How Safe Is the Blogosphere?
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, what music does Senator Mary Landrieu like? It's our In Your Ear feature.
But first, we want to talk about blogging and bad behavior. It seems that just about everybody with a computer is getting in on the act - network anchors, CEOs, politicians, cupcake chefs, us. It's a way to express yourself, brand yourself, connect with people who share your interests.
But for some people, the blogosphere is a far more dangerous place than others. It seems that women are far more likely to be targeted for sexual harassment and threats in the blogosphere. It has gotten so bad that one prominent blogger in the tech industry shut down her blog and withdrew from an industry conference because of threats posted online.
We wanted to hear more about this, so we're joined by two prominent women bloggers. We're joined by Jasmyne Cannick. She blogs at JasmyneCannick.com and Anna Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette and currently blogging at the Time.com site called Swampland. Thanks for joining us.
Ms. ANNA MARIE COX (Blogger, Swampland): Thank you.
MARTIN: Anna, do you want to start? Has this happen to you? Have you been threatened online in a particularly sexual offensive manner?
Ms. COX: Well, sure. It's sad to say that I think that's sort of part of what happens when a woman go down online these days. If you say something that people don't agree with, for some reason, our culture is still such that one of the very first pieces of ammunition that people pull out is a sexualized attack of some kind.
MARTIN: And when you say these days, was it like that from the beginning when you are blogging as Wonkette?
Ms. COX: Yeah. I think it's always been that way for women online. Ever since - well, maybe not always. I think for as long as I've been a presence online, which has been a pretty long time, it's one of the sort of cheapest and easiest ways to go after a woman, is to make one of these sexualized attacks. I mean, it rarely feels like a true threat in the sense that people are going to come to your home or stalk you. I think it's just part of the language that people have.
Then it's considered almost acceptable language to use these kinds of veiled, sexualized images and accusations. I mean, they can be, and they can be sort of a step back from threats. One of first things that people who are let's say not sophisticated (unintelligible) disagree with a women online, they tend to just go for the epithets pretty quickly; that happens less quickly when they argue with men, I think.
MARTIN: Jasmyne, what about you now? Forgive me. I happen to know that you've been targeted for threats. I remember most recently because you made a public statement about a comedian who performed in blackface...
Ms. JASMYNE CANNICK (Blogger): Right.
MARTIN: ...and you were urging people to oppose this. And I know you that you were threatened. What I'm curious about is, have you been subjected to threats before that?
Ms. CANNICK: Yes. I think it comes with the territory, especially being female - to sort of piggyback off of what Imus said, I think, yeah, when people disagree with women, it's really easy to sort of go for the easy things - calling her the B-word or calling the C-word.
But one thing that I've gotten a lot of is that, you know, before that I'll get the black so and so. I've gotten just as many racial slurs and things thrown at me just as well as for me being a female, as well as for me being also a lesbian. Prior to the whole Shirley Q. Liquor controversy...
MARTIN: That was the comedian what you were urging people to boycott.
Ms. CANNICK: Boycott. Exactly.
MARTIN: Or not participate.
Ms. CANNICK: Prior to that I was targeted by a couple of shock jocks here in L.A. for standing up for Tookie Williams, who was on death row at the time. And their audience is primarily affluent whites and they really came after me really hard too.
You know, I don't tend to get too, scared just because I know most these people aren't coming into my neighborhood because they're too scared to come into my neighborhood. So I don't really worry about it, because I know a lot of this is just sort of idle threats and just ways, I guess, for people to vent their frustration.
But it also shows their ignorance. And it can be a little bothering at times. I've gotten to the point now where after, you know, so many thousands of e-mails, I just sort of ignore them. But there's always one or two that come through that, you know, are a little disturbing, just that someone would say something like that to me, and they don't even know me.
MARTIN: Have either of you have been threatened with rape?
Ms. CANNICK: Yeah.
Ms. COX: Yeah.
MARTIN: Really? That's considered normal. Okay, have you been threatened with death?
Ms. CANNICK: Yes.
Ms. COX: I don't think I've gotten a specific kind of death threat, no.
MARTIN: Have you been threatened with physical harm in some other way?
Ms. CANNICK: Mostly just the rape.
Ms. CANNICK: Yeah. In my case, it wasn't just e-mails, okay?
Ms. COX: Oh, wow.
Ms. CANNICK: When the shock jocks were on me for Tookie Williams, they gave out my phone number, all right? So that was a little scary, just having - and the same thing with Shirley Q. Liquor, they give out my phone number too, on their Web site. So - and I got a lot of death threats from Shirley Q. Liquor, they gave out my phone number too, on their Web site. And I got a lot of death threats from the Shirley Q. Liquor people. So it was a very interesting time a my life. You know, a chance for me to just put my phone down and not answer it for a while...
