How an expert on online disinformation and harassment became the target of both
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Nina Jankowicz is the author of books about political disinformation and the harassment of women on social media. In the past month, she's been the target of both. In late April, the Department of Homeland Security announced the creation of the Disinformation Governance Board, whose mission would be recommending best practices to counter disinformation related to homeland security. Jankowicz was appointed to head this new board. The board and Jankowicz immediately became the targets of disinformation campaigns, mostly coming from the right. She was also blitzed with social media posts harassing and threatening her. This month, the board's work was suspended until further review, and Jankowicz resigned. Nina Jankowicz is the author of the new book "How To Be A Woman Online: Surviving Abuse And Harassment, And How To Fight Back." Her previous book is titled "How To Lose The Information War: Russia, Fake News, And The Future Of Conflict." In 2016 and '17, she worked in Ukraine as a Fulbright fellow, advising the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry on how to fight disinformation. She's also been a disinformation fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
Nina Jankowicz, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the Disinformation Governance Board. What was its mission?
NINA JANKOWICZ: Well, thanks for having me, Terry. The Disinformation Governance Board was widely misunderstood and mischaracterized. It was an internal working group that was meant to coordinate a very large department's work on addressing disinformation. DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, has about 250,000 employees and lots of different component agencies and departments, some of which have been doing work on addressing disinformation, let's say, about critical infrastructure or our voting systems, about the border, about natural disasters. And the idea was to bring me in as an expert and work with the folks in the department, making sure they had access to best practices, helping them put good information out there and, frankly, making sure Americans were equipped with information that kept them safe and secure.
Addressing disinformation more broadly really isn't about labeling or censoring individual facts, which is what the narrative about the board was. You know, I've spent a lot of my career talking about how we can't just play what I call whack-a-troll to get out of our disinformation crisis. We can't just fact-check our way out of the crisis of truth and trust that we face. And I would have never taken a job that was all about that. It was about something much more anodyne, much more boring. But it got totally taken out of context. And because, you know, the department didn't provide a ton of information at the beginning, folks created their own narrative, a scary narrative.
GROSS: Well, let me stop you there.
GROSS: What was the narrative? How was the board mischaracterized?
JANKOWICZ: Well, there were a lot of folks, mostly on the conservative side of the spectrum, who said that the board was going to be a ministry of truth, a la George Orwell's "1984," that we were going to adjudicate what was true and false online and that I was a czar, a disinformation czar, a minister of truth. And nothing could have been farther from the truth. Again, this was an internal working group that was meant to support and advise the operational components of DHS. We had no operational authority or capability. It was still DHS' components that were doing the work, making decisions, et cetera.
GROSS: Can you be a little more specific about what kind of disinformation you were trying to combat and what some of your recommendations might have been?
JANKOWICZ: Absolutely. So the Department of Homeland Security has a broad set of equities. Many of your listeners are probably familiar with the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, CISA, which in 2020, under the leadership of Chris Krebs, during the Trump administration, had pushed back on a lot of falsehoods about election security in particular. That's one arm of the department's really broad set of equities. There's also FEMA - that's part of the Department of Homeland Security - which, of course, deals with natural disasters. They've been doing work for over a decade that makes sure that Americans are equipped with, really, trustworthy, true information during disasters about how to get aid, about how to, you know, successfully navigate their way out of a town that might be experiencing a disaster. That's the sort of thing that we would have been supporting.
And then I think another example that's important that's also within the department's portfolio, especially given the events of the past few weeks, is that disinformation plays a role in radicalizing people to violence. You know, we're seeing continued mass shootings here in the United States, and in many of those cases, violent extremism is begotten by things people see on the internet. So that's the sort of thing that we would be looking to address.
GROSS: You were personally attacked, and you're the author of a book about how women are often attacked on social media. Tell us about the nature of the attacks on social media against you.
JANKOWICZ: Well, Terry, it's been about a month now - actually, exactly a month - since the board was announced, and the attacks are still continuing today. It has been an incessant flow of filth and vitriol, frankly. And I don't think anybody - man, woman, Republican, Democrat - no matter your background, should ever have to endure anything like this. It's very different from criticism, and I want to get that across to your listeners. It's not just mean words on the internet; it was real, violent threats to me and my family and attacks on my very being.
