Editor’s Note: Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping and Glamour, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion on CNN.
“Online harassment is the largest safety concern for female journalists, new study finds.”
That’s the headline that I found myself staring at recently. A few years ago, it would have alarmed me, but today, as a disabled female journalist, it seems obvious.
Online harassment has become a hazard of the job for journalists, who are often targeted on social media as a result of their writing, and this is especially true for writers from marginalized communities. A new study from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) looked at how female and gender-nonconforming journalists view their own safety and freedom in the United States and Canada and found that 85% of respondents feel less safe than they did five years ago.
“We don’t want journalists to be fearful of reporting on issues,” said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for CPJ. “It’s not enough to mute or block somebody, you need to know if those threats are coming through, and we need more proactive responses from the tech platforms.”
As someone who has routinely faced online harassment in the course of my job as a freelance writer, I couldn’t agree more with Radsch. Taunts and bullying from strangers have become part of my everyday experience, and I’m here to tell you: Things feel like they’re getting worse.
What sort of harassment are they facing? The worst harassment comes from covering key subjects, like local or national politics or extremism; they are subjected to everything from unsolicited sexual messages to threats of violence, rape or death as well as doxing, where reporters’ private information is published online.
For me, online abuse has come in the form of jabs at my writing, my feminist leanings and, most hurtful of all, my disability and appearance. Most recently, after a conservative YouTuber mentioned my op-ed on unfollowing Trump, I made the mistake of reading the comments. In addition to being a “so-called journalist,” I read posts saying I’m fat, look like a blob fish, a parade balloon and a potato with a face.
One commenter even wrote that I should be banned from posting photos of myself because I’m too ugly. I won’t pretend that those words didn’t sting, but I knew that I couldn’t let them win. I’m going to give them the exact opposite of what they want, I thought. They don’t want me to post photos of myself? Well, that’s exactly what I’m going to do!
So in an act of defiance, I tweeted three photos of myself with this message: “During the last round of trollgate, people said that I should be banned from posting photos of myself because I’m too ugly. So I’d just like to commemorate the occasion with these 3 selfies…”
In the days since I posted, that tweet has gone viral; it’s received more than 250,000 likes and has been retweeted almost 25,000 times, with people from all over the world responding with kindness and support.
The fact that this simple tweet has taken on a life of its own is both surreal and overwhelming, but I’m so glad that I tweeted my photos. It was my message to trolls and haters, my way of saying “I’m taking back my power.”
The truth is, I have felt powerless since the 2016 election. We have a president who routinely name-calls and insults women’s appearance. He’s normalized this behavior, so people think it’s OK to do the same.
How many women routinely face far worse than what I did? Every day, on social media and IRL, women are ridiculed, demeaned and made to feel less than. This is our world. This is nothing new for us. If I’d left Twitter the first time someone called me a blob fish or a land whale or, my personal favorite, a thumb in a blouse, I probably would have set the record for shortest time on social media.
We can’t let this be the norm. We have to do better than this. Because all the women journalists I know? We’re not going anywhere. We’re still here and we’re staying here. We’re going to continue to do our jobs and we’re going to continue to exist on social media. The world is already so unsafe for women. We shouldn’t have to feel unsafe online too.