Why the cyber-bullying bill is a lie

I’ve been slacking off on the blog this year, gang. Ever since December of last year, I’ve been meaning to blog my thoughts about Bill C-13, which the Canadian government has dubbed the “Cyber-bullying Bill”.

Chances are if you follow this blog, you know that I care a lot about the issue of revenge porn (i.e. sharing intimate images of somebody without their consent). Late last year, after an opposition MP introduced a private members bill to prohibit revenge porn, our Conservative government introduced their own. It is very likely this legislation will pass.

Since I’ve been arguing for a year that we need criminal legislation to address this issue, you’d think I would be happy about this development. I am not. Find out why by watching this episode of CANADALAND with Jesse Brown, in which I lay out the issues with the so-called “Cyber-bullying Bill,” Bill C-13. SPOILER ALERT: they should really be calling it the Surveillance Bill.

Don’t drain the moat, Twitter. #RestoreTheBlock

Google definition of "block" as a verb

What does “block” really mean, anyway? A cursory Googling bears out the definition above: “make the movement or flow in […] difficult or impossible,” “put an obstacle in the way of,” “restrict the use or conversion of,” or “hinder or stop the movement or action of.”  According to Twitter, on the other hand, “block” just means “blindfold oneself.”

Twitter’s block function has never been perfect. In the old days, blocking a user did not prevent them from tagging you in tweets or signing out of Twitter to view your tweets (if your profile was public). However, blocking someone at least used to kick them from following you and added an extra step if they wished to continue accessing your tweets. Twitter’s newly announced changes to their block function mean that this step is no longer necessary; blocking a user does not prevent them from following you, viewing your timeline while signed in, or interacting with you in any way.

As Zerlina Maxwell points out, this means that harassers can now retweet a user who has blocked them and incite their own followers to join in the fun. It also means that the only way to prevent an abusive user from following you is to set your account to “private.” Many astute Twitter users like Hijabinist and GradientLair.com‘s Trudy and have pointed out that this creates a chilling, silencing effect for the voices of marginalized folks who are most vulnerable to harassment and least represented in mainstream discourse.

There are many reasons to set one’s account to “private” and it’s a personal choice. But is it really a “choice” when folks who deal with online violence like stalking, threats and harassment are told that going private is the only way to control – at any level – their contact with an aggressor? Is fair to remove people’s access to a public platform, and all its tangible social, personal, political and economic benefits, for reasons they cannot control (i.e. another person’s abusive behaviour)? Some people’s jobs revolve around the ability to tweet publicly. Should they change careers because of another person’s abusive behaviour?

In cases of abusive behaviour, the old policy at least placed the (admittedly mild) consequences in the abuser’s court: “you now must face an extra hurdle to access this person’s content, and you will not have the ability to retweet it.” The current policy places consequences for abusive behaviour in the target’s court: “deal with this person’s stalking or cease your participation in a major online public square while your aggressor continues to enjoy a public platform.” There is something about this that smacks profoundly of blaming the victim.

Unsurprisingly, no shortage of Twitter users (almost entirely men so far) have come at me with pompous assertions that it makes sense to loosen the policy because of the old block function’s shortcomings. I can’t even begin to address the flaws with the argument that “Harassers have always been able to log out and view your tweets, so it makes total sense to remove the necessity of logging out at all”, though Ana Mardoll does a decent job of it. The old policy was not a fortified wall protecting against online harassment, but it was a moat of sorts. Easily passable, sure, but many would look at the inconvenience of getting their clothes wet and say “ugh, to hell with it.”

Some folks have suggested the change is benevolent because it clears up a false sense of security some people may have felt by blocking someone. But why wouldn’t Twitter simply clear up the misinformation about the old block function? Twitter seems to have no problem being clear about what blocking does and doesn’t do now, after the policy change. Could they not have made a public statement to ensure users were aware of the old block function’s limitations, instead of applying a change that favours abusers? The old block function may never have been a fortified wall, but that does not in any way justify draining the moat.

