Regina de Heer: Where are you from?
Zaltan: Brunswick, Maryland.
Shemeka: Alexandria, Virginia.
Alejandro: I'm from McAllen, Texas. I actually just graduated a few months ago from GW.
Jesse: I'm from California, but I live in Japan.
Regina: Do you feel more or less safe in the city where you live now?
Samuel: I'm secure, I feel safe.
Zaltan: A policeman with an assault rifle just walk by. That was a little dodgy. I guess safe yet wildly unsafe.
Alejandro: D.C. as of late it's become very, I guess, pseudo militarized where you always feels like there's a presence. It always feels like someone's watching you.
Shemeka: I feel less safe. There's a gym nearby and I used to go all the time. Every time I would go by, there's like guys catcalling me, honking at me.
Regina: Is there anything that you're doing to make yourself feel more safe under the circumstances?
Shemeka: I carry pepper spray and a taser when I go over there and I just try to be more aware of my surroundings I'm more cautious.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright and I am now constantly encountering the thing you just heard. People arming themselves. People fundamentally changing the way they move around town or interact with others. People just on edge about being in public. I have to say, I personally have not felt that way maybe because I'm a man and don't have any mobility challenges, and all that's a privilege. I've struggled to understand the political energy some of my neighbors have had around crime, but I am starting to get it, y'all.
Just this weekend a guy climbed over the front desk at the Museum of Modern Art and stabbed two workers because they told him his membership had been canceled. This is at MoMA, folks. I mean, really. What's behind all this? What's real about the increasing violence in our cities, and what's perception. In any case, what can we learn from our history about how to meet this moment both as a society and as individuals? I'm joined by somebody who has thought a great deal about crime and our reaction to it. James Forman Jr is a former defense attorney and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Locking Up Our Own Crime and Punishment in Black America. He's a professor at Yale Law School. James, thanks for joining us.
James Forman: Good to be with you.
Kai: How do you feel lately? Can we start there, as someone who has spent decades paying attention to crime, working on criminal justice, setting aside the data and the policy prescriptions for a moment, which we will get to all of that in detail? Do you personally feel a change in terms of your safety?
James: I wouldn't say so. You mentioned some of your privileges. I also feel similar. I live in a neighborhood that I consider to be a pretty safe neighborhood, and partially because of COVID, I'm just not even moving around as much anymore as I did before. No, I would say I cannot say on a personal level that I have felt those kind of changes. I have felt less safe driving, the roadways that have struck me as a little bit mad these days, and there's a lot of data to back that up, but no, I have not felt unsafe on a day-to-day basis in the way that some of those folks described.
Kai: Talk about that, what you just mentioned there with the driving, because I gather that you believe that all of this conversation is about more than what we would consider just "crime", that there's a deeper trend here in forms of, I guess what we call antisocial behavior. Explain that.
James: I definitely think that that's right. Right now we're living at a time where there's incredible anxiety and you see it manifesting itself in anti-social behavior in all kinds of ways. We've all seen the viral videos of people acting out on planes, assaulting flight attendants, assaulting one another. I just mentioned driving, but for the last two years there's been the largest increase in traffic deaths since they've been measuring this data.
That's quite surprising because cars are getting safer. There's a huge rise in the number of people who are speeding. The Gallup polls that measure people's happiness, overall happiness, typically around 50% of the people say they're basically happy, basically satisfied. Last year that plummeted to 39%, the lowest it's ever been. I think you'd be see in people's anxiety and then also in their behaviors really across the board is a breakdown of the social fabric.
Kai: Somebody tweeted when we just were promoting the tonight show before we even got to asking for calls, JP tweeted, "For me it's the fear of reprisal from people for just speaking my mind. This includes asking people not to rev up their engines or park, fire lanes, anything." He goes on to say that it just feels like people have become, especially since Trump and COVID, more bold and selfish, and they get defensive for most of things as if you were trying to take a bone from a dog. I guess I read that to say whether we just need to start with this question of whether society is coming undone to some degree. I hate to sound hyperbolic. If so, what do you think is behind that?
