Episode 18: Netizens - Cynthia Lowen and Nicole Fidler
Cynthia Lowen, Director and Producer of the 2018 documentary film Netizens, and Nicole Fidler, Esq. from Sanctuary for Families, speak about the documentary and the laws that govern online harassment and cyber sexual exploitation.
Cynthia Lowen is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and writer. She is the director of NETIZENS, a feature documentary about women and online harassment, making its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and its international premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs.
She is also the producer and writer of BULLY, a feature documentary film following five kids and families through “a year in the life” of America’s bullying crisis, which she developed in partnership with Emmy- and Sundance-award winning director Lee Hirsch. Filmed over the course of the 2009/2010 school year, BULLY opens a window onto the pained and often endangered lives of bullied kids, revealing a problem that transcends geographic, racial, ethnic and economic borders.
Lauded by reviewers, BULLY was awarded a prestigious Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award for excellence in journalism, as well as the 2013 Stanley Kramer Award from the Producers Guild of America, the True Life Fund Award, the Cinema Eye Audience Award, the Emery Award, the Bergen Film Festival Audience Award, and more. Drawing on BULLY’s success, the filmmakers created The BULLY Project Social Action Campaign, a collaborative effort in partnership with multiple organizations, foundations, brands and corporate sponsors, sharing a commitment to ending bullying and transforming society.
The film and campaign have garnered support from such prominent voices as Anderson Cooper, Ellen DeGeneres, Kelly Ripa, Meryl Streep, Katie Couric, Justin Bieber, and many others. Featured at several summits on education and school climate, in April of 2012 BULLY was screened at the White House. The impact of this documentary and the associated social action campaign was recently explored in Anderson Cooper’s 1-hour special, The BULLY Effect, premiering on CNN.
Through her work on BULLY, Cynthia has lectured extensively on filmmaking, bullying and school climate and culture, addressing the Producer’s Guild of America, the Middle School Presidential Inaugural Conference, Ideafestival, Open Society Foundations, New York Women in Film & Television, Texas Trailblazer Awards, the Tribeca film festival, among others. She is the co-author of The Essential Guide to Bullying, Prevention and Intervention (Alpha) with Cindy Miller, a school social worker, psychotherapist, educator and parent consultant. Cynthia is also the editor of BULLY: An action plan for teachers and parents to combat the bullying crisis (Weinstein Books). She has also authored several articles and has appeared widely on television shows and radio programs to speak on the subject.
Cynthia is also an award-winning poet and winner of the 2012 National Poetry Series for her collection The Cloud That Contained the Lightning, published by University of Georgia Press. Using the character of J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” as a jumping-off point, the collection explores the enduring legacy of nuclear weapons. Of these poems, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes writes, “No biographer in 600 pages has come closer to understanding him [Oppenheimer]–and the bomb–than does Cynthia Lowen in these subtle, resonant poems.” Cynthia is the recipient of the Hedgebrook Women Authoring Change Fellowship sponsored by William Morris Entertainment, the Discovery Prize, residencies to the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, among other honors.
Cynthia attended Colorado College and received her MFA in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in New York City.
Nicole Fidler, Esq.
Nicole Fidler, Esq. coordinates and supervises Sanctuary's pro bono practice, which currently consists of over 1000 pro bono attorneys and approximately 60 law firms and in-house legal groups. She also represents survivors of gender based violence in family offense and child/spousal support cases, contested divorces, and criminal vacatur cases.
Prior to joining Sanctuary for Families, Ms. Fidler worked for Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP, where she represented individuals, corporations, and financial institutions in a range of complex commercial litigation, bankruptcy, and regulatory and enforcement matters. She was also actively involved in pro bono work, with an emphasis on matters relating to gender-based violence, sex trafficking, and immigration.
Intro Voices [00:00:05] Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me?
Karen Ortman [00:00:36] Hi, everyone, and welcome back to “You Matter”, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I am your co-host, Karen Ortman, Assistant Vice President of field operations at the Department of Public Safety and a retired law enforcement professional.
Sabah Fatima [00:00:58] And I am Sabah Fatima, a pre-med graduate student here at NYU’s College of Global Public Health.
