For many in Washington, being on social media is not just a distraction from work; it is their job. Journalists, academics, politicians and activists build audiences online and publish and promote their work on social networks.
But social media can also be an ugly place for women and other marginalized groups—a trend that seems to be getting even worse as the pandemic has pushed the professional lives of most knowledge workers completely online.
“I think the fact that we are all at home, mostly relying on computers for human contact, means that this is kind of just blown open,” said Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an author of a report that studied gender-based online harassment for two months around the 2020 election. She and her colleagues tracked mentions of a set of female politicians on six social media platforms and found that gendered abuse was present in 50.4 percent of them. (Twitter accounted for 95 percent of the posts that mentioned these politicians.)
Another think tank, the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, published a study last year that found that female politicians in the United States were two to three times more likely than their male counterparts to receive abusive Twitter comments.
This is not only mentally distressing, it has consequences for subjects’ career development since a strong social media footprint can help in building sources as well as be attractive to some employers.
“This atmosphere harms our ability to build that following,” Renuka Rayasam, a reporter at Politico and the author of its Nightly newsletter, told me.
Race is an undeniable element at play in gendered harassment, too. The Wilson Center study corroborates existing scholarship that finds women of color and other marginalized groups experience more online harassment, and the politicians who were most often targeted—Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in particular—were subject of attacks that were often both racist and sexist.
“I know women of color are so much more prone to being harassed online and I just don’t want to deal with it,” Rayasam said, explaining why she limits her social-media activity.
There’s an extra catch for women, too: In recent weeks, a handful of female journalists have received intense online criticism not just for their work, but also for their posts calling attention to their own harassment.
When Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez tweeted this week about her experience being doxxed, claiming that the Post had not supported her, writer Michael Tracey wrote a post on his Substack headlined: “Journalists Are ‘Centering’ Their ‘Trauma’ Because It Enables Them To Acquire Power.” “Sonmez, a Harvard graduate in her 30s who holds one of the most prestigious journalism jobs in the country, spoke of being ‘silenced’ by her editors,” he wrote, suggesting he found her claim unbelievable given her relative privilege.
In early February, New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz mistakenly tweeted that tech entrepreneur Marc Andreessen had used a slur in a Clubhouse discussion. Lorenz, who had been a target of internet harassment before that incident, locked her Twitter account as responses to her error, which some thought intentionally maligned Andreessen, poured in. On International Women’s Day, when Lorenz posted a tweet saying online harassment had “destroyed my life,” former Guardian and Intercept reporter Glenn Greenwald responded in a series of tweets that attacked what he saw as her privilege in having a prestigious job.
Regardless of Tracey or Greenwald’s intent, their critiques stoked and multiplied attacks against the women—a trend Jankowicz has observed in her own research.
“We did in-depth interviews on the record with three journalists who have been attacked … along gendered and sexualized lines. And definitely from all those experiences, and also in my own experience, the idea is when you speak up about gendered abuse online, you are met with fierce, fierce criticism … and criticism isn’t even the word: harassment and abuse.”
“The idea is to shut you up,” Jankowicz said, “to scare you, to make you disengage from the conversation, because these people who are perpetrating the abuse don’t believe that women should be a part of the public conversation.”
“What it feels like when you are in the center of that is, is you’ve got a storm around you,” she said. “And if you struggle, you are going to be attacked even more, basically.”
California reporter Mackenzie Mays came to Politico after spending a few years at the Fresno Bee, where her reporting on political figures sparked not only pushback from the subjects but a wide array of their supporters online and off. Her work phone number was posted online, with one commenter urging people to show up at her house, and rumors circulated that she was having an affair with a source. “There is this nagging narrative in the back of [women’s] minds to avoid becoming the story, but often it happens to us against our will,” Mays wrote to me in an email.
Much of the harassment was gendered. “There’s still a Twitter account out there entirely dedicated to sexist remarks about my body,” she wrote. “While many reporters experience criticism or pushback because of their coverage, there was never a doubt in my mind that the specific harassment I was experiencing was because I’m a woman.”
The experience still follows her. “I locked down my social media accounts as much as I could and asked family members to do the same,” she wrote. Now, she says, “I think twice about the interviews I agree to do alone and in person. I have doubled the background research I do on sources before starting a conversation. That anxiety never really leaves.”
As for what can be done, Mays said that the burden shouldn’t be on the subjects of attacks alone. “It’s important for editors to take this seriously and to be proactive about it. If this is ‘part of the job,’ newsrooms need to be ready for that and have resources available.” Jankowicz said platforms should be more transparent about the reports they get and how they deal with them.
Ultimately, Jankowicz told me, this isn’t just about the victims of harassment. “Every other woman is looking at the replies to those tweets, seeing what’s being done to these journalists, to these politicians, and reconsidering whether they want to endure that in their future careers,” she said. “And for a lot of women, the answer is no.”
