steph black

reflections of a wild feminist
Women and Online Harassment

Interviewing Zoey Salsbury and her relationship to online harassment

As part of my research on online harassment, I was lucky enough to interview an incredible woman, Zoey, about her experience with this topic. We spoke for nearly an hour about all of the ways that online harassment has affected us.

As the full transcript was nearly 10,000 words (it was an hour long conversation, after all) I have pulled some of the really amazing quotes and the full transcript can be found below.

 

[SB] Why do you think people stay on these platforms?

[ZJS] In terms of why people stay on platforms, but it feels like in politics you kind of have to be on Twitter. And like I know that may be something partly because I’m in Washington, D.C. so there’s definitely more of a Twitter culture….So you can sort of get that in-the-moment news, stuff that would either not rank going out to a wire service or be too long.

[SB] What are some of the negative experiences you’ve had?

[ZJS] The more shockingly minor one was I came forward about a story I experienced in real life, sexual harassment on the Bernie Sanders campaign with the Huffington Post. So they wrote the article and then they were like tweeting out the article, and there was also a girl from the Hillary Clinton campaign who talked about her experience. They did a tweet with the whole story, and then they did a tweet with an excerpt of her story and an excerpt of my story separately. And they had both our pictures. Her tweet basically had no replies to it, and then mine was like, “Oh wait, she’s way too fat to get sexually harassed.” “Who would sexually harass her? She’s imagining it.” And that’s really hard when you were already doubting, right…? And then all these people are like, “Oh, you’re imagining it,” and you’re doubting yourself, and that’s a really hard position to be in. Just because you’re not attracted to me doesn’t mean other people aren’t attracted to me, and also, harassment doesn’t really have anything to do with attraction most of the time. It has to do with power. There’s a lot — but that was difficult.

[SB] Have these types of incidents made you change what you share on social media?

[ZJS] I don’t think it’s changed a whole lot of what I share. It’s made me make sure it doesn’t go in real life, and it’s also made me have better pre-written defenses, almost, right? It’s like when you start thinking about, “Oh, am I going to talk about this publicly or in the news?” You think, “people are going to use this and this and this that I’ve shared against me. How am I going to respond to that or how will I not?”

[ZJS]  I have done that, taken breaks from social media, but I like talking to people and I like having an open mind and talking to them. My therapist is like, ‘what could you do to feel better?’ And I say, ‘well maybe I could stop spending so much time on this toxic website.’ But you know it’s hard because like it almost feels like an abusive relationship. Because there’s all this absolute s*** that happens on Twitter but then you make a new friend on Twitter, and they’re awesome and they have hyper specific-interests that you wish you would have encountered in real life and you’re like, ‘wow this is worth it.’ I get to meet people like that and then it’s like months of absolute horseshit. And then the platforms are kind of like gaslighting you, too. Like when Twitter was like, it’s about our tech stack and not about the reporting. Like when they said they couldn’t do anything about harassing bots, but then deleted a ton of them when they were facing pressure. Like, you knew. But they’re saying that they can’t do anything, but they can and they know they can, and it’s like come on.

 


[Steph Black]

A little background about what I’m doing. So this is an ethnographic interview, so it’s a little bit different. I don’t have to be objective necessarily. It can be more of a conversation, but I want you to talk and I want to hear what you have to say. If I ask certain questions in certain ways, it’s just me being genuine, wanting to know and wanting to care because studies show that women are disproportionately affected by digital harassment and online harassment, and looking at which women and why and why do women then choose to stay on these platforms? Or why do they choose to leave them? So I’ve experienced horrific digital harassment myself, and trolls, and being doxxed by Milo Yiannopoulos.

[Zoey Jordan Salsbury]

I didn’t know that happened to you. That’s super fun.

[SB]

Remember when he came to campus? Yeah. He published my full name on his Twitter and his website with a picture of me, and then got found by a bunch of neo-Nazis and trolls.

[ZS]

That’s super fun. They published my phone number and email address, so mostly it was spam. They just started spamming me, sending a bunch of spam, and then harassing me on Twitter.

[SB]

Fun. I’m also a very sarcastic person. If I say fun, that’s not what I really mean.

[ZS]

That’s why you need to record it, so you don’t have, “Zoey said ‘fun’ about the harassment.” Yeah.

[SB]

That’s a good disclaimer, first of all. So, let’s jump into my questions. So tell me about what you do online.

[ZS]

Oh, God. So my old job, I spent a lot of time on Twitter because I worked in politics, so I kind of needed to know the news and that’s a good way to know the news and see what reporters are saying, see what other people are saying and do some social media listening for our clients. My current job, it’s some of the same, more focused on non-profit stuff. And also I consider myself an activist, and so I talk about politics a lot on Twitter and Facebook and more on Twitter these days because some of my friends from high school were like, “Zoey, please stop talking about politics” [on Facebook] and I didn’t want them all to delete me because I like knowing what’s going on in their lives. But yeah, I’m involved in, I would say — All the big areas of online advocacy work I do is around healthcare and disability and women in politics, generally. Lately, I’ve been in a lot of arguments with people about Wisconsin’s first district, which is super specific.

