Soraya Chemaly: The Internet’s Exploitation Marketplace

September 24, 2016

Soraya Chemaly is a veteran of the Women in Secularism conferences, and I remember first meeting her when she came to the first conference in 2012, not as a speaker, but as a journalist covering the event. Since then, she’s been a favorite go-to speaker and panelist. Today we were reminded why.

Chemaly has emerged as a renowned advocate and expert on the enormous disparity between the experiences of men and women online. Recalling some of what Wendy Kaminer was criticizing about “safe space,” Chemaly characterized the Internet the ultimate safe space for white males, built overwhelmingly at all levels by people just like them. It’s no wonder, then, that the very serious concerns of the woman denizens of the Internet are going either ignored or relegated to the status of niche concern. She would later say, “I can’t take the conversation about safe spaces seriously” until this uber-space is addressed.

Consider the rise of consumer-level artificial intelligence, in the form of digital assistants like Alexa, Siri, and the new-ish Google Assistant. The algorithms on which these assistants run are made by a fairly heterogeneous group of white dudes, which in turns creates a kind of ignorance on the part of this artificial intelligence. Siri, Chemaly pointed out, was unable to help a woman who told it “I’ve been raped” or “my husband hit me,” but did have meaningful responses to “I’ve been assaulted.”

Oh, and one A.I. project is getting the fuel for its natural language processing from Reddit. Shudder.

So the Internet as a “safe space” for guys also means that it more easily serves as a platform for backlash against women who dare to advocate for their own equality. It serves as a global, networked marketplace for profiting off of harassment and sexual exploitation. What’s to be done?

We refuse it. We refuse to agree to consider this stuff normal. We talk about it openly, and make noise when pro-equality advocacy gets censored and struck down either by algorithm or human. We use the Internet for it can be to build new platforms and tell new stories. Instead of censor, we get mad out loud.