So I can give you some examples, and I'll try to censor myself as I go along. There were a lot of allegations that I'm a transgender person. There were conjectures about my fertility status, men saying that I should, you know, get out of national security and go make babies, which is quite ironic because I am 39 weeks pregnant as we speak right now. There was also a fixation on my pregnancy. This was discussed by both the Daily Mail and Fox News several times, people saying, why would she take a job like this before going on maternity leave? Why would the administration hire her in this circumstance? Or pointing out my weight gain, how my body has changed since I've been pregnant. There was, broadly, sexual abuse, which I really can't repeat in any way on air, but you can imagine the sorts of things that men were saying about me.
There were threats of dox'ing, so releasing my personal information and my family's personal information, and then actual dox'ing, so, you know, my personal information has unfortunately now been acquired by these individuals who wish me harm. Phone calls from strangers to me and my family members, allegations that I'm a groomer or a pedophile, which has been a popular narrative on the far right recently. Frankly, allegations from sitting U.S. senators and congresspeople saying that I'm mentally unstable or bizarre. And I think it's important to underline that these individuals, although they're not threatening me my - directly myself, they're encouraging this sort of abuse from the people who listen to them and follow them.
And then beyond that, there were calls to create deepfake pornography of me and then the violent threats, which were numerous. And I was reporting at least one a day to the department for the three weeks that this campaign was going on before I resigned - things like, go hang yourself, you leftist, C-word. You're the new Goebbels; will you meet the same end? Of course, Goebbels killed himself. One person said, this is a hill to die on; get ready - we will not tolerate this. And this, to me, seems to have come directly from a tweet that Representative Lauren Boebert sent out saying that this was Stalinist or Mao level, and this was a hill to die on, so directly echoing her language and the threat. People saying, you will regret this. Kill yourself, you subhuman sack of S-word. You and your F-ing family should be sent to Russia to be killed. Hey - I don't know how to describe this word, a pejorative for a woman - quit your job before we destroy your life. Everything you've ever cared about will be taken from you. And you're nothing but a freaking liar. And you're going to pay for it with a heavy price, you stupid B-word. That's just a few of them.
GROSS: It sounds like you could go on for hours just listing these threats. It sounds awful. And a lot of the attacks that you've described were gendered. They're about you as a woman or you as a pregnant woman, but they're not about you. I mean, they're very specific to being a woman. Is that something that's really common? I mean, you wrote a whole book that's just been published about harassment online of women.
JANKOWICZ: Yeah. I mean, I think when there is a woman, especially a young, opinionated woman who has a history of expressing herself online, that is an easy target for many people. And I've studied this phenomenon both in politics and how it is used by adversarial nation-states like Russia, China and Iran. And gendered attacks, because of the endemic misogyny in our society, it's just something that works. People are happy to rally behind it and make fun of women for just being women and having the audacity to exist in spaces that have been dominated by men for centuries. And I would be happy to debate and to, you know, stand up for the policies and the work that I have done, the policies I was meant to enact in this job. But so much of what was directed toward me had absolutely nothing to do with my job, absolutely nothing to do with my past work. And it was this white-hot hatred and vitriol and threats for something I never did nor had ever any intention of doing. And that's just - it really weighs on a person, especially, you know, when you've gone into public service to help the country. And it feels like millions of people want you dead.
GROSS: The campaign of hatred and threats that was directed against you on social media, do you think that was an organized campaign - like, just a lot of individuals reading the news and deciding that you were the enemy?
JANKOWICZ: So I haven't done a full analysis of what happened. I do one day want to pull all of the tweets and kind of look to see if there's any networks that are visible there. But what I think happened is there's a very kind of tried-and-true method through which messages travel in the conservative media ecosystem. And actually, a group called Advanced Democracy Inc. did a report on this where they said essentially a tweet from Jack Posobiec, the right-wing influencer, influenced the rest of the conversation about me. So he was the first kind of large, high-follower persona to pick this up.
And from there, it went to Fox News, which, throughout a week, 70% of their one-hour segments had information on me within the segment, which is just a staggering figure, considering that I was a relatively low-level official in the U.S. government. And then from there, we saw, again, this coordinated messaging campaign on the floor of Congress, where many of the same tweets that Jack Posobiec had highlighted were then blown up onto poster board and decontextualized during congressional hearings. You know, I can't say that there was a meeting about me, but certainly there seems to have been note taking from the conservative online media ecosystem, the mainstream media ecosystem, and then what conservatives in Congress were doing.
