The Unbelievable Harassment Black Women Face Daily on Twitter
When Feminista Jones wakes up each morning and checks her mentions on Twitter, she is likely to see tweets of the most derogatory and threatening nature. Some users call her a bitch, ho or other offensive names. Feminista estimates that she has blocked more than 500 accounts over the years. With nearly 35,000 followers on Twitter, Feminista is one of the most well-known feminist voices online. Her prominence come with a price, as it attracts a bevy of abusers who hurl threats of rape and sexual assault.
Reporting such harassment doesn’t do much good, she says, as many of her most persistent abusers simply create new accounts and continue their harassment. And Twitter’s response time operates at a snail pace, Feminista says of her experience reporting harassment. The abuse has been going on for so long that she has gotten used to it, but the toll it has taken on her spirit has been immense.
“I get attacked on a daily basis," she told AlterNet in an interview. “There’s not a day that goes by when someone isn’t trolling or harassing me. But what I’ve also noticed is that the kind of direct defense that I receive has been relatively minimal, and it usually comes from the same people every time. Some people say to me, 'Oh I see you’re handling it, so I figure that you’ve got it' or 'You’re such a strong woman. You got it. You take it on your shoulders and you’re just so good at it.' And I don’t know if it’s the strong black women trope or something else, but a lot of people feel I don’t need the help and so they don’t. I also think some people are afraid of catching the same kind of heat if they intervene directly.”
Raevin Wade, who goes by the name Afro-Latina on Twitter, has nearly 11,000 followers, and often tweets photos celebrating black female beauty. Apparently this also attracts racist harassers; she told AlterNet that she has blocked more than 50 people this year alone.
“I’ve blocked more people this year than I have in the past, mainly because I’ve taken an activist stand,” she said. “I’ve always been a feminist voice, a womanist voice on Twitter. I’ve always been that, but it’s been more of a focus on marginalized groups.”
Sydette, an African-American woman with more than 11,600 followers on Twitter, told AlterNet that she switches her avatar when she wants to avoid harassment. Sometimes she’ll use a non-human image, hoping that racist trolls will be less prone to attack her over her racial justice or womanist views. Once, she used a photo of a white man in her profile photo and the harassing and racist tweets virtually stopped.
“As a white man, that was the most fun I had online in terms of actually getting to talk to people and not be insulted by them,” she said. “People thought I was wrong, people thought I was ridiculous but nobody thought I was stupid. I received fewer slurs and people were a lot more interested in my thought process than when I was anything else.”
During any given day, black women can be found online discussing how they feel about being targeted by racist and threatening messages on various social media platforms. Being black and female makes their harassment experience online a multi-layered one. However, because there is no empirical research on how online harassment affects women, it is impossible to distinguish how this abuse affects black women specifically.
According to Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA), a volunteer organization that has tracked online harassment since 2000, 70 percent of the more than 4,000 people who have filed online harassment cases are women. Online users with feminine usernames are particularly vulnerable to online attacks. In 2006, the University of Maryland conducted a study in which researchers created fake online accounts and entered them into chat rooms. An average of 100 threatening or sexually explicit messages were directed at users with feminine usernames each day; masculine usernames incurred a mere 3.7 in comparison.
Feminista Jones used another pseudonym before changing to the one she uses now. Once she started using Twitter in her name, she saw a sharp increase in harassment.
When discussing harassment, people tend to use the words troll and harasser interchangeably. There is a fine distinction. Trolls tend to say things like, “You suck” or “Your work is trash” a few times before moving on. Harassers, on the other hand, use violent threats and consistently engage users dozens of times, even when they are asked to stop.
All 50 U.S. states have some form of cyberstalking laws, but enforcing them can be tricky, especially if the stalker is not in the same location.
“If the harasser is in another state, it is sometimes hard to get the police in that state to do anything, Jayne Hitchcock, president of WHOA, told AlterNet. “It all comes down to the luck of the draw when filing complaints to the police, if it goes that far.”
All social media platforms have community standards guidelines that are supposed to govern user behavior but even that doesn’t stop people from engaging in abusive behavior. A spokesperson from Twitter referred AlterNet to links of its user guidelines when reached for comment over its handling of harassment complaints.
