Netizens is one of the most timely documentaries screened at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, tackling sexual harassment as it occurs on the internet. Women are finding themselves abused to the point of career and home-life devastation because of lacking legislation. Filmmaker and director Cynthia Lowen exposes the current situation as she highlights three women whose lives have been profoundly and negatively impacted by this new form of sexual abuse.
Pamela Powell (PP): What made you decide to tackle this particular subject?
Cynthia Lowen (CL): In the fall of 2014, there were several high-profile stories of women who were driven from their homes by threats of violence from coordinated online cyber-mobs. And coming off of the experience of producing/writing the documentary Bully, there were certain things in the discourse that raised alarm bells for me: the suggestion targets should remove themselves from digital environments; the idea that it was “only” the internet and that these threats were not real; the suggestion that violence and threats are a “normal” part of life online, and that targeted people needed to grow thicker skins. These attitudes sought to normalize acts of violence that are ubiquitous in our online communities, and which have profound ramifications in our lives offline. I thought if I could depict the impact these digital abuses have on targets’ lives - their safety, their jobs, their education, their relationships - I could challenge the notion this violence is normal, or something we have to accept as part and parcel of the internet.
PP: Your subjects, Anita, Carrie, and Tina are all very different women, but who are all connected with the online harassment they received. How did you connect with them?
CL: I had heard certain things about Anita’s situation through the news, but was struck by how sensationalized most of the stories were, and that they didn’t really get into who this incredible person is, and why her work is something we should all be fighting for. So I reached out to her directly in the hopes that I could go more deeply into her ideas and life outside of the harassment. Carrie I met in the process of speaking with attorneys and trying to learn more about the legal landscape. When I first went to Carrie’s office, we hit it off immediately, and at that time she intimated that she’d had her own experiences of harassment that had profoundly shaped her decision to launch her law firm. Tina and I met through a great advocacy group called the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, who provide support and resources to targets of online harassment. Tina was very very early in the process of grappling with her legal options, and what kind of recourse she may have, and even in learning there are many other people out there who are also going through this. So, it was an amazing two and a half year journey with all of us.
PP: The stories are heartbreaking and shocking to me. What was the most shocking or frustrating situation that you witnessed?
CL: When I first started this film, I thought I would be uncovering situations where the perpetrator was largely unknown to the target, and was going after her for something she had publicly expressed or written. I was not expecting to find that online harassment is a massive aspect of intimate partner violence. You can’t really talk about online harassment without acknowledging that the internet is now the weapon of choice that domestic abusers turn to in order to stalk their victims, to control them with nude images, to threaten their jobs and careers with lies, and to financially destabilize them and trap them in abusive relationships.
PP: What do you hope this film will help do regarding both perception and law?
CL: The most important thing I think could come out of this film is changing the public’s perception that online harassment is inevitable, or a “normal” part of life on the internet, and come to see the ramifications as very real, infiltrating our lives and communities online and offline. It’s my hope that this film will be a powerful tool in galvanizing law enforcement to take online harassment seriously, and to develop resources for officers to effectively respond to these crimes when they see them. But it’s really a systemic problem. I filmed with a woman police officer in Miami who was working on a case involving non-consensual pornography, where the only reason she was able to obtain a subpoena for the IP address was because the victim was a juvenile at the time some of the pictures were taken. Judges don’t issue subpoenas leaving officers unable to effectively investigate; district attorneys don’t bring cases because they lack the resources to win them. The whole system needs to address the fact that most crimes today involve some aspect of technology. This is how stalking is done, it’s how threats are delivered, it’s how privacy is violated. So, it’s I think it’s both a matter of identifying where the holes in the laws exist, and educating law enforcers on how the laws we do have can be effectively applied to these situations.
PP: Since the completion of the film, have there been any changes to the laws?
CL: Yes, in the realm of non-consensual pornography aka “revenge porn,” there have been some really encouraging steps. All but 12 states now have some form of law or policy, and image exploitation has been outlawed in the armed forces. Search engines have also banned “revenge porn” from search results, and Facebook has created image recognition software so that identified pics cannot be re-uploaded or shared. So that’s progress, but we have a LONG way to go.
Featured photo: Tina Reine, Anita Sarkeesian, Cynthia Lowen and Carrie Goldberg attend the screening for "Netizens" during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theatre on April 22, 2018 in New York City.