And again, I would have been happy to engage on substance. My - the substance of my work goes far farther than a couple of random tweets that represent my opinions at a moment in time. I've written two books. I've testified before Congress four times, including as a Republican witness. I have advised not only congressional offices here, but other governments. There's a lot to go on there of substance. And instead, what members of Congress tried to do is personally attack me for expressing myself, for using my First Amendment rights in order to make me toxic to the Biden administration and thereby undermine this important effort to protect our national security.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nina Jankowicz. She was appointed to head the Disinformation Governance Board, which was created by the Department of Homeland Security. She was appointed in March. The board was announced in April. And this month, after a disinformation campaign against the board and against Jankowicz and a lot of personal attacks online against Jankowicz, the board's work was suspended, and Jankowicz resigned. She also has a new book called "How To Be A Woman Online: Surviving Abuse And Harassment And How To Fight Back." So we'll talk more about that after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Nina Jankowicz. She was appointed to head the Disinformation Governance Board, which was created by the Department of Homeland Security to make recommendations about how to best deal with disinformation. But the board and Jankowicz became targeted with disinformation, and Jankowicz was also harassed and threatened on social media. The board's work was suspended. She resigned. She's the author of the new book, "How To Be A Woman Online: Surviving Abuse And Harassment And How To Fight Back." She's also the author of an earlier book called "How To Lose The Information War: Russia, Fake News, and The Future Of Conflict."
How did the Department of Homeland Security deal with the attacks against the governance board, you know, the Disinformation Governance Board, and the attacks against you?
JANKOWICZ: Well, Terry, I think the department itself was caught flat-footed by both of those strings of attacks. I think government, in general, has to understand that we're living in the internet era right now. And so as these attacks were coming down the pike, what we saw was a lot of hand-wringing, frankly. And the department couldn't get a statement out, couldn't respond quickly to the attacks. We saw the secretary, which I'm very grateful for, go on Sunday shows in Washington the weekend after the board was announced and defend the board, defend me. But other than that and his remarks at congressional hearings, we weren't able to really mount a fulsome response because, again, this is a huge department that isn't really set up for communications in the internet era. And that's not unique to the Department of Homeland Security.
GROSS: What do you think the department could have done?
JANKOWICZ: I had hoped that we would not necessarily fight fire with fire, but address the ridiculous claims that the board was going to be a ministry of truth immediately and head on, you know? Put out information about what the board was going to be doing because we had created this information vacuum - unintentionally, of course. But we didn't say that we were going to be focused on protecting civil rights and liberties and First Amendment rights, for instance, when the board was first announced. We didn't even really say that the board was an internal mechanism and wasn't going to be focused on any external operations and had no operational authority. That wasn't involved in any of the communication when the board was announced. So I would have liked to have filled those gaps very early on, ideally before the announcement. But as we saw the campaign getting started, you know, it would have been good to respond more quickly. And instead, we just let hours and then days and weeks trickle by. And as a result, that information vacuum was filled with disinformation. And it was filled with attacks against me.
GROSS: Would you have liked to directly respond to some of the harassing tweets? Like, what would your advice to yourself have been if you had the freedom to say what you wanted to in response on social media?
JANKOWICZ: I would have first tried to clarify some of my past statements. Unfortunately, I don't think it matters to a lot of people, because I've tried to clarify since then and I'm just being told that I'm lying. In fact, some people have even said that they don't believe I've actually resigned from the department, which shows you the level of conspiratorial thinking that we're dealing with here. But I also would have liked to have shed light on the types of threats that I was getting. One of the things that I've always done and I would have done had I not been, you know, in government service at the time and had my communications restricted, is share screenshots of some of the threats with, you know, the information about the user who sent them anonymized, because I don't want to encourage further abuse and dogpiling.
I think this gives people a really stark understanding that they might not have otherwise of the types of threats that women are enduring online and, perhaps, would have turned down the vitriol a little bit, embarrassed people into having a more civil conversation about the substance of these issues. You know, something that I find empowering when I'm going through abuse - and this isn't the first time I've dealt with it, unfortunately, although, it is the longest campaign - is to note how silly some of it is. You know, there have been men who have said things like, oh, you know, she's 39 weeks pregnant - what is she, an elephant? - not knowing that pregnancy is 40 weeks or more, sometimes, for human beings. Looking at some of the things that people are saying about, you know, the videos of me singing - I used to do a lot of musical theater in my life. So they've seized on those and made fun of those.
