Yesterday I had the privilege of attending an all-day conference on gender, race and the media hosted by the NYC chapter of Women, Action & the Media (or WAM! as we like to call it). It was really incredible to be surrounded by so many talented and inspiring women (and a couple of men) all day and to hear from people like Lizz Winstead (co-creator of The Daily Show and Ladyparts Justice) and Alicia Garza (co-creator of the #BlackLivesMatter movement) as well as many journalists who shared their experiences and advice.
Being the social media savvy women that we are, of course we had a hashtag for the event: #WAMNYC (or #WAMnyc). Pretty innocuous, and something you probably wouldn't even recognize as having anything to do with women unless you were familiar with WAM!, right? Well probably, unless you're a member of a certain group of men who spends a beautiful Saturday cyber-stalking women in the media with the aim of harassing them. These men are called "trolls," and while the previous sentence may sound dramatic or paranoid to you if you have not spent much time a A Woman On The Internet, it is all too true.
And yesterday was no exception! One special guy, who spends an inordinate amount of time trolling people form someone who calls himself a journalist, somehow got wind of the fact that about 100 women had gathered in a building on the campus of Barnard College, and even with no knowledge of what we were actually doing there, he decided it was unacceptable. I considered posting screen caps of some of his tweets here, but if you need proof you can find him on Twitter yourself - I'd rather not give him more air time. But he has almost 90,000 followers, and many of them are also trolls, some more willing to "disagree" by using rape and death threats than others. And that's what they did, all day, as we tweeted quotes and comments and things we learned from the panels and keynotes. Our content was mostly about the best, most ethical way to report on gender and race, the history and creation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, jokes and inspiring comments from Lizz Winstead and quips about the bagels and cold temperature at the venue. But that's not allowed, according to some men. Their content was mostly things like #spankafeminist and memes showing grotesque cartoon women crying about being "disagreed with."
The reason I bring this up at all: We were a small group of women, a few with some level of power by virtue of being editors or producers or New York Times journalists, but most of us were reporters and bloggers and writers of all stripes looking for inspiration and fellowship, not trying to start a war. Just trying to carve out a place where our voices were valued, where we didn't have to compete with the noise that bombards us all every day, where we could talk frankly with each other about our passions and concerns.
That's threatening to some people, I know. Trolling isn't a new concept to me. I've written about it before. But many people don't know the reality of this, and it was the first time I got to see the genesis of a trolling attack in real time. I had long suspected that many of these men (and they are mostly men, though not all) simply noticed that women were talking and took issue with that, regardless of whether they actually read or understood what these women were saying. That was so blatantly obvious in this case that it amazed me; McCain and a few others had literally no idea what WAM stood for (though they had guesses - "Women Against Men???") and yet they identified it as a threat and called out their dogs, who just want blood, regardless of the fabricated reason.
My point is, it doesn't matter how many of us there are, or what we say or mean. It's just the fact that we're there, especially when we're tethered to each other by an idea or movement via hashtag, that is deemed worth punishing. They are so afraid of women - especially women who call themselves feminists - that whatever we are saying or doing, it must be stopped, so they smear us and lie about us so others will be afraid too.
Luckily, the "top" tweets on the hashtag are mostly from actual participants in the conference and they are witty, insightful, poignant, and true. This time we weren't silenced. I highly recommend searching the tag on Twitter to read some of the great things that came out of the day. I personally feel very moved and inspired. I got MUCH more out of this conference than annoyance at trolls, but it seemed worth mentioning here, for those who aren't aware of just how often this happens. And this was really nothing compared to what trolls are capable of.
But it's also a reminder that if my mere existence as a Woman With An Opinion Online is so threatening, maybe I can use this power I didn't even know I had to do something good.