MARTIN: I know, because you didn't return my calls, as I recall.
Ms. CANNICK: Right. Exactly. Yes. That's exactly...
MARTIN: As I recall.
Ms. CANNICK: But I'm a very smart cookie, at least I like to think I am. And so I realized that it doesn't take that much to actually figure out where someone is in this world. So if you have my phone number, what's to say you can't do a reverse lookup, do certain things to find out exactly where my physical address is.
So I do take all of that into consideration, too. And there are people out there who are crazy, I just don't think that they are crazy enough to come knocking on my door. And if they do, then that's a whole another story.
MARTIN: The Washington Post reported this week on a University of Maryland survey that found that females in chat rooms receive 25 times more sexually explicit and malicious messages as males. Do you guys have any theories about why people want to go there, let's say especially if one disagrees about something political?
Ms. COX: I think there's sort of two different issues here. One is that women still aren't equal or even a majority of online users right now.
MARTIN: It's my understanding that they're half.
Ms. COX: That they're half.
MARTIN: That they're just about half.
Ms. COX: So this is relatively new and it still doesn't - I think women don't feel empowered, if I can use this very old-fashioned term, in this sphere yet. I think it doesn't feel like an equal presence yet. And I think that men also feel like women aren't an equal presence yet. And so the mere presence of a woman in a chat room, it's like, you know, a bunny rabbit walking into a thicket of the foxes.
MARTIN: Are your blogs moderated?
Ms. COX: Our current blog does not have moderated comments. And I think I prefer that because it's a lot of work to moderate comments. The easiest way to deal with the kind of vitriol that sometimes comes out when people want to disagree with a woman is you just keep talking on the level that you want to talk at. And it seems to work most of the time that people who are serious about a subject will engage with you seriously.
Ms. CANNICK: That's right.
MARTIN: What are you saying? Are you saying you ignore...
Ms. COX: You have to just ignore them. Yeah.
MARTIN: ...the garbage?
Ms. COX: Unless there's a reason to clamp down on it. A colleague here developed a kind of quasi-stalker on our blog, someone who was really just incessantly going after her using sort of really weirdly, you know, kind of sexualized, violent language. And of course that's something you've just got to shut down.
MARTIN: Why do you call it a quasi-stalker? Why isn't that just stalking? Is it because...
Ms. COX: Well, I don't - I mean...
MARTIN: ...it's designed to disturb your peace and equanimity and to harass you.
Ms. COX: Maybe it is stalking. I was equating it with, like, he wasn't hanging outside our house. He was hanging outside her virtual house.
MARTIN: Jasmyne, what about you?
Ms. CANNICK: You know, I - for the most part I have a role that I don't censor the comments on my Web site just because I want people to read the smart comments just like I want people to read the ignorant comments. After the whole Shirley Q. Liquor incident and I got a couple of particularly nasty e-mails and comments, I decided to highlight those and really put the spotlight on them. And I put - and especially the ones that came via email to me, I put their email address there and I let other people handle it for me.
I've gotten so many nasty emails at this point that I just keep on moving. I mean if it's not, you know, them calling me the B-word, it's them telling me I'm fat and ugly. And I don't know what that has to do with anything that I write about.
Ms. COX: Isn't it weird how they tell women that they're ugly. Like, you know, there's a lot of ugly male pundits, too.
Ms. CANNICK: Right. Exactly. Exactly. But let's not name names.
MARTIN: I'm wondering, is this part of a continuum? I remember when the whole Rosie O'Donnell-Donald Trump conflict. And that wasn't online, but Rosie O'Donnell made some comments about Donald Trump that he didn't like, so his default position was you're not attractive.
Ms. COX: Right.
Ms. CANNICK: Right.
MARTIN: You're ugly.
Ms. COX: Like, for some reason that...
MARTIN: And so, therefore, that means you are wrong.
Ms. COX: That's sort of what we started out - I feel like where we started out with this conversation. For some reason just in our culture still that is considered a legitimate response to an intellectual argument by a woman.
Ms. CANNICK: Right. And it just goes to show how weak people are, too. Because, you know, I disagree with a lot of people, but I don't put them down based on their physical attributes. Like, if I'm going to argue with you, I'm going to argue intellectually with you. I'm going to argue with you on the principles of the discussion, not about what you wore today.
MARTIN: I'm still curious about your position...
Ms. COX: Not that I don't want to mock what people wear.
MARTIN: Not that you don't want to, because you do, actually.
Ms. COX: That's right. But it's beside the point.
MARTIN: Jasmyne, I'm curious about your decision to post particularly these abusive comments, because some people might argue you're giving them oxygen. That's what they want is attention. So if you deleted them, then they wouldn't have the satisfaction of seeing their garbage aired.