And it's the sort of taunts that I used to get on the playground in elementary school. The difference is the kids who were doing that grew up. And they're not members of Congress now who are focusing on that sort of thing. So that can be empowering, I think, for people who are dealing with abuse. I wouldn't go toe to toe with trolls. Often, what they want is the amplification that you're giving them by responding. But I think if people are engaging in good faith, there's a reason to continue to engage with them, to debate with them and to call out the behavior that is not civil, the behavior that has no place in our public discourse. And, frankly, if some of this behavior were happening in real life, I would be able to take out a restraining order against many of them. But it's happening on the internet, so we don't have that luxury.
GROSS: Nina, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nina Jankowicz. And she was appointed to head the Department of Homeland Security's Disinformation Governance Board. But after the board and Nina Jankowicz herself became the targets of disinformation, and she became the target of online harassment, the board was suspended and she resigned. She's also the author of the new book "How To Be A Woman Online: Surviving Abuse And Harassment And How To Fight Back." We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Nina Jankowicz, author of the new book "How To Be A Woman Online: Surviving Abuse And Harassment, And How To Fight Back." She's also the author of "How To Lose The Information War: Russia, Fake News, And The Future Of Conflict." In 2016 and 2017, she worked in Ukraine advising the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on how to fight disinformation. It was part of her work as a Fulbright fellow. In March, she was appointed to head the Department of Homeland Security's new Disinformation Government Board to recommend best practices to fight disinformation. The board's work was suspended this month after the board became the target of disinformation. Jankowicz herself became the target of disinformation and online attacks and harassment. She resigned from the board.
You know, you've pointed out that it's sometimes hard to attack an institution because an institution seems kind of faceless. It's much easier to attack an individual and to defame the individual. So if you want to attack an institution, one approach is to single out one of the leaders of the institution, preferably a woman or a person of color, and defame them because it's so easy to attack women and Black people, people of color, trans people, gay people online. That's the way the game is played online. So I think you wrote this before you were appointed to head the Disinformation Governance Board. But can you talk a little bit about why you think it's easier to attack individuals than agencies or institutions and how that applies to your personal experience?
JANKOWICZ: Yeah. I think, you know, this Disinformation Governance Board was a faceless body, and I became the main character of the attacks against the board. I was ridiculed. I was, again, threatened and abused. And the idea was, if I was gone, then perhaps the board would be gone. Now, the board is under review. And I hope very much that the department and the administration go forward with this important work and do not kowtow to partisan attacks, because, frankly, we've done that enough already over the past four weeks. But it's also important because we need to stand up to these sorts of personalized attacks.
You know, I write a lot about how online abuse against women and people of color, as well as gender disinformation, which is a whole other can of worms that I've written about and researched, is a national security issue. And I don't mean that just because, you know, this stopped important national security work. I mean it because our adversaries are using it against us. I've researched, again, you know, campaigns that Russia, Iran and China have used against women who are in journalism, women who are in democratic movements around the world uncovering human rights abuses and this sort of thing.
Russia, in particular, loves to use, like, fake sex tapes and things of that nature in order to undermine these women. And that silences women. You know, I think when women look at what's happening to me, especially young women, I wonder, are they going to decide to go into public service? Do they feel free to express themselves online? Are they going to post their opinions and be authentic online, talk about their hobbies? Are we allowed to do that as women on the Internet without having to endure the cost of simply existing as a woman online? And I've spoken with young women in focus groups who have said, you know, I don't want a lifestyle that public anymore. And that breaks my heart, because if we really want our democracy to be robust, we need better representation not only in Congress and other elected institutions, but in these appointed positions and other, you know, realms of public service as well.
We need women. We need people of color to make government better and more responsive and more representative. And if we allow these attacks to continue, we're going to see nations like Russia, like Iran, like China using them to continue to further the misogyny in our society and dismantle our democracy. It's all connected. And I'm just very dismayed that these campaigns have become so common in our politics, because it means that we're just leaving entire generations of women and people of intersectional identities behind and not hearing their very important opinions that are going to shape our national discourse and the responsiveness of our government for decades to come.
GROSS: In 2020, before the election, you led a study analyzing posts about 13 women candidates, including Kamala Harris. What did you find?
