I attended two conferences, interviewed ten women, met another fifteen remarkable women, and produced twenty YouTube videos in eight short weeks just to answer one question: How do we address online hate speech while maintaining free speech?
I would like to think I began my research as an objective bystander. I had read the stories of the violent threats, hate speech, and objectification women experienced online. Then I read Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919), which argued the best test of truth is the competition of all ideas—even ideas we loathe. As much as I hated the dangers women faced online, I also abhorred content-based censorship. I thought my desire to protect both women and speech online would ensure my objectivity.
Then the interviews began and my objectivity faltered. I listened as women told me how their ex-boyfriends non-consensually shared nude photos of them online; the impact that had on their friends, family, and careers; the struggle to remove those photos; and the onerous process to prosecute or sue their ex-boyfriends. I listened as a young woman recounted being bullied online as a teen because she rejected her friend’s romantic intentions. I listened as another woman described how she struggled to keep a job because her ex-boyfriend falsely defamed her.
I noticed a common theme to these stories: men using online hate and violence to silence women. I could barely fathom why hate speech intended to silence women was acceptable, but censorship of same hate speech is unacceptable. So I used my voice to speak against hate speech; I proudly declared myself a feminist in a YouTube video.
Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), my declaration didn’t end the misogynistic speech. While the First Amendment guarantees protection from Congress silencing my feminist speech, there would be no guaranteed protection against a cyber-mob trying to silence me with rape and death threats.
John Stuart Mill argued: “There needs [to be] protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.” It’s not enough to protect freedom of speech from a government violation. We must also protect the freedom of speech of the disempowered from the empowered.
That’s not easy, but I realized that it is marginally easier when we speak together. That was the most rewarding part of my summer research: meeting all the women who, supported by their tight-knit community, courageously and collectively speak out against online hate.
Zrenner is a rising senior studying economics and mathematics. She was a 2015 Kenan Summer Fellow for the Kenan Institute for Ethics, studying the ethics of cyber harassment and free speech.