But many women are told they must accept just that: If you don’t like the way you’re being treated online, you should log off.
Two years ago, the journalist Amanda Hess wrote for Pacific Standard about the hailstorm of threats she was receiving online. Among them were messages like: “Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, I’m going to rape you and remove your head,” and “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.”
As a journalist who often writes about feminism and Internet culture, Hess was used to being harassed online. But one day, after a string of particularly frightening threats, she called the police.
Two hours later, a Palm Springs police officer lumbered up the steps to my hotel room, paused on the outdoor threshold, and began questioning me in a steady clip. I wheeled through the relevant background information: I am a journalist; I live in Los Angeles; sometimes, people don’t like what I write about women, relationships, or sexuality; this was not the first time that someone had responded to my work by threatening to rape and kill me. The cop anchored his hands on his belt, looked me in the eye, and said, “What is Twitter?”
In recent years, several people—many of them women—have reported similar responses when they’ve sought help from the police. “One of the themes we kept hearing was, the response from police was well intentioned—the police wanted to help—but there was a clear lack of understanding,” Congresswoman Clark told me. “We’ve had [law enforcement] ask, ‘Well, what is Twitter?’ and, even recently, a Boston judge saying to one of the victims, ‘You just have to go offline.’ We hear, ‘It’s virtual, and you just have to turn off the computer and walk away.’”
“When I report a serious death threat to the police, this is what happens,” Wu, the video-game designer, told me in April. “Invariably, a local cop comes to my house and instructs me to stay off social media. I cannot have a career without that online presence.”
In Clark’s view, the disconnect between what people are experiencing online and how police officers are responding represents a training opportunity. That’s why, in March, she introduced the Cybercrime Enforcement Training Assistance Act, a proposal that would provide federal grant money to local law enforcement for the prevention, enforcement, and prosecution of online crimes against individuals. Funding for better resources is also one clear legislative path on a subject that is, for many reasons, tough to address from a regulatory perspective.
“I really think with local police, it comes down to just nothing in their training presents [online harassment] as a crime,” she said. “Law enforcement and judges need to have some fundamental understanding of the nature of these crimes, because many of them are crimes under existing laws.”