As a literature review, this paper reviews two studies of online feminist communities: “The Cyber-Ethnographic (Re)Construction of Two Feminist Online Communities” by Katie Ward and “Searching for Safety Online” by Frances Shaw. To tie together the results, conclusions, and theories of the two prior studies that Ward, and Shaw conducted, I wrote an auto-ethnographic reflective about my experiences maintaining my online feminist community called “We Are Feminism” that I established on a Discord. The goal of this literature review is to understand the research and literature, and how the researchers who conducted the studies use the theories of communication.
Keywords: cyber-ethnographic study, feminist,
The journal articles studied in this literature review are cyber-ethnographic research that focused on women’s experiences on the Internet. To further the research into cyber-ethnographic studies, I describe my experiences as a navigate harassment in a feminist online community I created. Ward is an ethnographic researcher who studied two feminist groups: 1) Women Halting Online Abuse (WHOA) and 2) Cybergrrl. Shaw conducted interviews with women and feminist bloggers about harassment that they experienced in the comment section of their blogs. These methodological approaches the researchers used include radical structuralism, and critical and social-cultural traditions of communication.
The Cyber-Ethnographic Studies
According to Ward, a cyber-ethnographic study is a “study of online interaction” (1999, p. 100). A cyber-ethnographer can lurk but not influence the group in any way. In Ward’s research, she discovered that since the cyber world is both in the physical and the virtual, that an online space can become both an online and offline space. Ward wrote that many online communities mimic offline communities. Cybergrrl is the type of online community where people can meet other people, learn from each other, and promote their projects. WHOA is the type of website where it gives information to readers.
According to Shaw (2013) for feminist online communities there is an “investment that leads to risk’ as well as ‘safety’” (p. 100). The bloggers she interviewed talked about how harassers commented on their blogs forcing them to close or moderate the comments section. Because of harassing comments, Shaw found that comment moderation is a must-have in feminist cyber-communities.
Theories of Communication
Ward and Shaw do not explain their methods of research and how they may have employed theories of communication, but they do leave clues to what types of traditions of communication their research falls under. Some of those traditions of communication are radical structuralism, critical tradition, and social-cultural tradition in their studies.
Radical structuralists “seek change in societal structures and relationships” (Littlejohn, Foss, and Oetzel, 2017, p. 29). Through her article, Shaw used radical structuralism where she confronted online harassment and its effects in feminist online communities. A feminist blogger told Shaw that “That’s another interesting thing with the comments, is that tying back to that idea of being a woman and writing things, that I think that it offends people, a lot of people, it offends people that you’re a young woman and you have the audacity to presume to share your opinion with the world as if it matters. And they may be people who live their lives in a way that they don’t think that they’re particularly misogynist at all because hell, they love their mother. They love their girlfriend, you know? They don’t rape people. But they don’t actually really like it when women get all up in their face about things, you know” (1999, para. 13)? With these results, through her study, showed how disturbing online harassment can become, but she found online harassment towards women is an effort to silence women. According to Littlejohn, et al (2017), radical structuralists “challenge existing social hierarchies and arrangements that have privileged men and subordinated women” (p. 30). Another woman told Shaw that, “A lot of people when they find that they are going into permanent moderation, so that their comments simply won’t be published automatically, they just don’t bother anymore” (1999, para. 13). Here, a feminist blogger told Shaw that online harassers were successful shutting down a discussion on a feminist blog.
