to men when they try to have an online presence. And she's with us now to tell us more. Nina Jankowicz, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

NINA JANKOWICZ: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: All right. Give it to me straight. How bad is it? Give us some parameters about how to think about this.

JANKOWICZ: Well, you know, it's hard to put a number on things because it's hard to detect this harassment a lot. The harassers online are quite creative in the ways that they harass women. But when my team at the Wilson Center sought to document some of the harassment during the 2020 presidential campaign, over a period of two months on six social media platforms, we found over 336,000 pieces of gendered or sexualized abuse and disinformation directed at just 10 U.S. candidates. And most of that was directed at then-vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, 78% of it, in fact. So that's just a short period of time, just a few platforms. And when you compare what women receive, as some of my colleagues have done in other organizations, with what their male counterparts receive, it's just far and away much, much worse, especially if you're a woman of color or a woman of an intersectional identity.

MARTIN: And what kinds of things are we talking about? And this is where I'm going to offer a language advisory for people who are listening. I need to say that this - I'm guessing that what you are about to say might be disturbing. And, you know, I always hesitate to do that because, you know, we don't get language advisories when people are directing this garbage at us. But in the interest of people who don't live this or have this experience, what kinds of things are we talking about?

JANKOWICZ: Well, it's a whole spectrum of abuse. Some of it is a little bit more anodyne, you know, men referring to you as girly, dear, princess, sweetie, honey. I get the bimbo slur a lot, B-word, C-word often come up. Men will comment on my hair, my breast size, the symmetry of my face. There's a lot of assertions, especially among women who are public facing, voicing their opinions online, that these women must be transgender because otherwise they wouldn't be so assertive. They look for evidence of an Adam's apple or a 5 o'clock shadow. Sometimes we hear men sexualizing or diminishing women's roles in society, saying, oh, you know, she's just arguing with you online because she wants to sleep with you. Or I've had someone say to me, she's angry at you because no one would hit it and stick with it. I've had men say, you birth babies, we build bridges.

And then often I get from the far-right memes of empty egg cartons which are sent to women to say that our fertility is declining and we should get back to our homemaking activities. And then there's the more violent stuff. I've had people say, you'll be dealt with in the streets. You know, if a civil war comes, you're going to be first. Some people say things like I'd fixed her. And then, you know, I've gotten emails directly to my work account, including just after January 6, when it was quite tense here in Washington, saying things like you sound like a hysterical bleeping snowflake lesbo bleep.

MARTIN: This is a worldwide phenomenon. This is not just a U.S. phenomenon. I mean, there are just - you have example after example in your book where these tools are sort of activated across national lines. Just, you know, somebody gets into a disagreement, a legitimate disagreement over policy or over opinion, and then the trolls get activated, like, all over the world to attack and swarm this person. So there are people who think, well, this is just - air quotes here - "words," it's just mean words. You make the argument that this is not just words, that this has personal security implications, but this really does cause women to censor themselves and to avoid engagement in the public sphere. Why do you say that? You say this is, in fact, a form of censorship.

JANKOWICZ: Yeah. In my own life, it is a form of censorship. Right? Every time I am online thinking about, OK, am I going to tweet, am I going to pitch this article today, I think about, you know, do I have the emotional capacity right now to deal with what might come if that's going to be out there in the real world? I now carry a personal safety alarm around with me because I am worried about if one of these people who has threatened me online shows up in real life. Particularly women of color have had offline threats that originated from online threats.

And, you know, I've spoken to many women, many of whom are prominent in their field, who say, when I know I'm going to be getting a lot of attention, let's say, for a congressional testimony or if I'm going on TV, they lock down their accounts, which is closing themselves off to opportunity. And that's women who are, you know, at the peak of their careers. When I spoke to young women about this, women who are high school and college aged, who are very much digital natives, they said to me, you know, I don't want a lifestyle that public anymore. I'm going to lock down my account. I don't really voice my opinions online except to my friends. And that just breaks my heart. We need their voices.

MARTIN: So, you know, you can't help but notice that many of the free speech absolutists are often online trolls themselves, and/or they are wealthy white men who presumably have ample means to protect their personal safety. They have personal assistants. They have security guards. They have, you know, people who can provide, you know, a zone of personal safety for them. But to the argument that it is just words, what do you say?

JANKOWICZ: It's not just words. So if I were walking on the street and a crowd of hundreds of people were shouting the insults that we spoke about at me, police would intervene. Bystanders would intervene. It would not be acceptable. And yet it is happening to millions of women around the world and worse every day. And I think you make a really good point, Michel. You know, for people of means, for people who are in the majority, it's a little bit easier to deal with. The onus always falls on the target of the abuse. The platforms aren't doing very much right now.

And I shudder to think about if free speech absolutists were taking over more platforms, what that would look like for the marginalized communities all around the world, which are already shouldering so much of this abuse, disproportionate amounts of this abuse, and retraumatizing themselves as they try to protect themselves from it, you know, reporting, blocking, et cetera. We need the platforms to do more, and we frankly need law enforcement and our legislatures to do more as well. And in other countries that are looking at this, you know, the U.K. has an online safety bill that's being considered right now where they're trying to make illegal this currently, quote, "awful but lawful content" that exists online where people are being harassed.

MARTIN: Your book offers very practical advice to individuals about how to address these matters in their own if they have to or feel that they have to engage with these platforms. But from a broader policy standpoint, what should happen is - and part of the reason, you know, first of all, your book is quite timely. I mean, it was due to come out now, but it's interesting that it comes out at this moment where Elon Musk, as we said, has engaged in what he says is this campaign to take over Twitter because he wants it to be sort of an absolutist, free speech environment where there are no rules. From a policy standpoint, what do you think should should happen?

JANKOWICZ: Well, I think what we've actually been seeing Twitter do in the past couple of months to a year has been pretty progressive on the side of platforms. We've seen them introduce what they call human-centered reporting, which looks rather than at their terms of service hierarchy, it asks people what happened in their own words and to report it that way. I think that's in the right direction. What I would love to see is more incident reporting on platforms.

So rather than just reporting one-off pieces of content or accounts that are abusive, being able to report the whole picture to a content moderator because usually these campaigns are started by one high-follower individual or several of them, and they come in waves. And if you see, you know, one tweet and you're a content moderator and you have 20 to 40 seconds or even less time to evaluate that tweet or piece of content, it might not look that bad. But when you see hundreds or even thousands of tweets coming from people all around the world that are generally quite vitriolic or disgusting in some way, the combined effect of that on one human being, I think, would be taken much differently.

So that's something that I've advocated for in the past, but really any enforcement of consequences against abusers would make such a big difference because part of the reason this happens right now is that hardly anything ever happens to the people who are levying the abuse. Once in a while, they're asked to take that content down. Maybe in some extreme circumstances, their accounts are disabled, but they often just make another account. There are no consequences right now because there does not seem to be the political will within companies to crack down on content that drives engagement. And we know that that emotional, vitriolic content does drive engagement online.

MARTIN: That's Nina Jankowicz. Her book, "How To Be A Woman Online: Surviving Abuse And Harassment, And How To Fight Back" is out on Thursday, and it's available now for pre-order. Nina Jankowicz, thanks so much for sharing this expertise with us.

JANKOWICZ: It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.