Over the weekend, I mistakenly spent quite a lot of time on Twitter, observing an unfolding drama. The issue centered around Goran Bregovic, a Serbo-Croatian musician from Bosnia-Herzegovina being invited to sing at a festival in Albania. Twitter was on fire with fury. Albanian users claimed that Bregovic’s music, and especially his hit Kalashnikov, had been used by Serbian troops as a rallying anthem during the Kosovo War that saw thousands ethnic Albanian killed and millions displaced. Others commented that overs the years, Bregovic has been sympathetic to Serbia and its current President, Aleksander Vucic. Hundreds of people said that Bregovic’s invitation wasn’t acceptable, especially when there are still thousands missing and little justice in Kosovo or remorse from Serbia.
They also questioned why a non-Albanian singer was headlining an Albanian festival and said it was an insult to Albanians in Kosovo and Albania. I also noticed significant discourse around claims of political interference and agendas fuelled by a concerningly close relationship between Prime Minister Edi Rama and the ex-Minister of Propaganda for Slobodan Milosevic, genocide denier, and current President of Serbia Aleksander Vucic.
But I am not here to discuss the geopolitics of the issue. I have my thoughts and opinions on it, but what I want to talk about is the way that debates are held online. I witnessed several awful attacks on Una Hajdari, a female journalist who expressed her opinion that the backlash against Bregovic was missplaced and based on dubious claims. Whether I agree with her or not is not the point, my issue is with the discourse that followed. Threats to rape her family members, death threats, blatant mistruths and allegations with no substance, and the use of horrific and heavily gendered language was everywhere. While I appreciate it’s a sensitive issue and emotions are high, this should never be permitted.
After careful consideration and bracing myself for the comments and accusations that will come my way, I decided to put my thoughts down in writing. What’s the difference between harassment and criticism? Is this a gender issue? And where do we draw the line between free speech and hate speech?
What is harassment?
Let’s start with the basics, what exactly is harassment? The word ‘harassment’ covers a range of behaviors but typically boils down to unwanted behavior that the individual finds offensive or that makes them feel intimidated or humiliated. In the online sphere, it can include comments, private messages, retweets with comments, or separate statuses that target an individual. Online harassment is no less harmful or serious than ‘real life’ harassment. Just because it takes place online doesn’t mean it doesn’t count.
There are various forms this harassment can take, including cross-platform harassment, dog-whistling, hashtag poisoning, and cyber-mob attacks. The last one, in particular, is extremely common on Twitter, and it’s defined as a large group of people who collectively barrage an individual with insults, threats, or slurs. The idea behind it is to humiliate, intimidate or punish a target for expressing an opinion on politically charged topics. It also includes cherrypicking ideas or comments from the victim and using it to promote a particular agenda or incite more harassment.
I see all of these examples happening every day, they happen to me as well. I can tell you that it’s exhausting and results in severe anxiety for those that are targeted. The reality is that this kind of harassment is commonplace and can have a devastating impact on an individual. Using myself as an example, I was hospitalized with a panic attack after I was subjected to various online attacks. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I was six months into a high-risk pregnancy and it put my child’s life in danger.
People might think they are just “having an opinion” or “being critical”, but they must consider the context and ongoing discourse. Are you contributing something constructive to the dialogue? Or are you dogpiling someone? Consider the situation if this was taking place offline, and think before you post.
What is hate speech?
Hate speech is a phenomenon that has been significantly exacerbated by the use of social media. Faceless, nameless trolls descend on people en masse to spout threats of rape, harm, death, and similar. They also target people’s friends and family and have no qualms in making personal attacks on people’s looks, qualifications, or mere existence.
Hate speech is increasing rapidly, but unfortunately little is done about it. Police forces in the region and internationally rarely take the matter seriously, and those who commit such crimes claim it’s “free speech”.
Are women disproportionately affected?
Yes. Women are more likely to experience online harassment, including sexual harassment than men. Multiple studies demonstrate women are more likely to be harassed, abused, and even criticized online than men. A woman mentioning her opinion is more likely to be criticized than a man that expresses the same one. They are more likely to be called gendered terms such as “whore”, “slut” and “bitch” and more likely to receive death threats and threats of sexual violence.
Furthermore, women journalists are even more at risk. Online attacks on women are increasingly going “real world”. Some 75% of female journalists said they experienced online abuse of some form. 20% of them said they experienced offline abuse they believe is related to online violence. This is a serious threat to female participation in journalism, public communication, and democracy. The United Nations described the trend as “chilling” and noted that it’s “designed to belittle, humiliate, shame, induce fear, silence, discredit them professionally, and undermine their accountability.”
Our right to an opinion without retribution
The right to freedom of opinion and expression are human rights. People should also have the right to express an opinion even if it’s controversial or provocative. The only exceptions to this are cases where the opinion expressed is hateful or a form of harassment.
As human beings, we have a right to express our opinion publicly without being subjected to harassment and hate. Whether you disagree with the comment or not is beside the point; nothing, and I repeat, nothing entitles anyone to deliberately humiliate or attack another person either online or offline. When did we get to the point that we justify inhumane behavior just because we disagree with someone’s view? I might not like what you are saying, but as long as it’s legal, I will defend your right to say it.