[SB]

No, I know exactly what you’re talking about. So it sounds like you have a mix of personal and political and work-related and your own interests.

[ZS]

Yeah, that’s a good way to summarize it. Spoiler alert, but in terms of why people stay on platforms, but it feels like in politics you kind of have to be on Twitter. And like I know that may be something partly because I’m in Washington, D.C. so there’s definitely more of a Twitter culture. Like, when I was following some of the healthcare protests and involved in some of them, reporters, they would write a really good story about what disability activists were doing, but if you wanted to know up to the minute, like, where were they in the building and who was saying what, what offices were they sitting in, livestreams — that stuff’s on Twitter. So you can sort of get that in-the-moment news, stuff that would either not rank going out to a wire service or be too long. And also just like, as someone who’s a public relations major, it’s kind of important to be like, “I have my own social media that I can manage,” which is obviously different because what I would talk about on work social media isn’t the same as my personal social media. I just broke 1,000 followers.

[SB]

Congratulations!

[ZS]

Very exciting. One of the executive editors of CNN follows me and I’m just like, “I don’t know why you’re here.” But some important people follow me. Shannon Watts from Everytown followed me but then she unfollowed me because I tweeted too much, which is like, fair. I agree.

[SB]

Do you know that was why?

[ZS]

I don’t. I’m guessing, I don’t know why. Because we talked before. But anyways, to be engaged — I’ve made friends on Twitter or more on Facebook and sort of secret groups.

[SB]

I’m in a bunch of those groups, too.

[ZS]

Yeah, but then like we’re friends on Twitter, and people keep up with each other’s lives. It’s a fast-paced platform. I follow professors that I know and they’ll follow me sometimes, and then it’s cool, casual interaction. It’s kind of like a casual, professional interaction. I feel like when you’re on LinkedIn, you have to be very professional. I’m an adult, here’s my headshot, here’s this piece that I was working on at work and my one-paragraph summary of what I’m doing today at my job. And on Twitter, I can alternate between, “Here’s my very serious political take,” and “Here’s my joke about antidepressants.” You can have that sort of mixture in a way that you can’t on LinkedIn or that you shouldn’t on LinkedIn.

[SB]

So it’s more like an all-encompassing picture of your personality.

[ZS]

It feels like kind of when you like — I used to hate Twitter, because I talk a lot, as you will see. So I’m excited about 280 characters, I probably use them a lot. I didn’t get it, and I sort of had to get it, so I just started using it, and I was like, “Wow, I love this!” I can throw my random thoughts in the world and there are people who find them interesting. This is so cool! My real-life friends don’t want to hear me talk this much. They do, though. They still stick around. You get to connect with other people.

[SB]

You kind of already answered this, but why do you use social media?

[ZS]

For me, it’s a big thing about connection. I’ve always really liked social media. So in high school, I got my first Facebook account the day I turned 13 … and then I’ve always been on Facebook. And then when I was in high school, so I was in high school for three years just for context. My second year of high school, one of the freshmen at our school who was on the debate team committed suicide. And then another. I started this Facebook page called Vashon Compliments and it was like people could submit compliments to the page and then anonymously, I would post them. So it would be compliments for other people. My high school is pretty small. The island that it’s on — I went to school on an island, I commuted every day on a boat, but it was like 10,000 people, and so the high school, there were maybe 112 people in my graduating class. So it was really small, and it’s a public school district, but there’s like one sort of private school, but basically everybody had been in school together from kindergarten and on. It’s a really tight-knit community. Later on in the year, another kid in my grade died in a car accident, and so all of this happened in a couple months. So the whole community was going through a lot of trauma. My grandpa had also died in the fall, and then one of my friends from Girl Scouts also committed suicide that year. So it was a wolf of a year. I found that I got some relief from talking publicly about my struggles. I thought that was important.

So I had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder before I started high school. They thought I had that, but then they were like, “Oh, you’ve got depression, too.” I’m like, “sweet, awesome, let’s do this.” Definitely was not pre-disposed to this [laughs]. My parents were not pleased. My mom is a very private person. My dad does not like to talk about his struggles even with his family sometimes, my mom and I. So me being like, “Hey, I’m doing therapy and this is the antidepressant I’m starting,” my parents were like, “What the fuck are you doing?” I remember I started talking about it, and people that I knew were like, “Thanks for talking to me about this,” and “I felt comfortable getting help because you talked about it,” or they would talk to me and ask me for resources. I mean, I think it was a weird situation to be in because everyone I knew was going through trauma. At least 50 to 60 percent of my friend group was struggling with suicidal ideation and self-harm which is quite the place to be in. I was like, “It’s important to talk about this,” and that sort of continued. I deal with chronic pain, so I was like, “I’m going to talk about this. I’m going to talk about how it took me years to find a diagnosis, and I still don’t have a solution. I’m going to talk about how I started this pain med, and not only did it not make me feel better, it made me gain 25 pounds in a month because that’s something that we need to talk about.” Especially as my chronic pain has gotten worse. It’s been really helpful to — both when I was going through the diagnosis process, because I could connect with other people, and so I was able to talk to other people. When I was having surgery for what they thought it was going to be, I was able to say, “If this is there, this is the technique I want you to use, blah blah blah,” because I knew other people who have the condition they thought I had. You’re able to sort of advocate for yourself by getting to know other people, and I think that’s been a big part. Sort of the disability community, it’s a weird line to walk when you have a physical thing that some days is worse than others, because some days you’re like, “Oh, I’m not disabled enough.” But to find that sort of community and talk to people about that has been really helpful. On days when you’re in really bad pain, maybe you’re not at work or in school, grabbing coffee with your friends and talking about politics and pop culture, but on Twitter, you can be talking about those things with both your real life friends and also the world. You can have those kind of casual interactions even when you’re in so much pain you can’t get out of your bed. So that’s helpful.

