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Online harassment is becoming a growing scourge, but its victims – most frequently young women – are offered little protection. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Web of abuse grows as online bullies spread malice

Online abuse victim Caitlin Roper.
Credit: SUPPLIED

It started, ostensibly at least, with an online debate about Ched Evans – a British soccer player who escaped fame but found notoriety after his conviction for rape in 2012. Last month he was freed from jail. Evans, just 25, wants to play soccer again. To that end, he released a video professing his innocence and describing the incident as regrettable but “consensual” infidelity. An online petition opposing his reinstatement to the professional leagues attracted more than 150,000 signatures. 

One of those signatures belonged to Caitlin Roper, a feminist activist based in Perth. Quickly, the debate inflamed the world wide web and became a conflagration of sexualised threats. Roper was targeted. “In a way, given the nature of my work, I’m somewhat used to abuse and threats from men online,” she tells me. “You have to try and disconnect from all of it emotionally, you put on a brave face and get back to work. As the threats kept coming, though, I felt my anxiety levels rising. There’s a sense of panic, and I think that’s the point. These men think if they threaten us with violence then we will be forced to stop campaigning against the objectification of women. They want us to be scared.”

Roper’s aggressor established a fake Twitter account under her name. He adopted Roper’s profile picture, and in the hour before it was suspended, published personalised obscenity. The following examples are graphic, but representative: “Hi I’m Caitlin Roper, as a professional prostitute…” and “I sell my wet panties #anal #porn” and “Hey!! It’s me Caitlin, just wanted to let you know I’m a rape loving little whore”. There are many more. From other accounts, the man harassed different women: “You’re a fucking whore and a slut” and “Perhaps when one day a random man rapes you, you will rescind your ignorance.” There are hundreds of messages like these. 

Gender bias

Online harassment – abuse, intimidation, stalking – is an immense problem, and one with a gender bias. Last month, the Pew Research Centre released a report on online harassment. It found that “age and gender are most closely associated with the experiences of online harassment” and that people aged 18 to 29 are more likely than any other demographic group to experience harassment. “Fully 65 per cent of young internet users have been the target of at least one of the six elements of harassment.” Crucially, the report stated that young women “18 to 24, experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26 per cent of these young women have been stalked online, and 25 per cent were the target of online sexual harassment. In addition, they do not escape the heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general.”

Of the six categories the Pew centre assigned harassment, we might say that four of them are serious: stalking, sexual harassment, physical threats and sustained harassment. On sexual harassment and stalking, the numbers of female victims are alarmingly higher than male victims. Physical threats and sustained harassment are borne almost evenly. 

In May of this year, British think tank Demos released a report called “Misogyny on Twitter” in which it wrote “research has consistently found that women are subjected to more bullying, abuse, hateful language and threats than men” when online. 

“Men are cunts and always have been,” Stilgherrian, who writes extensively on internet security and privacy, told me. “It’s just that when they’re online they think they’re immune from retaliation.” 

No remorse

For the past week I have been in contact with Caitlin Roper’s aggressor. I will not name him, but he lives in Los Angeles and is in his mid-20s. I assumed, once I had contacted him, that he would either not reply, or be contemptuously dismissive. I was wrong. Despite the time difference and the implications, he responded almost immediately. “I’m happy to answer any questions you might have!” he wrote chirpily at one point. I suspected he enjoyed the attention. 

There was a dismal pattern to his emails. They would open with a faintly conciliatory line, before being aggressively undermined by his listing the faults of his victims. There was a gloss of contrived politeness to the exchange, a sickly need to please. But then, inevitably, his self-absorption would emerge vividly. His mind was a möbius strip, endlessly and effortlessly folding in and back on itself. 

“I disagreed with some of her [Roper’s] statements [about Ched Evans]. I used the word ‘rape’ only for effect, however she took it personally. I’ve said many times before that logic would explain the fact that nobody intended on raping her and nobody wishes rape upon her. I did get carried away and did use some obscene language… however, they took a joke out of context and began a witch-hunt of sorts by posting my picture and personal information.” 

As my questions became thornier, his rationalisations became increasingly self-serving. “Do I believe it is life altering and traumatic? No. If someone is harassing you online, usually blocking them and ignoring will resolve the issue. If you engage someone, it’s more likely they’ll continue. Remember, people do a lot of what they do for attention. Do I think any of these women have PTSD and are in therapy? No. Roper was looking for five minutes of fame.”

Among all of the sophistry and cruelty, there was this moment of honesty. I appreciated it, because I was feeling numbed by his verbosity and eerie disconnection. “It was amusing to watch complete strangers become riled up over cyber Twitter wars. I think the fact that she became angry and upset over some random guy using the word ‘rape’ was so ridiculous it made for entertainment of sorts.” 