Happy Friday, and welcome to Women Rule! I’m your host, Katelyn Fossett. Maya Parthasarathy, as always, helped me put together this newsletter.
PHOTO OF THE WEEK:
A TWEET STORM WORTH YOUR TIME — On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen tweeted about the decline of women’s participation in the U.S. workforce. She recalled that when she first came to Washington in the 1970s, the United States ranked sixth out of the 22 wealthiest countries in women’s labor force participation. By 2010, the United States was 17th. “Even before 2020, the percentage of working women was at its 40 year low,” she tweeted. “And then COVID-19 happened.”
“If the US spent just the average world amount on programs like paid-family leave & subsidized childcare (we currently spend well below),” she continued, “American women wouldn’t be 17th in labor participation anymore. We’d be 11th. Still not great, but better.”
She ended touting the Treasury Department’s work to implement the American Rescue Plan, specifically the expansion of the Child Tax Credit and “the most significant investment in childcare since WWII, which will go directly to daycare centers and other providers.”
THEY SAID THIS DAY WOULD NEVER COME — “Apple won’t give Siri a female-sounding voice by default anymore,” via The Verge
HUMAN RIGHTS — “‘Our Feminism Must Be Unapologetically Expansive.’ More Than 465 Activists and Celebrities Signed an Open Letter Supporting Trans Women and Girls,” by Eliana Dockterman: “This year, lawmakers have thrust trans youth into the center of the culture wars. In the midst of a pandemic, when economic and health concerns are urgent, legislators in at least 28 states have introduced a record number of bills that would restrict the rights of trans people. … This new wave of legislation and executive actions arrives in the months after several prominent women who identify as feminists, including J.K. Rowling, said or implied that trans activism undermines the women’s movement and repeated what LGBTQ+ advocates say is the toxic misperception that trans women pose a threat to the safety of cis women.
“In an effort to advocate for, as she puts it, ‘unapologetically expansive’ feminism, trans rights activist Raquel Willis and GLAAD invited cis and trans feminist leaders to sign an open letter, published on Transgender Day of Visibility, declaring their solidarity with the trans women and girls who will be affected, on sports fields and in doctors’ offices, by the new legislation and who are vulnerable to anti-trans violence. Gloria Steinem, Regina King, Selena Gomez, Gabrielle Union, Laverne Cox, Lena Waithe, Ilana Glazer and America Ferrera are among more than 465 celebrities and activists who have signed so far.
“The letter also addresses ‘self-identified feminists who have been promoting damaging and violent ideas about trans people for years.’ ‘Their vitriol is, in fact, not feminist at all,’ it states. ‘True feminists do not wish to limit any woman’s identity or freedom to fully be herself. Allowing transphobic rhetoric to go unchecked also strengthens the legislative efforts of anti-trans politicians—who now cloak their bigotry in language about protecting and supporting women.’” TIME
— “Gender Dysphoria, Gender Euphoria Portraits by — and for — the trans and nonbinary community,” via The Cut … “For years, many sororities shut out nonbinary students. That could soon change,” via The Lily
AROUND THE WORLD — “A Tawdry Tale of Local Graft Becomes a China #MeToo Moment,” via The New York Times … “Holi celebrations often come with harassment. These women are fighting for change,” via The Lily … “‘They Told Us Not to Resist’: Sexual Violence Pervades Ethiopia’s War,” via NYT … “The Middle-Class Women of Iran Are Disappearing,” via NYT
ON THE HILL — “Biden handed Harris a political grenade. Can she defuse it?” via POLITICO … “Ivanka Trump’s flagship policy program slammed by government auditors,” via POLITICO … “Janet Yellen: Climate change poses ‘existential threat’ to financial markets,” via POLITICO
IN COURT — “Four girls testified in the Derek Chauvin trial. Here’s what they told the jury,” via The 19th
WOMEN AT WORK — “Women face the highest risks of workplace harassment. Can statehouses close loopholes?” by Barbara Rodriguez: “Around the country, state legislatures have enacted or strengthened laws on workplace and sexual harassment in response to a public reckoning following the #MeToo movement. Since late 2017, at least 19 states have taken some kind of action on workplace harassment, according to a tally by the National Women’s Law Center. …
“Advocates say the toll of workplace harassment — which can include nonconsensual sexual acts but also other forms of discriminatory abuse — can create negative mental and physical health effects, lost wages and missed job opportunities. Vulnerable workers — particularly Black women, women of color and other marginalized groups — remain at the highest risk of harassment because advocates say they experience forms of abuse that intersect not just with their gender but with other identities like race and sexual orientation. Some workplace anti-harassment policies just provide protections based on sex.
