online harassment

The U.N.’s Cyberharassment Report Is Really Bad

Photo: Garry Black/Masterfile/Corbis

Ever since the emergence of Gamergate helped galvanize the discussion last year, there’s been a welcome recent focus on the threats and harassment some women are forced to deal with on the internet. Last week, it reached the United Nations: The organization’s Broadband Commission for Digital Development’s Working Group on Broadband and Gender published a 60-page report entitled “Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls: A World-Wide Wake-Up Call” (PDF). Accompanying the release of the report was an event at the U.N. where Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn, two targets of vicious gaming-related online harassment, including death and rape threats, addressed the commission about their experiences (Sarkeesian, who produces a web series called “Feminist Frequency” that critiques gaming through a feminist lens, was infamously sent images of game characters raping her).

It’s undeniably a good thing for the public to hear these stories, because without doing so it’s hard to understand just how intense these hate campaigns can be. People’s lives really do get disrupted in a terrifying manner when they are targeted by howling online mobs. Unfortunately, the U.N.’s report itself is an extremely slipshod, careless document that doesn’t offer anything approaching a sophisticated understanding of the problems faced by Sarkeesian, Quinn, and countless others.

The report’s sloppy and possibly rushed nature is right there in plain sight. As folks on Twitter and Medium quickly noted, the citations fail to reach the level one would expect in a high-school paper and include, among other missteps, one citation that includes a local file path rather than a web address, others that point to nonfunctional links, and a couple that are simply blank. Most embarrassingly, a section of the document’s conclusion that refers to “[r]ecent research on how violent video games are turning children, mostly boys, into ‘killing zombies’” — a very much unfounded claim — cites as its source an article in a fringe Lyndon LaRouche–affiliated publication that suggests the only person who can solve the problem of “Nintendo killers” is … Lyndon LaRouche. (The article approvingly quotes him explaining that the Pokemon games are turning kids into killers.)

The problems only multiply when you dig into the body of the document. It’s a mess of countless bulleted and numbered lists that include items seemingly plucked at random, grammatical errors, and bureaucrat-ese (“In Malaysia, the owner and operator of one of the largest Wi-Fi networks in the country, stressed that issues such as tracking who is responsible for putting up malicious, defamatory and seditious comments in cyberspace is essentially a technological issue, and as such, must be addressed in a technical way.”). Some sentences even lack internal consistency: “In Europe,” one bullet point notes, “sport has been used as a vehicle to engage youth and change entrenched attitudes on gender equality in a number of countries including Tajikistan, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.” Two of those three countries are in Asia — Georgia’s in between. These are just a few highlights; there is weird, incorrect, or simply strange-seeming stuff on just about every page of the report.

The underlying issue, though, is conceptual — the working group defines “cyber violence against women and girls,” or cyber VAWG, so broadly as to render the concept meaningless from a practical perspective:

Cyber VAWG includes hate speech (publishing a blasphemous libel), hacking (intercepting private communications), identity theft, online stalking (criminal harassment) and uttering threats. It can entail convincing a target to end their lives (counselling suicide or advocating genocide). The Internet also facilitates other forms of violence against girls and women including trafficking and sex trade. Not only does commercialized sex on the Internet drive the demand for the sex industry overall, it also allows traffickers to use the legal aspects of commercial sex on the Internet as a cover for illegal activities. Some of the main uses of the Internet by traffickers include: advertising sex, soliciting victims on social media, exchanging money through online money transfer services, and organizing many of the logistical operations involved in transporting victims.

The report goes on to discuss everything from cyberbullying to stalking to sex trafficking to the evils of pornography. Suffice it to say these are very different issues; the only things they have in common — and I’m setting aside pornography, because the idea of a connection between legally produced porn and violence against women is very controversial, even among people who are otherwise on the same page on this issue — is that girls and women are often the victims.

Think about the very different ways one would go about tackling these problems. Cyberbullying is primarily an issue for parents and teachers and targeted attempts to change social norms. Anti-sex-trafficking work, at the level discussed in the report, is the realm of INTERPOL and similar organizations, of breaking up really evil criminal organizations. Stalking needs to be taken seriously by local law enforcement. Pile-on harassment delivered via Twitter or other social-media platforms that doesn’t rise to the level of actionable threats or intimidation — and this is a pretty significant slice of the harassment pie — has to be dealt with by the platforms themselves in a way that balances free-speech concerns.

If the goal is to actually change people’s behaviors so as to reduce the prevalence of these problems, a tailored approach is required. The report nods to this fact here and there, but overall it embraces the view that all of these issues are united by the gender identity of the victim, that they’re all just different forms of the same thing: cyber VAWG. “Care needs to be taken not to stereotype or place disproportionate importance on one form of violence over another,” the report notes shortly before its conclusion. “Instead, the response to online offences against girls and women should be seen as part of the broader movement against sexual exploitation and abuse of any kind.”

But is this true? Obviously, if you’re talking about sex-trafficking networks facilitated by the internet, or shocking rape threats, then these issues are part of the “broader movement against sexual exploitation and abuse of any kinds.” But is cyberbullying that’s pegged to a dispute between two teen girls? Is nonviolent Twitter harassment sparked by a controversial op-ed written by a woman? Many of these issues just don’t seem to have the inherent, intimate connection to gendered violence and exploitation that’s suggested by the U.N.’s report. They’re important issues, but they’re different ones, and they need to be dealt with on their own terms.

Generally speaking, human beings don’t have a great track record when they sweep a bunch of behaviors that are superficially related but actually different under the same giant umbrella. Think about how the “war on drugs” accelerated the criminalization and pathologization of casual marijuana use, or all the very different groups and governments lumped together unhelpfully by the “war on terror” or the “axis of evil.” It feels good to act like things A, B, and C are really just a symptom of bigger issue X — and it makes it easier to galvanize attention — but it tends to be a self-defeating approach.

Sure, it’s easy to make a joke about toothless reports written by bureaucrats and move on. But it’s worth keeping in mind the broader context: There’s an entire internet subculture devoted to “debunking” stories of women facing harassment and death threats. There are many people who believe, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that gendered online harassment isn’t really a problem at all, who don’t understand the ways in which women are unfairly forced to put more on the line than men when they express opinions online. Just Google Quinn or Sarkeesian — a handful of obsessives have put a startling amount of time into “proving” that they’re “professional victims” who are really just in this for the attention, that they’re fakers and scam artists. This makes it all the more important to address these issues in a serious, rigorous way. Unfortunately, anyone who reads this report will be forced to agree with the harassment deniers who have been gleefully dissecting it: The U.N. bungled this.

The U.N.’s Cyberharassment Report Is Really Bad