Tech, Now + Beyond

Lawmakers are finally taking cyberbullying seriously

Women, especially women of color and vocal activists, are more likely to harassed online.

Social media has made it elementary to “like” or “share” a friend’s photos and thoughts. But the power of anonymity and lack of face-to-face interaction also creates an atmosphere where cyberbullies can thrive. Cybercrime is a real issue that police and legislators are finally waking up to. Now, former prosecutor and U.S. Representative Katherine Clark is putting forward a bill to tackle cyberthreats against women.

The Prioritizing Online Threats Enforcement Act would provide more resources and education to law enforcement by giving the FBI 10 new agents to specifically combat cyber threats against women. Death threats, rape threats, dismemberment, stalking or the release of a victim’s personal information are just some of the cases that this bill covers.

Cyberbullying needs to be taken seriously. Online threats are a crime and can leave serious emotional damage and often physical damage – we’ve all heard stories where victims are driven to the point of attempting suicide. But somehow society is still stuck on the perception that the victims are at fault. Why didn’t she delete her account? Why didn’t he block them? It’s reminiscent of all crimes committed against women, such as rape and other domestic violence cases.

Clark was inspired to become an advocate for cyberbullying after her constituent, video game developer Brianna Wu, was forced to leave her home after online threats during the Gamergate controversy last September. When presented to the FBI, they responded by brushing off the case and labelling it as unimportant.

Women, especially women of color and vocal activists, are more likely to harassed online. One prolific black feminist on Twitter (@AngryBlackLady) says one anonymous user created up to 10 accounts a day to harass her with racist slurs. And of the online harassment cases Working to Halt Online Abuse has collected in 13 years, 70 percent were filed by women. LGBT youth, too, are also particularly targeted.

Powerful laws are vital to curb this terrifying reality.

Take it from Wu herself. “It’s not just casual sexism, it’s angry, violent sexism,” she told The Guardian. “…We need legislation that requires sites like 8chan to store IP addresses. We need legislation that makes it possible for law enforcement to track down the people that do this.”

If this bill gets passed, it will be a serious step forward in addressing the online harassment of all women. It will bring exposure to cybercrime as a real issue and prioritize the importance of combatting cyberbullying with harsher punishments.

Clark is also working with major social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to deter cyberbullying through means of moderation before escalation occurs.

Twitter has specifically worked with a non-profit advocacy organization called Women, Action, and the Media to counter online harassment against women of color and the LGBT community. Users can report cyberbullying on Twitter through a form in WAM’s reporting system, a specialized form that also gathers data about how harassers behave online. This week, they announced new tools to import and export user block lists – so you can nip abusive trolls in the bud.

Although it may seem impossible to reach all online trolls and report all threats, actions such as this bill and network collaboration will pave the way to fight this elusive cyber battle.