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The Capital Gazette shooting shows that we must take online harassment seriously

Last Thursday yet another angry white man went on a deadly shooting rampage. This time, the target was a newspaper, the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, and the shooting left five dead and several others wounded. And like the scores of mass shooters who came before him, Jarrod Ramos had a long and well-documented history of misogyny and violence against women both online and in person. In fact, his story helps to confirm the ways in which online harassment often serves as a precursor to offline violence, and should therefore be taken more seriously.

Ramos’s history of online harassment was at the crux of his motivation for the mass shooting. He developed a vitriolic hatred of Capital Gazette when the newspaper published a story in 2011 about how he had used Facebook to stalk and harass a woman he went to high school with. The Capital Gazette article revealed that he had called her vulgar names, told her to “go hang yourself,” and harassed her online for around a year until she pressed charges against him and he was put on probation for 18 months.

Most women who have spent any time at all on the Internet are familiar with a character like Jarrod Ramos. A study in 2016 found that 76% of women under the age of 30 have experienced some form of abuse or harassment online. Despite the prevalence of online harassment, it is rarely taken seriously by law enforcement and seldom flagged by major platforms like Facebook or Twitter. Most of the time, people are told to respond to online harassers by simply ignoring them.

The reason for this seems to be that few people believe that online harassers would actually do anything harmful in real life. The woman who was harassed by Ramos had tried to warn the police about him and his capacity to inflict violence. “He will be your next shooter,” she reportedly told law enforcement years ago. But it appears that her warnings fell on deaf ears.

This latest mass shooting has, yet again, made it extraordinarily clear that online harassers pose a real and serious threat to the safety of the people they abuse. In fact, Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis conducted a six-month-long study and found that far-right online communities on Reddit and 4chan often serve as breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism. Mass shooters Dylann Roof and Elliot Rodger, for example, were both radicalized in these online forums.

The study found that certain online communities target men and attempt to transform them into proponents of violent and misogynistic ideologies. Once men join these communities — or “take the red pill,”  — they start believing that they are the victims of a culture in which women have sexual power. They angrily discuss how beautiful women, “Stacys,” will only have sex with attractive men, “Chads,” and not with them. They call themselves “incels,” short for “involuntarily celibate.” They become Men’s Rights Activists. They try to become pick-up artists and brainstorm ways to manipulate women into sleeping with them.

In this way, misogynistic online harassers are not merely saying offensive things about women and harassing female users online for the sake of riling people up. They are often deeply angry and misogynistic men — and some of them don’t have any qualms about inflicting violence in real life.

Yet, despite the documented links between online abuse and real-life violence, most people underestimate the threat that online harassers pose. Up until recently, these online communities were not even discussed in the mainstream media simply because most people felt that their words were just that — words.

And for those who do not spend a lot of time on Reddit and 4chan, their idiosyncratic and almost laughably immature terminology — “incel,” “Chad,” “Stacy,” “red pill,” — can often obscure the seriousness and toxicity of the concepts they’re espousing. To many, it may seem unthinkable that the anonymous 4chan user with Pepe the Frog as their profile picture or the juvenile Reddit user who converses almost exclusively with “lmao’s” are actually capable of committing violence.

It has become increasingly obvious, however, that some online harassers are dangerous individuals who want to not only hurt people online, but also in real life. We cannot ignore the fact that nearly every single mass murderer in recent history either self-identified as an incel or had a documented history of misogyny. As a society, we need to commit to making both the virtual world and the offline world a safe place for women.

When Ramos’s victim initially reported him for online harassment, Facebook should have taken her report seriously, suspended his account, and prevented him from contacting her further. When the victim pressed charges against him for a year of harassment and abuse, he should have faced real consequences for his actions — not just 18 months of probation. And when she warned the police that he had the capacity to commit violence, they should have listened to her and kept a close watch on him.

We can no longer simply ignore or block sexist online harassers. It’s time to actively stand up against them and treat them as the serious threats to society that they are.


Image via Thought Catalogue

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