Karen Ortman [00:01:04] Today we introduce Cynthia Lowen, an Emmy nominated filmmaker and award winning writer. Cynthia is the producer and writer of the 2011 documentary film “Bully” and the director and producer of the 2018 documentary film “Netizens”. Also here today is attorney Nicole Fidler from Sanctuary for Families. Nicole will explain the laws in New York City and in New York State as they pertain to the subject of online harassment and cyber sexual exploitation, also the subject of Cynthia's film, “Netizens”. Cynthia and Nicole, thank you for joining us today on “You Matter”. So let's begin with you, Cynthia, to talk about your documentary “Netizens”, which depicts three women, Carrie, Tina and Anita, who are successful, professional women and the targets of online harassment and abuse. You follow them as they confront their digital abusers and strive for equality and justice online. So what was the impetus for creating this documentary?
Cynthia [00:02:05] I have this really clear memory of getting ready for work one morning and a story coming on WNYC about Anita Sarkeesian. And this was in the fall of 2014 when there had been several coordinated online mob attacks against women in the video game industry. And Anita is a cultural critic and she has been critiquing video games from a feminist perspective with a really fantastic series called “Tropes versus Women”. However, she was one of the women who was targeted in this really vicious attack, and she and others had to flee their homes. The threats of violence were really extreme and not only-
Karen Ortman [00:02:45] Really vicious attacks against her.
Cynthia [00:02:47] Yeah, and, you know, threats on her, threats on her family, bomb threats when she was doing public speaking events. However, the response from law enforcement was really inadequate. And the response from the tech companies themselves where these coordinated attacks were being mounted also seemed extraordinarily ineffective. And at that moment, I remember thinking, “I think this is the next film. I think this is the next film I have to make about what's happening here with women being targeted online.”
Karen Ortman [00:03:19] Right. So let me ask you. So you said that the law enforcement response was insufficient. Is that because the laws were not in place for the law enforcement officers to enforce or do you think there was a lack of understanding of the gravity of the threats? What was the basis for the lack of response?
Cynthia [00:03:43] I think the lack of response can be attributed to a few different things. One is this attitude that, “Oh, it's just video games, it's just kids playing games. We don't understand why this is something that we need to be taken seriously.” But it is absolutely against the law to issue death threats and threaten to kill people, and what are considered true threats. So I think that failure was part of this notion that, oh, it's just a video game thing. This is just gamers. This isn't something that's real. Then there's the challenge for law enforcers to be digitally literate, to understand the platforms where this is happening. So that was another thing that was a big hurdle to getting intervention. And then there's also just the sense that, you know, I think in Anita's case, well, why don't you just stop what you're doing and people will stop attacking you. So why don't you just stop writing about women in video games? Why don't you stop the critiques that you're doing? And that's her job. So I think that's often the response from law enforcers, which is like, “Why don't you just turn off your computer? Why don't you log out and this will stop.”
Karen Ortman [00:04:53] And it'll go away.
Cynthia [00:04:53] Yeah.
Karen Ortman [00:04:54] OK. So tell us about - So that was Anita. And then there's Tina and Carrie.
Cynthia [00:05:00] Yeah. So hearing the stories about what was happening to Anita was kind of the impetus to start this film. And then over the next few months, I did a lot of research and began figuring out, you know, what are the stories that I want to tell? Because, of course, being targeted by an online mob is one very kind of - just one part of the constellation that is online harassment targeting women. So I wanted to start meeting with others who have been targeted in different ways. And I reached out to Carrie Goldberg because I figured attorneys would have experience with people being victimized in this way.
Karen Ortman [00:05:38] So at that point, you didn't know she was a victim? When you reached out to her?
Cynthia [00:05:42] No.
Karen Ortman [00:05:43] OK.
Cynthia [00:05:43] When I first reached out to Carrie, I had talked to some other lawyers. There's like so few lawyers who are working on these cases, like the community is really small. So I had been talking to some other lawyers who do pro bono work in this regard in Miami. And they said, well, you have to talk to Carrie. Carrie's in Brooklyn. I was in Brooklyn. So I biked over and met Carrie. And from the first moment I met her, she's just such an electrified, passionate person who is such a fighter.
Karen Ortman [00:06:11] That comes across in your documentary.
