Exclusive: Monica Lewinsky On Surviving Cyberbullying & When Enough Is Enough

Photo: Damon Winter. Design: Alex Citrin.
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.
If you had to write an origin story for the rise of cyberbullying, the most natural place to begin would be with Monica Lewinsky. Twenty years ago, she went from unknown private citizen to notorious public figure nearly overnight, thanks to a newly churning 24-hour news cycle and the nascent stirrings of clickbait culture. After details of her affair with then-President Bill Clinton came to light, Lewinsky basically became patient zero when it comes to victimization in the Internet Age.
But these days, she is channeling her scandalized past into a platform for challenging bullying culture — and combating it, one troll at a time. Her activism and return to the spotlight began with a TED Talk she gave in 2015: “The Price of Shame” was an eloquent indictment against online harassment — spoken by a woman who understands its true cost IRL.
Now, in an exclusive interview with Refinery29 — her first since the 2016 general elections — Lewinsky is offering up thoughts about how cyberbullying has evolved since its inception, what it really takes to hold trolls accountable, and the struggles she’s still working to overcome in her own life. Check out what she had to say in the full Q&A below.
What is the trickle-down effect of cyberbullying on the culture of shame? How does it impact your sense of self? And how do you learn to not absorb the negative message and just let it roll off your back?
"Rather than it being trickle-down, I’d actually say it’s circular. Feelings of inferiority or negativity about oneself, fear of security (think: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), a commodification of shame online, in our clicking behavior, and offline: When they all intermingle, there is a spiral of shame and cyberbullying in our culture, and then of course within ourselves.
"In terms of how to let things roll off your back… Let me know when you find that answer! Seriously, I think that two things which can help ease the situation are reinforced ways of being seen for your true self — as in, friends and family reflecting back to you who you are — and positive comments. I know it can sound a little Pollyanna-ish, but it’s true for me. The negative comments sting a little less when I see others have disagreed or said something positive.
"For example, I worked with Vodafone last year to develop and introduce a suite of anti-bullying emojis for support — a pro-social tool to combat some of the negative online behavior. The #BeStrong emojis are a free download from the iTunes store. Because our brain processes images faster than words, an emoji conveying support, solidarity and compassion is the fastest way for a target to feel less alone. When they’re used on a public-facing platform, like Twitter, they can help negate the feelings of an onslaught of malice and vitriol.
"The positive images can also, in some cases, deflate the perverse intensity and thrill that a person engaging in bullying behavior can feel. Imagine the emojis puncturing the tire of bullying behavior; they don’t pop it like a balloon with one pinprick, but they do help to deflate the situation."
In this particular era, it's hard to see social media as a force for good. Do you think it's benefits have outweighed the costs?
"Billions of people have found a voice, a sense of agency, through social media — just think of how many people now know about ALS because of the ice bucket challenge, for example. Word of mouth about pink pussy hats would have taken months, if not a year, prior to the internet. The online world has also meant that it’s easier to find communities of like-minded people.
"In terms of benefits outweighing costs, I always feel funny answering these kinds of questions, because I think of the parents of those who died by suicide as a result of some form of online harassment — how can you say we’re better off when the consequences for some have been a dire finality? The problems are less with the internet itself, and more with the users.
"Even with that consideration, I do think in the end we are better off. Mobile technology has fundamentally changed what it means to be a social animal. Think about our offline interactions with those we know and strangers. There was a time where you would actually converse politely with the person next to you on public transport or in line for a coffee, but now your gaze is averted to a device."

When there is a social collision between the bullycides, online mobs and doxxing, as in Gamergate, and a company like Twitter losing out on a major sale because of toxic comments, we might be on the precipice of finally saying enough is enough.