James: I think there is some evidence to that effect. Some of the numbers that I just cited really speak to that as well as the comment that you got from the tweet. I think that COVID is huge. COVID is, in my mind, the Tweeter side, Trump and COVID, I think COVID is really number one in the sense of people are lonely. They're unsettled, they're anxious. Everything about their day-to-day lives have changed. They're not seeing people in the same way that they did.
They're not seeing family members. For young people, they're not able to go to the rec centers. They're not able to go to afterschool programs. A lot of kids aren't even able to go to school. If they do, they're wearing masks, which are more mild but still a form of isolation. It's unprecedented because nobody knows how and when, and why it might end right. Every time it seems like we turn a corner, then there's another variant. I just think that people are stressed out in a way, at a society level in a way that I have not seen in my life's time.
Kai: Help us understand just the facts on crime itself though, because somebody else tweeted saying that they were mad that we're even having this conversation. Is crime up or there are more people of color in positions of power, and that's leading people to freak out? Both nationally and locally, if you can, what has or hasn't changed about crime itself in the past year or two?
James: Crime is up. Crime is up. In particular, the one thing that is the best crime in terms of the most accurate crime to measure that we have that is least manipulable in terms of data and otherwise, is homicides. Last year homicides rose nationally. I don't happen to have the New York numbers at my fingertips, but nationally they rose at the highest level. They rose at the fastest rate, and again, in recorded history.
Now, I think it's very important to say that that rise was from a relatively low level, which is to say our country is much safer in than it was in the 1980s and the 1990s. It's important to just-- When I say the fast it's increase, we're talking about in a rate of increase, but the number of homicides that are taking place nationally are about a third of what they were in the 1980s and 1990s. It is going up fast because it had been so low, but it is still going up. That-- [sound cut]
Kai: I think we've lost James there. While we're getting James back, we also want to hear from all of you about how you feel in the course of this show. Do you feel more or less safe as you move around your neighborhood or town these days? If you have become uneasy in public, we want to know why. I think we have James back.
Kai: Great. James, also, you were saying that it's an important to understand that in a historical context here, that the rate of increase is the highest ever but that's only because we were at such a low level in the first place, right?
James: That's right.
Kai: Help me understand the distinction between violent crime, as you said, that we can measure homicides, and the other stuff that might be making people feel uneasy. What are some of those other things, and can we measure those things?
James: That's really important, and I'm glad you asked because a lot of what people are talking about when they're reporting these levels of anxiety is not necessarily the homicide numbers that I mentioned. Often it is a sense of disorder. It's a sense of unease. It's a sense that there's a chaos on the streets. There's a sense that people aren't regulating their behavior in a way that they once were. Those things are harder to measure, but there's no question there's just too much journalistic work that's going on now around the country. There's no question that those things, that kind of disorder is going up as well.
Kai: With all of that as context, there is a real change here. Your book, Locking Up Our Own, it's a history of the Black community's response to the crime rates in the '80s and '90s, and politically inside the community now, because I hear, I should say, a lot of the anxiety I hear is not from White people, it is from my Black neighbors. Politically inside the community now, how would you compare this moment to that era you wrote about, not the crime itself, but the reaction to it?
James: I think that the reaction is quite severe now, but I don't think it compares to what we saw in the 1980s and the 1990s in terms of the level of anxiety and the level of virulence. You have to remember in the '80s and '90s, not Black-elected officials and many of their constituents as well. We're doing things like asking for the-- [sound cut]
Kai: I think we're losing James again. We're going to go ahead and take a couple calls while we try to get to James back. Why don't we start with Michael in Brooklyn? Michael, welcome to the show.
Michael: Hi, thanks for having me.
Kai: Are you feeling more or less safe these days, Michael?
Michael: I continue to feel very safe in the city. The statistics show that there's more crime being committed, which to me is not so surprising because throughout the course of COVID we found that COVID disproportionately affected people along the margins more, people that already didn't have much. At a time when folks that were already struggling or struggling more, it should be expected that there would be an increase in crime, I would assume.
I'm not a criminologist. I just think that for the most part, people in New York city especially should feel very safe. I always thought it was funny that people out in the middle of the woods really want guns, but it's less safe in the city than it is to live in the middle of the woods, but it's still extremely safe to live in the city, and in New York city currently.
Kai: Certainly relative to history. Thank you for that, Michael. Let's go to Michelle in Orange County. Michelle, welcome to the show.