JANKOWICZ: This was a pretty staggering study. A lot of the study is of online abuse and harassment just focused on one platform for a short amount of time. And we decided we're going to look at six platforms. We're going to look at candidates across the aisle, across the age range and, frankly, around the world as well. We looked at New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern, Priti Patel in the U.K. and Chrystia Freeland in Canada, kind of as points of comparison for our American candidates. And we found, over two months and six platforms, over 336,000 pieces of gendered abuse or disinformation - 78% of that was directed at Kamala Harris. A lot of these gendered disinformation campaigns were transphobic in nature, were sexualized in nature or were racist and racialized in nature. And we found them across the board. It didn't matter if you were a Democrat or a Republican. It didn't matter your politics. These sorts of campaigns are just endemic to our political discourse right now.
One interesting thing that we found - actually, we thought perhaps we hypothesized that there would be more vitriolic campaigns on some of the dark corners of the web, you know, these alternative platforms like 8kun the image board or Parler, which was quite popular ahead of the 2020 election. We actually found more abuse on mainstream platforms like Twitter. And our hypothesis there is that abusers like to yell at their targets, not just about them. There is this very intentional I hope she sees this, I hope it makes her feel bad, I hope it makes her reconsider the role that she's playing in the national discourse.
And then the other thing that we found is that there was a lot of abuse that was flying under the radar of the social media companies because of what we called malign creativity. So this is abusers, rather than writing the B-word, they would write B-!-T-C-H. So that the artificial intelligence that's looking for this type of abuse wouldn't see it. Or they'll send image-based abuse. So something that I receive a lot is a picture of an empty egg carton, which is meant to suggest that I am nearing infertility and that I should get back to making babies and get out of this space that I find myself in.
GROSS: You are nine months pregnant right now.
JANKOWICZ: Yeah. I know. I know. It's - I've gotten a lot of those this week, Terry (laughter). But that's the sort of thing that makes it more difficult for tech companies to push back on this abuse. I'm not making an excuse for them. They absolutely need to do a better job. But it's something that makes it a challenge and, frankly, a challenge that I hope they're now aware of so they can start to do better by their women users.
GROSS: You know, when I read that you had found transphobic attacks against Kamala Harris, I thought - did I read that wrong? - because, you know, Kamala Harris is not trans. And then you described a Photoshopped meme alleging that she was secretly a man named Kamal Aroush.
GROSS: Like, what do you know about where that originated? And did that get any traction?
JANKOWICZ: So it got some traction among Qanon conspirators. And this is, actually, a pretty normal kind of vector of attack against women in power. The idea - and it's something I've received as well. The idea is to suggest that women - like Kamala Harris, like Jacinda Ardern, like Michelle Obama, frankly - are duplicitous somehow, that they can't have gotten to the seat of power that they are in just simply by being a woman. So they must secretly be men. That's what it's about. It is, shockingly, much more common than I think a lot of people would realize. And it's one of the most frequent things that has been levied against me over the past month as well.
GROSS: That you're secretly a man?
JANKOWICZ: Yes. Yes. They believe that I am transgender. I've been asked, you know, what private parts I have. In fact, I got an email just before we went on air today that was asking me if I was secretly a man. And again, it's this duplicity that I think the abusers are trying to get across, that you can't be a woman and be in this position of power. So you must have some dark secret. And, of course, there's homophobia baked into that. Of course, there is, you know, some degree of this obsession with groomers baked into that. It's a dark place out there.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nina Jankowicz. She's the author of the new book "How To Be A Woman Online: Surviving Abuse And Harassment, And How To Fight Back." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Nina Jankowicz, author of the new book "How To Be A Woman Online: Surviving Abuse And Harassment, And How To Fight Back." She's also the author of "How To Lose The Information War: Russia, Fake News, And The Future Of Conflict." In March, she was appointed to head the new Department of Homeland Security's Disinformation Governance Board, which was supposed to advise best practices for fighting disinformation. But there was a campaign of disinformation against the board and against Nina Jankowicz, as well as a whole slew of harassing social media posts against her. The board's work has been suspended. Nina Jankowicz has resigned from the board.
Can you talk a little bit more about the candidates who you studied in 2020, the women candidates, and the social media attacks against them that had to do with their gender, sexuality or just being a woman?
JANKOWICZ: Yeah. So of course, we saw a lot about Kamala Harris, given her position and the fact that she was going to be the first Black and South Asian woman vice president - so a lot of racist attacks, a lot of things claiming that she had slept her way to the top or, you know, racialized attacks as well, saying that she wasn't actually Black, she wasn't actually Indian, that she shouldn't be able to claim that heritage, and then the transphobic narratives. We saw similar attacks against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We saw attacks on Reddit that were quite graphic and gruesome about, basically, rape scenarios, fantasizing rape scenarios against some of these candidates. Again, we did see it across the aisle. It didn't matter if you were a Democrat or Republican. What seemed to, perhaps, matter a little bit - and this isn't statistically significant because we had a small sample size necessarily, because it was just such a huge amount of data to comb through. But older women did seem to escape some of the sexualized abuse.