[SB]

Awesome. Not awesome, but … good information! [laughs] We’re now going to transition a little bit. You kind of already talked about what your online interactions with others have been like, so to get a little bit more specific, if you — actually, it’s up to you. Do you want to start with negative experiences first or positive experiences first?

[ZS]

I think I talked a lot about the positive, so I’ll do a sum-up of the positive and then I’ll talk about the negative. But just summing it up, I’ve made friends. The podcast that I listen to, they have a Facebook group for fans and the people I really like in there, they’ve followed me on Twitter, added me on Facebook and on Snapchat. If I move back to Seattle after graduation, which let’s see where I get into law school, I’ve been thinking about like, I was already kind of wanting to road trip back and I’m thinking about maybe planning it in a way so I can meet a bunch of my internet friends, which is the most Millennial thing. I’m going to go on a road trip to meet all my internet friends in person. That’s something — you’ve met these people, and you can find people with hyper-specific interests that you haven’t before, and also being queer, you can find other queer people more than you can in the everyday world where it’s not like people wear that on a sign. So that’s the positive stuff, all the connections, and genuine potential work stuff. I haven’t been really looking for a job yet, because A) I like my job and B) I don’t know where I’m going to live because of law school applications. But I know there are people who I’ve met through social media and through Facebook and through Twitter that I could really call on that network. This Facebook group for the podcast I listen to, a bunch of people were kind of networking in the posts. I was like, “Oh guys, let’s do this,” so we made a group on LinkedIn that are all fans of the podcast. That’s the good stuff.

The bad stuff is when people disagree with you. They disagree in a different way than they would in person, at least I like to think so. And people — no one wants to give up the last word, which is something I’ve struggled with in my personal life too but I think I’ve gotten better at and something I’ve had to get comfortable with on Twitter to survive. I’m not necessarily going to have the last word, and I’ve just said sometimes, “I’ve got to bow out of this conversation,” but that’s a hard place to get to. There’s sometimes where you’re having legitimate policy disagreements, but then it can get really personal, really quickly. And then sometimes it’s just personal. I’ve had a couple different encounters with the gross side of the internet. The more shockingly minor one was I came forward about a story I experienced in real life, sexual harassment on the Bernie Sanders campaign with the Huffington Post. So they wrote the article and then they were like tweeting out the article, and there was also a girl from the Hillary Clinton campaign who talked about her experience. They did a tweet with the whole story, and then they did a tweet with an excerpt of her story and an excerpt of my story separately. And they had both our pictures. Her tweet basically had no replies to it, and then mine was like, “Oh wait, she’s way too fat to get sexually harassed.” “Who would sexually harass her? She’s imagining it.” And that’s really hard when you were already doubting, right? I even said to the reporter, three or four times, I was like, “It wasn’t that big of a deal. It didn’t feel good and I didn’t feel safe, but it’s something where I felt like all I needed to do was tell someone higher up, and they would have taken care of it, but there was no system in place. And that’s what I was afraid of, that’s what the problem was for me.” And then all these people are like, “Oh, you’re imagining it,” and you’re doubting yourself, and that’s a really hard position to be in. Just because you’re not attracted to me doesn’t mean other people aren’t attracted to me, and also, harassment doesn’t really have anything to do with attraction most of the time. It has to do with power. There’s a lot — but that was difficult.

I’ve tried to talk about it — and that one wasn’t as bad because my name was there, but first of all, it was the second time I was going to be in a national story and I knew in advance, so I was like — I took my phone number off my — I have a website called zoeysalsbury.com, my portfolio, and I took my phone number off of it. To email me, you have to enter a capcha and a form to fill out so people couldn’t automatically email me a bunch. I spent like $40 switching because I own a bunch of domains: my personal domains, some other things for different org stuffs, I spent $40 switching all of those to private registration because when you register, you’re required to give your name, address and phone number. And it’s your home address. So I was like, all out there, so I paid to switch that. But all of that was because of a prior experience that I had had, which is the big one, which is during the healthcare debate, when the House of Representatives first passed the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, I was very upset because, with chronic conditions — I can look at the yearly stuff adds up, but I was hospitalized my freshman year and I was there for like three days. Without insurance, it would have been over $20,000 and that’s with no procedures. I was in a psych ward, and with insurance, it was $350. My family has really good insurance, but even if you didn’t, even the negotiated rate by the insurance company was $11,000 as opposed to the $20,000 they would have charged you out of pocket. So even if you had insurance, it wasn’t like $2,000 instead of 20. And, you know, I was on my parents’ insurance and I’m still on my parents’ insurance. My mom wants to retire soon, and I’m like, “Please don’t.” I was a minor when I got diagnosed with depression and anxiety and fibromyalgia and all this stuff, so I would never have been an adult without pre-existing conditions, so repealing that would have had a really big impact on me. My freshman year, because I was able to go to the hospital, I am alive. Being afraid of spending $20,000 would keep me from going and be a risk.

