The coverage of the Gregory Alan Elliott trial is more than a little disheartening.
(The resulting targeting of feminist activists online was pretty predictable tho.)
I’ve thought a lot about this particular case outcome the past few days – and while I’ve been running around Ottawa doing all sorts of amazing things and having powerful conversations, it has followed me. I feel it sitting in the back of my mind. I have seen it shared, discussed and I know it is now “old news” but it feels like a weight on my head.
As a feminist using online spaces to organize and advocate for equality, the outcome of the case has only reinforced my disassociation from traditional paths of justice when it comes to gender based violence.
Despite my cynicism, I had hoped that there could be a leap forward – instead of the well known and well work inch-by-inch fight forward. Increasingly, online platforms are treated as public spaces. They are not counter-culture or underground, they are mainstream spaces used by dominate groups. The discussions and comments shared on Facebook and Twitter have an increasing sway on what news is, and how it is reported. Threats, harassment, violent assertions made on these platforms are no less oppressive than those made by a stranger passing by in a car as I walk down the street.
Imagine this scene:
It’s a street. Bright daylight. Woman walking alone, on her way to anywhere.
Group of dudes drive past, slow down, unroll the windows and start yelling out various descriptions of non-consensual sex acts.
Woman keeps walking. Headphones in.
Dudes become increasingly irate she isn’t charmed and/or at least interested in such acts. So now they yell out what a terrible person she must be, and laugh as they threaten to follow her home to carry out aforementioned non-consensual sex acts.
It’s Twitter. Woman online, handle is her real name.
Group of users slowly start to target her, posting various descriptions of non-consensual sex acts with her user name.
Woman doesn’t respond. Blocks them all.
Users become increasingly irate she isn’t charmed and/or at least interested in such acts. So now they make new user names, and post her handles on a reddit sub-threat, telling their local MRA chapter what a terrible person she must be, and encourage their MRA bros to threaten to publish her home address so other’s can threaten to carry out aforementioned non-consensual sex acts.
These two scenes happen every.god.damn.day. And they happen to the same people. And they can both be really scary.
This case is being reported as setting precedent, for both online free speech and online harassment. Clearly, our justice system isn’t equipped to deal with the individual and community fall out of online harassment, but the reality is that the perpetuation of harassment is designed to diminishes voices and push specific groups out of public spaces. It’s not just scary and traumatizing, it is actively making it unsafe for some people to be online.
Oppressing voices through harassment and fear is a systemic tool used by a dominant group that is unwilling to share their own privilege, or recognize their own privilege. It is the same tool of oppression that makes it unsafe for some to be in public spaces, in “real life”. It has been used to diminish the rights and freedoms of groups for centuries. This kind of gas lighting relies on our system reinforcing itself – ensuring the language of the oppressor is the dominate force.
So, how do we change it? How can we ensure the regular lady holding it down is safe when the Premier of Alberta is getting public death threats over Facebook? I don’t know. I only know I’m not going to stop talking about it and thinking about. I am going to keep active in online spaces, and will continue posting about gender equality.
It also reinforces how critical it is for platforms themselves to be better at limiting the opportunity to spread hate speech and to target people. Within the criminal code or not, platforms have a responsibility to not be a bystander. And so do we.