So women who were in their 50s or above seemed to escape some of that, whereas younger women received a lot of it. And again, it was nothing that was based on policy or platform. It was just based on gender and even allegations that these women were, perhaps, not intelligent. It was never said that way, right? It was, she's a bimbo or another gendered insult against these women. And you encounter that much more rarely when you're looking at the discourse - that is often vitriolic, yes - about male politicians. So there's a significant difference in the tone, the tenor and the amount of abuse that women in politics receive. And again, I do really worry about that chilling effect, what a little girl who is watching Kamala Harris', you know, inauguration speech thinks when she encounters the type of sexualized abuse online that alleges she slept her way to the top. What's she going to think? How is that going to affect her aspirations someday?
GROSS: So Kamala Harris is, of course, now vice president. Did any of the other 12 women candidates who you studied and examined social media attacks on them, did any of them drop out of politics because of the online harassment?
JANKOWICZ: I don't think any of them did. These were all pretty well-established figures at the time. So we're talking about Ilhan Omar as well and, again, the women in international politics that I mentioned. Unfortunately, they are used to it. I think that it is viewed as part of the job. And that is extremely sad that you have to perhaps hire someone on your social media team to deal with the abuse and harassment that you're receiving, that, you know, you are expected to just grin and bear it when you're - when you are dissected this way, when your male colleagues don't have that same burden that you are experiencing. But there have been many instances, in the U.K. in particular, where things are a little bit less vitriolic than they are here, where women, prominent women who are members of Parliament, have dropped out of politics and have cited the abuse that they've received as the main reason that they've done so.
GROSS: What advice do you have for women who are attacked online? Do you suggest, you know, muting or blocking the people who are harassing you?
JANKOWICZ: It's a delicate dance and one that I've had to think about a lot the past couple of weeks. Muting tends to be better because it doesn't give individuals who are blocked the chance to see that they're muted.
GROSS: Can you explain the difference for people who aren't on social media?
JANKOWICZ: Yeah. So when you mute somebody, you just never see the content that they're sending you. They're shouting into the void forever, which in and of itself is quite satisfying. When you block someone, you're blocking them from seeing your content, and they know that they're blocked because they'll navigate to your profile, and it will say, this person has blocked you from seeing their tweets or from their Instagram photos or whatever. I have now started blocking people more aggressively because there are a lot of high-follower accounts that will mention me, and this is essentially a dog whistle to their followers to come and attack me. And I'm trying to cut off vectors for abuse.
But everybody has a different sort of equation for how to deal with this. And one of the women I interview in my book, a playwright and a writer called Van Badham, who lives in Australia, she reminds everyone that your timeline is not a democracy; it's a queendom. And whatever rules you want apply there. Nobody can criticize you for using the affordances that the platforms give you to keep yourself safe and sane. So figure out what that kind of tripwire is for you and block and mute with abandon. I think that's really important.
But keep speaking out, right? Because once we start to censor ourselves, that means we're ceding ground to the people who are trying to silence us. And we're not just doing it for us. We're ceding ground for the women who are going to come after us as well. So we need to lay claim to that ground and not give it up.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nina Jankowicz. Her new book is called "How To Be A Woman Online: Surviving Abuse And Harassment, And How To Fight Back." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Nina Jankowicz, author of the new book "How To Be A Woman Online: Surviving Abuse And Harassment, And How To Fight Back." She's also the author of the book "How To Lose The Information War: Russia, Fake News, And The Future Of Conflict." In 2016 and 2017, she worked in Ukraine advising the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on how to fight disinformation. It was part of her work as a Fulbright fellow.
Let's talk a little bit about the social media companies like Twitter and like Facebook. They've talked about making changes to help prevent disinformation online and harassment online. Have those policies been effective at all, do you think?
