Amanda Hess’ compelling and disturbing cover story in the January/February issue of Pacific Standard explores the tension between unrestricted, anonymous online speech and criminal harassment. “Women Aren’t Welcome Here” argues, with weighty reported evidence and research, that the problem is a modern twist on an old issue: Too many men — who dominate the ranks of police and Internet engineers — fail to appreciate the seriousness of threats women face on Twitter and in other places where trolls lurk. The women most at risk are those who dare to speak up on topics that stir the anonymous, misogynistic rage of said trolls.
Hess uses her own experience to propel the narrative, describing her fear and uncertainty when cyberstalked (or actually stalked?) by the Twitter user who at times called himself “headlessfemalepig.” She writes of her introduction to him, which went from standard abuse to something worse:
As a female journalist who writes about sex (among other things), none of this feedback was particularly out of the ordinary. But this guy took it to another level: “I am 36 years old, I did 12 years for ‘manslaughter’, I killed a woman, like you, who decided to make fun of guys cocks.” And then: “Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.” There was more, but the final tweet summed it up: “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.”
When cops shrug off such stuff as easily ignored — just get off Twitter, they tell her — Hess digs deeply into the research and policy questions that make the dark side of the Internet so confounding. Rather than shrug when confronted with a problem with no easy solution, she explains with clarity and power what damage gets done by turning away from it and examines concrete solutions, such as using civil rights laws in novel ways. The answers aren’t obvious, but she grapples with them transparently and evenhandedly.
Considering the article’s subject matter — how trolls target women who dare to show their faces and speak out — Hess’ act of defiance in writing this story is all the more praiseworthy.