Amy Guth is a hard person to describe. She’s a journalist, a novelist, an activist, a radio host and a huge fan of the band The Smiths. She’s also an adjunct faculty member at the University of Chicago and serves on a digital advisory panel for the Inland Press.
When it comes to media in Chicago, Guth seems to be all places at all times, without diluting her impact and without losing her sense of humor –Oh yeah, in 2013 she was named Chicago’s funniest Media Personality by Laugh Factory Chicago.
These days, Guth’s focus is fighting online harassment, a topic she has firsthand experience with and one that she doesn’t find humorous. The Chicago Ambassador recently spoke to her about her plans which began this week with the launch of a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) You’re a woman of many hats and talents. You’ve written a couple books (one novel and one social media guide), worked as the publisher/GM of RedEye Chicago and Metromix, social media manager for the Chicago Tribune Media Group. Currently you serve as a weekend host at WGN-AM 720 and as a contributor to “You & Me This Morning” on WCIU Ch. 26. You’re also founder and executive director at Strangewage (her production company) and senior facilitator and mentor-editor at TheOpEdProject. How did you get the idea to do an episodic documentary?
GUTH) I have long been interested in documentaries and did a couple of short-form, very small things under the journalism banner. This past winter, I had an incident, which was over a period of several months, in which I was being harassed online and the harasment ranged — my bank accounts were compromised a couple of times, I was receiving graphic and sexual and threatening letters and text messages, tweets and calls on the studio line. It started with comments that were unfortunate but not illegal, but it ran the gamut to severe and threatening things. As I started to talk about it, the law enforcement reaction initially was ‘Don’t talk about this, you’re only going to make it worse for yourself if you do.’ That was upsetting, and it took a lot of persistence just to get to the point where I could have a conversation with law enforcement in a way that they took it seriously. I had to go several levels in. The first point of contact said to ‘Get off Twitter if people are being mean to you.’ I was like, “this person has threatened my life. They threatened to rape me and behead me, and you need to do something about this.’ So, that was one point and I admit sound like I have an over-inflated sense of justice because I want the world to be a just place and a fair place. That really got to me and as I started talking to others about it, a lot had that experience and had given up and decided that was the way it was.
I also work with the OpEd Project and talked to a lot of academics and public policy people, and I discovered that there were a lot of people who were highly, highly credentialed doing some great work who opted out of the public conversation.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) Opting out because of harassment?
GUTH) Opting out because of what was happening or what might happen. So many were saying things like ‘I’d love to put my voice in that conversation but I’m too afraid of what the blowback might be.’
I kept hearing stories like that and stories from other women I knew in media. Finally, there was a conversation with someone who told me that it changed the way she thinks about her job, because she intentionally makes herself a little less public. She’s highly sought out as a speaker but sometimes sends a male colleague, not even a colleague – a subordinate, because she knows it will be safer. She said, ‘I hate it, I hate it. I feel like I’m giving away all my power but no one can do anything about this.’ I felt so strongly, I had such a reaction, and I have a rule in my life. If you catch yourself ever saying “You know, someone’s got to …” Then that person should be you. I found myself thinking that someone should do something about this. It’s going to take someone risking getting trolled even worse and getting harassed to speak in front of Congress and bring this conversation into the public dialogue, but someone’s got to do it. I think I said that to myself three times before I was like, well I think I put myself on the hook and need to just do it. I didn’t know what form it would take. I thought it could be a book or a film or any number of things. I decided that I would produce it myself so I’d have control over what form it took. At first I thought I’d make a documentary and then realized there was no way to fit it all into two hours, so I’m going to do episodes, each being about 20 minutes long.
CA) Do you think this type of behavior is easier for the perpetrators because it’s online, rather than in person?
GUTH) Yes, I do. There’s a wonderful op-ed written by a woman named Julie Zhuo, who was a product developer at Facebook, called “Where Anonymity Breeds Contempt” and it’s all about what happens to us psychologically when we’re given the cover of anonymous speech. It’s one of my favorite editorials ever written because it so perfectly captures that problem. I think that’s only one of the issues though. I think another very serious one is the narrative that is used around this issue. Sometimes something will happen to someone, like they’ll get a rude comment and the narrative we’ll say — it’s as if we aren’t allowed to have feelings about it. We’ll say, ‘Don’t feed the trolls, don’t worry about it, it’s not even someone you know.’ So I think what happens is twofold. We end up teaching people to not stand up for themselves, which I think is very dangerous, especially for younger women. And the second thing we teach is that you’re not allowed to be affected by it which is ridiculous because by definition it’s hurtful. There are very well documented cases of PTSD after receiving severe, and even moderate online harassment. There’s paranoia, people alter their behavior. It’s not unlike being physically stalked and harassed.
CA) We’ve all heard stories about online bullying amongst kids. Will your series address that as well?
GUTH) Yes, I’m going to look at kids. I’m going to look at a lot of different underrepresented voices. Certainly kids because they are so much more at risk and impressionable. I think when you’re a teenager you kind of feel like everyone is looking at you or thinking something so it doesn’t take many comments to feel like the whole Internet has turned on them. I think that’s very dangerous to the teenage psyche. I’ll also be looking at some industry specific things, there are some women in law enforcement and journalism that have had some very significant incidents happen to them. Certainly women in entertainment have. There are a lot of actors and musicians that have had some very big issues happen. There was a woman who was kind of a jack of all trades. She was an actress, singer and host who committed suicide. She was suffering from depression and her harassment on social media became so severe that she began suffering from PTSD and it got out of control. She was trying to be open about it and was talking about how it was affecting her emotionally and another group of trolls came in. They came in a very large-scale, organized way and were in fact telling her how to commit suicide and why she should, and ultimately she did. So it’s quite real and something we should take seriously and not say ‘blow it off.’ We should be helping people by bringing it into the public conversation.
