Digital media and the everyday abuse of working adults

I live a lot of my professional life online. I’ve been running a personal research blog for over 5 years now, where I often post quite frank discussions of my experiences as a new academic. I have active scholarly Twitter, Youtube and Google Plus accounts. I teach my students to use Twitter, YouTube, Blogger, Google Hangouts (among other social media) in class, and I run workshops where I teach my colleagues and other professionals to use these same tools effectively in their working lives.

So not only is my own professional identity quite exposed, but I’m also engaged in training others to make their identities equally—if not more—exposed. I do this because I am very familiar with the productivity of digitally-mediated communication. These media make possible relationships, idea sharing, knowledge making and forms of epistemological change that are exceptional. And yet they can also be deeply dangerous—something that I’ve become intimately familiar with over the last two years.

In 2011, just as I was finishing my PhD, I began to receive a series of private messages focused on my sexuality and appearance sent to my email and other personal online accounts direct from professional acquaintances of mine based at various institutions around the world. These tended to be detailed, fantasy-like descriptions, sometimes accompanied by photographs. There was no debate about the inappropriateness of such messages: they were explicit, sometimes verging on the perverted, often concerned with my physique and dress, or with asking me for certain favours which ranged from ‘cuddling’ with them to baking them cakes in recompense for their paid professional contribution to my academic projects.

I was so embarrassed about these communications and so confused about how to reply that I ignored them for nearly two years. However, when the fifth professional acquaintance of mine began to do the same to me in 2012, but this time on a more aggressive and persistent level, I responded by doing what I know best: investing in research on the topic.

I began to study other women who had been subjected to harassment via digital media. Some of these women will be familiar – Anita Sarkeesian, Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez – because their harassment has been incredibly public and often quite faceless. But I, in contrast, had virtually no public visibility, and I knew all of my harassers. More than this, all of my experiences had happened privately – through direct messaging – so the content was witnessable only to me.

The dynamics of such abuse got me thinking about issues of gender, offline identity, status, career, age, and of course the anonymity of the perpetrator. And I started to look for tools (or, as it turns out, lack of tools) to mitigate the abuse. With the help of my colleague Graeme Earl and some funding from the Digital Humanities wing of my alma mater, the University of Southampton, I recruited two outstanding research assistants, Lucy Shipley and Jim Osborne, to work with me in adding some empirical evidence on professional experiences with digital media to the substantial literature on cyber-bullying, sexual predation and online anonymity.

In specific, our Gender and Digital Culture Project consists of multiple parts, including an online, 24-question survey (which closed last month), a blog and a series of in-person events, the first of which is scheduled on Friday 8 November at both the University of York (UK) and the University of Southampton (UK). At that event, which we hope to live-stream through my Youtube account, we will present some of the very rich data that we managed to gather through our survey, and link these to a critical conversation with professionals from human resources, IT, counselling, law, the academic and professional sectors about the construction and patrolling of models of response to online workplace abuse.

This is clearly an issue close to my heart, not only because of my own personal experiences, but because of the increasing professional demand and expectation to engage with wider and wider audiences. Concern for the ‘public intellectual’ and, in the UK academic sector in particular, the real public ‘impact’ of one’s work, means that many employers now require their staff to open themselves up more and more to exposure and scrutiny through digital media. To my mind, then, adequate mechanisms must be in place to protect these staff as they take on such visibility.

Our survey population consisted of over 400 professionals from 245 unique fields of practice, 60% linked to the higher education sector. Nearly 42% of these individuals spoke of experiencing at least one instance of inappropriate or uncomfortable communication via digital media in their working lives, with the proportions being nearly identical for both men and women, and with 40% of the perpetrators being known to our respondents offline. 130 respondents provided qualitative detail on their experiences, which ranged from overt stalking and physical threats, to sexual harassment and personal and professional character attacks, among other—sometimes very extreme—behaviours.

