Online While Female: How Women Leaders Can Stay Safe In Spite of Trolls

Multicultural women are especially targeted by trolls online, but strategies and support systems can help. Female celebrities, politicians and journalists are not the only women who face online harassment and cyberstalking. All women in business with a social media profile as individuals or representatives of a company or organization– and particularly multicultural women— need to understand how to stay safe online.The outrageous attacks of hacking and online hatred catapulted on Leslie Jones recently only highlight the online problem that is magnified against women of color.“The idea that Leslie Jones, the Saturday Night Live star and NBC Olympic commentator, could keep winning at life is apparently too much to bear for some people,” writes Deborah Douglas in Vice.Recently, “somebody (or a group) hacked the actress’s website to post nude photos of her and a photo of deceased gorilla (and deathless meme-generator) Harambe. The act played into the worst, and most tired, racial stereotypes of black people being akin to animals,” writes Douglas. “This time, the attacks were aimed at a woman with darker skin, invoking the specter of colorism as the hackers revealed an inability to accept a successful, assertive dark-skinned woman in the spotlight.”Douglas reports in her Vice piece on the phenomenon of misogynoir.“’There are people who are just not used to seeing black women in positions of power and control,’ says Ava Greenwell, an associate professor at Northwestern University who has studied black women in corporate media.”The responsive hashtag, #IStandWithLeslie, has garnered global support for Jones, but also prompted more hateful trolling, according to Vox.Unfortunately, Leslie’s is not an isolated example.Five women leaders who are members of the Seattle City Council recently became victims of vicious, violent trolling.“Seattle’s City Council had a 5-4 split vote that came out against selling land to accommodate a new NBA arena. What ensued can only be described as the most vicious form of trolling. And it had nothing to do with politics, land use, or even sports—and everything to do with the fact that the five council members who came out against the proposal were women,” according to The Establishment.“Men and women alike face online trolling and harassment, but women face a particularly brutal and disturbing kind of harassment ― just ask Leslie Jones, who, for months now, has been on the receiving end of racist and sexist harassment on top of having her website hacked. Earlier this summer, prominent feminist writer Jessica Valenti left social media after rape threats were made to her 5-year-old daughter,” Jenavieve Hatch writes in Huffington Post.  “Online stalking and rape or other sexually violent threats are a way to get women (and their opinions) offline ― and therefore out of the public discourse completely.”Most all agree, and many also contend that women leaders—in any field—are specifically targeted.[bctt tweet=“Most all agree that women leaders—in any field—are specifically targeted by Internet #trolls.” username=“takeleadwomen”]“If you have any Internet presence, it’s likely that you’ve noticed the web’s most unfortunate side effect: Internet trolls. While cases involving well-known people, like author Lindy West or former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, get the most attention, trolls don’t exclusively target visible, successful women,” writes Gemma Alexander in Business2Community.Still, any examples of outrageous online behavior are enough to create a need for a safety plan.“According to the Pew Research Center, four in ten Internet users have experienced some form of online harassment—and that rate feels conservative,” Alexander writes.The 2014 “Pew Research Center did find 50 percent of young men and 51 percent of young women — young defined as ages 18 to 24 — say they have been called offensive names online. And men were more likely to report being harassed online than women, by 44 percent to 37 percent,” according to the Huffington Post.“Despite the saying about sticks and stones, the effects of cyberbullying are not limited to virtual spaces. Cyberbullying has been connected to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and even suicide in teens and adults. A U.N. report found that 73 percent of women have experienced cyberviolence, which often carries the same real-life repercussions as physical violence,” Alexander writes.Efforts to combat online abuse against women“Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D. Mass.) is spearheading efforts to make enforcement of laws prohibiting online threats a greater priority for the Department of Justice. In a public statement she said: ‘Too many women have had their lives upended by the severe threats & harassment that they’ve received online, and they often feel they have nowhere to turn for help. These threats cause fear for personal safety, create a chilling effect on free speech, and have a negative economic impact for women conducting business online.’”In addition to elected officials’ efforts, Microsoft is also putting in place mechanisms for personal safety online. “Microsoft users will now be able to communicate directly with the firm to report hate speech and request petition to reinstate content via online forms,” according to“We will continue our ‘notice-and-takedown’ approach for removing prohibited content on hosted consumer services, and the new form aims to improve the quality and speed of our reviews,” writes Jacqueline Beauchere, Chief Online Safety Officer at Microsoft.Intel CEO Brian Krzanich recently “announced the new Hack Harassment initiative to combat online harassment — a problem that he said affects all of us,” writes Dean Takahashi in Venture Beat.