Rape threats are an all-too-common reality for women online. Just as often, the anonymity of the Internet makes it nearly impossible to strike back at trolls. What’s more, as is well documented, social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook have been slow, and often ineffective, at handling reports of sexual harassment against women.
Alanah Pearce, a video game reviewer who lives in Brisbane, Australia, was fed up with the threats of rape and sexual violence she was receiving on social media and decided to take matters into her own hands. She devised a brilliant way to respond to her harassers. Her method of counter attack? Tracking down the contact information of her trolls’ mothers and letting them know—in their sons’ own words—exactly what kinds of terrible things they were saying to women online.
Pearce got the idea for this novel approach once she realized that most of her harassers were far younger than she’d previously thought.
“I only realized quite recently that the majority of sexually explicit comments or messages I get come from young boys, not adult men, as I had assumed,” Pearce said in an interview with AlterNet. “This basically means there's a different set of rules. I'm unlikely to be able to rationally discuss the harmful nature of online harassment with a young boy, but it also means they're probably naive and can learn from the experience. So, I thought about it, and the obvious solution was to try to find their family, via Facebook, and ask that they address the issue.”
Pearce discovered that she could often find the mothers’ contact information simply by reviewing the boys' profiles. A few days ago, she sent out a tweet that said, “Sometimes, young boys on Facebook send me rape threats, so I’ve started telling their mothers.” In it, she shared the exchange she had with one of the displeased mothers:
Alanah: "Hi Anna, I don't know you, but I was wondering if _________ is your son?"
Mom:"Yes he is. Why?"
Alanah:"I have never met him before, but he sent me a concerning message to my public Facebook page today that I was wondering if you might be interested in discussing with him."
[Alanah shares the screengrabbed image of the boy’s words.]
Mom:"omg little shit. I'M SO SORRY. YES I WILL TALK TO HIM!!!"
Pearce has reached out to four mothers via Facebook, though this woman was the first to reply, likely because of the way Facebook works. “[I]t seems the others haven't actually read my messages,” Pearce told us, “because Facebook puts messages you receive from people you aren't friends with into an 'other' folder, rather than your main inbox, which is easy to miss.”
The mother’s angry response is precisely what Pearce was hoping for. “I was super excited!” she said.
On the heels of Gamergate, which brought the incessant stalking and harassment of women in gaming to mainstream attention, as well as recent investigations of the gendered threats women online face, Pearce’s story is frustratingly familiar. An October 2014 Pew Research Center study found that, in contrast to their male peers, women are “likely to experience certain types of 'more severe' harassment, such as stalking and sexual harassment.” (Harassment of women of color, which often pairs racism with sexism, is particularly insidious.) The study found 37 percent of women online have experienced harassment.
The ubiquity of those threats, and the relatability of Pearce’s experience, may account for why the Internet has been so supportive of her actions. Her tweet has been retweeted more than 34,000 times and favorited nearly 56,000 times. The popularity of what she’s doing has been a surprise to Pearce.
“I had tweeted about the fact that I was contacting mothers a while ago and several people asked that I share it as soon as one of them responded, so I knew that close friends or long-time followers would get a kick out of it,” she told us. “But I certainly didn't expect anyone outside of my own circles to notice at all!”
While a few trolls have tried to use the opportunity to send more venom her way, Pearce says she’s “had overwhelming amounts of support.”
This isn’t the first time Pearce has spoken up about online harassment. Last year, for the gaming blog Kotaku, she chronicled the most sexist messages she received over a 30-day period. At the end, she suggested to readers that “[e]very single person has the power to fight sexism.”
As a women in the male-dominated world of gaming, it’s safe to say that Pearce hasn’t seen the last of trolls who have nothing better to do than send her sexist messages. But her perfect response made us wonder if she had any other advice for women dealing with men who send hostile, annoying, inflammatory or otherwise offensive comments to them online.
“My biggest advice to others who get harassed online is to step away,” said Pearce. “Don't let people invade the safety of your homes by upsetting you via the Internet. Definitely report harassment to schools, workplaces (a particularly good one if someone is being openly sexist or racist publicly—you could get them fired). Or, of course, mothers!”