Some people say the only way to stop online harassment is to stop going online. Well, we aren't going anywhere. Reclaim Your Domain is Refinery29's campaign to make the internet (and the world outside of it) a safer space for everyone — especially women.
Congresswoman Katherine Clark is no stranger to online abuse. She has had Twitter users call her an "absolute pussy," tell her they will "kick her in the cunt," and instruct her to "resign, rear some children, and find the beckoning empty kitchen."
These attacks are standard territory for female politicians, especially one like Clark, who is making it her mission to combat online attacks.
"Any woman who has run for office is certainly no stranger to online abuse," Clark told Refinery29. "But what I quickly realized was that as a member of Congress, I had resources and law enforcement tools at my hand that a typical woman online doesn't have."
Since being elected to the fifth district of Massachusetts in 2013, Clark has been an active proponent of women's rights online, introducing legislation that had been absent for far too long. Among the many bills that she has sponsored are the Interstate Sextortion Prevention Act, the Cybercrime Statistics Act, the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act, and the Prioritizing Online Threat Enforcement Act of 2015.
Three of the issues she regularly addresses — swatting, doxxing, and sextortion — are ones that still haven't become part of our common vernacular. For the uninitiated, doxxing is when someone posts private information about someone online as a form of revenge. Sextortion is a form of sexual blackmail, in which someone threatens to post sexually explicit photos of another persona online if sexual favors aren't performed. Swatting is a cybercrime that involves prank calling the police and reporting a false emergency with the intent of bringing armed officers to someone's home. In 2016, Clark looked outside her window to see a large police force, long guns out, on her lawn. Before realizing that she, too, had been targeted in a swatting attack, "there was just this moment of real terror about what was happening," she says. "Was there a threat to my family that I was unaware of?"
Today, Clark faces a unique challenge. Because swatting, doxxing, and sextortion are terms that members of Congress are less familiar with, any attempts to introduce and enact new legislation requires a certain amount of education. Nevertheless, Clark is starting to gain ground. We spoke with her about her own experience with swatting, what all victims need to remember, and what's next in the fight against online abuse.
Where does your interest in fighting online abuse stem from?
"It really came out of when we first came into Congress and Gamergate was dominating the headlines. We started hearing from constituents and working with advocates on how to address this. And it became obvious that this was more than coarse language — this was an economic issue that was driving women in particular offline and was really making their personal safety in their own homes of great concern to them.”
Why do you think that women are victims of online abuse more often than men?
“I think misogyny is still thriving, unfortunately...And I think that feminists and journalists are particularly targeted online for espousing feminist views.”
What challenges do victims of swatting, doxxing, and online abuse face right now in the legal system?
"What we're finding is that many of the local law enforcement are very well intentioned and want to be helpful, but simply don't have the tools, training, or understanding that something that is happening online can have very real effects in person. It can be such a devastating occurrence to be swatted or to have your personal information released through doxxing online.
"There is still a cultural change that needs to take place that says, even if you don't have a swatting incident at your house, online abuse and those threats are disruptive to victims’ careers, to their professional lives, and to their social lives. They can be very damaging as far as money spent on security, and also psychologically, to feel that there is no safe place because you don't really know who the threats are coming from or when they may come out of the virtual world and into the real world."
Why do you think it has taken so long for us to see real legal action taken in this arena?
"Unfortunately, I think our judicial system, our law enforcement system is just not geared and trained to look for this type of online abuse that rises to the level of a crime. So much of the legislation and advocacy that we've been doing is to give the FBI and local law enforcement the training and the resources so they know how to collect evidence, how to work with this new type of crime and threat, and to be sure that they are prosecuting at much higher rates so that it really reflects the level of abuse that women in particular are experiencing online."
What progress has been made?
"I think we are seeing changes. It's been a very positive thing to have many of my bills be bipartisan. I think there is an understanding and education that needs to happen...but I feel like we are starting to increase that education and have people understand that the Internet needs to remain free and open to everyone, and that we can do a small part by making sure our laws are up-to-date and using our public voices in this advocacy to ensure there are more prosecutions and that we are really being proactive in how to combat online abuse."
Is there anything that victims need to remember to do if they want to bring something to law enforcement?
"We've seen a lot of victims delete really offensive and horrible Twitter messages or Facebook posts, and unfortunately you need to keep a record of those. We are really trying to work with the developers and companies of many of these social media platforms so that it's easier for users to know what to do if they are the victims of online abuse."
What's next in this fight?
"We have put together a package of bills and proposals that we’ve been working on to combat severe online threats and abuse, and we are actively seeking co-sponsors and moving on with that legislation. And at the same time, we are working with advocates and with companies in the social media space to see what we can do to further develop resources and training for local law enforcement."