Former Vt. lawmaker Kiah Morris on the real-world toll of online hate, harassment
Few people experience the power of social media more profoundly than those targeted by online hate.
And a new feature-length documentary examines the toll those attacks can take on the people they attempt to harm.
The film is called Backlash: Misogyny in a Digital Age. And it features a former Vermont lawmaker, named Kiah Morris, who left office after becoming the target of racist and sexist attacks online.
Morris endured years of orchestrated online attacks directed at her and her family. The attorney general at the time declined to press charges, and said the attacks were protected as free speech under the First Amendment.
The film makes its U.S. debut at a screening in the Vermont Statehouse on Tuesday, Feb. 7, at 6:30 p.m. Details on registering for the screening can be found at the Vermont Network.
Morris now serves as executive director of Rights and Democracy. Vermont Public reporter Peter Hirschfeld talked with her about her participation in the documentary, and what she’s hoping viewers will take away from the experience.
Peter Hirschfeld: The film includes some explicit examples of the threats and harassment that you and other women experienced. And it takes viewers to some very uncomfortable places. We see the screenshots of vile slurs and images directed at women, we learned about the teenage girl who died by suicide after video of her sexual assault was posted online. What is the value do you think in painting such a visceral portrait of this trauma and suffering?
Kiah Morris: The visceral-ness of what is presented is the reality that each of us was experiencing. You cannot sugarcoat that any less than I would do any other act of violence. So it is great courage that was on the part of everyone to participate in a project that took years to actually be developed and to continually step back into being willing to tell that story one more time, so that we could get the fullness of it in a way that we might not in a newspaper article, or in a quick conversation.
Dive deeper into this Vermont Edition discussion about bullying and harassment of adults in the public eye.
For people that have experienced anything akin to what the people featured in this film have gone through, they don't need a documentary, obviously, to tell them what this looks like and how it makes people feel. For people that have not been through that experience, what are you hoping they take away by watching this film?
At a minimum, they can start asking questions, because there's also an assumption that it's just a few that are experiencing this. And one of the reasons why I felt it was important to have this first screening take place in Vermont, and at the Statehouse, in front of so many, was to highlight the fact that many of my former peers are experiencing this, that there's people that are running for office, and I constantly am faced with that question from folks around their safety. Is there a place where they can find safety?
How can they be safe, because they know that there's an inevitability to the harassment in this time — in this day — the way that it is working on the internet, the just unfettered access that people have to manipulate social media. It's an inevitability, it is happening probably to your niece who's in high school, it is happening probably to that activist that you knew from college, it is happening all over. And how are we responding? And even asking those questions? What is it like and how can I support you?
You just talked about the extent to which this is already happening across Vermont to people whose names have not been splashed across the headlines as yours was. In what ways? Is this affecting our political, cultural and social landscape?
Yeah, it is. It's part of a, I believe, very organized campaign to disrupt our democracy at a fundamental level. If people are afraid to run for office, or if they choose to step away, which we saw happen — we saw happen in the years following my departure from the Legislature, even here in Vermont, that there were many women of color who stepped up to say I want to run, it can be done — many of those women are no longer in their elected seats. There was a calculated decision that it was not worth it. It was not worth it to know that they were going in service to their communities and to the state, and would not be protected.
So as we're actually even going into this new biennium, many of the bills that are coming up that have to do with violence, they have to do with gun violence, they have to do with hatred, they have to do with bias, they have to do with harassment, there's a calculated decision upon who is going to sponsor these bills, because those individuals would become targets. We've seen it where youth in Vermont have been targeted, teachers have been targeted.
"[O]ne of the reasons why I felt it was important to have this first screening take place in Vermont, and at the Statehouse, in front of so many, was to highlight the fact that many of my former peers are experiencing this, that there's people that are running for office, and I constantly am faced with that question from folks around their safety. Is there a place where they can find safety?"Kiah Morris, former Vt. lawmaker
One of the things that this film does particularly effectively is show that this is a global phenomenon, that anywhere people have access to social media, we're gonna see this kind of online bullying take place. Do you think there's anything about Vermont that makes us more susceptible to that? And conversely, are there aspects to this state that put us in a position to address it in a different or better way?
Well, so starting from, if I was to think about the ways that we're more vulnerable, the vulnerability comes in that the online space is often the testing ground for determining what can happen in the physical space, right. So the online space is the way to say, how does that person respond? Does law enforcement care? How does the community respond? Is there going to be any sort of a safety net or protective system if we are to target these individuals? And that litmus test just gives a way for folks to then say, all right, now what will we do in the physical space, we'll start creating malicious centers will start creating these groups where people are able to go and participate in taking that online hate into the physical plane, into our everyday lives.
What is challenging around that is that we don't necessarily again have a way of either tracking what's happening with that, not efficiently or effectively assessing the threat in a real way. And not just again, the most worst case scenario where even at sometimes having something as direct as saying, "I want to kill you," may still not get you the protection or the response that you need as an individual. Or the understanding.
I think of the depth of how complex this is, I think it makes Vermont vulnerable and has made Vermont vulnerable for a very long time. I mean, it is important to know it doesn't just live online, it then floats into the real world. We do have an opportunity to see, to test our systems and their ability and their readiness and willingness to address this issue. And because of the size of our state, we can see the results faster, but it actually requires that there is a willingness to do so, it requires that there is full cooperation. And we know that that's not necessarily the case. We know that that is not something that is universally understood or felt. And so one person's experience with this harassment in one community will be very different than it will be in another, and that is where the disparities make it very difficult to say how we will progress, how we will improve.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld: