Harassment of women is omnipresent online. When women speak up about issues facing them, the old cycle of misogyny often kicks in and women become targets for harassment. In some cases, extremists have escalated gendered harassment by “doxxing” women, as a form of punishment for their actions and a tool to silence them.
Doxxing, a term derived from the phrase ‘document-sharing’, refers to the practice of releasing the identifying information of a person on the internet. This can include private information such as phone numbers, real names, and places of employment. The goal of doxxing is to cause extreme distress in the victim and fear for their safety in the real world, making it a step beyond regular online harassment. In some cases, women may face risks to their safety when their personal information is exposed as it allows malevolent actors to find their victims in real life.
A particularly sinister version of doxxing involves using personal information to “swat” victims. This is an act of harassment where a person uses the private information of a target to make a fake phone call to the police, causing law enforcement—including, in some cases, SWAT teams, creating the origin of the phrase—to descend upon a person’s home or place of employment. Some of the earliest incidents of doxxing occurred in the 1990s and targeted abortion providers. Activists would attempt to dox providers and even their family members, publishing names, educational backgrounds, and home addresses. Targeted providers argued that the release of this personal identifying information was especially “terrifying because what they’re doing is trying to provoke…action”.
Extremists use personal information leaked online to find their victims. Some groups have used doxxing more widely, like Anonymous and some right-wing extremist groups, but anyone can deploy doxxing as a harassment technique. Women are particularly susceptible to such harassment because, while both men and women can be doxxed, the power dynamic of gendered hatred online makes women more vulnerable to attacks.
Reliable statistics on doxxing are not yet available because the phenomenon is not widely studied, but the exposure of a women’s location and personal information puts them at risk of gender-based attacks and threats. The mix of anonymity and the expansiveness of the internet leads to women who are relatively unknown or obscure as public figures being harassed in a way that only well-known celebrities or public officials used to be, and these women do not have the same resources to deal with it. Women may even be doxxed as retribution for speaking out against injustice and sexism. In 2016, Lou Dobbs, a Fox News anchor, tracked down and tweeted the address and personal phone number of Jessica Leads, a woman who accused former President Donald Trump of sexual assault.
Women who speak online across the world and call themselves feminists are more likely to experience this form of harassment, as demonstrated in a high-profile doxxing case from 2014 known as “Gamergate”. Several women called attention to sexism in the gaming industry and themes of misogyny in video games and were subsequently harassed online and ultimately doxxed. With the women’s information exposed, harassers created bomb threats, sent rape and death threats, and used their addresses to send unwanted sexualized items to their homes.
While laws against doxxing exist, it is generally only considered a misdemeanor and the legislation is difficult to enforce. With the relative newness of online crimes and the anonymity afforded to internet users, sometimes it is hard for police to track down perpetrators and charge them. Stronger laws and processes could mitigate the number of doxxing cases. Moreover, internet platforms should also implement policies that remove doxxed information and harassment when they are published on their websites. Hopefully, with these policies, all people could feel safer online.
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