You know if there’s a story about a 13-year-old girls being raped, and the assault being filmed, and the video being distributed at her school, with impunity, before the title card even comes up, the movie’s going to be brutal.
Netizens is a documentary about online gender violence and harassment. It features names you may know like Anita Sarkeesian from Tropes Versus Women, but also names you don’t, from women who didn’t make content and put it out there but just broke up with their boyfriend or turned down a date, and had their whole life turned upside down as a result.
The trouble with attitudes towards harassment and abuse is that people always want to visualise it as a discreet event, in the past, get over it. The problem with online abuse is that the internet has no past, it is just one continuous present, and that anything that has ever been done against you there, is still there. There is no future beyond the assault to recover to, because that place doesn’t exist. There is no getting over, only every day being retraumatised.
When Anita Sarkeesian launched Tropes Versus Women, it was to death threats, rape threats, and bomb threats. 4 years on, people say to her, “It must have be over now though, right?” She tells them, “No, what makes you think it would be any better now?” No one wants to deal with online gender violence as something ongoing, a problem that will never go away.
And the repeated refrain from all the women involved is that any attempt to end the violence against them is decried as an attack on free speech. Free speech has become the abuser’s shield, a mantra to justify ruining someone’s life, destroying their sense of safety, security and privacy, and driving them to suicide. The way this robs women of their voices, the confidence to speak in safety, both online and offline, doesn’t appear to be a concern for free speech advocates. Free speech is only free to some.
This documentary is terrifying. In that, ‘don’t think about all the nuclear weapons the Russians lost track of during the fall of the U.S.S.R. because it’ll keep you up at night’ kinda way. Because the truth is, this could happen to any of us, at any time, for any reason, and it could ruin your life. And one thing this documentary struggles to do is balance that message with any hope.
Because the truth is, it’s probably already too late for you to protect yourself. Unless you’ve been on the dark web since 93, your IP address is trackable all through time, if you’ve had the same email address all your days, if you’re reading this through a Facebook account, enough of you exists on the internet to be used to destroy you at any time.
And with all gender-based violence, the law is woefully inadequate and rarely enforced. So this becomes yet another unwanted testament to the fortitude of women preserving through continuous trauma and injustice.