Ms. CANNICK: There are two sides. Of course, yeah, people do say that. But, you know, I'm looking at it from the point that people need to know this is what you get when you speak out - and you speak out this is what happens. And just on the off chance that someone decided to do something to me, hey, it was out there so you all know.
But like I said, I really don't worry too much because I live in the 'hood. Most of the people that are hating on me are not coming to my neighborhood. In fact, they're scared to come to my neighborhood. I don't really worry about it. I've got enough people looking out for me and making sure that I'm okay.
And I don't think a lot of it is idle, but at the same time the purpose in, like, in putting it front and center, people need to realize, you know, these are the thoughts of people that we're dealing with, that were interacting with everyday online, these are the things that they say. For me it was really eye-opening, as well as for a lot my readers to my blogs, just to know that people do make death threats. They do call you black so and so. They do say all of these things. And so there's still a lot more work to be done. And I'm of the mindset that the more criticisms I get, it means I must be onto something. It means I must be making a point.
MARTIN: And speaking of making a point. Anna, you were known at Wonkette for some fairly pointed commentary about people.
Ms. COX: Right.
MARTIN: And I wonder, is a part of it you figure, well, you give what you get?
Ms. COX: I did try to be fairly equal opportunity in terms of mocking people for things. There's enough absurdity in people's ideas here in Washington that you don't usually have to go to their clothes or their looks in order to find things to make fun of, although Katherine Harris makes it very hard to resist doing something like that.
MARTIN: But she was defeated.
Ms. COX: You're right, she was defeated. And also, I mean I try to look at what people say. I wouldn't put as much time and effort into responding to emails as people put in to creating them to send to me. And of course length is not a factor in that regard. It's how much intelligence and thought and care. And it could be a critical - someone can be critical and also critical in a funny way. Like I don't mind biting, but I admire people who can come up with a good putdown that actually makes a point.
MARTIN: Is there anything that you think would put a stop to this, or have you just both learned to accept this as the price of the ticket? Jasmyne?
Ms. CANNICK: I think that if they continues and people continue to make an issue out of it, I'm sure someone will come up with a fancy piece of legislation to address it. As for me, personally, I just have learned to accept it as being part of the territory. This is what it's about. Like I said, the more criticisms that I get, I tend to think I'm on the right path.
And I just want to put out there that a lot of time we bloggers get a lot of criticisms. We do get threats and stuff. But for all of those emails, we probably have 10 or 20 emails of people saying kudos and good job. So it balances out.
MARTIN: Anything that you think would make this stop, or do you just accept it as the price of participation?
Ms. COX: As I was saying before, I think that the thing that makes it stop is the continued participation of women in this conversation. I think when you make it clear those kinds of threats and that kind of language is not going to, you know, make people go away or be quiet, I think you force the conversation to a higher level. And to the extent that you don't, to the extent there's going to always be some bottom-feeders who insist on using that kind of language, you've kind of just have to ignore them. And when it gets dangerous, you call it out.
MARTIN: I mentioned at the beginning that Kathy Sierra, who blogged about designing software, was so disturbed by death threats that she shut down her blog. She withdrew from an industry conference. And other bloggers also shut down their blog for a week in solidarity with her to call her attention to it. But there's occasions of discussion about if anything would stop this; or do you figure, look, if you can't stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen?
Ms. CANNICK: Pretty much. That's where I'm at because I pay for my blog and nobody else pays for it. I'm not shutting it down so I'm ready to (unintelligible).
Ms. COX: Well...
Ms. CANNICK: At the end of the day that's what it comes down to. I mean I am sorry to hear about what happened to her, but this is my life. I love my blog. I put a lot into it. I take a lot of time to write what I write on it. And nobody is going to, quote/unquote, "punk me out" of posting my thoughts for fear that my life is going to be taken or something bad is going to happen to me. So I will never be one of those women who retreat, you know, from the blogosphere based off of that. If that was the case, I would have been gone a long time ago. My guess is that if it's...
MARTIN: Well, Jasmyne, forgive me for interrupting. I don't want to get too personal, but I think some of the women who withdrew were mothers and they were also worried about their children being potentially targets.
Ms. COX: I respect people who feel like they have to withdraw because they feel personally threatened. I mean I think that that's a choice that everyone gets to make for themselves. I think, for what it's worth, I think the more of us that can feel like that we can stand to stay - more of us meaning the more women - that feel like we can stand to sort of stay in the fight and mix it up and be here and not be threatened, the greater chance there will be that the next mother, you know, who feels threatened will not have to leave.
MARTIN: Anna Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette. She's currently blogging at the time.com site called Swampland. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. COX: All right. Thank you.
MARTIN: And Jasmyne Cannick is a commentator and a blogger. She blogs at jasmynecannick.com. Jasmyne, thank you for joining us. And thank you for answering your phone this time.
Ms. CANNICK: Thanks, Michel. No problem.
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