Disturbingly, the most common reaction to these incidents was to ignore them completely. But most worrisomely, where they were reported, a not insignificant number of respondents saw no support whatsoever from their institution. It is this latter predicament that I want to see attended to, because especially if that same institution mandates forms of public and private digital engagement from their employees, then it also has the obligation to defend and safeguard those employees when they’re doing such work.

Just this week I attended another university-required training session which entailed a talk on the importance of the public intellectual. When I asked the session leader for his thoughts on how we can protect ourselves in the course of pursuing this kind of public intellectualism, his reply was—as per all of my previous experiences on training sessions of this nature—“who knows.” Perturbingly, such training seems to be directed primarily at making people more public-facing, without any consideration at all for how to deal with the risks of this publicity.

One of my other colleagues, Audra Mitchell, has reported on her own frustrations in seeking out institutional guidance in response to the online, gender-specific harassment she’d seen after a very brief appearance on the BBC programme The Big Questions. And, as we will report on 8 Nov, Audra’s experiences are not unique. In fact, even as I’ve been preparing this blog post, another germane incident has manifested itself; namely, the denouncement of the biologist Danielle Lee as an “urban whore” when she declined to write a piece for an online science resource, Biology Online. In typical fashion, when Lee reported this behaviour through Scientific American (as part of her regular blogging work for Sci Am), her post was deleted by the editors for verging “into the personal.” (But read her original post here.) Let’s be clear, Lee was approached in a professional capacity to write for Biology Online, and it was not her, but their staff, who turned the experience into a personal one the moment that they asked her, firstly, to work for free, and then labelled her a whore when she declined. And rather than confront these problems head-on, with the degree of visibility and sense of public responsibility that Lee herself demonstrated, the larger institutions affiliated with her ignored or purposefully silenced her. (*Although see the editor-in-chief of Scientific American’s reply that has just been posted to blogs.scientificamerican.com. As is customary, meaningful institutional reaction seems only to come after there is sufficient public outcry. This predicament means that those of us with less celebrity are likely never to see a reaction.)

Our research suggests that at least 2 out of every 5 professionals are subjected to inappropriate digitally-mediated communication in their everyday working lives. Yet most of them have recourse to few, if any, means to keep themselves safe. There are models of response (e.g., from policies on workplace bullying and cyberstalking) that might usefully be applied here—and it’s time to see these models extended to those of us who open ourselves up to public consumption in the name of our jobs.

Sara Perry is the Director of Studies of Digital Heritage and Lecturer in Cultural Heritage Management in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York (York, UK). Sara blogs about her academic life at The Archaeological Eye and tweets at @archaeologistsp.

Sara Perry is Director of Studies of Digital Heritage and Lecturer in Cultural Heritage Management in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York (York, UK). Sara blogs about her academic life at The Archaeological Eye (saraperry.wordpress.com) and tweets at @archaeologistsp.

8 thoughts on “Digital media and the everyday abuse of working adults

  1. Thanks for sharing this Sara. When it comes to working more in the public realm, this is another side of the equation we need to really think about. It’s shocking how common these incidents of harassment are…but I can’t really say I am surprised at the lack of institutional support. I agree, though, that if institutions are going to push the idea of more public outreach/engagement, then they also have to be ready to provide support when something like this happens.

  2. I will never be one to accuse the administrations of institutions of higher education of caring too much about the well-being of their faculty and staff. But I do wonder if at least part of the problem is formulating a code of conduct for digital interactions given how unclear the law is on matters digital. The administrative mind in academia does tend toward legalism, in my experience.