“Intel is teaming up with Vox Media, Re/code, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation to fight online harassment, which has become the topic of a heated (online, of course) debate in the game and tech industries, “Takahashi writes.“Kara Swisher, cofounder of Re/Code, said online harassment has real emotional repercussions and that it’s time to do something about it. Swisher said that as the editor of Re/Code, she will deal with the issue at Re/Code’s annual conference,” he writes.“We’re not going to shut up,” she said. “We’re not going to stop until they stop hate speech. People believe in free speech. They do not believe in hate speech.”Nonprofit organizations such as Women’s Law, offer women leaders and entrepreneurs resources and strategies including legal recourse for cyberattacks, bullying and online harassment.The answer is not to abstain from having a social media profile, as that may be increasingly detrimental to a business or organization. [bctt tweet=“The answer to #trolls is not to abstain from having a social media profile.” username=“takeleadwomen”]“Having no online presence is generally unrealistic and isolating, so there are some things you can do to try to control who sees your information,” according to the Women’s Law site.Public Narrative, a Chicago-based non-profit with the mission to help journalists, nonprofit leaders, community organizations and other thought leaders to improve their messaging and storytelling across platforms, offers intensive social media training programs. The organization’s website states, “We believe in not being silent even if the discussion is difficult. “A key component is knowing how to be proactive about social media messaging and strategies to respond, particularly as women business leaders, as well as directors of organizations.“It’s important to understand this can and does happen and we need to be prepared for it. If you take time to decide how — or even if — you will respond, it’s a huge step towards taking back your own power and regaining your equilibrium,” says Susy Schultz, Public Narrative president.Also working to highlight strategies for combatting online harassment of women, is Chicago journalist and radio show host Amy Guth who is creating an “episodic documentary about harassment and civility in the online world, how it relates to women and how some women are fighting back.” She has been filming and fundraising for her efforts for a few months.“Part of my motivation for creating this documentary series came after seeing female business leaders and subject matter experts opting out of their online lives for fear of repercussions. While it’s certainly an individual choice as to how much we participate in online platforms, maintaining an online presence is an essential facet of professional branding, and it’s essential that we have a variety of voices and perspectives represented in online conversations— after all, we are writing history hour by hour online, and if too many opt-out, only the loudest and the meanest will be left to control the narrative and, thus, to write history,” Guth said.Chicagoist reports on Guth’s process: “For the documentary, I’ve begun talking with women (and some men) about this important issue, and quickly, important stories are emerging. Among the questions episodes will raise: what is the range of online harassment and what forms does it take? Where else in history have we seen a similar narrative around shutting public voices down? Is the idea of avoiding online conversations that might become heated actually dangerous?”A new national program has launched to help women who are targeted online. According to Katie Notopoulos in BuzzFeed, “Hollaback, a nonprofit organization that targets street harassment, is launching a site, Heartmob, that aims to be a refuge and resource for women experiencing the condition known loosely as “being female on the Internet.”Notopolous continues that this effort aimed at documentation and support for victims of online harassment may not solve the problem. “Doctors don’t just try to find cures for cancer; they also treat patients who have it. At its best, Heartmob may be useful palliative care for the victims of harassment, something that has yet to really exist anywhere else on the Internet.”While some may dismissive about trolls and the possibility for negative feedback and worse, Guth says facing this issue head-on is critical for women leaders.“It’s important for everyone to take proactive measures to protect themselves online, including professionals. While there are plenty of simple ways to protect our online accounts such enabling as two-step verification, it’s essential to also consider the narratives we use about online culture— the ‘don’t feed the trolls’ rhetoric implies that mistreatment online is the norm, and if we can’t handle it, we should not participate,” Guth said.“In fact, what will shift the culture is when we fight back: when we push for legal consequences for online abuses, when we demand tech companies take gender equality seriously and begin to understand the experience of being female online, and when we foster an atmosphere in which online incivility, hostility, abuses, doxxing, and other actions are absolutely unacceptable. “