Digital Sista Founder Shireen Mitchell Wants Stronger Laws Against Online Violence
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Tech founder, developer and creator Shireen Mitchell has been online since the beginning of online, when less than 1 percent of users were women. She’s on a mission to stop the violence that has been there from Day 1, particularly against women of color.
Born and raised in the projects of New York City, Mitchell played the earliest video games and designed BBS boards and gopher sites before the web was worldwide. A serial founder, she created Digital Sisters/Sistas Inc, the first organization to focus on women and girls of color in tech and online access. She created MHG, the first women of color web multimedia management firm. She was the manager for PoliticallyBlack.com, a site that was sold to Netivation and ended at Politico.com. And she created the game TechnoDemic, a multimedia competition to help youth learn tech and programming terms.
Mitchell is gathering data and raising funding and awareness to address inadequate laws and policies at the local and federal level that lack protections for people online. One of her more recent organizations, Stop Online Violence Against Women, or SOVAW, is a resource for women and women of color, based on their level of harassment or violence. She reports on the issues and impacts for women willing to share their stories.
SOVAW recently analyzed the 3,500 ads released by Congress that were paid for by the Russian Internet Research Agency on Facebook. The race-based ads focused on the themes of Black identity and culture, according to the SOVAW report. The Black identity ads were used to engage in voter suppression of Black voters and boost white voter turnout.
“When the ads were released to the public the initial analysis revealed racial division and discord. What wasn’t discovered were the tactics and the targets of these ads,” Mitchell said in a prepared statement. “This report not only puts the targets in perspective but includes a timeline of how long these activities were unnoticed before the 2016 election.”
The SOVAW report reveals the extent to which Black American culture was specifically targeted, with the explicit goal of suppressing voter turnout, and how the tactics pose a threat to black voter turnout in the upcoming 2018 midterms and beyond, according to Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of communication, culture, and digital technology at Syracuse University.
Mitchell spoke to Moguldom about why everyone should care about online violence.
“That’s typical of the tech utopia. When things go wrong, they’re like, “What happened?” What happened is you built it for you and a whole universe of people showed up. So now we’re heading to dystopia.” — Shireen Mitchell, founder of Digital Sistas and Stop Online Violence Against Women.
Moguldom: We are in an environment of anticipated government regulations on social media. With mostly white men in power in the U.S. government, what do you say to white men for whom Black women are a low priority.
Shireen Mitchell: Our priorities are a subset of subset — a subset of women and then a subset of the Black community. When that happens (white men) don’t look at us. They’re looking for general solutions. You have to solve for the most marginalized before you can solve the group in the general population that has the least amount of problems. The group that’s having a nuanced experience — that’s the group you’re supposed to go to. We’re used to this idea in this country — that everyone else can solve for us. False. The people usually thinking they know what direction to go are seeking the input of everyone else except us. Twitter, for example, has multiple problems. They’re a white man trying to solve for a problem that they can’t get the nuance of. They’re hiring people outside the community to solve for that, asking about how to protect a community and no one in that group is from that community. How are you solving? That’s typical of the tech utopia. When things go wrong, they’re like “What happened?” What happened is you built it for you and a whole universe of people showed up. So now we’re heading to dystopia. The white-boy-savior complex — we see it in everything but it also shows up in movies like Avatar. The white guy who came to save the natives and then decided he was going to become one of them — that’s the solution they think they’re solving for. The natives could’ve done it themselves. They didnt need them. That’s the view of both government and tech. They think theyre going to solve for a community that they’re outside of.
Moguldom: What type of policy change is possible at the local level? What would that look like?
Shireen Mitchell: This is such an important question. We started digging into some of the social details about harassment. What we found is that the highest number of harassers are white men first, then white women, then Black men (or men of the woman’s own racial/ethnic group). The same was true for Asian women, Latin and Muslim women. It was people who believed they had the space, the nuance, to speak for us. They always talk about appearance. Based on race alone, they could never relate to the differences, but the majority of race they were focused on was Black.
When (the Russians) were trying to do voter suppression, they were using Black women for imagery. A foreign entity learned the nuance of us. There are states trying locally (to make it illegal to harass online) and a couple of federal attempts for law enforcement, but harassment online is very complicated. We can train police at the local level but sometimes your harasser is in another state. (Your local law enforcement will) send you to another state to go after that person. That glitch is where it starts to break down. The only legislation that starts to approach the problem in several states relates to revenge porn, but that does not speak to the nuance of what goes on with Black women. That is as close as it has gotten. That’s very general and it does not get at hate speech for women of color.
Twitter is asking for a dehumanization survey. If you did a death threat or rape threat, that is something they could cover. If it’s name calling — like the c-word — the c-word does not translate the same way for Black women. Twitter says, “Let’s talk about dehumanization”. This is in the right direction but that concept of dehumanization looks very different in different groups. Calling Latinos MS13 and criminals is very different than calling someone an ape. I get that it’s dehumanization but that’s not dehumanizing for a white person. That example of a nuance is where we are right now. A Black person getting banned for saying “white people” is not the same as a white person getting banned for saying the n-word. We’re looking at the way they’re trying to target what they classify as hate speech.
Moguldom: There’s a big difference between policy and law. What’s on your wish list of laws you’d like to see at the local level?
Shireen Mitchell: I’ve worked so much on the federal level to try and capture the state-to-state harassment issue. If I had my way each state would respect the laws of the others. For example, if Maryland has a law against online harassment or doxxing (publishing private or identifying information on the Internet, typically with malicious intent) or swatting (deceptively sending police or emergency service to another person’s address) — that that kind of law would be transferable across states.