For me, privacy rests on two key principles: consent (I know what I am getting into and have the opportunity to say no) and control (to share what I want with whom I want and prevent contact with who I wish). If my only opportunity to say “no” is to say nothing at all, that’s not really consent. If my only opportunity for control is to disappear, that’s not really control.

Goldie Taylor hits the nail on the head when she says “Privacy should not require fully closed or fully open. All social networks should be ‘selectively permeable’ with user control.” General PSA for mansplainers telling me that “Twitter is a public space! Either deal with being vulnerable to anyone who wants to contact you, go private or GTFO”: online privacy does not have to be an all-or-nothing game. And an imperfect mode of personal protection is not a valid argument for no mode of personal protection at all.

The new Twitter block policy is yet another example of how institutions and organizations (including social media platforms) typically reflect dominant societal views. In this case, the dominant societal view is that the onus for preventing abusive behaviour rests with the person being abused. This view holds especially true when the target of abuse is marginalized on the grounds of race, gender, sexuality, physical or mental dis/ability, gender expression, etc. Perhaps if more of these traditionally marginalized voices were involved in conceiving and building the tools we use to communicate with one another, those dominant societal views might change. But it seems that Twitter has a long way to go in that regard. In the meantime, we’re left with a “choice” between total vulnerability and forced silence.

Update: In response to public outcry, Twitter reversed the changes discussed in this article. Massive props to Suey Park, who created the #RestoreTheBlock hashtag, and everyone who participated.

What about the menz?

A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted a picture from the Consenting Sexualities conference [pdf] organized by the Canadian Women’s Foundation and McGill University’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies. The picture clearly resonated with a lot of people (including myself, or I wouldn’t have tweeted it), and to date the tweet has been retweeted almost 1,500 times. That’s about five times more retweets than even my most popular previous tweets.

You might wonder what this tweet was about. If you follow me on WordPress or Twitter, you might expect that the tweet would be about rape culture, victim-blaming, revenge porn. Maybe a funny feminist comic or joke. Nope. It was this:

List of things 4th grade boys don't like about being boys, incl. "not able to be a mother," "not suppost to cry," and "suppost to like violence"

This photo captures some important and difficult truths about the toxicity of normative masculinity in our culture – truths that organizations like the White Ribbon Campaign (who delivered this workshop) are working hard to eradicate. Toxic masculinity is, without question, a feminist issue. My feminism is about gender justice, and men and boys are necessarily part of that equation. Furthermore, some of these features of normative masculinity (for example, “suppost to like vilence”) contribute directly to the oppression of women, girls and trans* people. Gender norms are bullshit all around, including the norms that pressure cis men and boys. We need to tackle this problem. HOWEVER…

The tweet’s popularity revealed a number of things to me, some of which are deeply perplexing. For one thing, the tweet may have been popular among feminists and trans* rights activists and anti-violence advocates and others doing great work that I respect. But it was also very popular with men’s rights activists. Many of them were not shy about replying to the tweet with a) ridicule for the “sissy” boys who wrote this list and are failing at being Real Men, or b) sympathy for the boys (great!) and indictments of feminism as the imposer of these unhealthy gender norms (sighhhhhhhh/LOL wut?). While I’m glad the tweet resonated with those in the b) category, it is yet another sad example of how men’s rights crusaders and feminists share some of the same frustrations and could be allies, if only the former would realize that the latter are not their true antagonists.

Indeed, the tweet drew an unusually high volume of overtly or subtly combative/hostile responses. Unusual even for me, a person whose Twitter feed is no stranger to heated discussion and unholy outrage. This is especially interesting because no value judgments or commentary from me accompanied the picture – my tweet just describes what the picture contains, pretty much at face value. People really wanted to argue with me about it though, despite the fact that I hadn’t even presented my opinion on the issue. I know this is part and parcel of being on Twitter, but it can be pretty distressing to have an Interactions feed filled to the brim with people directing anger at you for no good reason. This is still happening, nearly two weeks after I shared the tweet. It is exhausting.