Cynthia [00:06:12] Yeah. And when I met her, she said, you know, you can film with me and some of my clients. And she just opened her Internet privacy and sexual assault law firm. She said, “You can film with me and some of my clients, but I actually opened this firm because I myself was targeted. And I think I'm ready to talk about that now.” And so that's where we started. Not only filming with her and in particular one client named Celia, who was being targeted in really vicious ways over the course of several years, but we also started following Carrie's own journey.
Karen Ortman [00:06:51] And then Tina, how does she come into the documentary?
Cynthia [00:06:55] So there's also very few advocacy organizations for people who are being targeted. There's a great organization called the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. And there they have a helpline for people who have been victims of privacy violations mainly, but other forms of online harassment. But they really focus on revenge porn. And I had called them also to help try and find people who had gone through online harassment. And Tina had contacted them. She was not a victim of revenge porn, but she was a victim of other forms of really massive privacy violations and impersonation and people creating all these really terrible websites about her that were intended to destroy and succeeded in destroying her career reputation. And they said, “Oh, well, you should talk to Tina, we think that she would be open to speaking with you.” And that's where my relationship to Tina began.
Karen Ortman [00:07:49] I saw the documentary and thank you so much for sharing it with me. But it was so compelling to watch the stories of each three of these women unravel in the manner in which you told the story. It was so compelling, It's really something that anybody who has an interest in this subject should should watch. And to that end, if someone were to watch or want to watch “Netizens”, where could they find it?
Cynthia [00:08:22] So the film is in wide release now, so you can get it on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, the Microsoft Store and XBox. So it's out there. You can find it. And I think one of the things that has been really important in the film making its way into the world and really talking to so many people who've been affected by this issue in really different ways is that it truly can happen to anyone. You don't have to have taken or shared a nude picture of yourself to be the target of revenge porn. There's technologies now that are enabling people to create deep fakes. There's a million other ways that, you know, intimate information can be spread. Often, women I filmed with whose nude images and pictures had been released, didn't even know they were being filmed or photographed.
Karen Ortman [00:09:17] And that will be interesting to discuss with you in a moment. Nicole. So the three people that are featured in the documentary, and that's Carrie, Tina and Anita. How many people did you actually interview just to gain insight into, you know, this horrific crime that so many people are exposed to or suffer from.
Cynthia [00:09:46] I filmed with dozens of women and I filmed with a lot of people who are experts on the issues to really understand what's happening and get some more context into the legal picture. What I ended up doing was focusing on the stories of these three women because it was so clear that although they had been targeted in these really vicious ways, the attacks had catalyzed something for them and for each of them in their own unique ways, it catalyzed this search for justice. So for Anita, I think that that's really embodied in the fact that her work evolved. And over the course of us filming together, she did a series about women who had been written out of history. And I think it speaks to this question of how many women have been silenced, how many women have faced such severe threats or having their work just being disregarded, you know, that we don't know about them, they’ve been lost. For Tina, her search for justice, and it continues to this day, I will add, really was in taking back her own story, her own personal history and really private information about her life and decisions that she had made as a young woman were used against her. This guy created all these Websites with all this fake information. But there were some really personal pieces of information in there that were true. And she had to reclaim those those stories in order to have her story be hers and not something that was being weaponized against her.
Karen Ortman [00:11:27] Would you say that each three of these women found justice?
Cynthia [00:11:29] I think they found that they are incredibly strong people who are confronting a system that is designed to deprive women like them of justice.
Sabah Fatima [00:11:47] How do you think they would find justice?
Cynthia [00:11:48] No one has been put in prison or arrested or prosecuted for the just onslaught of death threats that Anita has experienced. So not only does that say that her reality and her person is not worth protecting. But it also sends a message to other young women who want to create podcasts, who want to create web series, who want to speak out and explore representations of gender, not only in video games, but Hollywood, politics, business. What that message says is we're not going to protect you, so good luck out there. And I think that that is devastating. And I've spoken to lots of young women who say I want to create content, but I'm really afraid that I'm going to be targeted in ways like I've seen other women online being targeted. So it's not just about her.
Karen Ortman [00:12:47] It's a real fear for a lot of people, no doubt. What surprised you the most when making this documentary?