So I saw this tweet that someone was like, “If I die, please mail my body to Paul Ryan.” And I was like, “Haha, that’s funny,” and then I was like, “Wait, haha, you can actually do that, because people can get cremated and you’re allowed to mail cremated remains.” So I was like, “What if we made this site called MailMeToTheGOP about mailing our ashes?” So I tweeted it in response to them, and she retweeted it — she was verified on Twitter — and it really blew up. The site crashed, so my work offered to host it because I was working in politics at the time and they thought it was cool. But the thing is, because it was a tweet itself, then it started to get press. And so HuffingtonPost covered it at one point, the Washington Post covered it, it was a big deal. But they would always embed the original tweet, and the problem with that that was very different than other online experiences were people reading this article, they disagreed with me, and they could literally click directly to my profile. It wasn’t like somebody read my name and were like, “Ugh, I want to find her and give her a hard time,” and they had to put in some effort to it. This was just like, they could get right there. And so, at first, I started trying to engage with some people. Quickly realized that was not effective, but it just got — It was just so, it’s so intense, first of all. Because they talk about cyberbullying in teen movies, but it’s really hard because Twitter has gotten somewhat better about muting stuff and you can turn off certain words, but it’s still always there. No matter how much you try to filter stuff, stuff gets through. And part of you is like, “I need to know what they’re saying because what if someone is threatening me in a real life sort of way? I need to know that.” And so you kind of feel like you have to read it, and then you’re seeing all these people that are like, “Maybe she wouldn’t be so worried about dying from her healthcare if she wasn’t so fat,” which is always like — It was interesting because I still have a shit-ton of body image issues, but I’ve come a long way in the last couple of years. I spent a really long time focusing on the body positive community. I’ve done really intense therapy, so even though I still have a lot of issues, I’m in a lot better place than I was. I can’t imagine the things that I heard from people if I had heard those two-and-a-half years before, or even a year before. Those would have been, like, those would have been another reason to end up in the hospital. It follows you everywhere.

People with literal Confederate flags in their bios and the frog memes that are associated with Nazis now … these people are bugging you, and it’s really bad, but it’s on Twitter and so you are overwhelmed but you can somewhat get rid of it. But then, because I was really into networking, I had this website which had my cell phone number on it and my email address. And so people just started — I deleted some things and now I’m like, “Was that real?” And it was. There were some things signing me up for email lists, but then being like, “Fatty McFat” as the name and you’re like OK. But then they kept signing me up for things because there are websites that are designed to test servers where you can put an email in to test it by signing you up for a bunch of stuff, and they were putting my email in that. I was trying to function, both school and personal stuff, and I just couldn’t function. The thing that was one of the hardest things was that they signed up my phone number and email up for inquiries at weight loss surgery clinics. I felt so bad because these people who were genuine staff members at this clinic were calling me thinking I had made an inquiry because it was something I was interested in, and I was like, “I’m really sorry. I didn’t inquire, someone added me to your list.” And I still get a bunch of random hang-up calls because I don’t know what lists I’m on now. I had to get a new email address because I was trying to unsubscribe from stuff and I was in this delusion, and even though those things themselves didn’t have harassing words in them, every time I would see them I would be reminded of everything everyone had said. It was also wild to try to explain it to my parents because my parents are in their sixties. So first of all, trying to explain Twitter to my dad, and they were like, “Why don’t you just go private?” And I was like, “Well, no, I think this is something that is important and I want people to see the underlying activism I was doing.” And then my dad was like, “You need to call the police,” and I was like, “I don’t think that’s going to do anything.” And he was like, “No, you need to call the police.” So we did call the police, they came by and took my report. Because my dad, he was like, “OK, when it’s just on Twitter, even when it’s just your email,” but when they had my phone number, that was kind of scary because like, I know my address is pretty publicly available. I had domains registered and my parents — my dad has the same last name of me and is one of the owners of the house. So that was pretty fucking scary. My dad is like, “You need to call the police,” and I did and they came out and they took a report, and they were like, Right now, they’re spamming you basically, they’re not threatening you. There’s nothing we can do. We can take a report, and if it escalates, we have a record of it. Here’s the card. We’ll push it up to cybercrimes, but I’ve never heard back from them, ever. And even if I did, what am I supposed to say? Some people said really horrific things to me, and also I was getting 150 emails an hour? That’s not a crime, technically, right? You can choose to get 150 emails an hour, you know what I mean? It’s really hard. It’s weird to have to be like, there are people who have my old email address and I have to be like, “Oh, sorry, I got a new one because I got doxxed by Nazis.” And you’re like, wait, first of all, those are a lot of weird words. And second of all, how am I saying this in 2018? That’s a lot.

