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The fight to make the internet safe for women

What does violence against women look like?

For years, activists worked tirelessly to show the public that women living under the threat of violence don’t always show up to work with bruises and black eyes – and that violence, particularly intimate partner violence, often takes surprising, subtle forms that aren’t always easy to recognize.

Now, activists face a new challenge: getting the public to see that online threats to women are serious, pervasive, and deserving of the same attention as other forms of violence. 

The recent attacks on actress Leslie Jones provide a painful reminder of what the internet can be, at its worst, for women. 

Actress Leslie Jones' personal website hacked

In July, actress Jones temporarily quit Twitter after a slew of racist, sexist and violent messages were lobbed against her; users called her an “ape” and other unprintable names, and tweeted obscene photoshopped images of her. In August, hackers went several steps further and breached Jones’ personal website, reportedly posting nude photos of her, a threatening photo of a dead gorilla, and her personal driver’s license and passport info for all the internet to see. Homeland Security is investigating.

The harassment against Jones, unique in that it escalated while the public watched, was “heartbreaking” to see, internet safety advocate Cindy Southworth said.

“The level of attack that she was under still makes some of our most severe sexual and domestic violence cases pale in comparison,” Southworth said of Jones. “It’s appalling on every single level.”

The founder of the Safety Net Technology Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, Southworth spends her days thinking about how to thwart abusers who now have an entirely new set of tools – from GPS tracking to revenge porn to social media slander to keystroke logging spyware – to instill fear and anxiety in their victims.

Southworth and her colleagues are on a mission: to help women navigate online threats to their safety, and help law enforcement get up to speed on the rapidly evolving world of online threats against women. 

Young women experience severe online harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26 percent of young women ages 18 to 24 have been stalked online and 25 percent have been the target of sexual harassment online, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.

Watch: Video of men reading abusive tweets to women #morethanmean

“One of the biggest challenges that we face is that far too many people think that things that happen online aren’t as dangerous or as important as things that happen offline,” Southworth told CBS News. “I think that’s a false dichotomy.”

Internet threats are threats, plain and simple – especially since there’s no opting out of the internet for women who want to stay connected to the rest of the world, or need to do so for their jobs.

“When police officers tell victims of stalking and violence that ‘If you want to be safe from your ex, get off the internet’ – that’s alienating and unconscionable. That’s victim blaming,” she said.

There’s no checklist, of course, that women can use for guaranteed safety, online or offline. But what measures can women take to feel somewhat safer in online spaces? We spoke to Southworth and her colleagues – technology safety specialist Rachel Gibson and senior Safety Net project coordinator Kristelyn Berry – about how to approach protecting yourself online the same way you approach protecting your home and your bank account:

Know your privacy and security settings 

Knowing your settings – which sites revamp all the time – is easier said than done, Kristelyn Berry admits. But she insists it’s worth it.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence has been advising Facebook​ since 2010 on ways to improve its safety settings. The social network has come a long way in making those settings user-friendly, Southworth said.

“That’s gotten much more clear,” she said. “It’s also much more granular.”

On Facebook, there are a few quick steps you can take to boost your privacy​ and security. Browse through your list of Facebook friends, and remove anyone you don’t know. Enable login notifications, so Facebook will tell you if someone tries logging into your account from a new device or browser. If you don’t want search engines to link to your Facebook profile, opt out of that under the site’s privacy page.

Beyond Facebook, Southworth encourages users to spend time exploring all their app settings rather than accepting the defaults.

“Embrace your inner geek,” Southworth said. “Get to know your smartphone settings. Turn off location sharing​ for all the apps you don’t want to know your location.”

And don’t forget: online security is nothing without a foundation of strong passwords​. Avoid dictionary words and don’t repeat any passwords​ from site to site.

Cover your webcam

Nearly every computer has a front-facing camera that can be hacked into, a particular fear for victims of abuse and harassment. 

The National Network to End Domestic Violence distributes stickers that individuals can stick over their webcams: “My webcam, my choice,” they read. 

In April, the organization sent a box of stickers to FBI Director James Comey after he revealed, in a speech at Kenyon College, that even he puts tape over the webcam on his personal laptop to protect his privacy.

Consider other people before you share

Too often, we assume our friends have the exact same relationship to the internet that we do – and don’t hesitate before posting and tagging photos of them, checking them in to particular places, and sharing the big moments of their lives with our entire networks. Make a habit of asking permission first, Gibson advised.

It’s a lesson she’s learned herself. In her work with abuse survivors, she’s seen firsthand what a battleground the internet can be for others. It’s made her particularly sensitive to posting about other people without permission, Gibson said.

“You never know what people want on the web,” she said. “I’ve taken a strong stance thinking about what I post.”

That consciousness has spilled over to Gibson’s friends and family – including her mom, who warns her friends about over-sharing on social media even though, Gibson laughed, “she still calls it, ‘The Facebook.’”

If you’re being harassed, consider your options for collecting evidence

In many cases, abusers are smart. In menacing their victims, they aren’t using the black-and-white language of explicit violence that would get them quickly kicked off Twitter or Facebook​.

Apple CEO Tim Cook: Data privacy "impacts all of us"

Southworth cites a chilling example: imagine an abuser who tells his victim that, on the day he kills her, he’ll also give her a dozen red roses. Imagine, then, that same abuser going on Facebook one unremarkable day and tagging his victim in a picture of red roses. That’s the kind of murky, corrosive behavior that may not violate any terms of service, Southworth said – but still demands attention.

(In January, a New York judge ruled that tagging someone on Facebook – and the notification that tagging generates – counts as communication, which is enough to constitute violating a restraining order, CNET reported.)

“That’s one of the benefits of technology,” Southworth said. “It’s easier to document those crimes. Thirty years ago, if your ex threatened to kill you in the privacy of your home, you wouldn’t have any evidence. But if it’s posted in a social media space, digital evidence is very compelling. That digital trail can assist in a conviction.”

But collecting digital evidence – whether that’s saving text messages, taking screenshots of social media, or printing threatening emails – can pose its own problems, Gibson notes. Often, there’s no safe place for victims to store that material.

If a victim can’t collect evidence, police can step in to fill that void. Facebook, for instance, has a designated security portal through which authorized law enforcement can go in to a user’s account and collect evidence of harassment on the victim’s behalf that can then be used in court. In rushing to hit “delete” on threatening material, victims can unknowingly erase valuable evidence for police officers to collect. 

Trust your instincts

Sometimes, online safety comes down to a gut check. No one knows your situation better than you do.

“If you think your phone is compromised, if you think your ex is in your email, if you think someone knows too much about your activities – it’s possible they are monitoring you. Talk to a trained victim advocate,” Southworth said. She added that she wouldn’t want a victim to even visit her organization’s website from a computer that may be compromised. 

If there was one silver lining to what Leslie Jones experienced, it was what followed immediately afterwards, Gibson pointed out. 

Using hashtags like #LoveforLeslieJ and #BlackMenforLeslieJones, bystanders shouted messages of support and solidarity for the actress. Jones sat down with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to discuss ways to prevent abuse, and lent her own support for the next high-profile victim of online harassment, Olympian Gabby Douglas.

“We saw the digital community stepping up and speaking out and saying, ‘These spaces need to be safe for everyone who uses them,’” Gibson said. “It really showed the power of the internet.”