Sadly, we are in a situation now whereby many people I know, mainly women, are scared to voice their opinions online. These could be opinions on anything, from politics to sports, for fear of retribution. I cannot count the number of times I have posted a random thought or belief, only to be inundated by comments from people (usually and mainly men) telling me I am stupid or worse. This results in self-censorship from women on social media platforms, be they journalists, activists, or regular members of the public.
No one has a right to threaten your life, safety, or wellbeing just because they disagree with your opinion.
Difference between criticism and abuse
Criticism is typically meant to help someone improve or open a debate consisting of opposing or differing views. Constructive criticism is where someone offers their take on things while allowing the receiver of the criticism to see other ways forward, consider different perspectives, or feel supported even though opinions differ.
When we post something online, we leave ourselves open to criticism. We know that we will receive positive feedback, criticism, and negative feedback when we press publish. Criticism can indeed be helpful. It can help people expand their horizons and evaluate the work they have done. It can be a growth mechanism for many of us, but it can also be hurtful. Many times, criticism comes along with harassment and/or hate speech. It comes from individuals that mask their identities and use ‘criticism’ as a mask for intimidation and harassment.
We must also consider the motivation for the criticism. If it’s to dogpile, delegitimize or cause harm to someone, it’s no longer criticism. It should be constructive and seek to open dialogue, not shut it down. When we post criticism online, we should always be mindful of the context and its motives.
Managing criticism and abuse
As mentioned, when you post online, you open yourself up to criticism. When you’re a journalist, you open yourself up to even more. It’s part of the territory. But speaking from personal experience, there are times that valid criticism can become too much when combined with dogpiling, hate speech and harassment.
Posting on social media, particularly Twitter, is an anxiety-inducing act. When I get retweeted, tagged, or someone slides into my DMs, my pulse increases, and I feel nervous. This happens multiple times a day. There are times I have had panic and anxiety attacks after being Twitter mobbed or receiving abusive comments. There are times I have been reduced to tears or wanted to smash up my office when someone has posted untrue allegations about me or tried to delegitimize me publicly. Other times, I call them an “idiot” inside my head and go about my day.
As people in the public domain, and real people behind the screen, we all have ways of coping with what we encounter online. I find blocking people quite therapeutic and make no qualms in blocking someone who has irritated, harassed, abused, or even just caught me on a bad day. I also like to mute people, imagining at the same time that it happens in real life. I also turn the notifications off regularly, so I don’t have to engage when a post gets dogpiled. During terrible times, I have deactivated accounts or given my phone to someone else to deal with the fallout. These are all coping mechanisms.
No one, and I repeat, no one is obliged to listen to you. No one is obliged to tolerate cyber mobs, harassment, or any other form of communication. Setting up a social media account, whoever you are, doesn’t give you the right to force your discourse on someone else. If someone chooses to cut communication with you, that is their right, and it has no reflection on their professionalism or personality.
As I have mentioned before, behind every account is a real person. They are dealing with life, work, and potentially hundreds of abusive communications. If they choose to block you or mute you to make themselves feel better or protect their mental health, that is their right. No one in this world owes you anything, and if you got blocked ‘for nothing,’ perhaps look at the context of the situation. It could be that you were the commenter that broke the camel’s back.
Is it a gender issue?
I have been using social media platforms since the year 2000 and I can confirm that during that time, the vast majority of harassment and abuse I have suffered has been from men. I have been dogpiled, harassed, stalked, threatened with rape, death, and harm, had my family targeted, been doxxed, had smear campaigns waged against me, and experienced sexual harassment.
I have filed police reports, taken people to court, and named and shamed. Over 21 years, I have experienced such incidents with hundreds of individuals, it would be impossible to put an exact figure on it. But out of those hundreds of incidents, only three came from women.
Over the last two years, I have conducted anonymous surveys amongst journalistic colleagues. The results show that women are significantly more likely to be criticized, harassed, and abused by men. The number of women behaving in such a way is negligible. These findings are replicated throughout other studies in other parts of the world, demonstrating a trend.
Not only are women more likely to be exposed to harmful online behaviors, but they are more likely to be exposed to gendered insults and comments about their appearance.
Calling out a heavily gendered issue as such is not “pulling the feminism card”. It’s reality. You might not think you are being sexist when you join in with an internet mob, but you really have to ask yourself, would you be reacting the same way if it was a man making the statement? Are you using the same language you would address a man? Are the majority of commenters male and/or using gendered insults?
I observe the discourse on Twitter a lot, as do many of my colleagues and there is a distinct difference between the way men speak to other men and to women on the platform. This stems from an issue in the offline world where men typically believe women to be less logical, intelligent, and rational. Men are also more likely to deny that gender-based violence and attacks are an issue. They are also more likely to believe women shouldn’t have opinions or have a place in politics.
The comments and responses that I will get to this article, will only seek to prove my point.