This week, US-based New York magazine (NYmag) published an article featuring 35 women who’ve accused actor Bill Cosby of sexual assault.
The article spread like wildfire on social media, with many sharing the magazine’s powerful cover image:
A big talking point was the empty chair pictured, which represents the 11 other women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault (and other potential victims), who are not featured in the article.
The article’s impact was bigger than the NYmag’s journalists imagined and soon, the hashtag #TheEmptyChair was trending on social media. #TheEmptyChair prompted several tweets from people expressing solidarity with victims of sexual violence.
Journalist Elon James White, who started #TheEmptyChair, received dozens of messages from victims of sexual violence, sharing their experiences.
Social media: A platform for the silenced
NYmag’s journalists commented on the increasing use of social media as a platform to speak up about rape, saying:
“… Online, there is a strong sense now that speaking up is the only thing to do, that a woman claiming her own victimhood is more powerful than any other weapon in the fight against rape.”
They also note that allegations regarding Bill Cosby’s conduct only gained momentum after a video clip of comedian Hannibal Burres speaking about the allegations went viral on social media last year.
Bill Cosby was accused of sexual assault as early as 2005 (click here for a full timeline of related events). However, even as more and more women came forward to speak about their assaults, many people still defended Cosby.
The drawbacks of anti-rape advocacy on social media
Hours after NYmag published the Cosby story, their website became inaccessible for hours after a suspected Denial of Service attack. A hacker who later took responsibility for the attack, claims the attack had nothing to do with the Cosby’s story.
Although it may be true that the motivations for the attack on NYmag’s website was unrelated to the Cosby feature, people who speak out about against sexual violence are often harassed or silenced online.
In 2014, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who vlogs about representations of women in gaming, fled from her home after receiving death threats.
South-African journalist and author, Charlene Smith has also encountered online harassment. She spoke to me about her experiences with a particularly relentless harasser on social media.
Smith says, “He first came after me on Facebook by messaging to my inbox crude and vicious notes. I blocked him.
He then began emailing me; I threatened to lay a charge and blocked him again. I discovered he was doing or had done the same to other outspoken rape survivors.”
Smith says the harassment continued even after she moved to the United States. This time, it was on Twitter.
She says, “He was lurking, waiting to come after me again with torrents of insults. I blocked him and reported him to Twitter. I know others who did the same.”
A complex problem
In dealing with online harassment, one challenge is that many victims do not know their attackers. Another problem is that when online harassers are blocked, on sites like Twitter, they can start new accounts to continue the harassment.
Asked how she handles the harassment, Smith says, “Block, report and move on seems most sensible.”
She continues: “If you believe they have the capacity to track you down and physically harm you, and then go to the police, otherwise, put it down to one of the challenges of the infant internet age.”