[SB]

That is a lot. Holy goodness. First of all, thank you for sharing all of that. That’s a lot to have to relive and re-talk about, so I appreciate it. You had mentioned that they were throwing personal things back at you, and you mentioned that you changed your behavior because of that a little bit. Like you removed emails, you changed the domains. Has that incident changed the personal things that you’re willing to share on social media?

[ZS]

I don’t know. I mean, somewhat. I think it’s made me — it’s less made me — I can’t speak. It’s made me less try to change the stuff I share than it’s made me try to prevent stuff from getting real-life, like going to real-life. It’s more been focused on making sure that my phone number is not out there and my email is not out there. If I have to give an address, I have my home address in Seattle and my address here, and here, at least I’m in a somewhat guarded building. You have to touch in with your fob and there’s a desk person, although, don’t tell any of the creepy people, but all you have to do is come with a bag of Chinese food and say you’re there for someone, and they would let you in. I feel a little bit safer when I give out that address because at home it’s my parents and I. We live in a house, so there are some definite benefits to not living in a single family home. But I think I still overshare on social media, and I still try to be an activist. It’s always interesting to me because I have some people who follow me or people I know and consider friends who have way bigger followings than me. There’s one person I’ve become friends with who is verified and has hundreds of thousands of followers, and someone else who follows me has 20,000 followers, isn’t verified.

The other day, I was talking about the Wisconsin first. I responded to her tweet and said “I can’t believe what’s happening” and basically summarized my opinion of the race. She retweeted it, and then I was like, “Holy shit” because then it’s out to 20,000 people. I knew it was public before, but it was public to my 1,200 followers. Very different than 20,000 people. I think that’s hard because people who have these big followings, they’re so used to all the harassment that they don’t realize that spreading this person’s message, even though it’s really important, is going to be a really big deal for them. It’s going to lead to more stuff coming their way. I mean, I’m really still interested in writing. I don’t know, I’ve always been interested in doing some journalism stuff and I’m way too biased, I think, to probably get a job in journalism. But I’ve been trying to do some more self-publishing stuff, and I want my stories out there. I like to share them and stuff. I don’t think I’m going to necessarily stop, but I’m more careful and, you know, definitely stuff that’s a lot more personal, I share on Facebook, which I do have a lot of Facebook friends, but I can filter it more. I think that’s something that’s big — Twitter, and this is something that’s hard for me because I tried to go private on Twitter for a bit because I’m applying to law schools, I’m applying to jobs, I want to be professional. But the thing with Twitter is that it’s either all or nothing. You’re either 100 percent public with everything or you’re totally private only to the people who follow you, which can be a good thing because it kind of, you have to see a person holistically. They can’t just be one post. But it’s also not great. I like on Facebook how I can be like, “This is a post I’m sharing with all my friends” or “This is a post I’m sharing with my close friends or in DC.” “This is a post I’m going to make public to the whole world.” You have that sort of control more. If you make something and then it gets a lot more attention than you’re ready for, you can make it private just to you or just to your friends. You don’t have to delete it. I think that that’s a problem with Twitter.

The TLDR of that really long answer is I don’t think it’s changed a whole lot of what I share. It’s made me make sure it doesn’t go in real life, and it’s also made me have better pre-written defenses, almost, right? It’s like when you start thinking about, “Oh, am I going to talk about this publicly or in the news?” You think, “people are going to use this and this and this that I’ve shared against me. How am I going to respond to that or how will I not?”

[SB]

Interesting. That was a really great answer, by the way. That was totally fine. If you could be in charge of community guidelines, terms and services, and enforcing them, what would that look like? What would you do differently, in your utopian society? What are your choices?

[ZS]

This wouldn’t be an issue in my utopian society. I think a really big thing is there are not enough people moderating things and that is my biggest pet peeve. Like Facebook, you report something that’s like obviously f****** Nazis, and they’re like. ‘Oh, this doesn’t appear to violate our terms of service,’ and you’re like, ‘Well what the hell does violate your terms of service?’ And I think it’s like, a lot of these platforms have — they sort of have become like the virtual town square right? And they’re really afraid as private organizations — A lot of people don’t understand the First Amendment, first of all, which is like a really big pet peeve of mine. It’s like no, the government can’t infringe on your free speech. You can be de-platformed. Twitter doesn’t have to let you talk. They’re a private company making millions of dollars. If they don’t want you to use their platform to spread hate and bullshit, then they are allowed to do that. I think a lot of these platforms are afraid of seeming biased, and it’s like, not the platform’s fault that one side — It’s not even one side. I’ve had so many Bernie Bros who were like really mad that I supported Bernie Sanders and now don’t anymore, and get really vicious. It’s not even one side, but they’re afraid of that. You know when you’re on Facebook and there’s trending news stuff on the side? that used to be like people would go through what was actually trending and then would pick out the best articles that was representing that and put those there. Now it’s like algorithmic-ly. And they try to fix it when people report it, but after something like Parkland there’s always at least a couple Gateway Pundit, totally buillshit, awful, horrific articles, literal fake naws. Now even fake news, but things that endanger people’s lives. These Parkland kids are getting death threats after they survived a school shooting, which is like a whole separate thing. But there were people, but what happened was that conservatives were like you’re being too liberal Facebook. You’re being biased, you need to get more conservative news. And it’s like, it’s not their fault that mainstream news is less in line with you because you’re crazy right now. But like there aren’t enough people, right? And so like, I’ve read stories about how when you report stuff and how fast people are expected to review things. And it’s really interesting because like it feels like reporting — instead of reporting and saying ‘this is a horrific thing that somebody said to me or about me or whatever,’ instead of that being reviewed on its own, it’s reviewed in a basket, like how many other people think this is horrific. It’s really interesting because like on one hand, the system doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, where like somebody could say something like really horrific and maybe even make a death threat and if you were the only one who reports it, and you’re not like, ‘Hey everyone, rally around me and report this,’ they’re like, ‘oh sorry, that’s fine.’ But then people who are trying to harass women or anyone and they will have groups of people mass report them. But those people aren’t violating terms of service, and those people will be suspended or shut down over the most minor infractions and things that aren’t even really infractions.