Monica Lewinsky
"But there is no denying that the internet has also given us windows into other worlds and narratives. It mobilized people. Saved lives. Spawned new industries and opened consciousness. Connected us in unimaginable ways — personally, I’m thinking about how it means my relationship with my 18-month-old nephew can continue to grow while I’m not there in person. Most important, it can make many people feel less alone."
Twitter recently announced new changes to its anti-harassment tools, in an effort to help make the platform a safer space. Obviously, it’s hard to police harassment online for myriad reasons. But it’s also hard to reconcile the fact that while we can create a self-driving car, we can’t seem to keep hatefulness in check on Twitter. What do you see as being the barrier to breaking through and creating meaningful change?
"It’s a step in the right direction that the main social networks are finally (finally!) beginning to take more serious action in this area. Additional to Twitter, Facebook messenger recently partnered with Crisis Text Line, a suicide prevention hotline. I know from speaking with people at most of the platforms that they have been aware of the issues for a while, and while they are chipping away at it, it never quite seems to be enough or in time. For example, the barrier to entry we found with trying to allow easier access to the #BeStrong emojis was disheartening. This was a free product to help people feel supported, and yet: red tape.
"The main social media platforms did not hear about the #BeStrong emojis and say, 'Amazing! We’re going to do everything we can, as fast as we can, to make this new tool available to our users in order to temper online behavior.' Snapchat was the most helpful in that during anti-bullying week, in the U.K. (yes, it’s different than in the U.S. — something I’d like to work to change) and they had a #BeStrong filter for a few days. But why not always?! One thing to note, though: Eventually, third-party keyboards began to work on Twitter, so you can use them on a public-facing platform now. They still could do more.
"What I’d like to see more of is baking empathy and cyber-safe strategies into our social media platforms as they are being created, rather than playing catch-up."
You’ve been in a unique position to view the arc of bullying in digital culture, basically since its outset. If you had to break it down into eras, what would they be — and where are we now?
"I nerd out a little on this topic. I actually made a chart a few years ago that wove together technological advances, changing ways on the internet and the cyberbullying tragedies and problems we’ve seen arise. Yeah, I know… I need a hobby!
"I’d break it down this way: In the early days, we had an online world that connected us globally, though obviously not as extensively as today. It allowed for news to spread worldwide instantaneously, and by 1998 all of the major networks, cable channels, and news outlets had their own websites. There were ways for social conversations to happen around online events — though not yet social media. The permanence of online meant death to the cliché, 'Yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s fish paper.'
"This fact best sums up that period: In 1998, when the Starr Report was released, it was reported as the first time you missed history being made if you didn’t have access to the internet. Google had launched the week before the report hit. That was beginning of the online coliseum and global public stonings."
Photo courtesy of USI. Design by Alex Citrin.
Monica Lewinsky speaking at USI 2016, Paris, France.
"After the introduction of AOL instant messenger and other new messaging platforms, alongside the birth of blogging — a.k.a everyday peoples’ voices and opinions being legitimized — social media came into play. I believe Friendster was first and then MySpace, which eventually led to Facebook for everybody in 2006, which was also the same year Twitter launched, though it took a couple years for that platform to reach a more critical mass. This era introduced an interesting phenomenon online of extreme individualism within a global collective.
"The two technological advances alongside this — which defined this era and escalated cyberbullying and online harassment — were internet access from your handheld device (as in: all access, all of the time) and then the phone camera. Suddenly, everyone was a fashion and food photographer as well as a paparazzi.
"Then there’s sexting. Last year, I had the privilege of doing a lunch roundtable with some high school students in the Netherlands. They talked a lot about the sexting culture. If the partner of the person who has sent the text violates their trust and makes it public, whether on social media or a WhatsApp group, the sexter is not only betrayed and humiliated by the exposure, but then others begin to shame him or her (mainly “hers”) by commenting negatively on their body.
"Which brings us to the moment we’re living in right now: I wrote a piece for about how I believe we were approaching a time similar to when in history the Model T Ford replaced the horse and buggy. At first, there were no rules of the road. But eventually, society caught up to the technology and coalesced around the idea of needing safer ways to navigate the roads in cars. I think we are approaching that moment with the internet: When there is a social collision between the bullycides, online mobs and doxxing, as in Gamergate, and a company like Twitter losing out on a major sale because of toxic comments, we might be on the precipice of finally saying enough is enough. I hope.
"What we tend to forget, and what Sally Kohn pointed out in her TED Talk on Clickbait, is that the internet is based on algorithms. She states that we are the new media editors. And we determine what we see based on how we click. It’s, in part, why I advocate for #ClickwithCompassion. Alongside all of these 'eras,' we had more modern tabloidism erupting in things like the Drudge Report and TMZ, and in our culture in general. Even the launch of YouTube and its comments section had an impact on today’s vitriolic online culture."

Some people like to say, 'You must stand up to a bully.' That’s not true for every target. Nor is that always what will work best.