That’s one of the most important things to me, on a state level, that every county, sheriff and officer of the law would understand the gravity and depth and threat that this level of violence presents to the people they’re supposed to be protecting and serving. They should be willing to invest in that, in training. If someone is threatening people in multiple states, it should become a federal case. This person is a serial harasser and that should take on a different space.
Regarding tech codes, when these things do escalate to a point of harm and it’s reported, (my wish is) that they take it just as seriously. I don’t think any platforms take death threats as seriously online as they do when its face-to-face. There’s a lot of distance that people want to give between physical proximity and a threat that is a state away. The assumption is that this threat is in Florida and they don’t have to worry about it. However, when someone threatened the NYPD online, they went and got him. Somehow with everyday people, it doesn’t have the weight it should have.
That’s the kind of stuff that happened in Charlottesville where there’s an online discussion on how to kill protesters. That person should be arrested. Unite the Right rally had that car thing online right before the rally. They spend $2.6M to protect people at Unite the Right. Now they’re trying to tell D.C. taxpayers to cover that $3M. That false equivalency is what I’m talking about. OK, it’s their right to protest but their protest is a stated harm against another group of people who live in that city. But you’re gonna protect them with millions of dollars? That’s reverse rationale.
Moguldom: You’ve been online since the beginning of online when just 1 percent of web users were women. How soon and what was your experience as a Black woman with online harassment?
Shireen Mitchell: As soon as I turned on the net and had any identifiers about who I was, I was harassed. Period. The difference back then? There weren’t that many of us. Now we’re in a state of volume. That same issue applies. It doesn’t matter what I’m saying or doing. My gender and race are enough. Back then I would say “anonymous as a woman”. Back then, people often used pseudonyms that you could not identify. That didn’t add up.
I started programming at 10. I grew up in Harlem. I was playing video games. The boys didn’t want to keep losing to me playing videos games as a girl. The store owner didn’t want me beating those boys, and my mom thought I was there because there was a boy I liked. My genderedness was part of the issue. My mom thought, “If my daughter really enjoys video games, I’ll get her to come home after school.” So she bought my first home game, the Atari, and later the Commodore. But removing me from the space let the boys think that that space was theirs. So over time, the concept is women aren’t there, which is false. It’s the same behavior but in volume. As I get older, I don’t actually care anymore about my identifiers. I started choosing female-gendered names — The Web Goddess. I wish I’d trademarked that name. A porn star has it now. I wasn’t going to be called the Web Master. That was in the ’90s.
I formed Digital Sistas to get more women in tech online. At that time we were not there. I started talking out more online about harassment. The harassment increased, calling me a monkey, ape, commentary about my gender, that I can’t have a concept of tech as a girl. I tried to put boys and girls together to show that they’re peers in the space. They’re still struggling with that.
In 2013 I saw a pattern in harassment. I did surveys in D.C. quizzing these centers on what their gender parities were. I had so many people angry at me at what I was asking. Once they were reading the questions they realized the bias. One of the first things we did was survey Black women on what’s happening online. No one was doing that. After that survey, I submitted a panel at South By Southwest (SXSW).
(SXSW 2016 held a daylong series of talks to discuss the unique online harassment issues facing women and people of color. Before it began, the inaugural Online Harassment Summit was attacked by the very people it sought to solve for — Gamergaters. Some Gamergaters threatened rape and murder against women journalists and game developers. SXSW approved panels for both #Gamergate and #AntiGamergate. Security was heavy for the event with police cars parked outside the conference center and taser-wielding officers patrolling the ballrooms. There were concerns about a potential physical confrontation between high-profile panelists and their critics, but their opponents stayed away.)
There’s a constant — trying to get me to stop talking about this topic. They know I won’t take it and some back off trying to make me feel inferior in this space. SXSW was one of the most intense and overwhelming experiences. We were all being threatened and found out our attackers wanted to have their panels added after the process. My body being threatened was of no value. I said you’re putting me in harm’s way, you’re putting my panel in harm’s way. They took my spot and gave it to my attackers. Then my attackers went after SXSW and their staff. Then they canceled them too to give the perception of balance. We were talking about diversity in the space and yet people harassing me were given a space. That is the epitome of the examples. Somehow someone harassing me is just harassing me out of balance and we’re just having a disagreement. That’s the perception. They finally brought my panel back.
I’m talking about what’s happening to disenfranchised communities, so my being harassed about that is not about a difference of opinion. To me that’s part of the false equivalency — that being harassed is somehow equal; that you’re not gonna stop the abuser, that it’s your fault for speaking up about harassment, being told: “You’re just being a victim.” You’re abusing me. I am being discriminated against and I am being harassed. I don’t know how me speaking about that justifies the abuse, and to continue with the abuse. It’s more like, ‘You stop taking, we’ll stop abusing you.”
Moguldom: You created the game TechnoDemic. Talk to me a little about Black women representation in gaming and game developers.
Shireen Mitchell: I was the first one probably. I’m pretty sure there were others. It was about us trying to hide ourselves. You didn’t see me gaming. You had your friends come over and game at home. Now that gaming turned into more of an online sport, you could hear peoples’ voice and vernacular. There are still women who hide their identity, mostly because of the harassment or being treated like they don’t know the same details. Where we are now is the concept that someone else can determine whether you’re a real gamer or not, and that the person who can determine that are mostly men, and mostly white men. I was beating boys as a girl but the games were not gendered. What started to change that was Pacman. The designer created the game to get more girls into games. To me not making those historical timeline pigeonholes is why we’re here. If we had kept the pattern on that success, we would not have gone into gendered games. The more you see masculine players, the more you think (only boys are in gaming). This is us now wanting to show up with our identifiers.