Early Thursday morning Donald Trump fired off a series of tweets attacking Morning Joe cohost Mika Brzezinski, and in typical Trump fashion, his barbs focused on one thing: Brzezinski’s physical appearance.
To millions across the country, it was just one of many, many instances in which the President of the United States hid behind social media to harass a woman he disagreed with. To Congresswoman Katherine Clark, it was a disgraceful instance of cyberbullying coming straight out of the White House.
“When the President uses his Twitter account to make comments like he did—and this is certainly not the first time that he has done this—he not only reinforces a message of misogyny, but it sends the far more dangerous message that this is somehow normal and acceptable behavior because it’s coming from the Oval Office,” Clark told Glamour. “He made a vow that he would be the President for all Americans. When he continues to spread this kind of hateful language about women, it is offensive and degrading. We cannot let this be seen as normal behavior for anybody, never mind the leader of the free world.”
Being a member of the House of Representatives and a victim of cyber crime herself, Clark knows a thing or two about online harassment—and what steps Congress needs to take to stop it. Following the Gamergate movement of 2014, Clark was struck by the vitriol and venom being lobbed at women online, especially when one of her own constituents found herself caught up in the attacks and struggled to find recourse against the abuse. In late January of 2016, Clark found herself the target of something known as “swatting,” a practice in which a false emergency is reported to generate a response from law enforcement. Police had received a computer-generated call alerting them that an active shooter was present at the congresswoman’s home in Melrose, Massachusetts; the officers promptly reported to the address but soon realized that it was a hoax.
As the Internet continues to dominate the lives of everyday Americans, both legislators and law enforcement officials have been forced to grapple with the hazards of digital life. Back in 2006 Congress amended the Violence Against Women Act to make death threats (and threats of serious injury) illegal, but as Clark explained in a 2015 editorial for The Hill, of the estimated 2.5 million cases of cyber stalking reported between 2010 and 2013, only 10 were actually When Clark met with victims, either in her district or throughout the country, she found that feelings of hopelessness were universal. “They are often met with well-intentioned local law enforcement that just doesn’t really understand what they were facing,” Clark explained. “We see the increasing role of being online, not only for personal use but for many professions. We run into victims like Jessica Valenti, a journalist who was told to just ‘get offline.'” But as Clark knows, in today’s world, it’s virtually impossible for women to simply retreat from the Internet—and that’s why she’s trying to put legal measures in place that would make it a safer space for women.
Since first taking office in 2013, Clark has introduced half a dozen pieces of legislation meant to stop online attacks—in fact, her own brush with swatting came shortly after she brought forward an antiswatting bill—but none have made it to vote on the House floor. Earlier this week she renewed her efforts and introduced the Online Safety Modernization Act, a bill meant to combat cyber crime and protect women and men from these dangerous attacks. Not only does the legislation target three specific criminal activities—”sextortion,” a type of blackmail that involves threatening to post sexual images or videos online; “doxxing,” the act of publishing a person’s personal information on the Internet; and, of course, “swatting”—it allocates funding for the FBI, as well as state and local law officials, to provide them with the tools they need to better identify and investigate these types of cyber crime.
Clark is hopeful that her latest bill will not only get a vote but will also help protect women as they go about their online lives. In a Congress that has been defined by its gridlock, Clark has found bipartisan support with her cosponsors, Rep. Susan Brooks (R–Ind.) and Rep. Patrick Meehan (R–Pa.). She’s also received endorsements from several law enforcement groups, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Facebook. As Clark continues to educate her congressional colleagues on the severity of cyber crime, she hopes that this outside momentum builds even further and propels her legislation over the finish line.
“We want to make sure that the Internet remains open and that the women, people of color, and LGBTQ community members who experience the worst types of online abuse at a far greater rate know that their cases will be taken as seriously and be treated as the victims they are,” Clark said. “One of the most disturbing statistics I’ve encountered came from an FBI analysis that found that, in 28 percent of sextortion cases, there was at least one victim who had attempted to or committed suicide. We hope that an updating and modernization of our criminal code—and getting the training, resources, and data to law enforcement—we’re going to be able to get rid of that hopelessness and give victims the resources they need to restore their safety.”