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The Guardian study's hidden lesson: trolls reinforce white male dominance in journalism

When women have to avoid controversy in order to avoid online abuse, we all lose.

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Vox doesn’t have comments. So when I read the Guardian’s article yesterday about its study of abuse in its own comments section, I wasn’t expecting to find a concise summation of my own situation vis-à-vis online trolls.

But there it was, my problem in a nutshell:

Conversations about crosswords, cricket, horse racing and jazz were respectful; discussions about the Israel/Palestine conflict were not. Articles about feminism attracted very high levels of blocked comments. And so did rape.

I write about the Israel-Palestine conflict. I write about feminism. I write about rape. I do not write about horse racing.

And so I periodically experience torrents of online abuse that take a real toll on my happiness. Usually they come in response to articles about those topics and others that are similarly controversial, such as the unrest in Ferguson in 2014, the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015, and Islamophobia on US cable news. (And, somewhat mysteriously, the Oscar-nominated film American Sniper.)

The most disturbing ones are the elaborate fantasies for how I should be raped or maimed or killed in order to "teach me a lesson" about why whatever I’ve written is so wrong. I've received recommendations that I should be sodomized with a gun, that I should be raped by a thousand men, that I should be raped and murdered by terrorists, and that I should be handed over to ISIS to become another journalist murdered on camera — and those are just the ones I happen to remember off the top of my head, not a complete list.

And then there are the creative suggestions as to how I might be silenced as a writer: One reader, for instance, wrote hoping that my hands would be crushed so that I wouldn’t be able to type any more.

I could stop writing about controversial topics — but that's a terrible solution

I do what I can to ignore it. I block people on Twitter. I close my mentions column on TweetDeck. When things are particularly bad, I take my email address off my Vox author profile — it’s still easy to guess, but that extra bit of effort seems to deter most of the trolls.

But the Guardian study offers a depressing reminder that I could do a much more thorough job of avoiding abuse by changing what I write about entirely. If I just limited my coverage to, say, jazz-enthusiast racehorses, I might be able to check my Twitter mentions without trepidation.

But there would be a real cost to that. There would certainly be a cost to me: I love my job, and I wouldn't be able to do it without writing about those contentious issues. To stop, I would likely need to change jobs — and I haven't seen any openings for jazz-cricket correspondents lately. And if I did change my coverage, that would impose a cost on Vox, too — Vox hired me to do this job, not a different one that won't piss off trolls. It doesn't seem reasonable for me or my employer to bear those costs because of other people's abusive behavior.

I'm not the only one making calculations about the topics I cover — and that could hurt journalism in the long run

I don't kid myself that my career choices rise to the level of public concern. If this were just about my individual experience, it wouldn't be that big a deal in the grand scheme of things.

However, this isn't actually just about me, because I'm not the only one making that calculation. Online harassment of women is so widespread that one study recently warned it risks becoming an "established norm" of online behavior. And the Guardian study published yesterday found that abusive comments were disproportionately directed at women and minorities. Articles written by white men were far less likely to incur abuse.

That means it is disproportionately women and minorities who must weigh whether covering controversial topics is worth the abuse it provokes. As I wrote with Max Fisher in 2015, that arithmetic is painful and damaging:

Receiving threats of any kind forces journalists to go through the calculation of whether it's likely that they could lead to real harm, and weigh that against the value of writing more on the subject in question. Any journalist or activist who has written or spoken publicly about a controversial subject will be familiar with the arithmetic of threats and fear. Add the value of speaking out, subtract the costs of silence. Multiply by the likelihood that the threats are empty, divide by the chance that they are not.

That matters, because if it is disproportionately women and minority writers who must do that arithmetic over and over, it is disproportionately women and minorities who will decide, eventually, that the math does not work out. That they won't write that story or won't cover that issue. That what their lives need is more cricket, less intifada.

And as that happens, over time coverage of those topics is going to become more male and more white. That's a cost to readers, and to journalism as a whole, which loses depth and detail when only a few perspectives are represented.

The solution to online abuse isn't obvious, but progress is still possible

This is also a reminder of what we're really doing when we ask women or other vulnerable people to protect themselves from danger or abuse by changing their own behavior. Don't walk down the dark alley alone at night. Don't get drunk. Don't feed the trolls.

It's not about victim blaming, we assure them; it's just about "personal responsibility." But the "responsibility" calculus is essentially the same as the one journalists make when covering controversial topics: How much safety and peace am I willing to give up for this activity? And the benefit for the rest of society is the same, too: We don't have to make any collective changes or sacrifices to solve the problem, because we've pushed the burden of doing so onto the individual victims who are already bearing its harm.

That's especially difficult when it comes to issues like online abuse, where the collective solution isn't obvious. To truly address the problem will require technological changes as well as social ones. It will require us to make decisions about how much flexibility and freedom we're all willing to give up in order to protect people from abuse, and how many resources we're willing to expend to give up those rules. There is no question that that will be difficult.

But the fact that the solution isn't obvious or simple doesn't mean that progress is impossible. We know there are things that make a difference. Vox, for instance, has no comments at all on most articles. That obviously doesn't protect me from all abuse, but it does mean that my employer isn't hosting my harassers, and that my friends and family don't have to choose between reading my work and avoiding abusive comments about me. That matters.

And then there's the system adopted by the Guardian, which moderates its comments and deletes those that don't meet its community guidelines. That system requires resources and expertise but preserves the comments sections as places for discussion rather than cruelty. Efforts like those are steps in the right direction, and show that a solution to this is possible.

Without similar efforts from other sites and platforms — especially Twitter, which offers an especially easy and compelling platform for harassers — this problem will continue. And that will essentially push the burden of self-protection onto the victims of harassment. They will be left as they are now, with the choice of bearing the abuse or changing their own behavior to avoid it.

That choice carries costs. And those costs don't fall on all people equally: Women and minorities bear them more heavily. The result is that men, especially white men, will get to enjoy freedom that other people do not. They can write about the controversial topic without doing the arithmetic of threats and fear, or at least without doing it as often and without such serious threats on the negative side of the equation. Just as they can go to the frat party without a second thought, get drunk with their friends, walk home alone.

Over time, that freedom translates into opportunities, and those opportunities into success and power. And conversely, not having that freedom translates into opportunities lost, and success and power that flow to the same people who have always enjoyed it.