Michelle: Hi, thank you for having me and for covering this topic. I drive a lot and I'm upstate in Orange County. Before the pandemic, people drove aggressively and people were speeding, and really-- It's New York. Everybody's trying to get first. They want to be there first, they want to pass you. In the intervening three years or two years, the driving has become toxically aggressive mixed with stupidity and arrogance.
I feel like if I look at a driver incorrectly or if I get into it with somebody at a red light, that there's very high percentage of a chance that somebody's going to get out of their car and beat the crap out of my car with a baseball bat, or pull a gun on me. It just feels like there's such a level of rage, and no hope for reasonable conversation right now. It does feel different.
Kai: Thank you for that, Michelle. That's similar to what JP tweeted us, it just feels like people are on edge and ready to snap at each other in a way that makes folks feel unsafe. I think we've got James Forman Jr back. Before we go to break, let's check in with James again. James you there?
James: I am.
Kai: Just to finish your thought about the difference between now and the past politically, and particularly within Black communities, finish that thought for us. What is different now that you think than how it was then?
James: I think the level of vitriol is very, very different. I mentioned that we had people calling for the national guard. We had Black-elected officials saying that the crack cocaine epidemic which devastated Black communities in the '80s and '90s was the worst thing to hit us since slavery. If you went to church on Martin Luther King's birthday in a Black church in the 1993, 1994, 1995 you would hear person after person, elected official after elected official standing up and calling for more law enforcement, for tough on crime measures. They were doing it out of a sense of desperation.
I think that one of the things that has changed now is that there's a generation of people that although they're frustrated and although they're anxious, and although what's happening now is not okay, they also remember the mistakes that were made in the '80s and the '90s. They remember the impact that mass incarceration has had on the Black community. I think now you have a more complicated conversation that's happening in Black communities, because people want to do something, they're desperate to do something, but they're not willing to make some of those mistakes that we made in the previous generation.
Kai: I'm talking with James Forman Jr about an increasingly shared anxiety in cities around the country, a fear of violent crime. We'll take a break. When we come back, we'll talk more about what we can learn from our history as we deal with this anxiety, and exactly what that more complicated conversation that James was talking about, where that can take us. Stay with us.
Kousha Navidar: Hey, everyone. This is Kousha I'm a producer. Couple weeks ago you heard Kai and Brian Lehrer talk about the state of our public discourse. We asked you what entices you to engage in difficult conversations about touchy subjects. Last week, we heard from a listener named Leora. She talked about not having a choice because of who she was. This week, we have a voicemail from a listener who talks about being compelled in another way.
Nick: Hey, Kai, this is Nick calling from Brooklyn. Love your show. I feel like especially now when there is so much controversy around what is real and what isn't, I feel a primal need to persuade people to my reality and hope that it's shared. Anyway, that's it. Thank you. Bye-bye.
Kousha: Thanks, Nick, for your message and thanks to everyone who's listening and talking to us. If you've got something to share, send us a message. Record yourself on your phone and email us. The address is email@example.com. Again, that's firstname.lastname@example.org talk to you soon.
Kai: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright. Later in the show, we'll have a new installment in our series on how to improve discourse in the proverbial town square of the internet. We call this series Digital State, and this week we'll be joined by Nina Janckowiz who has written a how-to book for women who get trolled because they dare to express a political opinion while online.
Right now I'm still joined by Yale Law professor, James Forman Jr, a former public defender and author of the book Locking Up Our Own Crime and Punishment in Black America. James, some of the profound anxiety people are having, I imagine, is about the shared social memory of those bad old days of violent crime that you were talking about in terms of the rates. That was what was going on in the rates back then, and that it's different. What, if anything, is fundamentally different about crime now? Isn't it possible that we could be on the front end of a similarly intense and lasting wave?
James: It's possible. Criminologists are terrible at predicting when crime is going to go up and when it's going to go down. I'm not a criminologist, so I'm not going to hazard a guess. I do think if we think back to the '80s and the '90s, one thing that I think should give us a little bit of sense of security is that a lot of what was driving the violence in those decades was open air drug markets and people fighting for control of turf.