SB

I criticized Hugh Hefner when he died, and like two months later got that taken down by Facebook’s platform. It’s very random.

ZS

Yeah and it’s wild, and it’s probably like some random person in some random group was mad and they shared it and a bunch of people got mad about it. Somebody I followed said they wanted Nazi to die and they got their Twitter suspended. And it’s like, yikes, Twitter. Where are you prioritizing things here? So I think like a big thing is more people. When you do content analysis research, what happens is that a bunch of people are given the content and they say, ‘it falls into this category or this category,’ and they look at the average and say what it is. So you know it wouldn’t even take that long to be like, ‘this post reported for X, yes or no,’ and then you show it to four different staff people as you’re going through and if the majority said that it should get kicked off, it gets kicked off. It’s not that difficult, and I think that it’s wild how little — and like the fact that now there’s all this issue with fake news and the harm of it and like the literal harm of it, and Twitter and Facebook both still don’t have an option to say, ‘this is literally fake news.’ You can’t report stuff that way. It’s like there are people who are doing like crisis actors and conspiracy theories and you have to report it as like harassing someone. You can’t be, like, ‘no this is literally a lie, this is not accurate in the slightest,’ because they don’t want to be an arbiter of truth. With Twitter, there’s like no reporting saying, like, this person is targeting disabled people. That’s not an option — it’s targeting race, ethnicity, religion, and gender, and sexuality. So people can get reported, and you can say they’re targeting a group, but because it doesn’t fall into those categories, it gets passed by. And first of all, that’s not right. There should be more categories. But second of all, there should be an option to say that this is really bad, you should look at it, but it doesn’t fall here. That’s a big problem.

Another thing is tech companies don’t want to admit the power they have. It’s wild to me — I read an article recently about Twitter being a dysfunctional tech company or something, and they were like blaming the programming language for why the site has problems with harassment. And the wildest thing to me is the site that I work for now is built on the same platform. And yes, sometimes the platform makes me want to rip my hair out, but you build stuff in it. There is no web API or any coding SDK that comes with a built-in harassment platform. They come with forms and inputs and outputs and you put it together. You built the system. Every single website starts with a blank white page. Yes, there can be tools and pre-made things. It’s just wild. It’s just like they don’t want to take responsibility for it.

And I think part of that is about representation at the companies themselves. You know, tech is kind of a boys club, and if it’s one of those things where like, just having a 10-second conversation where you’re like, ‘Mmm, guys.” You know at my old job, I was one of the few queer people there, and a lot of times, we do political fundraising and we’d have a petition and upsell to a fundraiser. So they were like, ‘Hey, when we take back the state senate, we want to pass this bill that would end gay conversion therapy. And I was like, ‘yeah, cool, super on board with that. Let’s not torture children.’ The email was like not even this was a bad thing, let’s ban conversion therapy because kids deserve better. It was like very specific. The subject line was like it’s torture and talking about how it’s torture, and they were like, ‘let’s put an upsell on it,’ which is what we do. And it’s like guys, this kind of looks like you’re fundraising off torturing children. I would highly recommend not saying donate and then children won’t be tortured. I said this is probably not a good idea because I would be a little freaked out by this if I encountered this outside of here. And they were like, ‘oh great, that makes sense, thanks for letting me know.’ That’s what happens when you have people with diverse life experiences working there because they can be like ‘Have you considered this?’ And I think a lot these tech companies just don’t. And then they’re like, ‘oh wait, we hired this one like really prominent woman on our board, and it’s like having women on your board is great. But what really matters is when you’re in the room and you’re saying, ‘okay, are we going to place this button here or here? What are our categories for harassment? Are we going to place them here or here? These little tech things, deciding teeny, teeny aspects of the platform that actually have a huge impact overall. And if you don’t have diverse groups in those rooms, then you don’t get tools that serve a diverse world.

[SB]

Or even if there is a diverse room, and you’re not listening to them.

[ZS]

Or if you’re “listening.” The people are there but they don’t feel like they can say stuff. It’s about the environment you create. Yes, if there’s a bunch of women and people of color that are there, but they’re afraid to say something because they know that everyone’s going to turn and glare at them, then it’s not going to be very effective diverse community.

[SB]

I think that it’s really important too, not necessarily the written rules, but how you interact with those rules from the tech side. I like that. I have one last written question, and then I’m going to open it up to things that you want to say. If you could have the chance to say anything to these harassers or trolls on these sites, would you want to? It’s a very broad question on purpose.