The argumentative people were not, by and large, arguing against the plight of these boys (or arguing that the problems girls, women and trans* people face are more pressing, which is certainly valid). Nope. They were arguing that the plight is indeed real, but as a feminist, what would I know about it? How dare I insert my feminist nose into this discussion? What was I really up to? A veil of suspicion about my real intentions shrouded even the less overtly hostile responses, which was both befuddling and painful to behold.

Finally (and most deeply perplexing to me), there seems to be a much larger swath of the population interested in the plight of boys and men than in the plights of other genders. I know, I know – what, am I new to this patriarchy thing or something? Of course a larger swath of the population is more concerned about boys and men than other genders – even those members of the population who are interested in gender issues, apparently. But this was a vivid illustration of that problem and it produced a kind of visceral, emotional response in me that I wasn’t expecting. Consider this tweet, which is perhaps my second most popular of all time:

Tweet about rape threats as proof that rape is typically about power rather than sex & self-controlNotice how this one generated only about 1/5 of the interest that the tweet about boys’ struggles did? And notice how it’s about a physically, sexually and psychologically violent problem that is a daily destroyer of lives and crusher of spirits the world over (mostly for women, girls and trans* people, though of course men and boys are affected as well)? I know that other factors influence the popularity of a tweet, such as topicality, novelty, compelling multimedia (like, say, a picture) or even timing. But I still feel the disparity is also illustrative of how our society prioritizes the problems of men and boys.

It’s especially frustrating because, when it comes to the problems faced by men and boys, many feminists are highly engaged in pushing for social change. A lot of the people who retweeted my picture had the word “feminist” in their Twitter bios. We care. It seems that folks who are perhaps more apathetic about gender issues have a propensity to get teary and “we’ve gotta DO something”-y about the pressure boys live under. That’s good. We should do something. It’d just be nice to have those people on our side when we talk about the pressure, pain and ambient threat many women and trans* people live with daily.

I do not think this is a “boys vs. girls” issue, which at least one commenter will probably argue. First of all, that’s a binary understanding of the problem, and second, the issues all genders face are intertwined – they’re part of the same violent system of power. So let’s get incensed, let’s feel pain, and let’s do something about the challenges we all face.

Twitter, rape threats and garden variety misogyny

As you can imagine, I have THOUGHTS and FEELINGS about the campaign of rape threats against Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy, and Twitter’s response. I’ve been mostly (blessedly) off Twitter for the last week and a half, so I haven’t said much on the matter, other than this tweet on July 27:
Screen shot 2013-08-06 at 6.41.18 PMFor the uninitiated: feminist advocate Caroline Criado-Perez ran a campaign that convinced the Bank of England to put a single freaking woman besides the Queen on a banknote. If you’re somehow not shocked that this landed her on the receiving end of a barrage of rape threats, surprise, you might be a Woman with an Opinion on the Internet.

Rape (and the threat of rape) has always been a go-to silencing tool among misogynists. They run particularly rampant online in part because the internet offers distance as well as access to people well beyond one’s immediate social circle. A man who feels ineffectual and deprived of personal power in his own life can feel a consequence-free rush by inflicting sexually-charged verbal aggression on an empowered woman he doesn’t know. Thanks, internet!

Or at least, so far it has been mostly consequence-free, but that is beginning to change. Two of the Twitter users who threatened Criado-Perez are under arrest. Twitter UK published a blog post outlining their responses to the situation, including the much-discussed “Report Abuse” button and updating the Twitter Rules to reflect a firm stance on abuse. Changes to the rules are welcome. That sends an important message to Twitter users and the business community about online violence, and may give some in-platform recourse to users under attack.

Shakesville details some of the problems likely to arise from the “Report Abuse” button, mainly that “one-click reporting systems are almost always automated to some degree and are already widely abused by trolls on Facebook and YouTube” (it was a favourite tactic in the campaign against Anita Sarkeesian, for example). Even a more hands-on moderation system can’t solve the problem, unless the company’s culture and training acknowledge the reality of gender-based violence. The Facebook Rape campaign provides a rich and recent example of a large social media platform whose moderation system was devoid of a gender lens. Many Facebook moderators categorized graphic depictions of violence against women as “humour”. This is unsurprising – our culture is steeped in that kind of messaging, why would we expect Facebook or Twitter to be immune?