In her study, Ward (1999) used the social-cultural tradition as she conducted interviews in the Webgrrls community. According to Littlejohn, Foss, and Oetzel (2017), the social-cultural tradition focuses on theories that define “norms, roles, and rules” that involve interactive communication (1999, p. 43). As a cyber-ethnographic researcher, Ward discovered that online feminist communities “emerged between the physical and the virtual” (1999, p. 96). In her article, Ward studies an organization within Cybergrrls called Webgrrls. Ward wrote that these women have an “opportunity to discuss careers, new media and technology” (1999, p. 97). A woman from the Webgrrl’s cite told Ward that “I find the Cybergrrl site to be very positive place for women to explore the Internet and participant in the creation of a community” (Ward, 1999, p. 101). Ward’s results suggest that Cybergrrl as a community bridged the gap between the online and offline world where women “subsequently meet offline” (1999, p. 100). Women found friends, gave advice, or talked about their problems. Another Webgrrls member said during Ward’s interview that, “It’s so weird it’s like we’re all just sitting at our computers and we have created this world. It’s almost spiritual” (Ward, 1999, p. 101).
Shaw for her study, used the critical tradition. Shaw found that “trolling and harassment are both silencing practices” (2013, para. 3). Shaw identified “oppressive social conditions” as such as critical theorist would (Littlejohn, Foss, Oetzel, 2017, p. 44,). Shaw’s results suggested that these tactics were successful. Feminist bloggers told Shaw they closed or moderated the comments after disturbing comments. Closing or moderating comments can inhibit discussion. According to Shaw (2013), a researcher, Wazny, in her study of moderating practices of the website Jezebel said that the website’s comment section is ‘regimented and closed” (para. 6). Shaw found that most feminist bloggers set their websites up to hold comments for moderation, but she also found that, if their comment goes straight to moderation, people will not comment. Moderation can hinder harassment, but it can also hinder the discussion between feminists.
My Experiences Maintaining a Feminist Online Community
As a researcher myself, I conducted an experiment on how online harassment can affect an Internet feminist community, including myself the owner and founder of the said feminist community. I chose to make We Are Feminism a Discord Server because on Discord Server 1) anonymity is an option and 2) banning members is easy. To protect the server, I had to take pains to ensure that trolls, racists, and other unseemly folks don’t get in, I created a channel just for pending members. I had to learn to use Discord Server in a way that most server owners don’t have to. I had to use bots and bot commands to warn and ban pending members. There are four moderators including myself who can kick, mute, and ban members.
The emotional toll was high. I suffer from anxiety, obsessive thoughts and depression. Every time I got a new member in the pending member’s chat, I got a raise of anxiety. Dealing with Russian bots or trolls who just want to raid was a lot for me, even if I didn’t show it. I was going crazy at one point wondering who a bot was and who was a real person. Finally, after several raids, I decided to close the server off to the public and allow only members to make invites to their friends.
As of September 21, 2018, I re-opened the server to the outside world. Of course, I got trolls and the general harassers, but the scariest of people were racists. Most of the Nazis that come into the server use subtle tactics to change people’s minds. One Nazi who came into the server told members that they believed that race was biological, which is false. Race is only dependent on visual and cultural differences between people.
This was highly disturbing for me because I gave this person the benefit of the doubt and allowed them in because they seemed sincere. Instead, they used underhanded techniques to gain followers in Nazism.
For the most part, it is easy to see the sexism. Most trolls make themselves known in the pending members chat. The Mee6 bot (Mr. Meeseeks) catched certain terms or phrases the troll/bots use. Mr. Meeseeks mutes them and if they continue to make trouble, the bot will ban them from the server.
I usually came in around this time to check on things in the pending chat. I often must ban the trolls from the server regardless of whether Mr. Meeseeks muted them or not. As of now, I let the pending members do what they want. After Mr. Meeseeks had finished, if there was someone left, I asked that pending member why they joined the server. I look at their username and their profile picture to see if it had any racist or sexist propaganda. For the most part, trolls and raiders like to come into the server to raid and nothing else. They like to waste the moderator’s time, at best. At worst, they hurt other members. One pending member said, “We should raid a Christian server.”