The drug distribution, one, we've had a decriminalization movement for some drugs. Also, just the method of distributing drugs has changed because of the internet. There's just much less violence associated. Not that there's none, there's just much less violence associated with that. It is possible, what you say, and I think we need to be on guard for it. Also, even though it's lower, it's unacceptable. We need to actually make the kind of investments that are going to lower crime, or the best we can do to try to lower crime and lower violent crime right now.
Kai: I want to hear about some of the investments you have in mind, but first let me get a few calls in because we do have a ton of people who want to answer our question on this. Let's start with Adrian Benepe our former parks commissioner who is calling, in New York City Parks Commissioner. Welcome to the show.
Adrian Benepe: Hi, how are you, Kai?
Kai: Very good. I understand that you, in fact, are feeling less safe.
Adrian: I'm just not feeling less safe. I ride to subways every day to go to work. It's been feeling really unsafe, and I was a victim of a violent assault, one of my trips. I think it's not a question-- Yes, there is a perception question. I think there's a real reality out there. The violent crime is way up, and people are being victimized by it. It's not a perception that somebody shot two homeless people overnight. It's not a perception that men attacked one with a hammer. These are real crimes that are happening every day.
I think what happened is that we did have that overcorrection that your guest is talking about in criminal justice and mass incarceration, and then a swing of the pendulum away from all of that. Again, I think an overcorrection in the other direction, decriminalizing a lot of things and saying that it doesn't matter what happens in the subways or in the streets. I'm very hopeful actually about Mayor Adams. I think he can hit that middle of the road area as a former police captain Sergeant, and someone who himself has been a victim of institutional racism. I do feel hopeful. Even just in the last few weeks, the subways are starting to feel safer again.
Kai: Thank you for that. Adrian Benepe, our former New York City Parks Commissioner. What about that, James, in terms of this idea that there was an overcorrection in the past in response to crime, and then there was another overcorrection in terms of reform. What, how would you characterize it?
James: It's such an interesting point, and I really appreciate the callers' thoughtfulness. I think about it just a little bit differently, but not too differently. I don't think that we've had an overcorrection back in the sense that, when you look at, what laws have changed? When we talk about changing the laws so that young people can no longer be tried as adults, or we talk about getting rid of mandatory minimums. If we talk about reducing the maximum sentence length for lots of drug and other fences, I don't think we've overcorrected in that sense.
I think those reforms all made sense, and actually we probably need to continue to go more in that direction. Here's where I think the caller and I would agree. There's a whole bunch of us who want to resist the system that we have now, and all of the punitive measures that have been put in place. The problem is we have not built the alternative system. We haven't built up the other approach that people like me want. We don't have anything like the scale and the size of the police and the prosecutions, and the prisons approach.
We talk about alternative responders, people responding to calls for mental health and for addiction that aren't always going to be police or officers, and will be mental health and addiction specialists and social workers. We talk about restorative justice programs at the backend, programs like Common Justice, which you have in New York. Everything that I'm talking about is tiny it's infinitesimal in scale as compared to the existing system. If we're going to do less of what we saw produce mass incarceration, the critical thing is we have to start doing more and really rapidly in that scale of this other approach.
Our alternatives are nowhere near the size and scale that the need demand. As a result, people have exactly that reaction. They say, "Wait a minute. We overcorrected." In my opinion, that's not quite right, but it is right that if we don't build up this alternative vision, if we don't fund it, if we don't make it sustainable, if we don't make it so that social worker is just as available as a police officer, if we don't do those things, we're going to lose the public. We're going to lose people like that caller.
Kai: To your point about scale, this is what I mentioned someone tweeted at the beginning of the show. Naomi Alexis is the tweet who pointed out facts or facts, $11 billion invested in NYPD, and folks still "feel unsafe". Certainly the alternative programs are not at $11 billion. Let's go to some more callers. Let's go to Tulis in Harlem. Tulis welcome to the show.
Tulis: Thank you so much for taking my call. I'm glued to this thing. I got two things, your wonderful screener asked me if I felt safe. No, I walked down into the subway now, and I'm on constant alert. Who's circling, who's doing-- It's a scary place. The other thing I wanted to tell you is that I'm a friend of the 87-year-old woman who got shoved to the ground and is now in very serious condition from a brain injury. I wanted to let your folks know that there's a video available of her attacker. Is that okay if I do this?