Cynthia [00:12:55] One of the things that I wasn't expecting when I went into this documentary was that you really can't talk about online harassment without talking about intimate partner and domestic violence. For so many of the women that I filmed with, the ways in which they were being targeted and the people who were targeting them, the online behaviors were part of a constellation of domestic violence and intimate partner abuse. The Internet was being weaponized to do the things that, quote, traditional domestic violence aims to do, which is to control, to disable a woman's ability to leave an abusive partner. When there is revenge porn, it's almost always sent to her employer, her dad, her colleagues. Why is that? Well, because what the abuser is seeking to do - and in my opinion, anyone who releases revenge porn of anyone is an abuser. What the abuser is seeking to do is to deprive her of her personal relationships, often to deprive her of her opportunity to get an education and her opportunity to thrive and have financial stability. And when a woman is financially unstable, she may be more likely to stay with an abusive partner. Furthermore, revenge porn is often used in situations where there's children in the mix and there may be an upcoming custody situation once the woman leaves the abuser. Online harassment is a really powerful weapon for domestic abusers, and that wasn't something that I was necessarily expecting to find when I began this film.
Sabah Fatima [00:14:28] That was well said.
Karen Ortman [00:14:30] I'm going to turn to Nicole. So let's start by sharing with our listeners what your background is. I already said you were an attorney, but if you could share with our listeners where you work and what your area of expertise is, that would be really great.
Nicole [00:14:46] Sure. I work at an organization called Sanctuary for Families. We're a nonprofit organization based in New York. And our mission is to help survivors of domestic violence, trafficking and other forms of gender based violence. We have a number of different projects, including Campus Gender Violence Project. And we also co-chair the New York Cyber Sexual Abuse Task Force. I am an attorney at Sanctuary. I do a couple of different things and have a couple different roles. But my area of expertise is family law. So that means one of and one of those things in that area is helping people get orders of protection in family court. And so we started seeing in Sanctuary about maybe five or six years ago some of these cyber sexual abuse cases coming in a little, a few here, a few there. And so a group of people at Sanctuary slowly started to become experts in this area. Today, really, it's sort of spreading out to all of Sanctuary is becoming expert. And the sad reason for that is because now it's not a trickle of cases. It's in - almost in a great number of our cases, cyber sexual abuse is either part of the cycle of domestic violence, so it's part of the cycle of physical, sexual and or psychological abuse, or it stands on its own. And that is still a form of gender based violence, a form of intimate partner violence. And so we've been getting a lot of these cases and part of - I'm a member of the cyber sexual abuse task force. And part of what that task force does is really try to make sure all the stakeholders are educated about the laws, the issues, how do you go about taking something off the Internet without going to court?
Karen Ortman [00:16:37] Now, when you talk about stakeholders, who are you referring to?
Nicole [00:16:41] So the task force is made up of a lot of advocates like myself, survivors, representatives from the domestic violence bureaus in the various DA’s offices. We've got researchers, in fact, a researcher who recently did a really great research project on survivorship and healing after cyber sexual abuse that will be published in the next, I think, month or two. So it's really anybody who is involved either in helping -- Oh, sorry. And one other thing that's been really helpful is we've had some tech experts join recently. Yeah. So really, anybody who can be helpful in criminal court or civil court or forget about court and we just need a tech expert to help with this. Those people have joined.
Karen Ortman [00:17:27] And who trains your judicial staff? Do you know if they received training? Judges?
Nicole [00:17:33] The judges, the court system? Sure. So, yeah. We have provided cyber sexual abuse training to judges in the court system. There's a statewide conference or I don't know if they call it a conference, learning institute or something. And we've been able to train there. That's only once a year. And, you know, we're pushing to try to do more trainings. You know, one of the things that has been really helpful is really just, you know, it's slower, but just educating a judge each time we go into court. So, for example, a couple of years ago, judges were pretty hesitant to add into orders of protection language that said, you shall not post, disseminate, share intimate images and you shall not cause others to do that. That was something that judges in family court said, nope, I don't have the authority to do that. And so we put together a really comprehensive, detailed memorandum of law that we just took with us every time we went to court. And when they started to say that, we said, “No, no, no. Here are all the reasons that you can do that.” And so it's educating with trainings, but also just making sure you're prepared when you go into court to educate the judges individually.