Our first troll told us that “We would have a bad time if we couldn’t tell who was a Nazi by their pfp.” PFP refers to picture for proof. Apparently, there was a very small swastika in their avatar photo. Unfortunately, not all racists and Nazis were this open about their agendas. After this first Nazi, we got a slew of garbage. Troublemakers came in just to repeat harmful messages over and over. I programmed Mr. Meeseeks to mute and/or ban pending members if kept saying curse words, posted links, or repeated phrases. Often these people came in with other raiders only to raid. Other times raiders have worse things in mind. One troll friended me and in a private message, asked me to show him my breasts.
Many people from the Discord Server did not realize that raiders and trolls like to cause trouble on feminist servers specifically. It took them by surprise. By November 30, 2018, I’ve become more apathetic to harassers. At this point, it is not worth my time and energy to get mad or even, annoyed.
Harassers came into the server groups of two to four. They bounced the praise and encouragement back and forth. They seemed to know each other. The raiders knew what feminism was. They did not care to understand that saying racist or sexist remarks can silence or hurt other people. Their motivation was to feel accepted and validated by their peers.
Some pending members tested the waters to see what words the bot mods delete and catalog. Others seemed to want to make the community hostile and uncomfortable for the other members. Some of the pending members swore, said derogatory names including the N-word and the word “Jew” in accusing ways such as calling them “pedophiles.” One pending member wrote the N-word 500 times. Another pending member wrote the N-word in all caps 178 times. Overall, including other pending members, the N-word comes up 717 times. The F-word comes up 116 times from multiple pending members. One pending member wrote “i beat woman” 90 times. Another pending member wrote “hippety hoppety women are property” 54 times. Another pending member wrote “Kill all Jüden” 181 times.
Other pending members pasted links to Redpill. Redpill, originally from the movie “The Matrix.” In the movie, if you take the red pill as opposed to the blue pill you become awakened to the truth. Red pill refers to a Reddit page called r/TheRedPill that, according to the Daily Dot (2018),”claims to offer ‘discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men’.” According to the Daily Dot, these members consider themselves men’s rights activists. This community is not just a place for men’s rights activists, but “misogyny, harassment, rape denial, and so-called ‘pick-up artist’ (or PUA) techniques also flourish there” (Daily Dot).
Other times, it seemed that these “raiders” – as they are sometimes called – knew that what they were doing was wrong but did not care. One pending member wrote “Triggered?” 9 times. Another pending member pasted a crude image of an erect penis 3 times. After many attempts at overwhelming the bots, one pending member wrote, “good luck deleting our shit.” A good example of the level of intelligence behind an anonymous name and image was an awaiting member said: “i sexually identify as a abrams tank i sexually i dentify as a attack helicopter i sexually identify as a black hawk.” This pokes fun at people’s sexual identities specifically a trans-person or a queer person.
Some of the horrible comments we got in the pending channel said, “all woman should die in hell.” One specific awaiting member knows that the bot can’t recognize certain words, so they spelled out the F-word with spaces in between the letters. A lot of pending members got away with unsavory things in the pending chat because I did not program Mr. Meeseeks to look out for those words or phrases. One pending member mentioned a trollhunter and said,”feminists suck and lgbtq as well.” Others try to convince the people who can see their conversations (me, mods, trollhunters, and other pending members) that feminism is not needed. One pending member said, “yea women already have the same rights so whats the point of being a feminist?” Another pending member said, “besides women are property!” Another pending member said,”women aren’t important they are objects.” These pending members know that in feminism, there is a focus on how women are depicted as sexual objects. Other pending members said things that most harassers will use such as”yall useless women filth go back to the kitchen dishwashers.” This pending member even called one of the mods a “dishwasher” and demanded that they talked to them.
