Digitally Yours: Blasey Ford should not be punished online for speaking

On Sunday, the Senate Judiciary Committee reached a testimony deal with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who claimed that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school. Ford committed to testifying on Thursday “despite actual threats to her safety and to her life,” according to her lawyers in a New York Times report.

Ford publicly came forward with her accusations last Sunday, and in the time since, she has faced a barrage of threats and harassment from sources both online and in-person. Her personal information, including her home address and phone numbers, were leaked on Twitter, and unsubstantiated rumors began circling online — so much so, that the Times had to write a story titled, “Debunking 5 Viral Rumors about Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s Accuser.”

Ford is a victim of doxxing, a form of online harassment in which an individual’s personal documents — finances, social security number, phone numbers or addresses — is disseminated online with the intent of harassment. Yet as of Thursday afternoon, Slate magazine reported that her personal information was still being circulated on Twitter, and was not removed until after the story was published.

This is concerning; Ford’s name is now nationally recognizable, but it took at least four days for a social network to address the continued circulation of her personal information. Due to the sporadic nature of doxxing, victims of this online abuse, especially those who are not as well-known as Ford, suffer for a sustained period of time before the harassment can be contained by intervening social platforms. Most victims are women, who are more likely to experience sexualized forms of abuse, The Conversation reported.

This form of online abuse has existed since the internet’s conception, but as social networks grow, the threat of doxxing becomes even more real. In 2014, a targeted attack toward women in the video game world began circulating on Twitter through the hashtag #Gamergate. Anonymous trolls gathered in online forums like Reddit and 4Chan to post rape, death and doxxing threats against female developers.

This behavior, as abhorrent as it seems, is representative of the misogynistic and sexist elements of culture that still exist within society and are only amplified online. For women who exist with an opinion on the internet, especially those with large social followings, anonymous harassment is a likely occurrence. Young women between the ages of 18 to 24 experience particularly severe forms of online harassment, from stalking to sexual harassment, according to a Pew Research study.

Ford is at the center of one of the most high profile political events this year. While her sexual misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh are scrutinized in the limelight, there is little acknowledgment in Congress or in the news about the targeted virtual abuse women like Ford receive after they come forward with their stories. Most of these women are already grappling with the trauma of the allegations they are publicly leveling, and with social media, their personal information and digital history are searchable, and consequently, closely examined.

Misinformation can be damaging and rampant, as seen in Ford’s case. Snopes found that a thread on 4chan’s /pol/ “politically incorrect” section was created to dig up dirt on Ford and “prove that she is a liar.” The users on this thread not only posted derogatory and sexist comments, but also circulated a false photo of a middle-aged blonde woman, suggested to be Ford, protesting Trump. Falsely equating Ford’s political ideology to her allegations is a tactic that aims to undermine her story, and could further incentivize violence or retaliation toward her, especially if she is falsely cast as having political motivations to harm Kavanaugh’s reputation.

Studies on online harassment from Pew Research Center have found that men are more likely to experience some form of abuse than women, but 64 percent of men find that offensive content online is taken too seriously while 63 percent of women believe that people should feel safe and secure online.

Given how quickly Ford’s profile has become elevated, it’s inexcusable that tech companies are not paying more attention to the abuse she is facing and the misinformation associated with her name. A cursory acknowledgement of the threats and abuse women face online is not enough; more stringent privacy and protection laws and regulations must be adopted.

When it comes to virtual abuse, the gendered violence women face is often normalized as a consequence of free speech on the internet. The misogynistic accusations that Ford is politically motivated and the threats she receives should not be an inevitable consequence for publicly speaking out about an alleged traumatic event, something that Ford will forever be affiliated with, moving forward.

Terry Nguyen is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the digital managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Digitally Yours,” runs every other Wednesday.