“‘You have these fixes that work best if you’re a White woman,’ said Andrea Johnson, director of state policy at the National Women’s Law Center. ‘If you are a Black woman bringing a claim, you’re basically forced to kind of divide yourself into pieces.’ Advocates say case-by-case rulings have further muddled the legal protections around harassment, with courts sometimes setting a high bar for how much harassment must take place before a workplace is hostile.” The 19th
HEALTH CARE — “The Vaccination Calculus Is Changing for New Parents,” via The Atlantic
PERSPECTIVE — “What the hardworking women at massage businesses do for the people who know them best,” by Arthur Tam: “Alice was a true entrepreneur. She started her business in her home in the San Gabriel Valley in California, and operated it there until her clientele grew. She became so sought after that she moved her practice into an office space and was able to afford a house for her nephews, who had come to the United States to study. Her own son would go into the family trade and take on additional clients his mother didn’t have time for. It was the American dream: a grandmother transcending her limited English to use her knowledge and experience in a way that benefited herself, her family and her community.
“That’s what I want people to think about when they contemplate Asian-owned massage businesses and Asian massage workers. And that’s why when I read about the Atlanta spa shootings and learned about the identity of the victims, I felt the anguish of a crucial connection severed.
“Like Alice, these hardworking women, matriarchs and providers, channeled their immigrant grit and determination in their unglamorous workplace. Not only did they break through knots in their clients’ backs, they pushed through socioeconomic barriers to improve the lives of the next generation. These were strong women. Now that they are gone, there is a tremendous loss that cannot be quantified or valued simply by their work. They were grandmothers, mothers, wives and friends.” The Washington Post
LONG READ — “How Elizabeth Loftus Changed the Meaning of Memory,” via The New Yorker
CULTURE CLUB — “The Unending Assaults on Girlhood,” via The Atlantic … “The Pioneering Feminism of Niki de Saint Phalle,” via The New Yorker … “Amy Lee, Co-Founder Of Evanescence, Is Ready To Tell Her ‘Bitter Truth,’” via NPR … “Meet the former pitcher, 94, trying to make a women’s baseball museum a reality,” via Today … “29 Real Ads Against Women’s Suffrage That Make Me So Deeply Angry,” via BuzzFeed
— “The return of the bonkbuster: how horny heroines are starting a new sexual revolution,” by Daisy Buchanan: “I was starting to understand why horny women were hiding. What chance did we have? When sex is weaponised and stories of sex are so often accompanied by stories of violence, it felt as if there was nowhere for us to express desire freely or safely.
“As reported by newspapers in this period, sex acts were something ‘done to’ professionally beautiful women, usually against their will, by powerful, wealthy men; assaults rather than expressions of mutual desire.
“Dealing with this was, of course, a matter of urgency. But I was saddened that there didn’t seem to be any good stories about desire; no women empowered by sex, no happy endings. So I hid away and wrote my own, mostly for my own amusement. I didn’t want to live in the world I saw in the news, so I invented one, starring a girl who never felt beautiful or perfect, but gave herself permission to lose herself to desire — and find herself in it.” The Guardian
— “A Modern Feminist Classic Changed My Life. Was It Actually Garbage?”, by Rebecca Onion: “[Naomi] Wolf the star feminist and Wolf the science denouncer share an animating principle: the tendency to feel strongly about something, then decide that the intensity of those feelings means that there must be somebody responsible. It’s this intensity, linked to a clear cause, that connected so well with me as a teenager. After I put down The Beauty Myth, I worked at a teen magazine and saw up close how the economy of beauty worked. I went to grad school, read a lot more cultural history, and realized that the more airtight a scholar believes their explanation for cultural change to be, the less they should probably be trusted (not that it takes a Ph.D. to recognize Wolf’s flaws). I can see this progression of Wolf’s thinking in every Trump- and COVID-era conspiracy theorist, from Stop the Steal to QAnon, who, like Wolf, seems to favor a “natural order” where their particular problems rank first. It goes from “this sucks so much” to “someone is surely pulling these strings” to “guys—I found the someone!” Slate
IN MEMORIAM — “The Mortifications of Beverly Cleary,” via The Atlantic
TRANSITIONS — Mandi Merritt is now comms director for Jane Timken’s Ohio Senate campaign. She previously was national press secretary for the RNC. … Ghada Alkiek is joining the Hub Project as a campaign director. She previously was political manager for Senate Majority PAC, and is a Dan Kildee alum. … Liz Murray is now scheduler at SKDK. She previously was director of operations and scheduling for Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and is a Katie Porter alum. (h/t Playbook)
— City and State, a media brand dedicated to covering state and city politics, has named Susan Pfeiffer publisher. Pfeiffer was previously publisher of Metro Philadelphia.
— Bonnie Glaser and Laura Thornton are joining the German Marshall Fund. Glaser was senior adviser for Asia and founder and director of the China Power Project at CSIS. Thornton previously was director of global programs at International IDEA in Stockholm. … Yasmin Rigney Nelson is joining Bracewell’s Policy Resolution Group as a senior principal. She most recently was a senior policy adviser for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). (h/t Playbook)