There’s also the issue of financial tactics that people take against others that happen a lot. There’s also people who photoshop a woman’s face over pornography and put it on the internet to publicly shame them. That happens to a lot of business leaders. These are all things that I’ll be looking at.
CA) You’re going to produce and direct them. How will they be seen?
GUTH) They will be web released.
CA) Any goal for when the first one will be completed?
GUTH) Spring 2016.
CA) Any idea how many episodes there will be?
GUTH) I’m going to do 12 episodes per season and going to definitely do two seasons, but would love to keep it going longer than that.
CA) Just today, I read a story about a singer and blogger that I hadn’t heard of named Mia Matsumiya, who was harassed online for ten years and collected the messages and has now posted them on Instagram to fight back. Have you heard of her?
GUTH) Yes. There are a lot of bloggers who are doing interesting work in this area and a few of them have examples of well documented techniques and one of them is to quite publicly fight back and show that you cannot be stopped. It’s really hard, especially if it’s personal things. There’s a lot of people who talk about bodies and weight issues and it would be difficult to post something on your own Twitter of someone shaming your own body, especially if you wonder if it’s true. It’s not as simple as just posting, I think there’s a lot to it. There are some groups that talk about it legislatively and talk about it as a digital rights issue. Just because we the right to do something, doesn’t mean we should. I have the right to call someone an asshole, but it doesn’t mean I should. There’s a legislative piece. I think there are a lot of politicians on different tiers that are thinking about it but don’t really know what to do about it.
CA) How much can you legislate though? If someone is going to be a jerk –
GUTH) Right. You can’t legislate not being a dick. But you can, the same thing that allows me as a journalist to have access to information, the Freedom of Information Act, is also what allows people to dump my information on the Internet for wrong doing. A very common practice is to grab a women’s information, put it in a forum and say ‘Get her’ and then you have people working on ruining a woman’s life anyway they can.
CA) You used the word organized earlier and alluded to it again. Are these creeps organized or united in some sort of evil fraternity?
GUTH) Some are. It’s very difficult to prosecute. When we talk about cyber gangs, it’s difficult because let’s say I’m your target and you’re the person who has an issue with me. You’d take whatever information you have. Maybe you have my name, my address and where I work. You post that onto a forum and maybe fifty people jump in. Some will happen organically, some you won’t have to point out. Sometimes it’s organized where you’d say ‘This is my target.’ People will self-organize to help that person target somebody. It’s hard to prosecute because everyone is operating under a screen name. It’s the same thing that allows the Anonymous hacker group to function so well. Nobody knows anyone.
Some of it [online harassment] is personal, some of it is a dedicated group of people. That’s something I want to look at too. Who does this, and why?
CA) What would you tell a woman, especially a non-celebrity who is currently being harassed online about how to handle it?
GUTH) I would tell her to document absolutely everything and I would tell her to talk about it. I’d tell her that there are so many resources out there and so many women who have her back. It’s important that she find her support system, it’s essential. I think of myself as really mentally tough person. I’ve done martial arts for a time and done things like that. I don’t break very easily, but during the period in which this happened to me, I felt like a hunted animal. It was scary. I didn’t know that I had resources available to help me deal with it. A lot of women who are experiencing online harassment feel isolated because sometimes it’s embarrassing, sometimes it’s horrible and scary and you don’t know who to turn to. That’s something I want to do too, is to help unite these groups who are fighting online harassment so that people who are experiencing this know that there are resources for them. That’s half the battle, knowing that you have people supporting you. There was a sports reporter recently that was being harassed in a very vicious and widespread way…
CA) Here in Chicago, right? I remember the story.
GUTH) Yes. I made a point to email her during that and said that ‘I know that one compliment cannot undo a lot of terrible comments, but I want you to know that I think you are powerful, I think your opinion is valid and I think you’re right to speak your mind.’ A few weeks later I checked in and shot her a message saying, “How are you doing? Know that I have your back.’ Or if I see something happen online, and it’s someone that I don’t know well like a Twitter follower, I’ll send a Tweet saying something like ‘It looks like you’re having a rough day online. Know that I have your back.’
I make a point to check in with people who are being harassed because it goes a long way.
CA) It sounds like one of your main goals with this series is to show that there’s support and resources for women.
GUTH) Yeah. My main goal though is to bring this topic into the public dialogue because I think we talk about it in very silo-ed ways. I think there needs to be more impactful conversations. We need some doers to do something. We’ve seen this with a lot of other issues. We never used to even mention suicide. Now we talk about and we say ‘If someone needs help, let’s get them some help.’ We never talked about PTSD. We’d just say, ‘So and so came back from the war a little different.’ Now we talk about it openly and know that veterans need care and support. So, I think this is another thing that needs to be in the public dialogue so that we can start making some changes to address it.
CA) Do you see yourself doing this full-time?
GUTH) The thing with me as you might gather is that I hate having one job. I get very bored very easily and don’t want to have just one job again ever in my life. I’m not giving up broadcasting anytime soon, this is just another layer.
CA) How’s the fundraising going right now?
GUTH) I crossed the $10,000 mark today. The bottom goal is $48,000. That will get the project funded and I’ll get the money from Kickstarter. The second goal is $77,500, which will allow me to add a second tier of cities and a lot of Canada. My big goal is $112,000 which would help me get international cities in the conversation. There’s some data that it might be worse in the UK. In a lot of Asian countries there is a lot of work being done about this and some cultural attitudes about it that are different from ours. I really want to get into some Asian countries, in particular in Thailand and Japan. There’s some interesting work being done that’s impactful. There are a lot of places that I want to go to with this. I have a lot to do and I’m very excited about it.