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Online Harassment Is An Epidemic. Meet The Women Working To Stop It

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In 2006, few were concerned about online harassment of women —but Jac sm Kee saw darkness looming on the cyber-horizon. While working at a women’s rights organization that doubled as a domestic violence shelter, Kee saw an increasing number of women reporting harassment through internet communication technologies (ICTs). Concerned, she published a paper with the Association for Progressive Communications, highlighting the intersection between ICTs and violence against women. The paper’s message was clear: Developments in surveillance and hacking technology were allowing internet trolls to become dangerously, life-alteringly cruel offline.

“The internet is not creating new forms of crimes against women and children,” she wrote at the top of her finished paper, quoting Karen Banks’ 2001 article “Leave The Internet Alone.” “But it is creating new ways and means for crimes to be perpetrated.”

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Twelve years later, Kee’s predictions have come to sickening fruition. Leslie Jones left Twitter after an alt-right army bombarded her with racist and sexist slurs. Media critic Anita Sarkeesian faced rape and death threats after speaking out against sexism in the gaming industry. Countless women have had their personal photos leaked in a disgusting cyber-phenomenon called “revenge porn.”

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But now, women are fighting back — and Kee, once on the fringes, has become one of the movement’s leaders. After publishing her landmark paper, she founded “Take Back The Tech!,” an online anti-harassment platform (named after the anti-sexual assault and anti-domestic violence organization "Take Back The Night") that’s fighting to make the internet a safer space for women everywhere.

“Take Back The Tech!’s aim is simple,” Kee told BUST via email. “It’s a call for anyone with access to any kind of communication platform to reclaim the transformative potential of ICT’s to end gender-based violence.”

TBTT Option 2 58f46Photo courtesy of Sara Baker

There’s an alarming amount of ways that women can be harassed online: cyberstalking, doxing, and rape threats are only a few of the most sinister manifestations. Although men and women report similar levels of harassment, a report from TIME shows that the harassment women face is more violent and intimidating.

“Digital spaces do not exist in a vacuum. They are located within offline realities, where we are still struggling with issues of gender discrimination and disparity, and all of their intersectional implications,” Kee said. “As long as we’re facing sexism and harassment in our physical and material spaces, then we’ll be facing sexism and harassment online.”

TBTT Option 4 244f4Photo courtesy of Sara Baker

Take Back The Tech! works to combat this harassment by helping women reclaim technological power. They explain simple preventative measures, like how to protect your online data, install encryption software, and disable your phone’s GPS. Their solutions might seem simplistic — but many of the underlying problems are themselves quite simple. Changing a password from “password” to “JGVE*3g8s” makes a difference, as does removing one’s home address from resumes and personal websites. These tips might not stop the savviest of hackers, but they will stop some — and as any woman would tell you, any reduction of online harassment is a welcome one.

In 2014, Take Back The Tech! also called out major social media platforms for their complicity. That July, the organization published a report card that graded Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube on their harassment reporting mechanisms. They ranked each website from A to F in six categories (which included transparency, accessibility, and responsiveness to non-US/European women), and the highest average score was a dismal D+. Facebook and Twitter have since changed their harassment reporting process, and while this change can’t be credited to Take Back The Tech!, it’s certainly a success for the movement.

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In recent years, other organizations have taken their own approach to curtailing online harassment. Last June, Representative Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) introduced the Online Safety Modernization Act, a law that would outlaw abusive online behavior. A few months later, New York City voted to criminalize revenge porn, joining 38 other states and Washington D.C.

But Take Back The Tech! doesn’t just work in the United States — in fact, the majority of their advocacy occurs internationally. The group partners with local coalitions in over 35 countries to affect change in local contexts, and empower women across the globe to reclaim technological power. In the Philippines, members of the Foundation For Media Alternatives help government officials and civil society organizations create a safer digital world for the Filipino community. In the Mexico-based Luchadoras, advocates teach self-defense classes, provide assistance to survivors, and produce an online show about the consequences of online harassment that boasts over 500,000 monthly viewers.

TBTT Option 1 38688Photo courtesy of Sara Baker

Despite the seemingly endless barrage of hate that women face online, Take Back The Tech! remains positive. Continuing to quote Karen Banks in her 2006 paper, Kee wrote that ICTs are also “creating new ways and means for people to organize, network, campaign, and bring about social actions.” Now, she calls Take Back The Tech! “a reminder that we all have power, and that internet technologies present us with an opportunity to have networked and augmented power.”

Global coordinator Sara Baker agrees. “We are seeing women use technology to resist violence in unprecedented ways with the reach of hashtags like #MeToo, which has had pivotal moments in numerous countries and continues to be a force for change around sexual harassment and assault,” Baker told BUST via email. “Central to Take Back the Tech!'s principles is the idea that women and non-binary folks can use technology to tell their own stories in the medium of their choosing, without mediation, and those stories can lead to individual, collective, and systemic change.”

Take Back The Tech photos courtesy Sara Baker

Top illustration by Courtney Menard for BUST

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Victoria Albert is a Boston-born graduate journalism student. She covers reproductive justice, health policy, and feminism, and has written for In These Times and Alternet. She tweets at @victoria_alb3.

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