[ZS]

I don’t think I would really want to unless it’s in person. I think it’s harder — but like in like a safe space, like a literal space-space. Not just like, please, harassers don’t show up at my house, but like a form of mediation. But I think that it’s easy to forget who’s on the other side of the screen, and I think we all do that sometimes even when it’s not harassment. It’s just a political argument. We get really into it and we forget that this is an actual person. That doesn’t justify the things people — you can be really mad at a real person too and people are horrific in person too, but I think there’s, like, a bit of a difference. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, which isn’t always true. But what’s the point of using this, right?

If you think that I’m lying about being harassed, first of all, f*** you. Second of all, if you think I’m lying about being harassed, you can comment and ask the reporter, ‘How did you verify this?’ Even now, that would be less invalidating than saying, ‘oh my God she’s so fat, she would never get harassed.’ What’s the point of you saying that? And like the point for some people is just harassment, and you’re never going to get through to those people, but I don’t know. It’s just like, try to like think about somebody saying that to you. It’s so hard because it’s basic f****** human decency. I work with kids at my old job, and children are better at this than adults. It reminds me of this song from South Pacific that you’ve got to be taught. But it’s true that people have got to be taught to be mean. And yeah, little kids sometimes say things that are accidentally mean, like I’ve had toddlers be like, ‘why is your tummy so big?’ But they’re very fatcual when they ask that. They’re not like, ‘oh you’re fat and ugly. They’re like, ‘Your tummy is big, tell me about your tummy.’ But adults are trash sometimes. And I don’t know if there’s a lot more to say because I don’t necessarily think saying things to these people would change it.

[SB]

That was a good perspective. I like that you would want to step off the platform.

[ZS]

It’s weird because I still like the platform, but I think you kind of need to not be on the platform that the person has been harassing you on to have an interaction about said harassment. But then again, sometimes that doesn’t work. There was that Jimmy Kimmel incident where he was really excited. He said, ‘we’re going to have a DACA recipient, and her family, her husband is American, her child is American. We’ll meet these people who online were very aggressively anti-DACA.’ And they had to find somebody online because they tried to find somebody they wanted out on the boulevard and find somebody and nobody would talk to them. That’s actually a good sign because there were a lot of tourists there.

But for these people, this didn’t change anything for them. They were still like, ‘why didn’t you get your green card? Why didn’t you get citizenship? Why didn’t you get married?’ And they were like, ‘well we want to get married, but why should we have to get married? There are plenty of Americans who still don’t get married and still have rights. You don’t have to get married to love each other.’ And the guy in the segment was interviewed and said that wasn’t even the worst of it. He wanted to punch someone. It was really really bad and that was them trying to be like, ‘oh we’ll take it offline.’ And I have positive experiences with people disagreeing with me. One of my best friends in high school thought that gay people were going to hell. And that was like a really uncomfortable topic, and I went to her youth group with her the first time because they wanted to do intertubing, and the preaching thing was about why being gay is a sin. I was like, ‘I’ll be awkwardly bisexual in the corner.’

I didn’t even have a phone yet, it was still like iPod Touch, so I didn’t even have internet. But I kept going to some of the stuff because I liked the activities more than the religion, and I got to know her youth pastor and I was like, ‘hey would you be willing to watch this hour-long sermon on the biblical case for same-sex marriage and talk to me about it?’ And he was like, ‘yeah okay sure,’ and we talked about it and you know some of it was very much like, ‘hey let’s talk about it.’ I told my friend why saying ‘hate the sin and not the sin’ is really hurtful to me. But we had those really hard conversations, but some of it was just that we were friends, and we had barbecues, and we went river rafting. And her friends didn’t know at first and and they sort of figured it out but they knew me already, so I was also the friend that would convince them to let her stay out later and stuff but they got to know me. But a couple months ago, I saw her pastor post on Facebook say that modern churches have to be LGBT-friendly to be relevant. I was like, ‘Holy shit, that is a big change.’ But that took years personally doing hard work, saying ‘here’s the case for my existence,’ which was awkward, and also me being a person to them. But that’s not going to happen when it’s some some random Twitter interaction with someone for ten seconds. So yeah, in-person can be really effective but it’s not in brief interactions.

[SB]

I agree with all of what you’re saying, to but to push a little further, is it always the responsibility to then educate your harassers?

