Some thoughts on safer feminist blogging

Trigger warning for threats of violence including sexual violence.

Several months ago, before this blog was properly set up, a few of us from Feminist Action Cambridge got together to talk about how we wanted to collectively run it. We started with a go-round of our ideas and concerns about running a feminist blog. It quickly became clear that all of us were horrified by the amount of trolling and harassment that many feminist bloggers face. On the upside, other feminist bloggers had done all this before, so we can learn from their experiences.

In this post I’m trying to express some ideas from the blog meeting, and also some ideas from the Feminism and Social Media discussion, and also some thoughts that just come from inside my head, on the pitfalls of feminist blogging, and I’ll offer some partial solutions or responses. Here goes…

Pitfall 1: Trolls

We feared that lots of troll comments could create an unsafe place, and prevent the awesome, constructive discussions we hoped would take place. We also feared that high levels of trolling might lead us to spend too much time on comment moderation, leaving us with less time for other things we wanted to do, and possibly leading to burn-out.

We have a comments policy (mostly copied from another website). Since our blog is fairly new, so far we’ve been able to get away with letting comments got up automatically, and moderating after the fact. However as soon as we start getting trolls we’ll switch to a system where comments by first-time commenters go in a moderation queue and do not appear until approved by an administrator. Comments would also get put into the moderation queue automatically if they contained certain words.

Comment moderation attitude / philosophy

We talked about how comment moderation is a form of unpaid labour. The goal of comment moderation is to create a discussion space that we find to be interesting / inspiring / thought-provoking / generally awesome, without creating too much work for ourselves. If someone leaves a comment we think is inappropriate we’ll delete it, and if someone asks a question we’ll answer it only if we happen to want to. We don’t owe anyone a platform or an explanation.

Many feminist blogs have found the trolls they get to be completely unmanageable, and some amazing blogs have shut down because of this. In my view, if this ever happened to us, turning off comments completely would be a completely valid response – much more valid than allowing ourselves to get stressed and burned out! After all, I’m pretty sure there are one or two other places on the Internet where people can discuss our blog posts if they so choose.

Pitfall 2: Harassment beyond the blog

For example if a harasser found one of us through the blog, and was able to find that person’s email, Facebook, Twitter, phone number, or address, and used it to harass that person.

It is common for bloggers to get nasty comments, and unfortunately women bloggers get particularly virulent and scary abuse, often including threats of rape or death. Some feminist bloggers have stopped blogging, or cut down on their blogging, because of this.

In the past there was a knee-jerk reaction of “It’s just the Internet, don’t take it seriously”, but in the last year or so more and more feminist bloggers have been pointing out that when a person receives threats of violence, they feel scared, and this is an entirely reasonable, normal reaction. Furthermore the idea that the threats are made by “bored teenagers” is being replaced by a realization that these threats often represent misogynistic hate speech, made with the deliberate intent to terrorize and silence women.

There is no right or wrong way for a blogger who is targeted for this abuse to react. She might shrug it off, she might go to the police, she might blog about it, or she might do something else.

In an online discussion on the Geek Feminism blog several writers who had experienced online harassment wrote about how useful it was to have a support network. As a collective I think members of Feminist Action Cambridge can offer unconditional support to anyone who experiences harassment, no matter how they choose to react to it. This way even if a person doesn’t wish to go public or go to the police, she still has a supportive group of people to talk to.

Reporting harassment to the police: it seems the police are pretty rubbish at responding to online harassment, but they do sometimes take action if a group of people pressure them to do so (and maybe publicly shame them on Twitter or by talking to the media). The police are more likely to help if the harassment is documented as thoroughly as possible. If the harassment was happening through Twitter, it would be important to copy the harassing tweets and keep a record of when they were sent, since Twitter doesn’t necessarily allow you to access older tweets.

Avoiding harassment: the simplest way for a blogger to avoid the possibility of harassment beyond the blog is to create a new identity that is not linked to any of the blogger’s other identities. This means creating a new email address and username in order to sign up to WordPress or Blogger (or whichever platform is used), and being careful not to mention self-identifying details on the blog. However it’s important to recognize that for some people this isn’t feasible because their blogging is part of their professional identity, because they want friends from real life to recognize them as a blogger, or because they feel that using their real life identity gives what they say more credibility. Another possibility is that identity leakage has already happened, and the blogger doesn’t want to start again with a new identity because that would mean abandoning the readers, friends, and reputation they have built up over time.

Pitfall 3: Undesired identity linkage

Some people just have one identity that they use all the time, but many people are forced to have multiple, separate identities.

Undesired identity linkage can be a problem because:

  • It can leave people open to the sort of harassment discussed in part 2.

  • People with marginalized identities (e.g. queer, feminist) could be outed against their wishes.

  • People who have power over the blogger, such as an employer, prospective employer, teacher, parent, or abusive ex-partner, might find out things about the blogger that could lead to the blogger being discriminated against or abused.

  • It can lead to self-censorship, which could lead to less awesomeness of blog articles and discussion, and a narrower set of ideas represented.

I think many different people have developed strategies for figuring out what identities they need to have, and how to keep them separate, and exploring this would be a whole other blog post at least. (I am actually thinking about writing that blog post though, maybe leave any ideas / questions for it in comments?)

Finally, I’m sure I left out about a billion things in this post. As always feel free to add stuff in comments!

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