Like Webgrrls, the We Are Feminism Discord Server is a safe space for feminists and people who want to learn about feminism. As Shaw found, other people, however, do not want feminists to have their own space on the Internet and employ harassment to halt equality. According to Marwick (2018), harassers use tactics such as “pejorative language, doxing, death threats, revenge porn, cyberstalking” (p. 545). Results from the experiment suggest that members of this social media who do not want feminism to grow in Discord use derogatory and swear words as well as phrases that illicit a response. According to Rodríguez-Darias (2017), harassment aims at censoring and shutting down feminist rhetoric. Often, according to Rodríguez-Darias (2017), when feminists and women create a space where they can freely write and chat it becomes a space in which they are ridiculed, persecuted, questioned, and abused. As evidence of this, I have cataloged all the words recorded by Mee6 and Dyno Discord bots. Through informational technologies, according to Rodríguez-Darias (2017), such as Discord, online harassers scan, monitor, and control women’s activities. According to Rodríguez-Darias (2017), these technologies give sexist language and violence a platform. Thus, allowing people to accept and perpetuate violence against women and oppressed people.
Results from the We Are Feminism Discord suggest that harassers work together. Anita Sarkeesian, founder of Feminist Frequency, talked about this when she said, “We don’t usually think of online harassment as a social activity, but we do know from the strategies and tactics that they used that they were not working alone, that were actually loosely coordinated with one another. The social component is a powerful motivating factor that works to provide incentives for perpetrators to participate and to actually escalate the attacks by earning the praise and approval of their peers” (TED Talks, 2012; Marwick, 2018). In places such as Reddit, 4chan, and chat rooms, members collectively frame feminists such as Anita Sarkeesian as “villains,” which give them justification for their harassing behavior (Marwick, 2018, p. 545; Massanari, 2017). According to Marwick (2018), Banet-Weiser and Miltner use the term “networked misogyny” to show that is concerted and organized effort to hinder feminism (p. 545). In these communities, men tend to have interests in gaming, science, technology, and pop culture. Typically, they engage in hypermasculinity. Hypermasculinity, according to Massanari (2017) “valorizes intellectual pursuits more so than the social or the emotional intelligence” (p. 332). I have found that Discord Server is one of those communities that attracts hypermasculinity because it relies on user-generated content. According to Massanari (2017), these user-generated content Internet forums often reflect our world in which there is “retrograde ideas of gender, sexuality, and race, and push against diversity and multiculturalism, and progressivism” (p. 333). Because these online communities often reflect the offline world they tend to “repudiate and reify hegemonic masculinity” (Massanari, 2017, p. 332). Based on the results from the feminist Discord Server, pending members participated in hegemonic masculinity. They poked fun at people who identify as trans. They repeated the N-word over and over. They made sure everyone knew how stupid feminism was to them.
Like Ward and Shaw, I want to uncover online harassment of feminist cyber-communities. In this experiment, I have a radical structuralist paradigm where I present the results from the We Are Feminism experiment with the hope that readers may gain the understanding of what feminist experience online. As a critical theorist, I wanted to explore the effects “power, oppression, and privilege” has on this online community (Littlejohn, Foss, and Oetzel, 2017, p. 44). As a social-cultural theorist, I conducted an auto-ethnographic study as I maintained We Are Feminism and studied results in which Mee6 recorded. Additionally, I watched the pending member’s chat in the server and identify who was a harasser and who was genuinely interested in becoming a member of the server.
The Internet provides spaces for many communities. For feminists, the online world can give support, friendship, and/or a career, but there is a negative and horrifying side to the Internet that no one likes talking about. There are groups of people who want to incite hurt and violence against feminists. They will try anything to barge into feminist spaces and make those spaces hostile, violent, and hateful. They make concerted and coordinated attacks against feminists. As a group, they loosely work together, support each other, and encourage each other to make feminist spaces unfriendly while supporting the subjugation of women, people of color, or anyone else who is not a white heterosexual cisgendered man.
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Gallagher, Brandon (2018). Retrieved Dec. 14, 2018 from https://www.dailydot.com/layer8/reddit-red-pill/
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Shaw, Frances. (2013). Searching for Safety Online: collective strategies and discursive resistance to trolling and harassment in a feminist network. Fibreculture Journal. Open Humanities Press: Sydney, Australia. Issue: 22 2013. PDF. Retrieved Sep. 28, 2018.
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