Lena Dunham Spoke Out Against Online Harassment. Will Twitter Take Action?

The social network recently added a new feature to report abuse, but many women say the effort wasn't enough.

Lena Dunham. (Photo: Mark Davis/Getty Images)


Jan 12, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

On the red carpet at Sunday night's Golden Globes, writer and filmmaker Lena Dunham confirmed to Ryan Seacrest what many feminists have known all too well for years: Twitter is not an especially safe space for women—especially those who speak out in support of women's rights.

"I deleted Twitter because I'm trying to make a safer space for myself emotionally," Dunham said, adding that she's often the target of death threats from "neo-cons."

The 28-year-old creator of HBO's Girls later tweeted to her nearly 2 million followers that she'd deleted the app from her phone—not her entire account—to avoid what she called her previous "co-dependence" with the social network.

While Dunham's red carpet comments made headlines, women have been the target of online threats since the dawn of the Internet. A 2014 Pew Research study revealed that one in four women between the ages of 18 and 24—a disproportionately high level compared with their male peers—had been stalked or sexually harassed online. Some say Twitter isn't doing enough to police the mass bullying of high-profile women.

In the days after Robin Williams' death last August, his 25-year-old daughter Zelda Williams was bullied and shamed to such an extent that she deleted her Twitter account after receiving gruesome images photoshopped to depict her father's suicide.

"I'm shaking. I can't. Please," she tweeted, pleading for the network to report those who had harassed her. But to do so, Twitter required users to send them the offensive links. Zelda Williams refused to open them.

In September, she returned to Twitter with this Harvey Fierstein quote: "Never be bullied into silence." By that time, Web-savvy activists had taken matters into their own hands by developing software to identify and block abusive users.

One of those apps is Block Together, which aims "to help cope with harassment and abuse on Twitter," according to its beta website, where users can download the bootleg blocker free of charge.

Designed by Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, a senior staff technologist for the digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, the app has more than 7,500 users, who benefit from the ability to auto-block abusers flagged by their friends and identify "sockpuppets," or fake accounts created to get around the block.

"The responsibility of dealing with online threats shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of the people who are being harassed," columnist Jessica Valenti wrote in an op-ed last month for The Guardian. She'd experienced harassment firsthand. As a journalist attempting to crowdsource a question, she took to Twitter last August to ask the following: "Anyone know a country where tampons are free or somehow subsidized?"

She received hundreds of responses, most of them not very helpful. Among the most hateful were comments such as "Why haven't you had your ovaries etc. removed yet?" That's not the worst of it. Valenti documented the stream of abuse in a Storify post.

"If Twitter, Facebook or Google wanted to stop their users from receiving online harassment, they could do it tomorrow," she wrote in The Guardian.

The next day, in a blog post titled "Building a Safer Twitter," the company declared it was attempting to do just that, by rolling out a new "blocked accounts" page and additional controls and features for reporting harassment.
In November, it partnered with Women, Action, and the Media, a nonprofit women's advocacy group that collected data from Twitter users who reported abuse. In its first three weeks, the pilot program received 700 reports and helped more than 100 people get action from Twitter itself, according to the Women, Action, and the Media website.
So is Twitter any safer a month after it rolled out new tools for blocking and reporting abuse? Not exactly, according to feminist writer Lindy West, whose forthcoming book, I Believe You It's Not Your Fault: Notes From Your Big Sibling, is intended to combat victim blaming and so-called slut shaming.

When she reported a rape threat—prior to Twitter's initiative to "build a safer Twitter"—she was disheartened that it was brushed off as "currently not violating the Twitter Rules."

So she crowdsourced her own investigation, and friends poured in with reports of abuse and the astounding ways in which Twitter had ignored it, even after announcing its efforts to make its network a safer space.

One of the women who joined the conversation was New York magazine writer Jessica Roy, who tweeted last week: "Last month I reported a Twitter user for consistently harassing women and Twitter just responded advising me to simply 'not respond' to them."

Twitter didn't respond to TakePart's request for comments on Monday. When West emailed Twitter for comment, it politely declined, citing security reasons and referring her back to its harassment policy.

On the bright side, Women, Action, and the Media is still in the process of analyzing the hundreds of abuse reports it received last November, which it hopes will provide a clearer "understanding of the ways different kinds of women are targeted, which types of harassment Twitter handles well, and where Twitter's policies and procedures need to be strengthened."

Women, Action, and the Media intends to release that report early this year and to use that data to pressure Twitter "to implement the changes necessary to ensure that women can speak without fear on their platform," according to its website.

The question is, will Twitter listen?

Dunham, Valenti, West, and the increasing number of women who are regularly harassed on Twitter sure hope so.

"We gotta create systems that make us feel safe," Dunham tweeted on Monday—presumably not from her phone.