Honestly, I feel our culture has the greatest potential for change if misogyny is out in the open. That doesn’t mean I feel remotely safe in a space saturated with it, or that I don’t want platforms like Facebook and Twitter to do what they can to make their spaces safe for all users. But misogynists have always been around, and in the same or similar numbers as we see now (though now we, regrettably, call them “trolls” – my thoughts on that here). They used to reserve their hatred for partners, colleagues, family members, one-off encounters and maybe the occasional letter-to-the-editor. Now misogynist hatred is diffused across many targets, near and far. It’s mundane. It’s time-stamped. Screencaps provide evidence difficult for a “devil’s advocate” Facebook friend to refute. I want this garbage out in the open air and sunlight where it can be referenced and challenged – because it’s there regardless. This is garden variety misogyny.

Labour MP Stella Creasy, who supported Criado-Perez’s campaign, has called for greater coordination between Twitter and law enforcement to help users under attack. I also believe law enforcement has an important role to play in curbing online rape threats and all other forms of violence against women, and that we must continue putting pressure on them to do so. But here’s the rub: institutional and technological interventions will always reflect the beliefs and values of the culture that shapes those institutions and the people who work with them. It’s why police forces, colleges, Twitter, etc etc etc do such a crap job of holding accountable the perpetrators of gender-based violence, online and offline. And they’ll continue to do a crap job of it until our culture takes this shit seriously and looks to the perpetrators (not the survivors) for change.

Well-meaning folks have been telling Criado-Perez to just stay off Twitter, because is it really worth all that trouble in the end, they wonder? FUCK THAT. Pushing opinionated women out of public discourse is exactly what these very small, very loud misogynists are trying to accomplish. We’ve been telling women to shut up about this stuff for long enough. Do you really want to hear more from the world’s misogynists than from its Caroline Criado-Perezes?

So keep reporting rape threats to the police and to Twitter, sure, but we also need to be pushing for the deeper change needed to turn institutional tides. We need to help people who work in these institutions to understand the role that rape threats play in silencing and subordinating women. One way to do that? Women: for the love of everything good in this world, don’t shut up, and deal with jerkoffs however the hell you want.

Taking the Rape out of Culture

On Thursday, May 23 2013, I hosted an event at Academy of the Impossible called “Taking the Rape out of Culture”. It was an open group brainstorm (with some breakout discussions as well) to map the component parts of rape culture – what does it look like in practice? What are the sub-concepts (or as I dubbed them, “subgenres”) under the big umbrella of rape culture?

I was thrilled at the quality of discussion and the diverse range of participants we had. Participants included: people who work in violence prevention, anti-racism organizers, parents, journalists, new Canadians, trans* participants, volunteers at crisis centres. We came at the topic from a variety of perspectives and we really dove into the subject matter.

One of these days I’m going to have to get a WordPress plugin that allows me to embed a Storify, but today is not that day. I do urge you to read my Storify of tweets from the evening, which captures some of the ground we covered and provides detail on many of the “subgenres” of rape culture we discussed. We’ll likely be holding another session in the future to discuss methods of intervening and challenging the many component parts of rape culture, so stay tuned.

How we can stop revenge porn

Today I hosted an event at Academy of the Impossible to discuss how to wipe the heinous phenomenon of “revenge porn” off the face of this green earth. Revenge porn is the colloquial term for when people share nude or sexually explicit photos/video of another person without their consent. I’ve written about revenge porn here, here, here, and here. I encourage you to check out my Storify of our amazing discussion at today’s event.

