Why We Let Famous Women Get Bullied Online

Twitter's recent ban of a sexist troll was an important step in protecting famous women on the Internet – but we've got a long way to go

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Why We Let Famous Women Get Bullied Online

The Internet is turning us all into sociopaths. The facelessness it provides also wipes clean any trace of empathy, leaving us to hurl hate at strangers with zero consideration for the consequences. But the ironic thing about this argument is that it was made, verbatim, by Milo Yiannopoulos, tech editor of Breitbart, famed Internet sociopath and this week’s most infamous Twitter villain.

Yiannopoulos was barred from the social networking site earlier this week in what was the culmination of his months-long charge against comedian and actress Leslie Jones. What started in February with an offensive but ultimately benign tweet, “At least the new Ghostbusters has a hot black guy in it” – referring to the 6-foot-tall Jones – led to an all-out assault by Yiannopoulos and some of his 300,000 followers. Jones did not back down from the tweets, remarking on how, even in the face of free speech, the words and actions of her bullies had no justification whatsoever. But no one from Twitter’s support network stepped in to save her until Tuesday – 24 hours after her last, tearful tweet, where she gave in and signed off the social media network for good.

The lack of response begs the question, why don't we take the cyberbullying of famous women seriously?

There are no statistics on the number of public figures who fall victim of cyberbullying each year, probably because it’s an assumed risk of fame and taken for granted. But we do know that 3.2 million students are victims of bullying every year, and that one in 10 victims of online bullying will attempt suicide. So we write op-eds, we pass laws, we create programs. We warn that someone who shows weakness, is less popular, or does not get along well with others is prone to attack.

And maybe that’s why we don’t think celebrities need any protection. With 289,000 Twitter followers and a sharp, confident voice to defend herself against detractors, Jones does not seem to fit into the high-risk group, and she’s not the only one. It's an accepted reality that most female celebrities are frequently on the receiving end of ridicule and threats on social media. In 2014, model and prolific poster Chrissy Teigen briefly left Twitter after receiving death threats following her own tweet about a shooting in Canada. After announcing her IVF pregnancy, Teigen was once again harassed for her controversial statement about choosing to have a girl. When she posted a photo to Instagram of she and husband John Legend at a restaurant not long after giving birth, the Twitterverse decided to educate Teigen on what it means to be a fit mother. Yet the attacks on Teigen’s character received no response from Instagram. She was left to defend herself against the abuse.

Earlier this week, Taylor Swift’s best friend Abigail Anderson received death threats for defending Swift in the West-Kardashian Snapchat saga. In 2014, Charlotte Dawson, an Australian television personality and vocal opponent of bullying, committed suicide after Twitter attacks suggested she kill herself. In these examples and countless others, Twitter was unable to control its abusive users.

Why has the abuse of these women continued for so long without a formal response from these social networking sites? The harassment they’ve endured is a clear violation of the terms of use. Perhaps it’s anti-feminist to step in. All of the women attacked are strong, beautiful, and successful. It would be a challenge to their independence to act on their behalf.

In fact, most women are left to defend themselves without much help. Call it an online bystander effect, most on Twitter will ignore harassment, assuming that someone else will step in and stop the madness. As fellow comedian Eden Granger wrote to Jones, “I understood why you fired back at racist trolls. Being silent when you witness racist cruelty is siding with them.”

But Twitter finally listened. On Tuesday evening, Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from the platform.

The ban came an hour before Yiannopoulos was slated to speak at the Gays for Trump party at the Republican National Convention, where he was introduced as “the World’s Most Dangerous Faggot.” He didn't disappoint. “I just got banned from Twitter... for getting in a fight with a black ghostbuster," he quipped. "What a humiliating end to a wonderful run. It could at least be getting into a fight with somebody serious, but no. No. It was the tertiary star of fucking feminist flop.” His remarks make it clear that instead of spending his time fighting back against internet trolls, he’s become the embodiment of "poor behavioral controls" he outlined four years ago.

What transpired this week is not a first amendment issue. Yiannopoulos’s speech at the RNC made it clear that his words are not censored and his right to speak freely remains intact. He took it upon himself to be the ringleader of a cowardly verbal assault on Leslie Jones as her career reaches new heights. As a mouthpiece for an anti-feminist movement, Yiannopoulos gives his congregation permission to cut successful women down – and there's only so much the public is willing or able to do to stop them.

According to Yiannopoulos, “the internet is not a universal human right.” Finally, Twitter realized this in taking steps to stop the assault.