  3. Thank you for this important blog posting and for raising this issue. I had expected and understood that anonymous abuse would come from my public (yet minor) academic profile – it goes with the territory to a certain extent. But there is clearly a gender divide at play – I have never had a single abusive message such as those you describe above. Nor have any of them ever been by someone I knew or was part of the profession. This is doubly shocking that these are known people offering this type of abuse.
    The lack of institutional support is very bad indeed – I would take this very seriously if it were happening to one of my colleagues. The fact of it being in the cloud, online, social media or digital does not make a jot of difference to the principle of basic good human behaviour. And if the user had in any way used a University system, email or the Web (via JANET) then they would be in breach of every JISC agreement and University contract they have signed up to (let alone flirting with breaking the law). So there should be recourse and this should be institutionally led and supported.
    I will be interested to see where you research leads. More power to your elbow.

  4. I too worry about asking institutions to regulate the use of social media tools as they often get it wrong but I honestly had no idea about the scale of abuse that female academic researchers are being subject to. As a supporter of using digital tools to enhance your reach as a researcher, I’d like to be able to offer hints and tips to those who may be exposed to harassment, especially on how to deal with it.

    I am well aware of how some internet forums can be pretty hostile places at times, especially where controversial topics are discussed yet, until fairly recently, I naively thought that twitter was a little more civilised – especially in professional circles where twitter accounts tend to be less anonymous? However I can’t ignore that this is a major issue and it shouldn’t be.

  5. Wow. I am shocked and saddened to read this post and to read the situation with Dr. Lee. The issues you raise are certainly central to the conversation that many of us are having about being a more engaged anthropology and academy but are not being raised nearly often enough or loud enough. Social media can be a powerful tool but is not value or risk free. Our rapidly changing media scape can be difficult to navigate anyway and that is made even worse by our own peers predatorily cyber-stalking us. Many of us are privileged in various ways, but I thank you for opening my eyes to my own male privilege in the world of social media.

  6. Sara, I am so glad to learn about your Gender and Digital Culture project, but disturbed to learn about the circumstances that led you to start it. One professional colleague sending you inappropriate emails is one too many, but five in a not even two year period? Disturbing, wrong, infuriating, dangerous–none of these even begin to capture the problem here. Sadly, I’m not surprised by the lack of institutional support for professionals experiencing sexual and other forms of harassment online. Given the lack of institutional support for such gender-based harassment on most campuses, as well as the difficulties of addressing such behavior across the various hierarchies and evaluative structures of academia, there are few successful, reliable models for addressing such behavior “in real life” never mind online. Your project and story being posted this week, along with Danielle Lee’s Scientific American/Biology Online experience being called an “urban whore” ( http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/urban-scientist/2013/10/11/give-trouble-to-others-but-not-me/ ) and then today Hannah Waters’ blog post on “The Insidious Power of Not-Quite-Harassment” and her experience being sexually harassed by a well-known and widely beloved senior mentor in her field ( https://medium.com/ladybits-on-medium/857e2f71059a ) signal that we haven’t even begin to raise the issue of sexual harassment in ways remotely close to the conversations we need to be having, and the actions we need to be taking to keep ourselves, our students, our communities safe. Rather than on-campus awareness and action leading the way here, it seems like the strength of the online community in naming and reacting to the issue might possibly help change things on campus too.

  7. What makes colleagues, students and the public think that this type of behavior is acceptable? Is it merely because they know they are likely to “get away with it?” If so, then it is time for the law to step in. By this I mean it is time for: 1. A strong civil cause of action to be recognized in relation to online abuse. Let ’em know it’s going to cost ’em. 2. Law enforcement to get serious about victims who wish to press criminal charges. This also requires education of the esteemed members of the bar and bench.

    This CRIME (for crime is what it is) is in some respects reminiscent of domestic violence. Everyone knows it exists, but no one in authority really cares, from the constable to the barrister to the judge. And we wonder why this continues? Lack of consequences, people.

  8. Sorry, but there’s more than a little Savage Minds hypocrisy here, especially when references are being made to publicly naming and shaming White male cyberbullies making racist-sexist email attacks on Black female scholars and naming and shaming sexual harassers.

