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Jezebel’s Porn Problem and the Price of Social Media | The Nation

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Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg

Politics, culture, ideology and sex, not necessarily in that order.

Jezebel’s Porn Problem and the Price of Social Media

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Yesterday the staff of Jezebel revealed that they and their readers have, for the past several months, been deluged by violent rape GIFs courtesy of trollish commenters. Worse, they said, the higher-ups at Gawker Media, Jezebel’s owner, refuse to do anything about it.

“The images arrive in a barrage, and the only way to get rid of them from the website is if a staffer individually dismisses the comments and manually bans the commenter,” Jezebel’s staff wrote in a piece posted on the site. But because the commenter accounts are untraceable and anonymous, the trolls just set up new ones. “It’s like playing whack-a-mole with a sociopathic Hydra,” they wrote.

They’ve asked about tools that would allow them to record—and thus ban—IP addresses, which would make it harder to create multiple fake accounts from the same computer. But nothing is happening. Further, they wrote, while new moderation tools are supposedly being developed, “change is not coming fast enough. This has been going on for months, and it’s impacting our ability to do our jobs.”

They are not alone. On Sunday, The Guardian’s reader editor published a long piece on the “the online abuse that follows any article on women’s issues,” describing how moderators get bogged down weeding out offensive or off-topic comments. “Perhaps it is time to assess whether anonymity should be an option rather than the default position,” wrote the editor, Chris Elliott. “While it has always been argued that commenters build an identity around their pseudonym, those who express opinions under their own name carry more authority and are obviously more careful about what they say.”

Rethinking online anonymity is a good idea. But we also need to rethink the mandatory social media interaction increasingly being demanded of journalists. At the very least, we should acknowledge that the burdens placed on men and women in the industry are unequal.

Obviously, there are women who love the interactive side of contemporary journalism, who thrive on Twitter and Tumblr, do battle in comments sections and are fine letting people they don’t know follow them on Instagram. But those who don’t love it don’t have much of a choice. If you want to be a journalist today, maintaining a public persona accessible to random strangers is increasingly part of the job.

Consider the New York Times Innovation Report, a panicky internal document leaked to Buzzfeed in May. It shows a newspaper leadership that has lost confidence in its industry and is eager to hop on the “disruption” bandwagon, somehow convinced that it needs to be more like Vox, The Huffington Post and even First Look Media, despite the fact that the latter still hasn’t fully launched. There are lots of suggestions in the report, some of them perfectly sensible, but one takeaway is that even the most serious journalists will now be judged according to their facility with social media and their talent for self-promotion.

At one point, the report criticizes Andrea Elliott for taking two days to tweet about her amazing “Invisible Child” series, a five-part project, over a year in the making, about a 12-year-old homeless girl named Dasani and her family. By contrast, it praises the reporters and writers who engage with readers: “KJ Dell’Antonia, our Motherlode blogger, spends about an hour every day replying to commenters. Gina Kolata writes back to all readers who email her. Chris Chivers makes time, even in war zones, to manage social accounts on eight different platforms.”

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One needn’t knock the initiative of writers who are good at social media—particularly those like Chivers who are also great, intrepid reporters—to note that sometimes a journalist has to choose between spending time on Twitter and spending time immersing herself in a real-world drama. We already know that the requirements of brand-building are an enormous time-suck for the permalancer class, but now even those who land a full-time job at the most prestigious media company in the world have extra audience outreach responsibilities. And if it’s no longer enough for a journalist to do intensive reporting and write great stories, that has particular implications for women, who increasingly must open themselves to a constant pelting of personal abuse, from the snide to the violently pornographic, as the cost of a career in media.

I don’t know if there’s any way out of this, short of a drastic change in the architecture of social media itself. But we’re demanding a punishing new form of emotional labor from women in journalism, and we should recognize it.

 

Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on why the documentary Obvious Child is a revelation.

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