I spent the end of last week in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the annual convention of the American Journalism Historians Association. I’m a long-time member and past president, and it’s my favorite event each year.
This year, I presented a paper about press coverage of gender and gender violence, specifically during the years the Internet was emerging, 1990-2000. I started that research at the behest of a friend working on a book about social media and gender violence, and the recent usage of social media both for harassment and for political organization made examining the historical context even more important.
I didn’t know, when I started the work, just now relevant it would become in the week I presented it.
Social media, as with any media platform, is a tool. In and of itself, social media platforms are neutral. But the people using them? Those people can use them for whatever they want. In the 1990s, people were both concerned by the level of harassment possible online, and optimistic about the tool’s potential uses for change.
And in the last two weeks, we’ve seen examples of the best and the worst of those frames.
The best: Using social media to connect women, organize, and be voices for change. Alyssa Milano, Elizabeth Warren, and many other women stood up and tried to bring attention to ideological struggle represented by the GOP’s determination to appoint a man with a documented history of harassment toward women to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The worst: Using social media to bully, harass, and intimidate women who were trying to be voices for change. Memes attempting to diminish the work of these women abounded on numerous sites. Women’s struggles were portrayed as meaningless; our body autonomy was undercut; our very real problems with men who think our bodies are their playgrounds were mocked.
I at one point considered writing a post about the multiple times over the years where I faced sexual assault and harassment, but ultimately, I could not bring myself to relive any of it for public consumption. I will only say I didn’t report because I knew nothing would be done. I admire Dr. Ford for her willingness to come forward and face the ridicule, disbelief, and scorn I could not.
I will also say that any woman who attempts a career in a largely male-dominated field can expect a degree of harassment and assault as a norm. We learn to live with it or we get out. And frankly, we shouldn’t have to live with it.
According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, one in four women between the ages of 18 and 24 suffer some form of sexual assault, and one in 20 men suffer the same. Why any of us who have suffered would mock the rest escapes me. But that is exactly what I saw on social media.
Conservative friends and family who jumped on that train and shared such mocking? You can unfriend me. I certainly blocked you.
My research about how media platforms are used by people to build and tear down community is ongoing. I won a research grant at AJHA to help continue my work, and I look forward to it.
And on the political front, I’m massively disappointed in the Republican Party. I’ve been an independent voter for years, but the last two weeks have been enough for me. I’m officially declaring myself a Democrat. I’ll be wearing blue on November 6.