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/context-and-variation/2013/10/14/standingwithdnlee-sciam/

    Given that I am presently being smeared as a violent ghetto criminal for having done both and for trying to bring to public anthropological attention the issues of racist-sexist verbal abuse, hostile climate and microaggressions, silencing Black women for soeaking about ‘personal’ experiences which White acadenics get to didcuss freely, racist impact absent racist ‘intent’, and predation and sexual harassment now being discussed here and more widely due to last week’s SciAm controversies, I find this entire conversation ironic–and fundamentally disingenuous and hypocritical. This is not an attack against either the post’s author or the commenters, but a comment on the predictable race/gender/status discrimination that makes behavior unacceptable when it goes fully public, happens to a high-profile individual, or is raised as unacceptable by a White Voice. Why were comments like Carole MacGranahan’s on the importance of public naming not occurring when Chris Kelty was censoring the “DDR or Receivershio?” post in which the bully responsible for public racist-sexist cyberbullying via the Berkeley Anthropology forgrads list was named and a copy of his cyber bullying was posted (and as the bully also happens to be a former dissertation advisee of Paul Rabinow’s, such that it was no coincidence that Prof. Rabinow was insisting that all is well in the Berkeley Anthropology department and it has no hostile racial or sexual climate problems).

    How was posting this public cyberbullying email truly different that Dr. Danielle Lee posting her exchange with Ofek so as to confirm he had in fact called her an “urban whore”, while explaining the larger racist-sexist mature of such an attack? How was Chris Kelty’s censorship on the grounds that it was a ‘personal’ issue not similar to the same racist-sexist rationale given by SciAm editors for silencing a Black woman speaking truthfully about a racist attack on her and why it mattered publicly and to the work she does to make her discipline more inclusive and substantively diverse? Yet again the issue of silencing some but not others, and racist/sexist impact v. Intent.

    There was no discussion, in that censored comment stream, on racist intent v. impact from moderator Chris Kelty, no refutation by Kelty of the claims of the White male commenters who wrote that since there had been no explicit racial slurs they ‘saw no racism in the post’, missing the points made by people like Kate Clancy in ‘standing with DNLee’ that a White male feeling entitled to bully a Black woman via email–such as the entitlement displayed in feeling that a departmental listserve is there for a White male to use for publicly attacking a Black female grad student who has complained about his documented racist bullying/verbal abuse, sexual harassment of several female colleagues and written admissions of predatory misogynistic behavior–is itself racist and sexist (i.e. taking advantage of race-gender power asymmetries so as to feel superior and put an ‘uppity’ Black woman ‘in her place’. I didn’t see all this support for lack of racist/sexist email bullying then.

    Nor have I seen it since, despite my doing what Monica Byrne did and publicly naming a predatory White male whose sexually harassing behavior several women had complained about. Because I am Black, not White, how many anthropologists (especially professors at Berkeley) have made a point of smearing me as a liar, “a mentally ill woman”, a violent Black woman from the ghetto who assaults people and should not be believed even when speaking about cyberbullying that dozens if not hundreds were witness to and resulted in a change to the forgrads list being monitored.

    We should just be more honest about who gets support–especially from the ‘white public space’ of Anthropology, and who will be thrown under the bus and viciously retaliated against/smeared/racially terrorized for the same public naming for which Monica Byrne is now being praised. Berkeley professors continue to retaliate against me, to thus day, for speaking truthfully about hostile climate, sexual harassment, and racist/public (cyber)bullying, supporting the cyberbullying in lying to say I am a crazy and violent Black threat who should not be listened to, as they recommend a known bully and harasser for teaching jobs and the bulky does everything possible to use racist-sexist stereotypes of Black women against me so he never faces the public reckoning and accountability which came to Bora Zivkovich last week.

    So if anthropologists want to endorse naming and shaming of predatory abusers, they should be willing to support all whistleblowers–regardless of race/color, and including those who will be targeted for retaliation by Berkeley professors willing to describe them as “disruptive” “frightening” “loud/argumentative” “very dark-skinned South African”.

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