Karen Ortman [00:18:47] Right. So when we talk about Anita, who who was threatened, virtually threatened, threats against her life. We talk about Tina, who had numerous reputation harming websites created. And we talk about Carrie, who suffered her own cyber harassment. What do we have in place here in New York City to protect victims who experience something similar? And do those protections extend to the state level?
Nicole [00:19:26] So we have. So let me start by saying we do have a direct law now. Unfortunately, a law that directly addresses cyber sexual abuse, now. Unfortunately, when Carrie, who lives in New York and and then also some of the other women were victimized, there was no law directly on point. And that was part of the problem, although there are a patchwork of laws that should have protected them, things like the harassment laws, the stalking laws, you know, you could really sort of pigeon hole this behavior into a number of different laws that are already on the books. And for all the reasons that that Cynthia pointed out, for some reason that just wasn't happening. A misunderstanding of how much harm this behavior actually causes the individual, not understanding technology. And that becomes particularly difficult when they're trying to gather evidence. You know, that became very hard. And then the thing was, oh, well, how do we even prove who posted it? Well, you can prove it if you just do a little work.
Karen Ortman [00:20:28] If you’re technologically savvy.
Nicole [00:20:31] Yeah. So there was a lot of, then, of course, there was the victim blaming, right. And sort of like the new version of the old, “Well you shouldn't wear a mini skirt.” Right. So now it’s sort of become, “Well, just don't go online” or “You should never have taken those pictures in the first place” or whatever it is. But getting more to the point to talk more about the law that is now in place, there is a New York City law that went into effect at the end of 2017, the beginning of 2018. And then there's a New York state law that went into effect actually just this year in September. So they're both relatively new and they both do essentially the same thing. They create a crime of unlawful dissemination of an intimate image or video. So now I'll talk about the crime first. But then I also want to talk about the other things that the bills did, because I think that's important as well. So we'll start with the New York state bill, if that's OK, because that actually created several different remedies. So the New York state bill creates a crime that’s a misdemeanor. And so now, even if you took the picture or video consensually at the time, if someone disseminates that and that could be anything from, you know, an email out to your coworkers from posting on Facebook, if someone disseminates that without your consent and the image is either an intimate image that shows naked body parts or it shows you in sexual activity and the person who distributed it had an intent to cause harm, then that person can be prosecuted. So that's the criminal piece. But I want to just also talk about the other things, because some people don't want to engage in the criminal justice system and that's their choice. And that doesn't mean there are no options for them. The other thing that the state bill did was make it an official family offense. Right. So now unlawful dissemination of an intimate image is a family offense. And what that means is now civil attorneys like myself can go to court, can go to family court, and it's no longer as as much of a struggle to get an order of protection that says this this behavior occurred. It is a family offense, which is basically the civil court equivalent of a crime. And we can now give you an order of protection, a civil order of protection that includes what we call a nondissemination provision.
Karen Ortman [00:23:13] Let me ask you this. So let's say you have somebody who surreptitiously takes a photograph of somebody nude. And the victim never had an intimate relationship with the offender. Would that still qualify in family court?
Nicole [00:23:36] Good question. So you do have to have some sort of relationship. It doesn't necessarily have to be an intimate relationship. And it doesn't have to have been a longstanding relationship. Like, really, you know, if you could make the argument that if you were, you know, dating for even just a teeny bit of time, family members, so there are different ways that you can make the argument that there's a relationship with this person such that you can go into family court. But you're right. If it's a total stranger, you couldn't go into family court and get a civil order of protection.
Karen Ortman [00:24:07] But let's say it's a family friend. Intimacy doesn't mean sex, so intimacy could just mean your two families are that close, they've known each other for a long time. Offender takes photos surreptitiously of naked girl in the house where they've all grown up and visited each other for years. Well, that would qualify, I would think.
Nicole [00:24:32] So that's actually one of those areas where it's a little bit gray. I mean, because the law defines, you know, intimate partner for a parent of your child, etc., etc. But then it has this sort of amorphous, you know, or any other, I don't remember the exact language, but it's about some other relationship. Right. And then it says, okay, here are the factors that you consider. So that's one of those areas that it's not black and white. You would go in and say, well, here all the factors. Like look at, you know, all the time they spent together, their connections, etc. And we would make the argument, but it would be a sort of gray line or gray area.
