BY // EMILY VENEZKY
Last week I interviewed Cynthia Lowen, a filmmaker that sparked a national conversation about the American bullying crisis with her documentary BULLY in 2012. Now she is touring the country to host community showings of her newest film, Netizens. Netizens follows people dealing with the effects of cyber-harassment and revenge-porn while our justice system still has no punishment for the perpetrators of this harassment. Lowen follows women that are being attacked online and the lawyers trying to protect their rights with the limited tools provided, hoping that their perspectives can change public opinion on cyber harassment and make an impact in communities across the nation, including D.C.
Come out to see her screening of Netizens on Wednesday September 25th at the Regal Gallery Place at 7:30 pm.
Buy tickets at the Facebook event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/2078607512447593/
(Just click the tugg link!)
I’m so excited to talk to you about your film Netizens.
Yeah, I have been hearing a lot about revenge porn recently actually, before I even heard about your film. It’s really an international problem, right?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, we’ve been screening this film all over the world and this is something that’s totally universal. It’s something that audiences really get. You know, the internet and especially the power that comes with having cameras on our phones that are always connected and always wired into our social media communities. All of that has made it so easy to have our privacy violated, have intimate pictures end up in places we don’t want them and it’s something that is happening all over the world, it really transcends borders.
Yeah, which is terrifying because I think for women you really have to be aware of what’s happening around you in your personal space and in your community but then thinking on an international scale, how can you protect yourself from people? And I think your film really goes into that. On a very local level and national. How did you find people that wanted to tell their stories for it?
Yeah, you know, it was interesting. Because when I decided I was going to make this film it was because I had heard the story that catalyzed it, Anita Sarkeesin. And she is a feminist cultural critic and she critiques video games, often from a feminist perspective, and looks at representations of women in video games. So in the fall of 2014, there were these large scale coordinated online mobs going after women in the gaming industry and that’s when I first heard about so many women that were being targeted, that they weren’t leaving their homes because the threats were really violent, they were really specific, and they no longer felt safe in their homes.
So that was where I was like, ok, I need to make this film, we need to look up what’s going on here. Because it wasn’t just that they were being threatened, it was that law enforcement wasn’t intervening and the safety issue was tremendous. So Anita was one of the first people I reached out to because I had heard her story in the media but then of course there’s several other women in the film who, you know, really hugely known in the media at the time and have become very well known. Namely, Carrie Goldberg, who is an internet privacy attorney in New York.
So Carrie and I met because I thought, “ok, how do I find other people that are being targeted like this” and I thought “oh, I’ll talk to lawyers.” Lawyers, you know, they’re representing the people. And what I discovered is that there is not a lot of lawyers, it’s a really small community of people that are advocating for the rights of those that are being targeted. And so I had been talking to some other attorneys and they were like you have to meet Carrie Goldberg! She’s in Brooklyn, she’s the total kick-ass internet privacy attorney and she’s just opened a law firm. So when I went and met with Carrie, she was saying “We can cover some of the work I’m doing with my clients, but I myself went through this. And I opened my law firm because I know what it’s like. I couldn’t find a lawyer, I couldn’t order protection that was more than temporary. And I opened my law firm because I knew what an uphill battle it is personally that victims face.”
And then Tina Reine, who’s the third main woman in the film, she had reached out to an organization called the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. Again, there are so few people that are helping, especially those that have had experiences with revenge porn or image exploitation. Tina did not have a revenge porn situation, she had someone posting on all these websites her deeply personal information. And she had just discovered there was a group that helped people. And so they put me in touch with Tina when I was coming down to Florida and that’s how we met.
Wow, the way you describe it, it really is such a small community, which I didn’t realize. And you got a lot of diverse perspectives, in terms of age and race.
Yeah, this is the thing, you know, that anyone can be targeted. I talked to women that had been married, even had children. And they were being threatened with revenge porn. And then on the flip side you have teenage girls, 14 years old, that are also going through this. So you know, we’re all vulnerable. And not just women, it absolutely happens to men. You know, men have their privacy violated. For men, it’s often that their career is threatened. But it’s not something that only affects women. It uniquely affects women, but it doesn’t only affect women.
Yeah, I think it definitely uniquely affects them when it comes to law enforcement. What is the background of that?
Well, one of the things that comes up in the film is that as soon as you say “my nude pictures have been released.” That’s sort of, for them, where they stop listening. And they’re like, why were you even nude? Why were you in a compromised position? Why does that photo exist? Why did you share it? Why did you let someone take it? And the victim blaming just gets off a jump from there and you often don’t even get the opportunity to say, besides the myriad of totally justifiable reasons that involve being coerced or filmed without your knowledge, why the picture exists is irrelevant, from my perspective. It’s once it’s out there.
In the case of one of the women in the film, dozens of men were showing up at her job, they’re showing up at her house, trying to have sexual encounters with her because someone is using those pictures to advertise her for sex on Craigslist. Another woman I spoke with, the same thing, the perpetrator had nude pictures, put them up on revenge porn websites and responded to the men that were interested in meeting her, impersonating her, and sent them to her house. And you know, she lived with her parents, she lived with her grandmother. Her entire family was endangered by this. And yet the police hear the word “naked picture” and they hear the word “internet” and their response is kind of like, well, you’re an idiot for having nude pictures of you out there and turn off your computer.
Yeah, which doesn’t make any sense, living in the technological world we live in and knowing women that can be coerced or unknowing of what’s happening to them. It’s terrifying that’s the reaction.
Yeah, and we live in an age where sharing intimate pictures is often a part of a perfectly healthy relationship.
A part of intimacy.
Yes, a part of intimacy and there are absolutely situations where if you say it’s coercive and it’s not positive. But there are also plenty of situations where these are two people that mutually trust each other and have all the good reason to trust each other. And from my perspective, I feel like we should be shaming the person that has gone against the trust that someone has put in them, we should not be shaming the person who’s privacy has been violated.
Yes! And your film is definitely looking at that, like what would it be like if something like this happened to you, you would never blame this person.
I know that your film Bully got a lot of great attention, got a lot of policy attention, got a lot of community attention. Are you really hoping to do that with Netizens?
Yes, and this is what I’m really excited about and this is something I hope the community here in Washington, D.C. will come out on Wednesday September 25th for a screening we are having at the Regal Gallery Place at 7:30 pm. And this screening is part of our national community screening tour. So we are bringing the film to several cities across the United States for one night only, each screening will have panels and conversations with special guests who are real experts on this issue. I will be at the screening here in DC on Wednesday the 25th and we also are gonna be bringing out a lot of tools, resources, and other things on our site so people can see the film, engage with it, talk to their community about it.
And my hope is that they really come back to their community and say (1) that we need to hold tech companies accountable for our privacy and our safety, (2) we need to encourage policy makers to encourage for our privacy and safety, and (3) we really need to take an active role in determining what our communities look like.
Yeah, that it should become a personal mission instead of something you just watch in the media. I can’t wait to see it, I’m gonna be there! And I’m sure a lot of GW students will be interested in going. Thank you so much for speaking to me!
Thank you so much, Emily.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length