An Australian newspaper columnist wrote this week about why she contacted the employer of a man who was leaving abusive comments on her Facebook page, sparking a debate about how to deal with harassment on social media. 

On Nov. 25, the International Day of the Elimination of Violence against Women, Clementine Ford, a columnist for Daily Life, wrote several Facebook posts that included screenshots of some of the abusive comments sent to her, including violent images and sexually graphic insults. 

In the comments of one of those posts, a hotel worker named Michael Nolan labelled Ford a "slut." Ford contacted Nolan's employer, as listed on his public Facebook page, to ask if they knew how their employee was acting online.

She also included screenshots of Nolan's other public Facebook posts, which she described as "an assortment of vile racism." 

This week, Nolan's employer confirmed that he was no longer working for the company. This sparked a backlash against Ford, and some people are calling on her to be fired, as well. 

Naming and shaming

On Tuesday, Ford wrote a column explaining why she resorted to contacting the man's employer as a way to deal with online harassment. 

"I did it because I'm sick and tired of men abusing women online and continually getting away with it. I can bear the brunt of this behaviour, but I'm angry about the number of women who tell me they can't," she wrote. 

This isn't the first time Ford has "named and shamed" those who harass her online. 

"The reason that I do it is because I don't really see that there are any appropriate mechanisms, particularly on Facebook, to really deal with these kinds of things," said Ford in an interview on the Channel Ten program The Project in June. 

"People, generally… say to women that these are the kinds of attitudes that we need to ignore, that if women are going to put themselves out in the public sphere, that we need to expect that this kind of backlash will happen," she said. 

"I think the power comes from women standing up together and saying this is what happens when we speak up. This is harassment that all of us experience, and it's not OK," said Ford. 

Ford said she was frustrated with Facebook's system for reporting abuse, and Twitter has faced similar complaints. 

In May, Women, Action and the Media (WAM) released a report about online harassment, specifically on Twitter. 

"What they found was that the severe online harassment that was taking place was mostly targeting women, and specifically young women," said Jessica Gaulin, the founding member of WAM's Montreal chapter. 

"They also found that women who were speaking or addressing topics that were mostly previously dominated by men, so topics like sports or the gaming industry, were mostly the victims of online harassment," she said. 

But it wasn't just speaking on those topics that made women the target of abuse on Twitter. 

"It's been concluded over and over again that women who are presenting themselves online as a feminist and speaking on feminist issues are absolutely targeted for very severe online harassment," said Gaulin. 

Both Facebook and Twitter have certain functions that aim to deal with abuse: blocking, muting and forms for reporting the accounts that are posting the abuse. WAM's research looked at how effective these mechanisms are. 

"What they found was that there was definitely some room for improvement and Twitter actually acknowledged that they felt that they were lacking in this field," said Gaulin. 

Ways to improve

WAM's report was followed by a series of recommendations for Twitter, although Gaulin said they were broad enough to apply to any online platform: 

  • Clarify and broaden the definition of online harassment. 
  • Improve users' ability to filter abusive content. 
  • Update the way users report harassing accounts. 
  • Hold abusive users responsible for what they post. 

Gaulin said she hopes social media sites will change such that they no longer have the level of anonymity that allows abusive harassment without consequence. 

"Ideally, those platforms would evolve in such a way that the people who feel that they can hide behind their anonymity and not be held accountable for those violent actions will eventually feel that they are no longer being active in a sphere that allows them to do that," she said.