JANKOWICZ: I've seen some positive steps coming from Twitter in particular. I think they are starting to think about these issues really thoughtfully, changing the way that their reporting process works, for instance, so that it is more responsive to individuals' experiences. But even during the experience that I've just had, I've reported - you know, I don't even know how many - probably thousands of tweets, that I've been told, even though they are directly either targeted harassment or directly violent, that they don't violate the terms of service of the platform. On Facebook, I've, you know, reported hundreds or thousands of messages that I've received directly. I was shocked to find out that you actually can't turn off direct messages on Facebook, which seems insane to me. And I've never even heard back about what happens to those people.
So there is a lot of lack of enforcement on behalf of the social media companies. Even though expressly in their terms of service or community standards that says that harassment is not tolerated based on gender, it says that, you know, hate speech is not tolerated, et cetera, et cetera, they have not invested in the human or technological capacity necessary to respond to the problem. And you have to ask yourself, is that because they can't? Is it because they don't want to because it's going to be extremely expensive? Or is it because actually harassment and vitriol is part of the social media business model? We know - there's plenty of data on this - that the most enraging content online, the most emotional content online, is the most engaging content. And I think that's really what we're dealing with at the heart of this. This vitriol keeps people on the platforms.
GROSS: Have you been tempted to just sign off social media?
JANKOWICZ: Not really (laughter). One of the things that I've mourned, actually, is the fact that, you know, I can't use it as openly as I did before. I used to have an open TikTok account, an open Instagram account. When I was in college and high school, I had every blog known to man. I mean, I've really grown up with the internet, and being open on it has been a big part of my life. I'm not going to cede that space and let the bad guys win. Again, I really do want to create a world where, you know, my son - or if I have a daughter sometime - that they can express themselves without, you know, worrying about this sort of thing. And I think if I were to sign off, not only would I be closing myself off to opportunities to, you know, engage with people, to promote my work, to meet new people and new friends, but I'd be contributing to the further deterioration of the discourse as well, and I'm not willing to cede that ground.
GROSS: So one more question for you, and this is kind of personal. But you're due to give birth next week, I think.
JANKOWICZ: Mmm hmm.
GROSS: And you've been going through one of the most, like, troubling periods of your life, where you've been so harassed and attacked online and threatened while you're on the verge of giving birth. And I think, you know, it's a very upsetting time of your life to be attacked. Can you talk a little bit about those two things happening simultaneously and what that's been like for you?
JANKOWICZ: I really resent that people have taken away what should be an extremely happy, exciting time of my life from me. I joke a little bit that I should be, like, floating around Washington among the cherry blossoms in some ethereal-looking gown, rubbing my belly, and instead I've been scrolling terrible threats and harassment on the internet and had to resign a job that I had been dreaming of for the past decade. That being said, it has helped me keep in perspective that, you know, the world is not over. I'm bringing a new life into this world. And certainly for my son, among anybody else, I want to make the world a better place. I want, you know, us to be able to agree on facts. And I want people to be able to express themselves online in a way that makes our democracy better and more robust, not more vitriolic.
So I'm trying to find the positives among all of this, and I'm extremely grateful to my husband in particular, who has tried to shield me from some of the worst and looked through, you know, my replies on Twitter every day, making sure that any threats that we needed to see got reported. But I would just remind everybody that being pregnant, you know, doesn't save me from criticism, but it does make me a human, just like everybody else who is slinging this abuse. And I'd encourage those who have made this their hobby to think about the human being on the other side of the screen and realize that if you wouldn't want this to happen to yourself, to any of your family members, perhaps you need to reconsider your priorities.
It doesn't cost anything to be nice. It doesn't cost anything to be civil. And we can make our country a better place when we do that. So that's what I think about when I think about giving birth in, you know, a couple of days. I just hope that this experience gives people some reflection on what internet hate is. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that'll happen. But everybody is a human behind the avatar.
GROSS: Nina Jankowicz, thank you so much for talking with us, and I wish you good health. I wish you an easy delivery and a wonderful life with your new baby.
JANKOWICZ: Thank you so much, Terry. It was a pleasure.
GROSS: Nina Jankowicz is the author of the new book "How To Be A Woman Online: Surviving Abuse And Harassment, And How To Fight Back."
I am proud to end today's show by sharing the announcement that this week FRESH AIR received the Peabody Award in the institutional category, honoring the show for its 35 years as a national program. I can think of no better way to celebrate our 35th anniversary, which was May 11. What makes this celebration even sweeter is that the Peabody was presented by Stephen Colbert. If you're interested in hearing from our producers and getting staff recommendations, check out our newsletter, which you can subscribe to via our website at freshair.npr.org.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering today from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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