Online harassment is an emotionally and even professionally destructive phenomenon that has impacted far too many women for entirely too long. Various public figures — including writers like Lindy West and Amanda Hess, as well as celebrities like Ashley Judd — have spoken out about these experiences, and their personal anecdotes are backed by facts. A recent Pew study confirmed that women are disproportionately targeted by harassers: 25% of young women online have been sexually harassed and 26% have experienced stalking on the Internet. Another study found that 70% of the people who reported severe online harassment between 2000 and 2013 were women.
But while the discussion about this phenomenon's causes often center on a legacy of pervasive sexism, there may actually be a more direct reason harassment persists on these platforms: The lack of diversity behind the scenes at social media companies — and apparent discrimination within them.
Twitter reports that its company is 70% is male and 59% are white. Additionally, 79% of Twitter employees in leadership positions and 90% of employees in tech-based roles are male. A recent lawsuit against Twitter alleged that this discrepancy is reflected in the work environment, where "conscious or unconscious prejudices and gender-based stereotypes" persist, according to the Verge.
Conversations about corporate diversity are often moral arguments about why a lack of diversity impedes progress. But given these numbers, it's also clear that lack of diversity among employees at these companies may contribute to an environment where gender-based harassment by their platforms' users can thrive. Social media sites, therefore, don't blamelessly serve as another medium through which pre-existing sexism is expressed — their structure plays a crucial function in allowing harassment to flourish.
It starts at the beginning. The biggest social media companies were founded and built by white men who largely haven't experienced abusive gender-based harassment to the degree that many women regularly do. This is likely why precautions for safety and security were omitted from the creation of these platforms' very structures and are still overwhelmingly unregulated.
"It's hard to believe in a room that was majority women that [security] wouldn't have been baked into the cake to begin with," author and activist Jaclyn Friedman told Mic.
Jamia Wilson, Executive Director of Women, Action, & the Media (WAM!), agrees. "It's a systemic issue," Wilson told Mic. "We need more women in tech and we need more women working in tech companies at all levels to make change. Women need to be decision makers in the boardroom, in engineering meetings, in design decisions and more."
Soraya Chemaly — writer, activist and organizer of the Safety and Free Speech coalition, which works with tech companies to reduce violence against women and expand women's freedom of expression — says that because these companies' missions are based on the perspectives and concerns of white men, they "fail to take into consideration gender harm" and instead uphold values informed by their privilege, such as "free speech."
Free speech for whom? Many social media companies uphold a "tenacious belief that they can create a neutral platform when it comes to speech," Friedman told Mic. But deregulated speech can only be considered "neutral" by people in positions of power who have never had the experience of personally being the target of demeaning or threatening speech.
As Friedman said, "If you are deciding not to crack down on the people who are sending me rape threats, then you're siding with them, not me" — hardly a neutral position.
Rather than value the protection of free speech for users of all genders, many social media companies have chosen to value unregulated speech, which allows harassing speech to thrive. That's why Friedman, Chemaly and Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism — a project that records instances of daily sexism — launched the End Gender-Based Hate Speech Campaign, the goal of which was to challenge Facebook to fully address the difference between hate speech and free speech.
But this failure to distinguish free speech from hate speech is not just realized as a passive value system among these companies' founders, Chemaly noted, but is also actively enforced in the day-to-day operations of these companies. It's clearest in the way the identities of the moderators employed by these companies inform what they qualify as hate speech worthy of recourse.
"Every single moderator makes split second decisions based on their culture, their way of understanding the world," Chemaly told Mic. "Women's experiences continue, in many instances, to be minimized by reporting structures and technologies that fail to capture the kind of harassment that we experience and by moderation rules that reflect very patriarchal norms that fundamentally discriminate against women."
While moderators and companies may not create the harassment that plagues so many female Internet users, when they deem threatening comments innocuous, and when reporting systems fail, they effectively "exacerbate harm by allowing harassers to function with immunity," Chemaly added.
But what to do? This ignorance about the reality of gendered harassment is evident in these companies' unwillingness to understand their female users' experiences. After a conversation about how to address harassment on their platform, Chemaly came to believe that Facebook didn't fully comprehend the cyberbullying being perpetuated against young girls on their platform. According to Chemaly, the company believed teen girls were leaving the platform due to "drama." This, Chemaly pointed out, is not born from "hormones," but rather "slut shaming, bullying, cyberbullying" and pages featuring images of girls used without their consent. "There are girls who have killed themselves [in the wake of these experiences], you know," Chemaly told Mic. "I don't understand how [Facebook employees were] looking at me blankly."
When these companies do attempt to address harassment, they seem to only implement superficial remedies. Though Twitter, for example, has admitted to inadequately handling harassment and has made efforts to address the issue by updating its policies and implementing a filtering system intended to minimize individuals' exposure to harassment, these solutions address only the effects of harassment — not their causes (Twitter has not responded to Mic's request for comment on the matter). By failing to target individuals who perpetuate harassment, they fail to make any progress towards ending the issue on a systemic level.
"I'm glad [Twitter] recognizes that they have a problem," Friedman told Mic. "But if they think this is what it's going to take, we're in for a long haul." Chemaly agreed that while these steps make her feel "hopeful," she is also "waiting to see exactly how the platforms enforce these new rules" as "there are still outstanding issues related to consent and implementation ... that need to be addressed."
Going forward, these experts note, social media platforms need to alter their corporate structures to make meaningful change. More, better-trained moderators are essential, as are clearly defined policies, like what constitutes a "direct threat." "The number of things I've reported or helped other people report where they've said, 'That's not a direct threat' are jaw-dropping to me," Friedman observed.
Making the process of reporting harassment navigable for people in a traumatized state would be an immense step towards comprehensively addressing this phenomenon, Friedman said. Support systems that enable "more options for users that allow them to connect with resources and support in the aftermath of harassment," is also crucial, Wilson added.
The bottom line: Including more women at every level of male-dominated social media platforms doesn't just benefit users — it's good for business. The majority of social media users are women, Chemaly observed, and as such women are "powering and making these companies rich." Friedman concurred that "these companies are making enormous piles of money off of us as users so if they want to keep monetizing us then they're going to need to help us."
Bringing more women into the picture and focusing on their needs and experiences benefits everyone. It's time these companies not only realize this, but back it with action. Only then can we dream of an Internet that's not just "neutral," but actually beneficial for all.