Karen Ortman [00:25:12] Well, and if anyone were to ever come to me in my capacity here at NYU and this was an issue for them, I would certainly send them to you over at sanctuary.
Nicole [00:25:25] Yes, and I just want to be clear. So if it is a stranger, though, you can still go to criminal court. Right. So criminal court is for anyone that has done this to you. The third thing that the state law does that I just want to highlight is it now creates a civil cause of action, which basically means that now you can sue the person who disseminated your images for money damages. And I think that's really important, again, because if someone chooses not to engage in criminal justice system or, I mean, we are continuing to educate the criminal justice system, the NYPD, DA’s, but we're not there yet, right. So if they declined to investigate or prosecute, this is another avenue that you can take. And you know what, the truth is sometimes the fear of losing a lot of money is sometimes greater than the fear of, oh, maybe they'll arrest me and I'll go to jail for a couple days. I mean, honestly. And then the last piece is that the state law allows you to get an injunction against a Website to get the intimate images taken down. It's basically an order saying that the website has to take the image down if they haven't already done so voluntarily. And sadly, there are some Websites that will not do it voluntarily. So that could potentially be a very powerful tool for people.
Karen Ortman [00:26:52] Who applies for that injunction?
Nicole [00:26:55] Who applies? So the survivor would apply, but, you know, with an attorney. OK. And just on that piece, that is only for the order to take it down. Websites are totally not liable for damages here. It's because of - there's an outdated federal law that basically gives a big tech tons of immunity. And that's maybe a whole other podcast. But- so no money damages against the Website, the tech company. But an order to get the image taken down, is part of the law.
Sabah Fatima [00:27:29] What resources are available for victims in New York City who experience something similar to Carrie, Tina or Anita?
Nicole [00:27:38] So there's a lot of organizations in New York City that serve victims of gender based violence are now getting into this area and can help. You can certainly always contact my organization, which is Sanctuary for families. Again, we're a nonprofit. We don't charge a fee, we don't charge any money.
Karen Ortman [00:27:55] Do you have a phone number that you want to share?
Nicole [00:27:57] Actually I can share an email address if that's OK. So we have a general email address that goes to sort of the kind of experts at Sanctuary. It’s CSAtaskforce. And that's all one word. So CSAtaskforce@sffny.org . So the initials of Sanctuary for Family New York. So people can email us there. Another thing people can do is walk into the family justice center that's in their borough and you can just Google that and find out where that is. Family justice centers are walk-in centers where you can get same day consultations. And so you can walk in there. And, you know, I think another - Cynthia already mentioned the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and their hotline. That's another great way to get advice. But, you know, I think definitely reach out. And I just also want to emphasize that reaching out doesn't mean that we're going to take action. Right. So if you reach out, we will give you all of your options. And I think it's really important to know your options, even if the end of the day you say I'm not ready to come forward. And I also want to emphasize that one of the options is, okay, we will just work with you to try to contact the websites and try to get the images taken down. If you're not ready to come forward and go to the police or go into a family court.
Karen Ortman [00:29:27] Right. And I really appreciate you saying that, because I know just based upon my own experience in law enforcement and now here in public safety at NYU, that sometimes people come forward and they're concerned about even coming to me now, and I'm not law enforcement any longer, that coming to me triggers a law enforcement response. So I'm I'm appreciative of the fact that you mention that victims can go to you and it triggers nothing. You're there to provide them with options, information, and they are empowered to make decisions for themselves.
Nicole [00:30:06] Right. And if they do decide to go forward, we can support them in that. But again, I just think it's so important to know what all your options are.
Sabah Fatima [00:30:13] Absolutely.
Cynthia [00:30:15] I just wanted to add that we also have a whole series of resources and organizations who are doing work on this from a lot of different perspectives, organizations that are working mainly with journalists who are being targeted. Some that are actually here in New York, like Day One New York that's specifically working with teens and teen dating violence. So on our Web site at netizensfilm.com, you can also find a ton of resources, great discussion guides if you want to watch the film and things like that.
Sabah Fatima [00:30:46] Thank you for sharing that. On that note, Cynthia, have you or a loved one ever have ever been a victim of online harassment?
