(Credit: Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)
Tammy McDonald logged into her LinkedIn account as she normally would on a typical workday. As an entrepreneur and founder of a company in the gaming industry, McDonald sees networking as important to her success. While McDonald doesn’t always accept every LinkedIn request she receives, staying mindful of spam and trolls, she usually does accept those from people with whom she shares common connections.
On this day, she noticed a man she shared a common a connection with — who worked in the insurance space — had sent her a request to connect. She accepted. Following her acceptance, he sent her a message suggesting that they meet in person. McDonald didn’t respond, and he sent her another message wishing her a “good morning.” She politely declined his invitation to meet in person; this wasn’t the first time a man on the professional networking platform seemed to have an ulterior motive. She asked him why he thought a meeting in person would be valuable. They both resided in San Diego, and he said while he uses LinkedIn for “business,” being “a single man” he thought he’d reach out to her — a message donned with a rose emoji.
“Just being honest,” he wrote.
McDonald estimates she’s received over 100 inappropriate messages from men on LinkedIn since she’s been on the platform. Frustrated and fed up, she vented on LinkedIn about the encounter: “With all of the attention the world is seeing from the #MeToo movement, one would think men would stop trying to use LinkedIn as a dating site.”
She raised a good point. Since the news broke about Harvey Weinstein in October, there has been a public reckoning over workplace sexual assault and harassment. As of Feb. 8, 68 men have been accused of sexual harassment and/or assault and have been revoked of their power across various industries and professions — ranging from government to nonprofits to media. Amidst a cultural transition whereby sexual harassment is becoming decreasingly tolerable, why is online sexual harassment still pervasive?
“I think it’s easy for us to get lost in the semantics of what constitutes ‘cyber harassment,’” Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University, told Salon. “I think we can make more meaningful progress in terms of responding to the needs of users when we put ourselves in their proverbial shoes, and try to understand the psychological and emotional harm they might be experiencing.”
According to a recent Pew Research study, “Online Harassment 2017,” 41 percent of Americans have been subjected to online harassment — such as physical threats, stalking, harassment over a sustained period, or sexual harassment. For those who survive, the effects ranging from mental and emotional distress “to reputational damage or even fear for one’s personal safety” can be profound.
Gigi Engle, a sex educator and writer, has received unsolicited genitalia photos on LinkedIn on two separate occasions. It’s prevented her from truly using the platform as a way to connect with professionals in her industry.
“I don’t consider LinkedIn a safe place to network,” she told Salon. “I get messages regularly asking if I’d be willing to meet up for coffee or if I’d let someone buy me dinner.”
She said she chooses to not respond.
“It’s so obviously a weird come-on that I’m not interested in entertaining it,” she said.
LinkedIn told Salon the company takes harassment very seriously and they have tools they encourage users to use to block harassers.
“It’s absolutely not acceptable to send unwanted romantic advances or other similarly inappropriate messages on LinkedIn,” Tatiana De Almeida, who works on the LinkedIn communications corporation team, told Salon. “We have a number of tools in place to help flag and stop harassment, and we’re also investing in new ways to improve detection of inappropriate behaviors and for members to tell us when something isn’t right.”
She explained that the site encourages members to report any inappropriate messages so LinkedIn can take appropriate action. There’s also an option to block members, and for users to control what types of messages they’d like to receive.
However, LinkedIn’s proposed solutions don’t lessen the discomfort some women feel as a result of demeaning behavior on the platform — which is intended to be a safe professional environment where women can network.
Christie M. Gaynor, a small business owner in Southern California, described the unwanted advances she’s experienced as “disrespectful.”
“Instead of a genuine conversation on how we can help each other, I would get messages like ‘you’re pretty,’ ‘I like your eyes,’ ‘I like you,’ or ‘are you married?’ and it would not only be frustrating but being a small business owner, completely disrespectful and a waste of my time and energy,” Gaynor said.
Perhaps online sexual harassment has been untouched by the #MeToo effect because it’s more difficult to punish and criminalize. Cassandra Kirsch, an attorney in Colorado who focuses on privacy, defamation and cyber torts, explains that when taking an incident to law enforcement, a punishment will likely depend on the laws of the state — including whether specific acts like unsolicited genitalia pictures are provided in criminal statutes.
“If the specific conduct is not enumerated in a criminal statute, law enforcement will often exercise its discretion not to act,” Kirsch told Salon.
Punishment can also depend on the relationship the survivor had with the harasser. If the harasser is a stranger and there is no specific criminal statute on the books about the conduct, law enforcement often needs a combination of repeat behavior and an explicit statement to stop the conduct before they can intervene. If the harasser is a previous romantic partner, and the harassment is borderline stalking or could turn into a physical encounter, a person could apply for a restraining order, depending on your state laws. If it’s from a colleague, Kirsch suggests reporting the harassment to the human resources department and filing a complaint with the EEOC or local civil rights division in the respective state if the harassment results in a hostile work environment.
“Blocking an account alone, even if the person keeps creating fake accounts to continue contacting you, is often not enough for law enforcement to find that you conveyed you wanted your harasser to stop, believe it or not,” she said.
Social media platforms are mostly protected under the Communications Decency Act of 1996; hence, said platforms aren’t motivated to really do anything about harassers other than deleting their accounts, to which harassers can typically go ahead and make a new one. Kirsch says another roadblock to really punishing cyber harassers is the lack of understanding from some judges and law enforcement due to a generational gap.
“People will say, ‘Why didn’t you just get off the internet? Why didn’t you get rid of your account? That’s not feasible in a day and age when we are expected to be on the internet 24-7, constantly networking, and responding to messages in real-time,” Kirsch explains.
It is sad but possible that cyberbullying in some form will always be part of our reality, especially as we continue to live very digital lives. Indeed, it is easy for harassers to sit behind a screen, anonymously, and make crude comments to people they’ve never met. However, the objective of the #MeToo movement isn’t merely to erase sexual harassment from our culture; it’s about listening, believing women, and empathizing when they share their stories of harassment, both online and offline.