Female Bloggers Face Threats: What Can Be Done?

A high-profile blog threat sparks discussion about crossing lines, online.

May 1, 2007 — -- It's the online attack that has become almost synonymous with the harassment of women in the blogosphere.

Kathy Sierra -- whose popular blog addressed the seemingly neutral topic of "creating passionate users" in the world of computer software -- reported finding threats on her life, a picture of a noose accompanied by the comment "the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size," and a photo of her muzzled by what appears to be a piece of lingerie with the title "I dream of Kathy Sierra."

"I will never feel the same. I will never be the same," Sierra wrote after the threats surfaced.

She has since stopped posting to her blog, except to update readers on the attack's fallout and to openly contemplate her next move.

Sierra's experience has jump-started a conversation among female bloggers.

Jennifer Warwick, a blogger herself and one of the founders of Blogs by Women, a site that links to more than 3,300 blogs that -- as the site's title suggests -- are written by women, commented on that conversation.

"Nothing she [Sierra] had put out there was particularly controversial, so it resonated with a lot of women that it was unprovoked," unlike some high-profile bloggers who pen entries on controversial topics, such as politics, "where you put it out there knowing people are going to react."

Bloggers -- men and women -- showed their support for Sierra by standing up in opposition to the anonymous threat-posting and, in some cases, taking a self-imposed blogging hiatus in solidarity with Sierra.

While Warwick noted that most of the reaction she's observed has been sympathetic, there have been some different perspectives. "Some men and women thought that she was overreacting," she said.

Noting that she had expected "a lot more sensitivity," Warwick said "that surprised me, because it wasn't blaming the victim, but it was excusing the behavior.

"When you're reading it [a threatening post] in your pajamas at two in the morning, it feels real, like they're right there, and it's scary," she said.

'Cloak of Anonymity'

"Big blogs have a tremendous role in shaping the norms of the Internet," said Ann Bartow, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. "When they tolerate or even perpetuate harassment, others follow suit."

Noting that it's much harder to harass someone anonymously in the noncyber world, Bartow said, "the cloak of anonymity [online] gives people the freedom that our cultural norms keep them from saying in real life, where their words are attributable to them."

As Bartow points out, when posts cross the line, "the most effective approaches to date have been ad hoc responses by high-profile individuals, as we witnessed by supporters of Kathy Sierra."

She added, "Unless we're willing to move into the direction of a legal framework, that's all we have."

"Cyberspace replicates the bad stuff of real space and, in some cases, amplifies it due to anonymity and scale of audience," Bartow explained. "There's no law in real space for any of this. We don't have a great legal recourse for defamation or privacy violations in either."

The First Amendment, Privacy and Anonymity

Bartow explained the issues inherent in this debate -- from the First Amendment's prohibition on "abridging" free speech to privacy and anonymity.

"I don't think you ever leave the first amendment -- it's always there. But there are other interests. You just have to weigh what's there, as there's an overlap between free speech and privacy interests."

And it's those privacy concerns that get a little tricky.

"Privacy is a nice thing that many of us want, but it has been an enemy of women in many ways," she said. "Things go on behind closed doors, like child abuse and other forms of exploitation and abuse that happen out of public view in a place where a man is the king of his castle."

Anonymity works a little differently.

"There's a difference between anonymity and privacy," she said. "When you go to the doctor, you want privacy, but you don't have anonymity … every step of the way you're using your real name."

Bartow said she hoped recent incidents would promote a discussion on "changing the architecture of the Internet," so people don't "just shrug their shoulders and let women get driven off."

To keep high numbers of women on blogs and in chat rooms, she said, they need to have legal and social options in cyberspace, just as they do in real space.

Real World and Virtual World Parallels

The parallels between the online world and the real world are not new to female bloggers.

"I don't know any woman who blogs who hasn't gotten some kind of threat," said Warwick. "Stalking is an experience many women have had in 3-D, now it's starting to take place online."

Warwick said her sister experienced such action when a reader of her blog tracked down her phone number and called her at home.

"She thought she was being careful," by keeping her personal information off her site. But by stringing together some details in her posts, the caller was able to identify her. "This person was bound and determined to figure out who she was," said Warwick.

Noting that the problem disproportionately affects women, she said, "she has a number of male friends who blog and who have never had that happen."

Men vs. Women, Women vs. Women

Warwick's experience has produced some interesting moments that highlight the differences between men's and women's online styles. She had posted comments on a women's blog that stood in opposition to the opinions of most using the site, and she was subsequently told by other women that she should leave the discussion.

"People were just as rabid on this safe, women's-only site as on others," Warwick said.

And with women's' barbs, she said, "you feel like you're being eviscerated with a razor instead of having a piano dropped on you."

But even though the vitriol might be present regardless of the poster's sex, the difference is clear. "You don't worry about women chasing you down."

What Can Bloggers Do?

A self-described feminist blogger, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid backlash on her own site, said this negativity is commonplace.

"Every day, I get e-mails that call me names and threaten to try to get me fired, throw out accusations of bias, unfairness, and comments on my looks," she said.

"There's nothing wrong with pitched rhetoric. It's when it crosses into personal attacks that anonymity becomes a problem."

So in this world of graphic threats and general nastiness, what are women bloggers to do?

"I moderate all comments posted to my site," the blogger said. "But for a blog that's driven by comments, that's not a good or workable model."

"I can control my own blog, but I can't control anyone else's," she said. "My hope is that most people are basically decent, but I've been disappointed sometimes. That's life."

Warwick advised trying some common sense. "If you believe in what you are writing, put it out there, but understand that there are real consequences."

Contacting law enforcement officials is recommended if you're threatened, but Warwick offered a thought on why some women bloggers might hesitate to take that step.

"Certainly go to the authorities first, but women, especially in fields where they have had to fight to be accepted, that's not where we want to go," she said. "We might not want to say, 'I need help' and 'I am scared.' It took a lot of courage for her [Sierra] to do that."

Sierra's situation illustrated one way bloggers can strike back. "Publicizing it, word of mouth or word of blog is exponential," Warwick said.

"I believe that the blogging community's response is really going to grow organically, provoked by this type of thing. The nature of people who are blogging is, they want to be a part of something that's good, transforming the world and policing themselves," she said.

Warwick said she would be "heartbroken if women started to really censor themselves out of fear that something will happen."

"We should have some legal tools for situations like this," Bartow added, "some way to address the anonymous attacks that happen."

Perhaps Sierra's own words, on her blog, will serve as a further call to action:

"I do not want to be part of a culture -- the blogosphere -- where this is considered acceptable," she said. "Where the price for being a blogger is Kevlar-coated skin and daughters who are tough enough to not have their 'widdy biddy sensibilities offended' when they see their own mother Photoshopped into nothing more than an objectified sexual orifice, possibly suffocated as part of some sexual fetish."