Writing While Female – Three responses to online misogyny

The women on this video are sports writers. Their only crime is that they have entered a traditionally male field of journalism. It’s not like they write about the most difficult political issues that divide society. Imagine what it’s like for women who do: investigative journalists, political correspondents, foreign correspondents in conflict areas, or reporters who cover immigration.
But as we’ve seen, you don’t even have to do any of those things to become drenched in internet bile.
You only have to be writing while female.

According to data published by the think tank Demos UK, women journalists are three times more likely to receive online abuse than male journalists. Online hatred towards women is often violent and sexualised.

It is clear that all of this is a significant threat to women’s freedom of speech. Online misogyny is a threat to democracy, and we should address it accordingly.
Women have less space in public life in any case, now even our space for reporting and opinion online is diminishing.
Many women have retreated from Twitter. Many female scientists and academics no longer want to give interviews as doing so would result in hateful emails. Some Finnish researchers of racism, for instance, are now working behind closed doors. Many women journalists no longer want to write about big, contentious issues like immigration and refugees.

So, what can we do? Here are three different ways of dealing with trolls without having to argue with them and without feeding the flames. These are practical approaches from and to women journalists, bloggers, and all kinds of writers in the public eye:

1) Just ignore them. This approach tends to work as trolls crave attention and move on if you don’t give it to them. Applies to majority of misogynist trolls but not the most persistent and vile ones.

2) Our feminist think tank's approach to many forms of misogyny is to laugh at its face: we call it the theory of radical fun. For example, my colleague Saara Särmä came up with a great idea to highlight the fact that women are not heard as experts nearly as much as men. She created the blog Congrats, you have an all-male panel – if you see a panel with only male speakers, submit it to Saara. She has published more than 1,300 all-male panels in just one year.
Sometimes, simply laughing at the troll's ludicrous arguments just may work.

3) Finnish journalist Rakel Liekki responds to almost all her trolls – and there are plenty – with kindness and understanding. Over the years she has honed this approach to perfection. Not many people, even trolls, are able to stay mean when you are just really nice to them!
I guess this approach could be called radical kindness.
I asked Rakel Liekki about it. She said she responds to all messages except rape threats or death threats.
She has consulted the police about this and has been advised that it’s not a good idea to reward stalkers or threatening behaviour by responding.
'Not everyone can express themselves in a well-mannered way. I sometimes think that there was probably nothing wrong with the actual content if the only complaint people can come up with is something about the way I look or what my supposed sexual orientation may be,' said Liekki.
She thinks that the messages are not always personal even though they may seem so. Often it’s just that the person has the presupposition that they will not be heard. When they are heard, they stop being mean.

But battling this problem cannot be left to these brave women alone – and not everyone can spend lots of working hours responding to obnoxious messages like Rakel Liekki does. We need policies against online misogyny. Companies like Twitter and Facebook need to take this much more seriously.

In many places, the laws protecting us from harassment are already in place, but when it comes to adjusting those laws to online crimes, authorities can often be baffled. This was illustrated in the
case of Finnish journalist Linda Pelkonen, who received very threatening messages and phone calls after reporting on a rape case. She filed a report to the police.
The prosecutor decided not to press charges as 'journalists need to be able to endure more criticism than others'.
However, these threats are a threat to journalism and free speech in a democratic society.

Newsrooms and journalist organisations will need to find ways to support not only their own staff but also freelancers who are being targeted online.

I’d also like to challenge people who do not suffer from this problem to stand up against online misogyny. When you see it, say something. The target might have to stay silent because she may face even more threats, but for you stepping up can be easier.
Better yet, you can send positive, affirming messages to women journalists who are being harassed. Tell them for example on Twitter how you respect their work or leave an encouraging message on the comment box below their stories.

Johanna Vehkoo
President of Feminist Think Tank Hattu

The text is based on a talk given on 2 May 2016 at the World Press Freedom Day event in Helsinki.