Kai: It is. Go ahead.
Tulis: If you just Google ABC seven, attacker of 87-year-old woman, that pulls up a video. In this case, it's a white woman with a long Auburn hair in her 30s. I said to your producer, you go along and you go along, and all of a sudden you go into the subway and you feel a little creepy. Then you come up and you go, "Cool," but when it happens to a friend, it shakes everything up. I'm embarrassed to admit that, that suddenly a dear friend who may not make it. It shifts everything.
Kai: I'm sorry to hear that Tulis. For listeners who aren't following the stories, this is one of the big crime stories in New York right now, as Tulis said, an 87-year-old woman who was attacked in the subway system. let's go to Foyzul in Queens. Foyzul, welcome to the show.
Foyzul: Thank you. I think the pandemic and too much division in the country as far as social division that I see, a lot of racism, it's giving you a sense that you are all alone. You are not able to protect yourself. There's no sense of community anymore. This is not the America I dreamt for and I come here 40 years ago. This is very sad. I still do believe, I think we can overcome this as people get together and get new policy, and invest more to fight the crime. I was in Manhattan in the '70s and '80s, and '90s. I saw how it was turned around. I have hope,
Kai: Thank you for that, Foyzul. James, as we start to wind down here, these are in informal surveys, I guess, on our shows, but we can always get a sense of when we've hit a nerve by the volume of calls that come in. We literally can't keep the board empty at this point. This is a real thing. As the former parks commissioner said, both in the data and in how people feel about it. Maybe you've already answered this, but let's say you were invited to join Mayor Adams' administration to help craft the actual response to this that would not repeat the mistakes of the past that you have documented in your book. What would you tell him?
James: First of all, I think something that he's already focused on and that a lot of these callers are maybe implicit in what they're asking for. I would very much support is that people who have committed some of these crimes of the sort that we're talking about, the police need to be active. They need to be investigated. Folks need to be identified and need to be held to account. Number one is that, because if you don't do that, then you're going to just-- You have a moral obligation, a moral responsibility to do that. Then I think you start to want to go a little bit deeper.
You want to try to think about, not this offense that was just described here with a 87-year-old woman, but a lot of the violent offenses are among networks of people who know one another. There's been a lot of discussion over the last year or two, but again, more talk than action, and more talk than money around investing in credible messenger programs, in violence interrupted programs, in programs in essence where people in these communities who are part of these networks, but who have decided that they want to intervene and stop the violence, get funded and get supported to do that. We need to do that at a massively greater scale than we do right now. Most of those folks that work in those programs are doing it on starvation wages. That would be my number two thing.
Kai: We'll have to leave it there. James Forman Jr is a professor at Yale Law School, and author of Locking Up Our Own Crime and Punishment in Black America. We'll take a break and then turn to a little different conversation about what it means to feel safe. So far, we've been talking about our physical spaces, cities, homes. Next, what does it mean to feel safe online? Stay with us.
Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright. We've recently begun an ongoing series on this show in which we're trying to examine how we can make our lives online less crappy, how to best use our digital town square, as it were. We're calling this series The Digital State. Here to take us through our latest installment in this series is our senior digital producer, Kousha Navidar. Hey, Kousha.
Kousha: Hey, Kai.
Kai: What have you got for us today?
Kousha: Not what but who. I've been talking to someone I think you'd love to meet.
Speaker: --discuss the latest in Ukraine and Russian disinformation efforts is Nina Jankowicz.
Speaker: Nina Jankowicz.
Speaker: Welcome to the program, Nina Jankowicz.
Speaker: She is a writer, an analyst, who focuses on Russian disinformation campaigns.
Speaker: --who has done stellar work as the Wilson Center's Disinformation Fellow, the coolest title of ever.
Kai: Indeed, Nina sounds pretty cool. Expert on democracy and tech in a region of the world. That's super relevant right now.
Kousha: Yes, Kai, I believe the technical term is "baller", but Kai, that's only part of the reason you should meet her. Yes, she's an expert who's been on PBS and CNN and testified before Congress. The funny or maybe sad thing about it is that whenever she makes these appearances and lends her expertise, she's just trolled like crazy online. A lot of that harassment is about her gender. She found that's emblematic. Women get harassed more than men in politics, and she has first-hand experience online. She decided to write a book about it. She's the author of How to Be a Woman Online. It's a step-by-step plan for dealing with harassment, abuse, doxing, disinformation, all in online spaces.
