The XX Factor

Men Reading Online Harassment to Women Is Powerful to Watch. But Will the Trolls Listen?

Anonymous trolls gonna troll anonymously.

Everyone knows it’s easier to spew vitriol on the internet than to confront someone in real life. If it weren’t, the majority of online comment sections would devolve into “no, you hang up” lovefests, and all those Twitter report evaluators would have to find work as peer mediators instead.

On Monday, Just Not Sports, a podcast that covers the non-sports interests of sports figures, tried to use the gap between acceptable internet language and acceptable IRL language to draw attention to the truly gut-wrenching harassment female sports journalists face on an average workday. The hosts roped a bunch of male sports fans into reading aloud some of the tweets and comments online abusers have launched at Sports Illustrated writer Julie DiCaro and ESPN reporter Sarah Spain.

The insults quickly escalate from boilerplate jabs any journalist might hear from a grumpy reader—“Julie DiCaro is a mediocre, run-of-the-mill beat writer”—to gender-based, sexualized remarks like “This is why we don’t hire any females unless we need our cocks sucked or our food cooked,” and “Why bring up your own rape in this story? Is it your own way of firing back at critics who said you can’t get any?”

DiCaro and Spain each sit opposite these men, gamely listening to them read a list of slurs and violent threats to their faces. The men all grow uncomfortable. Some apologize or start to sweat. When one man hesitates before reading a particularly vile line, a producer’s voice rings out from off camera: “Just read the tweets, man. They’re just mean tweets.”

Jimmy Kimmel’s “Mean Tweets” shtick, which asks celebrities to read real insulting tweets about themselves to a camera, has become a popular way for audiences to enjoy a chuckle at a rich person’s expense and for famous people to demonstrate a little humble self-awareness. (On a recent episode of Scandal, presidential candidate Mellie Grant agrees to do the bit in an effort to appear more like an everywoman.) These clips gain their humor from the act of making people whose egos seem untouchable—people who rarely, if ever, stoop to the level of internet trolls—acknowledge the existence of their most foul-mouthed haters. 

But the messages Spain and DiCaro endure, Just Not Sports proposes, are #MoreThanMean, per Just Not Sports’ hashtag. They’re harassment, hate speech, and abuse. Forcing a man to say the words “I hope your boyfriend beats you” aloud to a woman’s face is a way to make him realize how internet hostility affects an actual human being, not a Twitter profile. “I’m having trouble looking at you while I’m saying these things,” one of the men confesses. The producers hope the video will amount to a peer pressure campaign that’ll make men think twice before posting harassment and threats online and challenge other men who do. The video, they wrote on their blog, “serves as proof most sports fans would NEVER say these things to another person—so we shouldn’t type this garbage, either.”

Here, Just Not Sports has a bit of a blind spot. People shout insulting, violent things at women all the time—on the sidewalk, on public transportation, in bars. Of course most sports fans would never call a female journalist a “stupid cunt” to her face. Most sports fans are not what makes the internet a dangerous place for women to make themselves heard. It’s a very vocal, very misogynist, very insecure minority that harasses women in public spaces and writes the kind of trash DiCaro and Spain face down in the video.

Will that population of men watch this video? Will they care? Will someone who’s written lines like this even recognize himself as the villain of the video? Certainly, it will serve as an education to some men. “I watch sports almost every day of my life, but had no idea this goes on,” one such viewer wrote in a Facebook comment. Others, men and women alike, seem to have missed the point completely: “I love these men. They have good hearts, you can tell by their discomfort,” one woman wrote on Wednesday morning.

But even in the comments section on a video shaming men for harassing women, the trolls have emerged. Many bravely stood up for the men who’ve been silenced and ignored in all this chatter about hate speech. “Disgusting. But male sport writers get the same kind of treatment if the writer dares to criticize an athlete or team,” one Facebook commenter wrote. “I’ve seen them threatened. Their families threatened. Called names.” Others wondered why these women are so upset about rape threats, when death threats are much worse. These men may not be the same ones who wished that DiCaro would be “Bill Cosby’s next victim,” but they certainly won’t be impelled to anti-harassment activism by this campaign. It’s far more likely that the average internet jerk’s reaction will fall somewhere along the lines of Facebook user Eddie Slater’s: “It’s a free country you SJW. Deal with it.”