In today’s social media-dominated world where anonymity reigns, an increasingly ubiquitous issue is online abuse and harassment. While social media platforms are being called upon to take action, it’s impossible to prevent this kind of hateful content from being published, making it more important than ever to have a plan in place for monitoring and managing this kind of situation. One well-known example is the harassment that Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones was subjected to on Twitter, and how all the players involved took (or didn’t take) action.
In the summer of 2014, the Ghostbusters reboot was announced to the excitement (and skepticism) of many nostalgic fans. However, that anticipation quickly turned to malicious backlash when an all-female cast was announced in January 2015. The signed-on stars of the reboot included Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig, and Leslie Jones. A mass of misogynistic harassment ensued in the forms of comments on the trailer in March, and this kind of discourse became commonplace throughout the film’s rollout.
Jones is Attacked on Twitter
The film was released on July 11, 2016, and the reviews began to pour in. Critic and viewer reviews alike ranged from tame disappointment to trolling hate speech. What can only be described as an online harassment campaign resulted from a review published on Breitbart by Milo Yiannopoulos, an infamous alt-right commenter, who specifically targeted Leslie Jones, using racist phrases like “flat-as-a-pancake black stylings.” He even encouraged his followers to join in on the attack.
Jones, who besides Melissa McCarthy was the only cast member with a Twitter account, was then subjected to a stream of pornography, racist and homophobic speech, and hateful memes from anonymous Twitter accounts which she described as “evil.” Jones retweeted the hateful tweets to try to bring attention to the situation and asked Twitter to take action in reporting and banning the accounts. According to the Guardian, “no movie has inspired such a venomous, sustained campaign of spite as the Ghostbusters remake.”
A #LoveForLeslieJ Twitter campaign was soon circulated by many supportive and outraged celebrities and fans, and director Paul Feig, who was also targeted with malicious tweets and the victim of a mock account on Twitter, was quick to come to her defense. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s founder, also reached out to her. However, the harassment became so out of control, and because the social platform wasn’t taking enough action, Jones, who felt like she was “in a personal hell,” decided to leave the site on July 18th.
After the attacks, Twitter released the following statements:
“This type of abusive behavior is not permitted on Twitter, and we’ve taken action on many of the accounts reported to us by both Leslie and others. We rely on people to report this type of behavior to us, but we are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to prevent this kind of abuse. We realize we still have a lot of work in front of us before Twitter is where it should be on how we handle these issues.”
“We’ve seen an uptick in the number of accounts violating these policies and have taken enforcement actions against these accounts, ranging from warnings that also require the deletion of tweets violating our policies to permanent suspension.”
Twitter Takes Controversial Action
Ultimately, Twitter, whose guidelines against harassment and abusive behavior can be found here, decided to permanently ban Milo Yiannopoulos from its platform. This move sparked controversy regarding First Amendment rights. Yiannopoulos’ response was, “Some people are going to find this perfectly acceptable. Anyone who believes in free speech or is a conservative certainly will not.”
Over the past year, Twitter has taken steps to address harassment by banning revenge porn, issuing new anti-harassment rules, establishing a trust and safety council, and de-verifying high-profile users (like Yiannopoulos) that it considers abusive.
Twitter, however, isn’t the only social media company who has taken action against online abuse. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Microsoft have all been involved in the creation of an online code of conduct launched by the European Union, a code which is aimed at fighting racism and xenophobia across Europe. The agreement has a “notice-and-action” procedure where someone notifies a “hosting service provider,” such as social media sites, about abusive content on the internet. This content may include racist comments, child abuse, and spam. The goal is for the social media site to remove the hate speech within 24 hours.
Regardless of one’s stance on whether or not social media sites have the right to interfere, in the case of Leslie Jones and Twitter, the lesson becomes the importance of knowing — knowing what’s going on, and how to properly handle it without causing more damage.
Social Media and Your Online Reputation
While it’s becoming clear that social media giants can no longer ignore the harassment that takes place on their platforms, the content itself will continue to be published. And as we’ve come to learn, once something is published (even if it’s removed from the original source), it won’t simply disappear, and there will always be some avenue for online trolls to voice their abusive content. The important thing becomes not letting this content go unchecked.
Whether you’re a high profile individual like Jones, a business, or other public-facing entity, it’s crucial to know how to properly manage your online landscape — especially social media profiles — and how to anticipate and respond to future unknowns. Three core steps include the following:
The first step is simply awareness. It’s not enough to have a presence online and then not keep an eye on things. You must be aware of what’s being published about you by setting up alerts, monitoring online mentions, and keeping an eye on your profiles. While it can be time-consuming (monitoring is, after all, a 24/7 task), this proactive approach makes it easier to tackle emergent situations head on, allowing you to report harassment early, before it spirals out of control.
Learn the Policies
Don’t wait until you’re the victim of negative or abusive content before understanding your options. Make sure you don’t blindly accept Terms of Service agreements, for example, and learn the policies of the websites where you have an online presence. If something negative is published about you on a site you’re unfamiliar with, take the time to read and understand its policies.
In addition to monitoring your online landscape and learning site policies, there’s also the issue of whether or not certain content can be removed and what that actually means online, and navigating the most appropriate, least-damaging ways to respond to negative content. In some situations, it may make sense to enlist the help of a professional team that has the time and experience to manage the problem. Doing so will ensure that your reputation is more immune to harassment, and that truthful, positive content that you control is given the most visibility.