Kai: Basically, how to make life online better for yourself if you're a woman who dares to have a political opinion.
Kousha: Exactly. Just as a warning, this conversation briefly includes offensive language and mentions one comment made online about sexual violence. She has a lot of good advice for people who might be dealing with something similar, so let's meet her.
Thanks for talking to us, Nina.
Nina Jankowicz: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Kousha: I'd like to start with the inspiration behind this book and your experience. When was the moment you decided you needed to write this?
Nina: Heading into the US election in 2020, I found a narrative circulating online about color revolutions, which, according to Vladimir Putin, these US-funded revolutions in places like the Republic of Georgia or Ukraine, or Kyrgyzstan. Some folks on the fringes of the US political spectrum were alleging that there was going to be a color revolution in the United States, that the Democrats were preparing this event, and that the election was going to be fraudulent because of that. I recognized this as a Russian disinformation narrative.
I made a video on Twitter that did reasonably well. Then suddenly, a couple days later, I was in my doctor's office and my phone just started going berserk. It actually got hot, I was getting so many notifications. Somebody on the right, a Trump supporter, had found the video, sent it to the guy who had perpetrated this narrative, and they were all coming after me saying horrible things. Somebody called me, I think-- I forget the rating they gave me, it was like a 4 out of 10 or something with a Jay Leno chin. I like my chin dimple, but whatever. [chuckles] Talking about my breast size, messaging me about my feet.
One of the things that really took me aback was sending pictures of egg cartons, which is apparently a meme in incel and far-right circles to send women of childbearing age pictures of empty egg cartons to remind us that our job is to bear children, and that our childbearing days are numbered. Joke's on them, I'm pregnant now. [chuckles] That sort of thing, it doesn't get picked up by the platforms. A lot of times, the perpetrators of this abuse are doing things specifically so that they don't trigger the artificial intelligence of the platforms.
The word "bitch", they'll use an exclamation point in place of an "i", and the platforms are really slow to pick up on it. That leaves us alone to deal with it. That's what's hardest about it, because especially for women for whom this is their work, I was engaging on topics that I study, it's as if you're sitting at your desk and there's a mob of people surrounding you while you do your work, picking apart every part of you, and it's nothing about the substance of what you're saying.
Kousha: Going back to that time, your phone is heating up because of how many things you're getting. Did it feel like you were just being attacked for what you said or because you were a woman specifically?
Nina: I don't think it would've mattered what I said. Obviously, this was coming from a political group that disagreed with me, but it wasn't about the substance of my claims, it was about me as a person. Obviously, women in general get gendered comments a lot, but I had never received such prolonged harassment. This went on for about two weeks.
To the point where I felt like people were getting so deep into my internet search history that I needed to invest in some physical protections, including wiping my address off the internet and making sure that my mom's address wasn't on there, protecting my own physical security. I think this really caused me to be a little bit more circumspect about what I was putting out there, and I was already pretty careful. Even though I had studied this stuff, dealing with it for the first time personally, related to my work was something I was not prepared for.
Kousha: Then you thought, "There's a book here, and even more importantly, there's a need here to equip people that are experiencing this similar kind of harassment with information," right?
Nina: Yes. I started talking about the harassment very publicly, and I encountered an interesting phenomenon among my family and friends where I thought I would find sympathy, and this isn't to knock my family and friends, this is not their fault, but even those closest to me were just like, "Don't read the comments. Ignore the trolls. Turn off Twitter." It's not an option for me. Twitter is the main way that I have promoted my work, that I've made connections, that I've gotten asked to write things for large publications. It's my brand, by and large.
It wasn't an option for me to turn it off, and that felt like I would be losing in some way, that I'd be allowing the abusers to win. Until it happens to you, you don't recognize the gravity of the situation and how it's not just mean words on the internet, it affects you emotionally, psychologically, and even physically. As I'm talking about it, my palms are sweating. By sharing that, I think I really saw that there was an appetite to learn more about it, to build a community of solidarity. Frankly, I really wanted to give people the tools to deal with it, because unfortunately, the social media companies and law enforcement are not doing anything in that regard right now.
