Online Harassment Is Connected To Gender-Based Violence & Mass Shootings. Here’s Biden’s Plan To Stop It.
Following last week’s historic election, one thing is certainly clear: we’re in for a tumultuous and anxiety-inducing transition period. Despite Trump's continued refusal to concede, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have vowed to immediately get to work on urgent issues facing America. Already, they have rolled out a COVID-19 plan that promises to tackle the once-again uncontrolled virus, and Americans have continued to peruse the Biden-Harris website and discuss what our next presidency might look like. One of the new administration’s novel plans is to implement a task force that will investigate an ongoing and often overlooked problem in the U.S.: the connection between mass shootings, violence against women, and online harassment.
According to the Biden-Harris website, the Task Force on Online Harassment and Abuse will develop and outline “cutting-edge strategies” for how social media platforms, federal and state governments, and schools can flag and prevent online sexual harassment, threats, and revenge porn. And already, several people — including Harvard’s Media, Politics, and Public Policy Research Director Joan Donovan, PhD and lawyer Carrie A. Goldberg, who represents victims of online abuse — praised the idea of the task force earlier this week on Twitter.
“As someone who works to fight violence against women and has experienced online harassment myself, I know that this task force will teach us a lot,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, told Refinery29. “And that will ultimately save lives.”
According to a recent Boston University study, nine out of the ten deadliest shootings in U.S. history were committed by perpetrators with a history of violence against women. Just days after Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people at his former high school in Parkland, FL, students shared that he had stalked, threatened, and abused multiple girls. At the time, Monica McLaughlin, the Director of Public Policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told Refinery29 that the news was, sadly, unsurprising. “In the domestic violence community, we brace ourselves for a likely, inevitable connection to violence against women when these horrific mass shootings come out,” she said.
And in the past few decades, we’ve also seen more and more shooters with a history of online harassment and threats. In 2018, Jarrod Ramos opened fire at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, MD — and before that, pleaded guilty to criminal harassment after a former high school classmate alleged that he had been stalking, harassing, and tormenting her, mostly over email and social media.
Despite constant calls to look into this pattern, it’s one that hasn’t changed. Trump, who mainly blamed gun violence on mental illness (all while, you know, accepting millions from the NRA and loosening restrictions on gun ownership) did address a possible link between online extremism and mass shootings — but he didn’t back this connection up with any kind of data, policy plan, or call for research.
His idea was to work with social media companies and law enforcement to “develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike,” which isn’t exactly possible. And naturally, he failed to acknowledge that online extremism, abuse, and threats often tie in with misogyny, entitlement, and violence towards women — especially women of color, who are 34% more likely than white women to receive abuse on Twitter, according to an Amnesty International study. Amnesty considers online abuse against women, especially on Twitter, a human rights issue.
As Desmond Upton Patton, an associate professor of social work at Columbia University, told The Washington Post, Trump’s idea to “detect” mass shooters would only cause more problems, especially if he involved law enforcement. Patton noted that, as it is, police already monitor people of color far more than they monitor white people online — and he suggested that this trend would likely continue, even though 70% of mass shooters and attempted mass shooters are white men.
Biden doesn’t plan to monitor social media, but rather the same concern could be relevant here, too. According to his website, the task force will consist of federal leaders, law enforcement, policy advocates, and technology experts. Something to keep in mind, though, is that any task force that relies too heavily on police intervention should keep in mind that police are frequent perpetrators of gun violence themselves.
Unlike Trump, however, Biden has a history of supporting gun control and a comprehensive list of plans in place. Among them, he pledges to tighten the background check system and close the boyfriend loophole, which grants abusers permission to own guns so long as they aren’t married or living with their victims. “Gun violence and domestic violence epidemics are linked and cannot be solved in isolation,” his website states. “Addressing the interconnectedness of these challenges will be a core focus of Biden’s anti-violence work as president.”
This is an important sentiment, especially right now — and it’s completely true. Although the most frequently reported mass shootings take place in public areas, like schools, a staggering number of mass shootings are cases of domestic violence. Over half take place in the home, and in at least 54% of all mass shootings from 2009 to 2018, the perpetrator shot a family member, partner, or ex-partner, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.
And although we haven’t seen major school shootings since COVID-19 first sent everyone into quarantine, mass shootings have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Gun Violence Archive reported that May 2020 had the highest reported number of mass shootings since the organization began tracking data in 2013, and gun sales have gone up exponentially. Even though federal law requires hopeful gun owners to undergo background checks, there are several loopholes that still let men with domestic abuse restraining orders acquire guns. For instance, the Charleston loophole says that a seller can forgo a background check if it takes longer than three days. Because of this, nearly 300,000 people circumvented background checks between March and July, according to FBI data obtained by Everytown.
Furthermore, the pandemic has proven to be uniquely dangerous for those experiencing domestic violence: not only have many victims been trapped with their abusers, due to lockdowns and social distancing guidelines, but research shows that domestic violence cases increase during times of widespread financial stress. A victim is also five times more likely to be killed if their abuser has a gun in the house.
Thanks to Trump’s inaction and the NRA’s stronghold in America, Biden and Harris have a long road ahead when it comes to fighting mass shootings, domestic violence, and the ways the two intersect. But the creation of the task force will offer new research and, hopefully, a path forward. “Repeatedly, Donald Trump has turned a blind eye to the crisis of gun violence and violence against women,” Watts said. “The fact that this administration is even concerned about this issue is poignant and important.”