Online

Could Ghostbusters be the final straw for online harassment?

Twitter must draw a line between free speech and cyberbullying
Photo: Brickset

While the movie Ghostbusters isn’t perfect (like most Hollywood blockbusters), watching a cast of talented women take the reins of a beloved franchise and make it their own is a joy. Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, and Kristen Wiig work magic with a mediocre script. Despite the online trolls and many men mortified at the thought of an all-female film, these four women aren’t a liability — they’re the best thing about the reboot.

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On Saturday Night Live, Jones is constantly given the trope of “angry black woman,” and I worried that her role in Ghostbusters would be more of the same. It isn’t. Jones far exceeded my expectations by delivering a multi-dimensional, endearing, intelligent, and highly entertaining performance as Patty. Watching her on the big screen, I was annoyed that SNL has underused her and her talents so much.

Off screen, Jones has been outspoken about how proud she was to be part of the franchise, and very candid about the difficulties she had in finding someone to design a dress for her for the film premiere. She called out the fashion industry for only dressing petite and dainty actresses, and not bigger and taller women who don’t fit Hollywood’s beauty standards.

It didn’t take long for this talented and successful Black woman who is part of a franchise that some men believe belongs to their personal childhood to be shut down on Twitter by racist and misogynist trolls who don’t like the positive body image and confidence she exudes.

After being the vicious and relentless target of vile racist comments, Jones left Twitter in tears. I won’t share the messages she received. Suffice it to say they are violent, crass, and many can be clearly classified as hate speech. They’re all there on her account, if anyone cares to see them.

What upset me more than watching someone who didn’t deserve or ask for any of this online abuse being relentlessly harassed, however, was watching people’s nonchalant reaction to her pleas for Twitter to do something about it.

I am sick and tired of hearing people say “toughen up,” “ignore it,” “it’s part of being in the public eye,” “block them if you can’t handle them,” and all the other predictable and blasé advice in response to online harassment. Until you’ve experienced that kind of targeted hate, you don’t get to say what people who have should do. These types of messages are unsettling, unnerving, and scary. And even when they’re not scary, they’re frustrating, discombobulating, and highly disruptive.

Despite a few attempts at improving the situation, Twitter has turned into a cyberbullying playground, with a recent study indicating that over 100,000 insulting and nasty tweets are sent every week.

Does social media, and the anonymity it affords, increase the potential for online abuse? Definitely. But in most cases, these incidents reveal and highlight the rampant misogyny and racism already in existence. As a result, it’s imperative for social media sites to take responsibility, help curb such behaviour, and find ways to ensure that the people spewing such hate are held accountable for their actions.

Even former Twitter CEO, Dick Costolo, readily admitted in 2015 that the company had failed in protecting users from online abuse. “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” Costolo wrote in an internal memo obtained by The Verge.

And women are routinely the targets of most of this hate. A 2014 Pew study found that 25 per cent of young women online have been sexually harassed online and 26 per cent have experienced online stalking. Moreover, Pew found that women overall are disproportionately targeted by the most severe forms of online abuse including doxxing (exposing someone’s personal information)and violent threats.

Feminist writer Lindy West’s targeted online harassment last year was particularly vicious, when a troll created a Twitter account impersonating her recently deceased father. She wrote about it in the Guardian, and it’s worth reading to understand the severity and impact of such targeted hate.

In a series of emotional tweets, Jones has said she felt “numb” from her experience on Twitter, adding that while she loves sharing her life with fans on social media, she isn’t sure it’s worth the abuse. Women who share their opinions and thoughts online often have to ask themselves that same question. Many fight fire with fire, many learn to mute and block with ease, and many simply walk away from a social media presence. In that regard, trolls win by silencing many competent and thoughtful women who have something important to say.

Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. It’s time Twitter takes a tougher stance on cyberbullying and protects its users. It’s both the financially smart and morally right thing to do.

Update: Twitter takes action

After finalizing this column, I found out that Twitter finally did do something. It banned one of its most notoriously toxic trolls late last Tuesday night by permanently suspending the account of conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, a day after he urged his followers to attack Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones with racist and demeaning tweets.

“People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online.”

Perhaps the message is finally getting through that freedom of speech simply protects your right to communicate your ideas without fear of government retaliation, and isn’t a free pass to encourage and incite hate.

And while Twitter’s decision may partially be damage control because the victim is a well-known celebrity and the abuse was so targeted and so unwarranted, I know for a fact that many women today are breathing a little easier.

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