Kousha: I want to talk about the gravity that you brought up for a moment, because as a woman, I imagine when you go online and post anything, there's always a high chance of harassment, unfortunately. How does that translate to posting about political beliefs, what's the unique dynamic of being a woman with a political opinion and the particular vitriol it draws in?
Nina: I think there is a lot less harassment that comes when you're talking about mommy things or baking a pie than compared with when you're talking about national security or foreign policy, or politics in general. The fact is, when you compare quantitatively, the harassment that men get in politics and the harassment that women get, it's not comfortable. Women get, I think, at least half more compared to their male counterparts in a study that the Institute for Strategic Dialogue did in the 2020 election. You open your mouth about anything that is male territory and you're asking for it.
Kousha: One thing that struck me about your book was actually in the very opening. You've talked about young girls observing the election of Kamala Harris as the first woman vice president, the simultaneous joy of watching her reach that milestone but the anxiety and uncertainty about following in her footsteps. Can you say more about what you mean?
Nina: This really resonated with me as I was conducting this research looking at all of the terrible things that people on the internet were saying about Kamala Harris, and then seeing the inauguration happen. The conflict I felt inside of myself knowing, "This is a historic moment for our nation." Yet, I can imagine what people are saying in the replies to her tweets right now. We looked at 13 different female candidates in two months before the 2020 election in the Wilson Center study that we did. Gathered I think 336,000 pieces of content. 78% of that was directed at Kamala Harris.
It was all sexualized saying that she had slept her way to the top, referring to her in really just awful nicknames. I think having spoken to college and high school-aged young women in the research for my book, I just don't think a lot of them want to endure that to get to a similar spot. In fact, comparing their experiences with my own as a young woman online, they are locking down their profiles, they're self-censoring because they don't want to be abused, they don't want to be taken advantage of. They don't want their futures to be jeopardized.
What they do instead is they just don't speak. They're not speaking out. This isn't the only example, it's not just Kamala Harris. Look at Emma Gonzalez from the Parkland shooting. She was among the activists who stood up after that. There are horrible, horrible memes going around on places like Reddit talking about how people would like to rape her in graphic detail. That's someone that they can identify with much more closely. I think that's what's at stake for young women. Without young women involved, we're missing a critical part of the population and a critical lens through which to examine our political discourse.
Kousha: It sounds like there's so many different ways that a woman can experience this kind of harassment across platform, and even strategy that a harasser uses. There was, in the second section of the book, and I thought this one was really interesting to me because it taught me a new phrase I didn't know before, you talked about a troll safari. Can you tell me a little bit about what that is?
Nina: One of the things that you get to know when you spend a lot of time as a woman on the internet is the different types of guys and how they interact. I'm using guys very broadly, but generally speaking most of my trolls are men. I tried to outline for the reader the types of people that you might find in your replies. One is your general reply guy.
He just needs to reply to everything that you say in order to have contact with you. It's better just to mute him and leave him alone. We also see people like Trojan whoris, who is one of my personal favorites. This is a guy who will drop into your direct messages and say, "Hey, I really like your work," or, "I saw you on TV. Great job," and you say, "Thanks," because it seems normal, it seems nice, and so you-
Kousha: Uh-oh. [laughs]
Nina: -reply. Yes, exactly. Then he takes this as a signal to then engage with you further. I have had men send me voice notes which I have not listened to because I am afraid to hear what they contain. I've had men ask me personal questions, I've had men get mad when I say, "Nice talking to you, but I've got to go spend time with my family now." Then they get mad because they've now gotten entitled. I can't answer DMs from strangers anymore because this happens pretty frequently. We have your various incels and misogynists. We have the old men I think I call him in the book, dwightdooly1939 @hotmail.com.
These are the old men who write me emails after I appear on TV calling me a little broad or something like that, and attacking me for daring to be a woman with an opinion. This happened recently actually with a commentary I was doing on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I was talking about Russian false flag incidents. A man wrote to me, again, in all caps.