Monica Lewinsky
"What we’re also beginning to see now is the dichotomy of the online crowd, both as a mob and a good army. Heart Mob is doing great work to help people — especially women and members of the LGBTQ community — protect themselves and get support from online harassment."
Your anti-bullying activism came at the cost of putting yourself in the public spotlight again — but you did it anyway. What made it so important for you to be a leader in this conversation, and when did you realize it was time for you to speak up?
"It was seeing the tragedy of 18-year-old Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi through my mom’s eyes that helped to shift my perspective. Hearing her distressed, raw emotion and empathy for his family was a portal into how she worried about me in 1998. Both my parents and extended family were terrified I wouldn’t make it through because of the intense levels of public tarring, shaming, and humiliation.
"Tyler had been secretly webcammed by his roommate while being intimate with another man. The ridiculing and shaming began after he was exposed online. Within days, he jumped from the George Washington Bridge to his death. This highlighted for me the changing online landscape with the advent of social media. Anyone — not just a public figure — was potentially a target to be thrown into the online coliseum.
"Having been a poster child for public humiliation, I thought sharing my story might give a purpose to my past. Being able to let people know that, though it’s painful, you can survive being shamed publicly…. I’ve been humbled to hear from people how my TED Talk has done that for them. One young woman even tweeted me that my talk helped her make it to her next birthday. (If she sees this, I hope she has many more!)
"On a more personal note, the night before my 2014 Vanity Fair essay hit the stands, one of my best friends surprised me with a card in which she wrote an Anais Nin quote: 'The day finally came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.' That summed up everything about where I was at that time. I’m so grateful for what’s happened since. I’m privileged to have a life where sharing my story has meant sometimes I can help ease other people’s suffering. And in many ways, I still struggle to continue to blossom.
"My path — both career and life in general — has been far from traditional. What that’s meant for me, personally, is that not only can it be hard to root one’s sense of self and identity in what you’re doing, but also: It’s risky to navigate. Blazing your own trail means you don’t know if your next step is one in the right direction, or one that leads you off the cliff. I also do a massive amount of work to manage my trauma for everyday living and to evolve as a person. I’m someone who will likely have 'mutatis mutandis – still!' on their tombstone."
Writers like Roxane Gay and Lindy West have “defeated” their trolls by engaging in direct conversations with them. Do you think there’s a “right” way to handle trolls, or a best case scenario for neutralizing them or bringing them on your side?
"I’d add J.K. Rowling to that list. In dealing with trolls, or any form of cyberbullying or online harassment, the only rule I abide by is that there is no rule of thumb. (Except, I only allow myself to yell 'you a-hole!' at the computer and not send it on the computer as a response.) Not every tactic works for every target or perpetrator of this behavior. Some people like to say, 'You must stand up to a bully.' That’s not true for every target. Nor is that always what will work best.
"Clever humor that isn't shaming the other person seems to work best for me. But then again, my brother likes to remind me I’m not as funny or clever as I think I am. I also sometimes ask people if they want to reconsider the comment they posted — it works over 50% of the time."
You have also said that we need to show more compassion and empathy online. What are the limitations of that, and how do you find empathy for a person you fundamentally do not understand?
"Whenever we start from commonality, we will land at compassion and empathy much more quickly. But we may not always arrive at understanding.
"Given that we don’t live in an ideal world or some imaginary place where intersectionality isn’t a concern because of equality and a lack of oppression, it’s then a bittersweet truth that, without these differences, we likely would also not have progressed in some of the ways that we have. Because it’s in the pushing against ideas and ways of seeing — the friction — that we find new pathways. Hopefully, together.
"Think about when everyone thought the world was flat: If no one ever had a differing belief, our thinking would not have progressed. But, believe me, I understand and am not ignoring that there are real-life consequences for many people who are marginalized. I am very cognizant we’re living in times of increased fear, frustration, and anger. I have been served well, when I remember, by assuming people believe they have a good reason for doing what they do. I may not agree with it. But holding space for the idea that, from their perspective, it makes sense, sometimes shifts something for me. It’s also vital to remember that criticizing an idea is different than attacking the person who holds the idea."

Whenever we start from commonality, we will land at compassion and empathy much more quickly. But we may not always arrive at understanding.

Monica Lewinsky
In your TED Talk, you brought up that we need to change the culture around public shaming. Do you think we've made any steps in that direction?
"Yes — but there’s obviously more to do. In my opinion, the greatest step toward progress we’ve made thus far is that by having public conversations around bullying, public shaming, online harassment, and slut shaming. We are de-stigmatizing the experience. This means less shame, and therefore, it becomes less likely that someone will suffer in silence. More people are speaking up when shaming is happening, and I believe as a culture we are wrestling with how we’re defining public shaming. What causes it? How do we find a pause button between an incident — sometimes a mistake — and reaction? How do we create a safe space in society, especially for young people, to make a mistake and grow from it rather than be tarred and feathered?"
Is the Internet a safe place for women? Or is there only a gray zone?
"I like to think of it as more of a yin-yang zone rather than gray, if that makes sense. For example: I imagine many more of us have found the courage to speak out on inequality, harassment, domestic violence, as well as sexual abuse and assault situations, because we see, time and again, we are not alone. There are not only outlets for people to share their stories, but also communities where we are seeing our own stories in the narratives of others.
"But there is no denying the myriad ways in which we are prevented from feeling safe online, which can cause dramatic emotional harm. The aspect which makes me the saddest about this question is when women are involved in making other women feel unsafe online. However, the hateful comments also allow us to map the underlying beliefs of our society in a way we've not been able to before. By 'seeing' the misogyny and vitriol rise to the surface, we can also understand it better, see the depths of the beliefs, and begin to transform them."
More and more, it seems as though URL is merging with IRL, as our digital lives and actual lives become suffused. How does ugliness online translate to ugliness in real life, from your POV?
"Think about when we binge-watch a series: If you’re at all like me, when you’re not watching, you’re still in a bit of 'show twilight zone' — affected by what you had just seen. That’s what I see happening offline. But instead of binge-watching a show, we’re binge-clicking: As we increasingly spend more time online, we will be more proportionally affected in our time offline.
"I still believe because of the Online Disinhibition Effect — John Suler’s psychological theory that the invisibility of the internet can create dissociations and distancing from one’s personality — that people behave more outrageously and atrociously online than they do offline. But the online factor does contribute to normalizing behavior."

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