The event generated a few ideas that are worth exploring, and fast. Why fast? Nova Scotia has assembled a Cybercrime Working Group to put together legislative options by June, for projected implementation in fall 2013. The Nova Scotia Justice Minister wants to implement legislation that could “make circulating an intimate image for a malicious or sexual purpose a crime” or “create a new section of the Criminal Code for distributing intimate images without consent” (two very different outlines, IMHO). We want to have a say in how they put this together.

In terms of influencing legislation, we wanted to ensure consequences for youth offenders are rooted in education and development of healthier social norms regarding sex, consent and accountability. We discussed conducting a series of formal and informal discussions with youth. Discussions would focus on their views on/experiences with revenge porn, the social consequences currently meted out and their feelings about those, what kinds of formal consequences they think are appropriate and why, and what kinds of knowledge would help them navigate these situations. The results of these discussions can be consolidated into a whitepaper and could be shared with the media (with confidentiality of participants protected, of course).

In terms of public education, we want to ensure the Ontario curriculum has opportunities built in for students to explore sexuality in a positive way through the lenses of consent, social media, and the law. If these opportunities don’t currently exist (or are not being implemented in practice), we want to form a coalition of organizations advocating for change.

In terms of public awareness, we want to further discuss the possibility of an ad campaign (e.g. posters, videos, etc.) focused on sharing explicit images without consent. This campaign may be in the spirit of the “Don’t be that guy” campaign to combat sexual violence. The next step for such a thing could be a one-hour brainstorming session wherein we free-associate words and ideas connected to the word “consent.” We’ll also be exploring potential media partners/sponsors.

Wanna get involved in any of that? Head over to “Contact” and get in touch so I can put you on the circulation list for updates and collaborative docs!

The false solidarity of progressive communities

CantWeAllJustGetAlongI’ve been thinking a lot lately about progressive communities, and how they handle criticism of their within-group power dynamics. Maybe it’d be more appropriate to say “groups that consider their collective cause or objective to be a progressive one.” Groups that see themselves as challenging the mainstream or status quo.

Some such communities that come to mind are atheists and skeptics, anarchists, and the free-speech libertarians that populate many corners of the Internet. So central to these groups’ collective identities is the sense of being an underdog in the David & Goliath tradition, whose skill and intellectual superiority will ultimately lead to triumph for themselves and for the greater good. Their own identity is held up in contrast with an unenlightened, perhaps even brutish or primitive status quo or cultural mainstream.

As in most social realms in the western world, white men in these communities tend to have the most power and loudest voices. And, like in most western communities, women and people of colour are rarely treated without skepticism, aggression and hostility when they point this out. But I find there’s something unique (and uniquely frustrating) about challenging sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, or other forms of bigotry in self-identified progressive communities.

Not only do challengers face the same vitriol, insults and threats of violence they would in any community (sigh), but also other, more insidious manifestations of resistance. Perhaps because these communities valourize rational argument (not a bad thing on its face), dissenters within the ranks must present scientific, peer-reviewed evidence that verifies their lived experiences. When the example of bigotry or power imbalance is too glaring for community members to ignore, challengers face accusations of “derailing” the community from their “core objectives” – as if any group claiming to pursue the greater good can do so while alienating marginalized groups.

There’s this sentiment of “we’re on the same side here, let’s tackle the real problems.” But who gets to define what our collective “side” is, and what problems we aim to tackle? While solidarity is important, dismissing or resisting community members’ good-faith concerns about inclusivity is pretty antithetical to solidarity.

It may be that the notion of not just moral but intellectual rightness as a core element of group identity serves as a barrier to progressive communities’ acceptance of the ways in which they still need to progress. It may be that the closer groups are to one another on the ideological spectrum, the more fraught these challenges become (I think I read something about that in first-year psych). It may be that I just feel more disappointed when my challenges are rebuffed by a group that I do feel should be “on my side” about representation and treatment of marginalized groups. (Personally, the stakes in my disagreements always seem higher when I feel I actually stand a chance of changing the person’s mind or broadening their perspective.) It may be all of these things, it may be none of them. I’m just thinking out loud here.

Have you noticed the same phenomenon or wondered about any of the same things? Are my musings totally off-base? Tell me in the comments!