He said, "Do you realize what a bimbo this makes you sound like, to say that the Russians are shelling themselves?" In fact that is what they're doing, it is what my expertise is in. This is the sort of thing we find on troll safari. The idea here is to enure the reader to the tactics that are used, and help them look at it in a humorous light. You have better things to do than worry about what these small little men are saying in response to your expert analysis on the internet.
Kousha: It makes me wonder, what do you do about it? What are some of the most useful tips that you've found that maybe they apply to somebody who has a really big internet presence, and maybe it applies to somebody who's just trying to get engaged?
Nina: I think one of the most important things is to use the affordances that the platforms give you. Muting and blocking people sends important signals to platforms. It says, "This guy is saying this incendiary stuff, and 50 people blocked him today." That goes into the platform's artificial intelligence and tells them what to look out for. On a more day-to-day basis, rather than just crisis response, it's been really important to me to find community online. That's one of the only things that makes it bearable, honestly. A lot of the people who have gotten me through the worst trolling I've endured have been women I met on the internet who also deal with it.
They're specialists in the same area as me, I've interacted with them publicly, but then one day started getting up the gumption to direct message them and talk about work, or, say, express solidarity to something they were going through. That's the network that I've really relied on most because these are also women who are online, who understand what it's like, who might have also gone through some of the lack of sympathy that my friends and family have shown me.
Then you're there to support each other, to amplify each other. Men's tweets get retweeted twice as often as women's tweets. Having that network there not only on the private side of things as a support network but publicly to amplify and gas each other up, that's been really, really important for me. That's something you have to build consciously. It doesn't just happen.
Kousha: What do you wish you saw men doing to improve online communities?
Nina: I think men can be better allies, which is a trite thing to say in today's day and age. If you see a dude doing something bad, call him out, report him, block him, send those signals to the platforms. Be a paragon of good behavior whether it's to other men, or especially to women, and especially women of color who get compounded abuse. Women of intersectional identities as well. You don't have to be a jerk online.
It might get you more amplification, it might make you a more interesting account, but it makes the world a worse place. We have to model the behavior that we want to see. That's, again, one of the reasons that I try to break that circle of abuse even when it comes to me, even though it might be nice to, as one of my interlocutors, Van Badham, who's a guardian columnist in Australia, said, "It might feel good to bomb the village, but it never looks good in retrospect."
Kousha: One way we engage with our audience on the show is by asking them questions. Every week we try to take what we talk about, put it back out to the people listening. If you wanted to know something from them, what would you ask?
Nina: I'm always interested in hearing what people's strategies are for dealing with abuse. This book represents my strategies, but everybody has a different way of going about it. I would love to hear the types of things that they experience on a daily or weekly basis, and how they went about dealing with it, how they went about protecting themselves and their careers, and their families.
Kousha: The absolute magnitude of experiences that happen between each account and across so many platforms. I imagine there's so many different thoughts and strategies because people have to equip themselves. That's how you learn to stay online, is by growing that thick skin or learning how to operate.
Nina: Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot of support coming from other places right now. It's all about you and the community that you build. I would love to hear more about how people do that.
Kousha: Thanks Nina.
Nina: Thanks for having me.
Kai: Kousha Navidar is our senior digital producer, and Nina Janckowiz is the author of How to Be A Woman Online. It's an examination of online abuse and disinformation, and tips for fighting back. It will be published by Bloomsbury in April. Let me underline Nina's question you heard there. If you are a woman and you do have a strategy for how to deal with harassment online, tell us about it.
You can record a voice memo on your smartphone and email it to us, or just tell us in an email. Send it to email@example.com. We'd love to share those strategies in a future episode. Again, that's firstname.lastname@example.org. One more thing, if you're experiencing harassment online right now and you're looking for resources, we've provided a link on our website. Go to wnyc.org/anxiety and look for this episode it'll be up tomorrow.
United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown, and performed by the Outer Burrow Brass Band. Special thanks this week to Jessica Schwartz for introducing us to Nina Janckowiz, and to Sham Sandra for engineering help on that interview. Sound designed by Jared Paul, Matthew Marando was at the boards for the live show.
Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann, and Kousha Navidar. I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @kai_wright, and of course, you can find us for the live version of the show next Sunday 6:00 PM Eastern. Stream email@example.com or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Until then, thanks for listening and take care of yourselves.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.