As political tensions have raised throughout the U.S., there has been a shift in focus to online abuse. When Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford publicly accused Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, she was inundated with death threats. Her email was hacked, her address and phone number were published online, and her family was forced to move for their safety.
Kavanaugh’s wife was sent similar, threatening emails. Politicians throughout the political spectrum have been subjected to similar threats and abuse. These incidents are part of a larger pattern of attacks on people, particularly women and public figures.
This issue is at the heart of the film Netizens, a documentary screening at this year's Milwaukee Film Fest. The film follows three women whose lives have been transformed by cyberstalking. Cynthia Lowen, director and producer of Netizens, says she wants to bring light to this issue which is often brushed off as inconsequential.
"I was hoping through looking at the stories of people who were going through this, to challenge the idea that it's 'just the internet,' or that this isn't real violence ... challenge the idea that it doesn't have a huge impact on target's lives and that they should just turn off the computer and walk away," she explains.
Cyberstalking, online harassment, and cyberbullying, are all terms used to describe different forms of abuse and harassment perpetrated through the internet. This can include a variety of different acts meant to intimidate, humiliate, and silence victims. Some abusers post pornographic images of the victim, others continuously send threatening messages, and some spread misinformation about their victims.
Tina Reine is one of the women featured in Netizens. She says she ended a relationship with an abusive man, which is when the cyberstalking began.
She says, "When I left him, he subsequently posted 14 reputation harming websites. He was committed to shutting down my career and shutting down my social life, which he actually had a lot of success in doing."
Reine was unable to get a job due to these websites and it took her years to get them taken down.
The three subjects of the film encountered very different forms of abuse. Reine's had one abuser who created reputation harming websites, but Anita Sarkeesian faced a mob of abusers.
Sarkeesian had stoked the ire of some male gamers with the creation of her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series. As a result, Sarkeesian continues to be inundated with threats from people on the internet. They have erroneously reported her to the IRS, she was forced to move, and her events have been subject to terrorist threats. Sarkeesian makes her living online, making it more difficult to escape the continuous abuse.
Lowen says, "The notion that the internet is a real part of our lives is shifting, and that I think is real progress just in terms of the perception of how critical an issue this is."
The other woman profiled in the documentary had her information posted in fake ads. The harasser used her photos, phone number, and her work address, in ads soliciting sex. She was forced to quit work for a while, as men would come in and harass her as a result of the ads.
Lowen hopes her film is a catalyst for change, not only by informing people about this issue, but by empowering people to act.
She says, "The great thing about online harassment is that it's something that I think most of us have a stake in, because of that, I think there's tons of potential for all of us to be really engaged in determining what our online communities look like and holding each other, our leaders, our policymakers, and these tech companies accountable for the kinds of experiences that we have on these platforms."