Cynthia [00:30:58] I've experienced some harassment in the wake of the film coming out, but it certainly doesn't rise to anything anywhere near what the women in the film have gone through.You know, I'm extraordinarily close to all the women who participated in “Netizens”.
Karen Ortman [00:31:17] How could you not be.
Cynthia [00:31:18] Yeah, you know, I know loved ones that have gone through online harassment. Yeah.
Sabah Fatima [00:31:23] What kind of research did you do, did you conduct prior to making this film? And I know that Anita really sparked your interest in creating this film, but was there anything else that helped with that?
Cynthia [00:31:34] Certainly. So Danielle Keats Citron, who actually just won the MacArthur Genius Award this year for her work in researching online harassment and sexual privacy invasions. She has a fantastic book called Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, which was one of the texts that was really informative in my approach to this film and looking at online harassment as a civil rights violation in that it interferes with a target's ability to participate in, you know, all forms of public and, you know, things that we expect like education, employment, expression. And her book also kind of outlines how we could look at remedies to online harassment coming from how we've dealt with workplace harassment, workplace sexual harassment and things like that. So that book was really influential and she's in the film. Jamia Wilson, who is also in the film and is the executive director of the Feminist Press, who has done a lot of work on online harassment and women's voices online. She was also really influential. And then I spoke with, you know, every attorney I could kind of find who has issues on who's representing cases regarding this. I spoke with a major prosecutor in California who's also in the film, Wesley Shu, who prosecuted a lot of the high profile harassment cases and has gotten some of the really rare long prison time convictions. So I kind of talked to like anyone who I could get my hands on.
Sabah Fatima [00:33:10] How did that take for you to do all that research?
Cynthia [00:33:12] Well, it was simultaneously. At some point you just are like, OK, I'm just going to start this film and then you start filming and you're learning every day. So my interviews early in production would be these really, really long, like three hour,whole-day affairs that, you know, I am really grateful to the people who participated in the film early on, sitting through it. But, yeah, you know, sometimes you just have to, like leap and and grow wings as they say. So I was filming and learning on the fly over the two years of production that this film required.
Sabah Fatima [00:33:51] I love it. What surprised you about the stories you told on behalf of these three leading woman?
Cynthia [00:33:57] I think one of the things that's been surprising is that even when you have people who are fairly high profile, who are in the public, or who are in a documentary about online harassment, how hard it continues to be to get justice. And I can only imagine how hard it is to get justice from somebody who, you know, doesn't have access or relationships with the foremost attorneys and thinkers on this issue, who is, you know, isolated in wherever they may live, whose, you know, local law enforcement is not cooperative or helpful, who don't have people around them, who understand the issue, who understand online harassment, who understand digital abuse. And I think that's the majority of the people who are going through this, are people who are being victimized, who are by and large silent and going through it alone.
Sabah Fatima [00:35:05] Nicole, do you see an end to online harassment?
Nicole [00:35:09] You know, before I answer that question, I'd like to go back and just add one important thing about the law that I think your listeners should know is that there is also a threat element. And I think that's really important because under the city law, if someone is threatening you, that they will distribute those photos, that actually is part of the crime. Also, you can bring the civil cause of action, you can sue someone if someone is threatening to distribute those photos. And I think that's very important because often times, the threats themselves can be just as damaging, cause just as much harm. And I think Cynthia mentioned earlier, can be used against you in things like court- “If you bring this custody case, I will then release all of these images.” So I just wanted to add the threat piece.
Karen Ortman [00:35:53] Thank you for doing that. Very important.
Nicole [00:35:59] So to your question about do I see an end to online harassment? You know, I don't want to end on a depressing note. However, I have to be honest that I don't see an end in at least our near future. I think there's constantly new technology that's coming out that we have to keep up with. Like deep fakes, for example, deep fakes are becoming much more user friendly in terms of making them or paying someone else to make them. And that's going to be the newest form.
Karen Ortman [00:36:25] What did you say, deep fakes?