In an email to AlterNet, a representative for Facebook said it receives more than 1 million complaints each week from users who believe content on the site violates its community standards. It doesn’t have a breakdown of complaints that fall under “threatening” or “violent,” the spokesperson added. Facebook does, however, have a team that specifically reviews reports of violence against women. Facebook didn’t provide data on the racial breakdown of complaints and Twitter said it doesn’t collect gender- or race-based data on its users.
While there is no data on how harassment affects black women, it doesn’t stop many from questioning if their race plays a role in how harassers engage them. All of the women interviewed for this story acknowledge that all races of women face harassment and that even white women complain about a lack of urgency from social media companies when they file harassment complaints.
But Pia Glenn, an actress in New York City with more than 9,000 followers on Twitter, feels the kind of abuse black women face can be more intense because of race.
"It takes fewer back-and-forth vollies to get to 'nigger bitch,' 'nigger cunt,'" she said. "I've had lynching threats. People send me terrible historical pictures of our ancestors being lynched. So proportionately speaking, if you're not a person of color, you will not get that. Let's say there are 100 insults in the world, there are more of them that apply to us. When a white woman gets terrible harassment about being raped, attacked or killed, that's very serious as well. But there's no way she can get the lynching threats with historical pictures of black people. So there's a whole other section of ugly, hideous things people feel they can say to us."
Tanisha C. Ford, assistant professor of women, gender, sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, told AlterNet that outspoken black women are especially vulnerable to online attacks when they speak about social justice issues.
“Particularly when it comes to black feminist voices," Ford said. "Black feminists have always been the bold voices to speak truth to power. So when we talk about issues of intimate partner violence, critiques of violence perpetrated by the state, those are the things that attack and seek to dismantle systems of patriarchy, systems of white supremacy, and these are issues that a lot of Americans, even those in the black community, don’t want to have to confront because it makes them culpable in those systems. It’s much easier for them to condemn and silence the voices of black women as an attempt to not address those issues.”
Imani Gandy, a senior legal analyst at RH Reality Check, wrote in a recent article about a harasser who created hundreds of accounts on Twitter to stalk her.
“For the past two years, I have been harassed by someone calling himself Assholster, an anonymous Twitter asshole who, on most days, creates up to 10 different Twitter accounts just so he can hurl racist slurs at me: I’m a 'nigger,' I look 'niggery,' I haven’t earned my 'nigger card,' I’m a 'pseudonigger,' 'fucking niggster,' or 'scab nigger.'"
Grandy, who has more than 26,000 followers on Twitter, has also expressed frustration over reporting the abuse she experiences to Twitter because it often doesn’t lead to any real punishment for the harasser.
“I’ve endured this for two years, and so have countless others,” she wrote in her piece. “[Assholster] creates hundreds of accounts to tweet his inane ramblings to my friends, online acquaintances, and even my work. He latches on to any tweet of mine and harasses anyone that I interact with. It got to the point where I began to feel responsible for subjecting my friends to his invective. But why should I feel responsible? It’s not my responsibility; it’s Twitter’s.”
Wade said that when she reported an abuser, Twitter, ironically, suspended her account for several months before reactivating it.
Shay Stewart-Bouley, who blogs and tweets under the pseudonym Black Girl In Maine, told AlterNet that her work in racial justice makes her particularly vulnerable to racist attacks. When she became outspoken on social media during the first two weeks after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., “white supremacist types” on social media called her an “ignorant nigger” and other racial slurs. The attacks became so bad that she spent several days blocking people. And because she has heard so many women online complain of harassment without an adequate response, Stewart-Bouley says she doesn’t even bother reporting abusers.
“It feels like you don’t get taken seriously,” she said. “I’ll be honest, I don’t feel that when I share these concerns people really get them. It is a big concern, especially when you’re somebody who has merged your social media presence with your professional persona. It’s not like you can go into hiding.”
Feminista Jones refuses to seek cover, despite the years of harassment she has experienced. Setting her social media accounts to private is out of the question and she continues to use her voice to speak out against racial injustice and sexism during public speaking engagements around the country. She has a healthy number of male supporters who sometimes intervene when they see abusers attacking her on Twitter. It is one of the few times she notices a change in her abusers’ tone, something she despises.
“When men do intervene, trolls change their tone,” she says. “With me, it’s a curse word every time. But when a man steps up, it’s like oh come on man, you know I didn’t mean to (be disrespectful). You see a changing in the tone of the interaction. So you know it’s a gender thing. But, you know, it’s part of being a woman.”