Credible Threat: Attacks Against Women Online and the Future of Democracy

ISBN : 9780190089290

Sarah Sobieraj
192 Pages
156 x 235 mm
Pub date
Sep 2020
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  • Includes interviews with over fifty women who have been on the receiving end of digital abuse and harassment
  • Reveals the social patterns underlying what appear to be individual or personal problems
  • Offers the first examination of the way online abuse and harassment impact society at large
  • Provides a thorough review of the gaps in the law, social media platform policies, and platform governance that allow gender-based hostility to exist in a virtually consequence-free environment

Greta Thunberg. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Anita Sarkeesian. Emma Gonzalez. When women are vocal about political and social issues, too-often they are flogged with attacks via social networking sites, comment sections, discussion boards, email, and direct message. Rather than targeting their ideas, the abuse targets their identities, pummeling them with rape threats, attacks on their appearance and presumed sexual behavior, and a cacophony of misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, and homophobic stereotypes and epithets. Like street harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace, digital harassment rejects women's implicit claims to be taken seriously as interlocutors, colleagues, and peers. 
Sarah Sobieraj shows that this online abuse is more than interpersonal bullying--it is a visceral response to the threat of equality in digital conversations and arenas that men would prefer to control. Thus identity-based attacks are particularly severe for those women who are seen as most out of line, such as those from racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups or who work in domains dominated by men, such as gaming, technology, politics, and sports. Feminists and women who don't conform to traditional gender norms are also frequently targeted. 
Drawing on interviews with over fifty women who have been on the receiving end of identity-based abuse online, Credible Threat explains why all of us should be concerned about the hostile climate women navigate online. This toxicity comes with economic, professional, and psychological costs for those targeted, but it also exacts societal-level costs that are rarely recognized: it erodes our civil liberties, diminishes our public discourse, thins the knowledge available to inform policy and electoral decision-making, and teaches all women that activism and public service are unappealing, high-risk endeavors to be avoided. Sobieraj traces these underexplored effects, showing that when identity-based attacks succeed in constraining women's use of digital publics, there are democratic consequences that cannot be ignored.


Introduction: Weaponized Identities
Chapter 1: Hostile Speaking Environment
Chapter 2: Just Get Off the Internet 
Chapter 3: Constant Calibration (Preventative Labor)
Chapter 4: Anger Management (Ameliorative Labor)
Chapter 5: Personal Troubles and Public Issues 
Conclusions: Resilience Isn't Enough

About the author: 

Sarah Sobieraj is Professor of Sociology at Tufts University, where she directs the Digital Sexism Project. She is an expert on US political culture, extreme incivility, digital abuse and harassment, and the mediated information environment. Sobieraj is the author of The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility with Jeff Berry, andSoundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism.

"Credible Threat is extraordinary in its foregrounding of the professional, interpersonal, and mental health costs of digital misogyny. It's even more extraordinary in its analysis of the collective costs of these individual attacks; they reinforce structural inequalities, weaken digital discourse, and erode free speech. If we care about protecting democracy, we must care about creating safe and equitable spaces online. With deep expertise, empathy, and resolve, this book shows us how, and reveals ways to cultivate a healthier world for all." -- Whitney Phillips, Syracuse University
"I wish we lived in a world where Credible Threat was a less timely and important book. Sobieraj systematically documents how women engaging in public life online are subjected to threats and harassment, and how these routinized attacks shape who participates and how. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the state of digital politics and civic life today. It is particularly essential reading for men, laying bare the daily hostilities that our peers face without our notice." -- David Karpf, George Washington University

"Professor Sobieraj's research takes the reader on a journey through the experiences of women living in a paradox, where social media is too valuable to give up, but too painful to endure. Their stories, woven together with deep sociological analysis, chart new ground for research on networked communication and political participation. Incisive and compassionate, this book explains how gender, technology, and the choices made by platform companies shape online interactions and, in turn, intensify identity-based attacks." -- Joan Donovan, Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy
"Misogyny and online harassment are problems not only for the women who endure them, they're a problem for the character of public life and the health of democracy. They're our problem. Credible Threat is the book we need: in it, Sarah Sobieraj offers a vital contribution to the debate with precision and care, gives those who face abuse a real voice in it, and makes clear the potentially devastating implications." -- Tarleton Gillespie, Microsoft Research
"Through her careful interviewing of victims of digital harassment and sophisticated intertwining of public sphere and feminist theory, Sobieraj's sobering intervention details how digital misogyny is a systemic problem with longstanding implications for women's participation in democracy, with offline inequities reinforced online, often as deliberate, coordinated efforts that aim to objectify, degrade, and silence women." -- Nikki Usher, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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