In an age when the meme canon is ever-growing and celebs are morally yoked to the court of Twitter opinions, anyone with an online presence is susceptible to digital exploitation. It's a phenomenon that, when mixed with predatory motives, opens a Pandora’s box of online sexual assault and harassment.
In her directorial debut, Netizens, the Emmy-nominated writer and producer Cynthia Lowen explores the lives of three women victimized by online harassment. On the heels of the #MeToo movement, the film — set to screen Monday, September 30, at Regal UA Falls — reveals the varying forms of sexist cyberbullying and its devastating repercussions while propping up the women who are challenging a complicit legal system.
Providing a glimpse into how anonymous threats online turn into danger in real life, the film follows the stories of women navigating a powerful tech industry and the breach of their privacy. Lowen introduces the audience to Carrie Goldberg, a New York City attorney who opened an internet privacy and sexual assault law firm after experiencing online harassment; Tina Reine, a successful businesswoman from West Palm Beach whose ex-boyfriend released photos and information about her on 14 websites; and Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic and blogger whose commentary about misogyny in gaming culture in 2014 exposed her to a continual sexist campaign of rape threats and death threats that has come to be known as Gamergate.
“I think Netizens speaks to the way in which the internet has become the most important public space in our community. We are in a crisis of privacy. I think companies need to make a much more courageous stand,” Lowen says.
After bearing witness to the targeting of women in the 2014 Gamergate scandal that led to no arrests, Lowen says she knew online sexual assault had to be her next project. In cyberspace, where activism and hate speech share news feeds, and private profiles spew unfiltered propaganda, these blurred lines give perpetrators a clear opportunity.
In the film’s trailer, Soraya Chemaly, director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, addresses the loopholes that tech companies bolster when they fail to take victims seriously. “If a company says, ‘We want to make this a safe space,' and the user says, 'This is not feeling safe,' and the company comes back and says, ‘Oh, you’re exaggerating,’ that’s not good.”
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Chemaly appears in the documentary alongside other Miami women who are advocating for safer digital forums. Among these is Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami and the tech and legislative policy director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. Lowen also interviewed Elissa D’Amico, an attorney at K&L Gates who cofounded the Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project. From offering pro bono representation in online sexual harassment cases to crafting anti-harassment legislation, their activism reflects the plight of the film’s main subjects and a problem that is only growing.
Although state laws cracking down on revenge porn are sweeping the nation, Netizens challenges tech companies to be more fervent in discerning the difference between free speech and hate speech. “It’s disingenuous for these companies to claim if we can’t allow one form of speech, we can’t allow another," Lowen says. "Does that mean speech comes to a grinding halt? Absolutely not. We can still have really robust discourse.”
Lowen, whose last film, Bully, was released by the Weinstein Company, has seen a personal reckoning in her industry that she hopes is indicative of a cultural shift in other spaces. “I can only imagine the courage it has taken the women to stand up against [Harvey Weinstein]," she says. "It’s a shame he was enabled by so many people in positions to challenge him and protect the women who were harmed. It’s a whole system that needs to be dismantled.”
For Lowen, the internet is the next frontier. In cyberspace, photos can circulate forever and information can be extrapolated from banned websites to reappear years later. Though the primary focus of the film is on women who've been victimized, the documentary makes the case that no one is exempt from the dark side of the web. From the activists who fight to redeem victims, to the average user who forwards a photo or video on social media by clicking "share," we are all responsible for creating a safer online space. We are netizens.