Nicole [00:36:28] Deep fakes. Yeah. They're basically - so if you can think of like the old, just superimposing, like pasting an image onto - yeah, it's that. But like way, way, way advanced. So basically someone could take your image from your Facebook profile and put it onto someone having sex maybe from a porn site. And it would be so difficult to detect that that's not real. It looks real. So that's going to - so you know, there are things like that that are going to continue to evolve. Also, you know, we really can't stop it without the cooperation, the full cooperation of big tech companies or at least the ability under the law to hold those big tech companies liable. We don't have either of those things right now. But I do want to say that as each new issue, technology, form of harassment comes out online, there are many people who are banding together to fight it. So I don't want people to lose hope. I mean, Cynthia's film is a great example. All the survivors in her film, Carrie Goldberg, doing amazing work and then organizing organizations like mine, like sanctuary for families who are here to help. We will continue to fight any new form of online harassment.
Sabah Fatima [00:37:46] Cynthia, what do you see in terms of the future of online harassment?
Cynthia [00:37:52] In terms of just adding one sort of quick thing to what Nicole was just saying about how we need tech companies to really step up and we need, you know, systems to support people who are being targeted. One thing that I think we have to talk about is the fact that law enforcement is grossly under-equipped with tools to appropriately and effectively investigate digital crimes. So there is a real lack of digital forensic laboratories in this country. There is a huge backlog. So it's not necessarily that the officer who shows up at your door when you called to get help, it's not necessarily that they're digitally illiterate. It may be that they're quite literate and also quite well understand the hurdles that they face to get this to a place where the person who's being targeted is actually going to see justice. So they have to get a subpoena for an IP address search. They have to if they then are able to get a computer or seize a digital device. They then have to often send that out to a lab. That lab may have huge backlogs. Often they have to actually bring the devices themselves to the laboratories. And then after that, you have to get a district attorney who's going to prosecute. You have to get a judge who also understands the issue. So when they get that phone call saying “I'm being impersonated” or “My pictures are being used to send me on fake dates, and, you know, I'm being set up for fake sex dates on, you know, whatever Website” they may know that something really terrible is happening here. But what they see are the hurdles that they face to get justice just seem so immense that they may just kind of say, I'm sorry, I can't help you. So we need laws, but we really need resources for enforcers to to combat these crimes. So one of the things that I think is really positive and this is one of my hopes with this film and I think is the power of documentary film and story is to shift hearts and minds and transform what we think of as normal. And we had a big success with this with my last film, which was called “Bully”, which we had out in movie theaters around the world and were effective in shifting the attitude that bullying is an inevitable part of youth and our communities. That was kind of a similar goal that I had with this film. And I think that we are seeing more broadly in the cultural kind of zeitgeist and awareness that revenge porn is not normal. Online harassment and death threats are not normal, impersonating sites are not normal, nor are there things that we need to necessarily accept at all as part of our online communities. So I think that a big part in combating this issue is just shifting attitudes about what we accept in our communities.
Nicole [00:41:02] So I'd love to just add one piece. I agree with everything Cynthia said about the problems with law enforcement. 100 percent. They need to be better resourced in this area. But I also just want to make sure that listeners don't get too discouraged from coming forward. And like, I want them to know that if they come to places like Sanctuary or Carrie Goldberg does this as well. If you, after we give you the options, if you do decide that you want to go to law enforcement, we don't just send you. We will work with you to actually put together the best sort of case, almost like a pre investigation type thing. We know the DV police officers who will take the report seriously or if it's not a DV situation, we know who to contact in the DA's office to make sure that the evidence gets presented in a way. And so that's another step of the process that, you know, you don't have to do alone. We can be there with you to help make it a little bit easier.
Karen Ortman [00:42:06] That's great to know. Thank you for sharing. So, Cynthia, what's next for Cynthia Lowen?
Cynthia [00:42:13] I'm working on some new projects. I'm working on some scripted projects, and I'm tiptoeing into another documentary film that I'll be able to talk about more later.
Sabah Fatima [00:42:27] That's exciting.
Karen Ortman [00:42:29] I look forward to everything that you do.
Cynthia [00:42:31] Thank you!
Sabah Fatima [00:42:32] Thank you to our guests, Cynthia and Nicole and to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of “You Matter”.
Karen Ortman [00:42:39] If any information presented today was triggering or disturbing, please feel free to contact the wellness exchange at 212-443-9999. You can also get in touch with NYU’s Department of Public Safety and their victim services unit by calling 212-998-2222.
Sabah Fatima [00:42:59] Make sure to like and subscribe to more podcasts like these on Apple podcasts, Google Play or Spotify.