Steph Guthrie, a feminist advocate, organizer and analyst, joined Humber North campus in a talk to discuss and challenge the notions of online bullying and its repercussions.
In the last talk of the President Lecture Series, Guthrie’s address, titled “Online violence: redefining the ‘trolling’ and ‘cyber-bullying’ narratives,” opened with a discussion of how we perceive freedom of speech based on what views we define as bigoted.
“Freedom of speech is not a total and complete entitlement to share our speech on any platform we want to, with any audience,” said Guthrie. “The leadership of any particular platform, is always in a position to provide oversight on what gets included and what gets excluded.”
Guthrie drew on her own experience of Twitter harassment that began in 2012, worsening until she feared for her safety because of the perpetrator’s threatening remarks.
The ordeal lead to a two-year trial in criminal court. At the end of the process, the judge ruled for Guthrie’s perpetrator because he believed it was not “reasonable” for Guthrie to “fear for her safety” partly because Guthrie has “a public Twitter account.”
“Words are never just words. Many of the conversations that are dominating are traditional in social media today and have very real material implications for marginalized people,” said Guthrie.
Guthrie, founder of Women in Toronto Politics (WiTOPoli), regularly shared her views about feminism on Twitter under #iTOPoli. Her tweets were routinely attacked by men’s rights activist groups.
Strangers on the internet from what she calls “online fascist communities” attacked Guthrie for how she was trying to “destroy freedom of speech.” One media outlet even encouraged their Twitter following to harass Guthrie’s sister as well. Guthrie also received hateful Twitter messages from a man who blamed Guthrie as his source of problems.
“By allowing hate to go unchecked on their platforms, gatekeepers are creating spaces for fascist communities to mobilize and escalate online and it results in a deeply unsafe online and offline world for marginalized people,” she said.
During the course of her trial, Guthrie lost count of the number of people who told her to kill herself.
Guthrie abandoned her Twitter account as a result of the hostile online space. She stopped doing media engagements because every time she did so, Guthrie experienced an increase in harassment.
The contact page on her website has also been removed, which Guthrie describes as the primary means through which clients would approach her about paid consulting gigs. However, it was also “key means for death and verbal threats and other acts of violence.” As a result, the online hate also impacted Guthrie economically, and politically as well as she stopped using her voice online.
Guthrie’s experience had resonance for some of the attendees such as Rachel Barren, a Grade 11 student from Georgetown district high school.
“I was getting nasty comments on my pictures and so I started putting my pictures on private,” Barren said. “I wouldn’t let strangers follow me anymore and I’m careful about what I post on major social media websites like Facebook because of my family and co-workers.”
Towards the end of her talk, Guthrie asked rhetorically, “Should people be afforded a specific platform for their ideas? Nobody has the particular right in every situation. Specific platforms and audiences are privileges, not rights,” she said.
“As more and more of us drop out of online spaces, women, racialized people, trans people and other groups are pushed further to the margins of these spaces,” she continued. “The more we get pushed to the margins, the less our voices and stories are a part of the public discourse, to challenge stereotypes by telling real stories about what human beings are experiencing, the less people empathize, and the more justifiable it seems for bigoted members of the dominant groups to inflict psychological, emotional, or even physical violence against us.”
Guthrie said she didn’t know if she was being watched or when the violence online might lead into violence offline. Navigating public spaces became an anxiety-ridden experience for her when she learned that some of the trolls attacking her have “Toronto, Ontario” as their location on their Twitter profile.
“It’s really hard to believe that none of them might ever share the same subway car as you, do their work in the same coffee shop or get their groceries at the same shop,” Guthrie said.
“Recognize that there’s nuance to be considered when it comes to who gets to speak freely, whose speech is impeded, whose speech is protected, and who’s electing to remove themselves from spaces that they no longer consider safe,” she said.
“We can use our voices to pressure the bodies that own and set the rules for our spaces to make room for the conversations we do want to see and to stop giving airtime to views that are making people who use these spaces unsafe.”