[ZS]

No, and I mean, that’s hard because you want to, partly because you also want to be the last one this happens to. I really want to protect other people from this, especially if you feel like you’re in a place where you’re stable enough to handle this interaction with your harasser. But it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be someone’s harassing you and you have to explain that. It shouldn’t be, but it is. And I think that’s one of the hardest things. I went through a phase where I very much agreed with a lot of people who said, ‘just Google it. Don’t ask me, just Google it,’ and would be very abrupt about it. But then I was like A, when someone is just Googling it, they’re not necessarily finding the right things about it because there’s a lot of f*****-up s*** on the internet. And B, hearing it from a friend or someone you know in real life is a different level of interaction than hearing them on the Internet. And yeah, it’s exhausting educating people sometimes, especially last weekend. I would really like to stop having to explain why saying that the shooter was mentally ill is not a synonym for evil. And I just literally had to do that in my class. We were talking about Locke and his theory of armed rebellion and stuff, and my professor is very liberal and it has sort of become a joke that I’m the person who does distinctions, because he mentioned something the president dating a hooker and I was like actually she’s not a hooker, she’s a pornstar. People were laughing about it but later he was like, ‘What would Locke say about the shooter who was very evil and a crazy person?’ And I was like, ‘Wait, no, no, no. I know that I’m joking about being the person who’s into distinctions here but mentally ill people here are more likely to be a risk to themselves because of gun violence then to others.’ But I was like shaky because I was really amped up and I could really feel the adrenaline and I was like, ‘how is he going to respond to this? How are other people going to respond to this?’ I know there’s another student who has literally worn a Make America Great Again hat to class. But the professor was like, ‘that’s a really good point.’ I did a really good job of saying it without being like, ‘you’re being so ableist.’ But sometimes you just want to say that will you stop it? And that’s a hard line to walk. But yeah, I mean, it shouldn’t be our job to educate harassers but it often is.

And maybe and like a person take care of and I don’t think the way we’re teaching our kids is so messed up. I think it’s that when it’s older. I think preschools do a pretty good job about how to be nice to each other and how to use our words and how to share and how to apologize. There are things there don’t they don’t do a good job. There are some early childhood Interventions that are funny to see happen. But a lot of this happens when people are are in middle school and high school and they sort of get retaught. They don’t know how to apologize. They don’t know how to do that.

[SB]

So that’s all of my questions,, but I want to open this up to you and say, again, thank you. Is there anything that I can talk about or that you think is important to know about all of this? This is going to be public to my very wide audience of like four people on my website.

[ZS]

I don’t think I can think of a whole lot more to say, but I think the one big thing that I sort of touched on is that online harassment is sort of, to me, in a lot of ways almost workplace harassment on a bigger scale. Because Lindy West is the big person I can think of who stopped using Twitter, and she uses Facebook still. But for a lot of people who don’t have a New York Times best-selling book, that’s a really big privilege to give up this platform. And you know, we’ve been talking about the Me Too movement and the Times Up movement more about what sexual harassment looks like and what gender harassment looks like in the workplace, and how women don’t rise in the ranks because maybe we change jobs more often because we don’t want to deal with harassment or we don’t want to upset our boss. But what we don’t talk about enough is that people are more likely to switch jobs so many times in their lives that being unable to be safely on a platform like Twitter or Facebook is being unable to network. It is also cutting you off from those professional opportunities. And I don’t think that’s talked about enough.

It’s like sort of like, ‘Well, if you feel unsafe, why don’t you go home? Go home.’ But I want to get a job, and people who follow me could get me jobs. Or I want to know about the news and I can know about what’s happening in a way that impacts my career. I shouldn’t have to give up these workplace opportunities because of harassers. It’s like career harassment, and you know, maybe it’s not someone at the water cooler who’s saying they want to have sex with you or you have to do X to get a raise, but to avoid them saying stuff that’s gross and awful, I have to remove myself from the platform that has opportunities on it which makes me lose out on career opportunities.

[SB]

This is also like your network in your friends and family, support groups. And there’s platforms that I’m in that are just for Jewish people and just for queer people and the interaction between those two. I think being divorced from those things would be devastating.

[ZS]

And people are like, “oh my God, everyone can’t take a break from social media.” I have done that, taken breaks from social media, but I like talking to people and I like having an open mind and talking to them. My therapist is like, ‘what could you do to feel better?’ And I say, ‘well maybe I could stop spending so much time on this toxic website.’ But you know it’s hard because like it almost feels like an abusive relationship. Because there’s all this absolute s*** that happens on Twitter but then you make a new friend on Twitter, and they’re awesome and they have hyper specific-interests that you wish you would have encountered in real life and you’re like, ‘wow this is worth it.’ I get to meet people like that and then it’s like months of absolute horseshit. And I can make that comparison because I’ve been in an abusive relationship.

[SB]

That is an excellent metaphor.

[ZS]

There are not a lot of times where that’s a good metaphor, but it is. And then the platforms are kind of like gaslighting you, too. Like when Twitter was like, it’s about our tech stack and not about the reporting. Like when they said they couldn’t do anything about harassing bots, but then deleted a ton of them when they were facing pressure. Like, you knew. Like some countries have laws about saying you can’t say these things and you can’t have these flags and if you switch your profile to say you’re in Germany, a lot of accounts will say you’re not allowed to do that in your country. And then you see what’s trending in the U.S., and that its own problem. But they’re saying that they can’t do anything, but they can and they know they can, and it’s like come on.

[SB]

A few last housekeeping things. You mentioned some of your identities, but how do you identify in general, just so I know what’s appropriate to call you and to reference you as?

[ZS]

I’m trying to think of how to summarize it. I identify, I guess, I’m Jewish and bisexual and I have mixed feelings about the word disabled. I have chronic illness, I identify with that a lot more than disability. And woman, obviously. Not obvious, I guess.

[SB]

Because if I just reference you in other places, I want to make sure I have it right.

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