He often spoke of female cynicism and double standards, but I suspected I was glimpsing unvarnished misogyny when he told me: “Don’t dismiss personal responsibility. Rape has been around for thousands of years. Do you recall chastity devices in mediaeval times? Used to prevent rape. Why is it that feminists, and perhaps you, believe that you can eradicate rape? Why is rape suddenly the super delicate issue we need to cry about? You are responsible for minimising risks. Is going to a frat party and having 15 beers and passing out the most responsible thing to do? No. Is it fair to be raped for having 15 beers? No. Then again, it is also not fair I be murdered.” 

But really, it was never so much what he wrote as what was missing that disturbed me. Over the week we must have exchanged thousands of words, and yet I never detected sincere contrition nor any sense that he might be considering others. It was cold. 

Libertarian web

Policing the sprawling, near-anarchic web is difficult – in fact, it’s anathema for many. So much of the web and its major landmarks are designed within a strong libertarian culture. “The companies themselves want to be seen as simple platforms for communication,” Stilgherrian says. “Part of that’s down to businesses wanting to keep their costs down, but it’s also about American ideas of free expression, magnified by Silicon Valley’s strong libertarian streak and a tendency to see data as data rather than actual humans.” 

Then there are practical constraints. Police are incapable of investigating every incident of online harassment – the scale is simply too large, and the jurisdictional flux makes it harder to investigate but easier to shift responsibility. This week, NSW Police admitted the size of the problem was too much, and they would prioritise each reported case of harassment. Victoria Police told me they “take a tough stance on [online] stalking and treat each incident as a crime, and investigators will actively pursue anyone who commits this offence to gratify their own needs, to the detriment of their victims”. 

Victoria Police played a straight bat, but female victims have told me police – in Queensland and Western Australia, at least – have been glib and unhelpful. “ ‘Just stop using the internet’ seems to be the standard response by police when feminist campaigners report threats from men,” Roper tells me. “It’s not good enough. We have men making horrific threats of violence against women, and rather than holding these men accountable for their criminal behaviour, we’re told the solution is for women to stay off the internet.”

Roper was also told by a police officer that perhaps she should use a “more plain” online profile picture. “This is classic victim blaming. While these attitudes are absolutely prevalent in the wider community, I had expected better from a police officer. The implication was that I was somehow inviting rape threats because of my headshot. But men threaten me regardless of which picture I use, or whether I use a picture at all.”

I have long suspected that acts of intimidation or harassment committed online do not attract the same interest from authorities as those exercised traditionally. That somehow, for an older generation, the internet is some fatuous playground and not to be taken seriously. “It’s not just the police who misunderstand online communication,” Stilgherrian says. “The bullies themselves do. Since the 1990s we’ve seen aggressive comments dismissed with a ‘Look, it’s just the internet, it’s not real’ … My take on it is that in face-to-face communication we see the other person’s body language and other cues, and we moderate our behaviour accordingly. Other participants are there to intervene. We’re conscious that we might be punished for bad behaviour. All those things we learn in the rough and tumble of the schoolyard.”

When Western Australia Police discovered Roper’s story would be airing on national television, she received a call from them. They wanted to help. 

The great divide

Those informed of threats – friends, authorities – respond differently to the people actually threatened. Those making the threats themselves often rationalise similarly: the threat itself is inseparable from the intention to fulfil it. Without that intention, the threat should be dismissed; the dread evaporated. But this cool calculation is often unavailable to the person sucker-punched with a threat of rape or dismemberment. 

Like others, I have been subject to threats, manipulation and harassment – both online and not. What I experienced was vastly different to the gendered filth practised so vividly online; but my receipt of the threats shares something. So, a small litany: I was told by a former partner she would kill herself if I left (she later staged a fake suicide); I have received an email from a disconcerting reader who, in response to my request she cease correspondence, implied she was dying; I have received multiple physical threats from aggrieved people ominously promising me they know where I live. None of this is terribly unusual; none of it has changed me. But when shared with friends, the psychological discrepancy becomes obvious. The usual response: “This is gross emotional manipulation, but the thing threatened won’t happen. Relax.”

It is not bad advice. But it elides the emotional. Those directly untouched can coolly accept the balance of probabilities; the one threatened assumes the worst consequence, and acts to avoid it. The advice also assumes that the threat itself isn’t damaging and distorting. It’s not that those subject to threats lose their rationality; it’s that those unaffected haven’t had their great Catherine wheel of interpolation lit. The advice also suggests the countless women harassed might be able to fully assess their threat level. They cannot. On the balance of probabilities, they are issued by impotent creeps – but there is a possibility they are not, and that’s where the victim uniquely dwells.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 8, 2014 as "Web of abuse". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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