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For Some Tech Feminists, Online Harassment is the Norm

Image: online harassment

AP file

Julie Ann Horvath knows what's coming next whenever the topic of women in tech crops up in the news cycle.

It's almost like she's on a list somewhere. The online harassment resurfaces and she receives more violent, targeted threats—even if the day's news or discussions have nothing to do with her in particular.

"It's just like a constant thing for you," she said. "I don't have a normal day anymore. I don't know what a normal day is anymore."

Read More at CNBC: Julie Ann Horvath on GitHub Investigation

In March 2014, Horvath left her job at GitHub. In her two years at the company, Horvath said she faced discrimination and harassment from colleagues and from co-founder Tom Preston-Werner's wife, who was not employed by the company.

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After failed attempts to resolve the problem, Horvath left GitHub and announced her decision on Twitter. That's when the online attacks started.

Her allegations led to an internal investigation of Werner and GitHub's company culture in April 2014, and a third-party investigator found Werner had "acted inappropriately" in some respects, though he and his wife were cleared of any claims of harassment or discrimination. He resigned in April of 2014. (Preston-Werner, when reached by CNBC, declined to comment on the record.)

'An interesting club'

Horvath had worked on Passion Projects at GitHub, a talk series to promote women in the field, so not only did her departure come as a surprise for many, but her reasons for leaving brought confusion as well, she said.

As soon as she announced her departure, Horvath's inbox and Twitter mentions filled with a mix of threats and people demanding answers from her, she said. The tweet Horvath has burned into her mind is an anonymous one that lists her address and threatens sexual assault on her and her entire family, including her 9-year-old niece.

"I didn't expect it. I come from a really tough community, so I'm kind of used to adversity and dealing with it," she said. "The thought of my family being in danger because of the result of that, the fact that my actions could hinder her safety were paralyzing."

Horvath avoided her email for awhile, but when she eventually logged back on, she found a curious email from then-Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, lending her support and telling Horvath to reach out if she needed anything.

Read More at CNBC: Pao out as Reddit CEO: Co-founder Huffman takes over

Since then, Pao has served a guidepost of sorts for Horvath.

When Horvath was having difficulties landing a job, she turned to Pao for advice.

"Something Ellen told me recently was that people are weak," she said. "People are weak, and it's not your problem. They're not hiring you because they're weak and they're scared."

And Horvath isn't alone.

"It's an interesting club to be a part of," Horvath said. "That's a joke we make a lot."

'A steady drumbeat'

Brianna Wu, who has become one of the targets of Gamergate, had to hire someone full time to go through her email and Twitter mentions for death threats and other hate speech. (Gamergate is a movement led by mostly male gamers who say they are fighting for more ethical gaming journalism but has become better known for its cyberattacks on female gamers.)

On average, Wu says she files 10 to 40 reports per day with Twitter for what she calls "severe harassment."

"It's a steady drumbeat of any woman who speaks her mind in the field becoming a target," Wu said. "It's like being cast as a super villain in a movie. Anytime someone comes up with women in tech, I get harassment."

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Wu said she became a target of Gamergate last October when she decided to publicly defend Zoe Quinn, another target of the movement.

Read More at CNBC: Gamergate critic Leigh Alexander to found new website for women and minority gamers

Wu also says she has been "doxxed," meaning someone posted her home address and other personal information online, and the threats on her range from threatening to murder any of Wu's future children to a YouTube video of a man wearing a skull mask while he outlines his plans to murder her.

Eventually, the threats forced Wu out of her home, she said.

"The truth is that it damages you, and eventually the damage hurts you because you just don't feel anything," she said. "You don't recover from that, you just change."

Read More at CNBC: Paradigm shift disrupts cyberthreats

Wu hears from women in the tech industry everyday seeking advice on how to handle the threats they're receiving. But she also faces an internal struggle every day: She wants people to recognize her for the work that she does as an engineer, like starting her own gaming studio,Giant Spacekat. But she also wants to continue to speak out and help other women who are being harassed.

"I got into technology to do technology. I am not known as an engineer," she said. "I feel torn every day. But I couldn't sleep at night if I chose to say, 'Hey everybody, I'm out.' "

But last week, Wu announced on Twitter that she would be focusing more on her work.

'It was acceptable and it was OK'

In April, Twitter updated its policies aimed at combating abuse online to allow the social network to lock accounts of users suspected of harassing others, and it began testing a feature that would filter out abusive tweets.

In the past year, Twitter came under fire for having a privacy policy that was too narrow and limited the company's ability to act on threatening behavior taking place on the site.

And Reddit has received backlash in the past month after top executives rolled out new rules to temper inappropriate speech on the site, including banning spam, copyrighted materials, unauthorized private information, violent threats, harassment and sexual content involving minors.

Reddit's vocal online community lashed out, arguing that executives were censoring users. Users created a petition on Change.org calling for the resignation of Pao, who was the CEO at the time. Pao stepped down on July 10.

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According to a Pew Research study published in 2014, women were more likely than men to find their most recent experience with online harassment "extremely or very upsetting," and women are also more likely to experience "more severe" harassment, such as stalking and sexual harassment.

The same study also shows that social media were most frequently cited as the scene of online harassment: 66 percent of those who have been harassed cited social media websites and apps.

Shireen Mitchell, an avid advocate for women and girls in tech and founder of Digital Sistas/Sisters, said because online harassment went unregulated in the early years of the Internet, a lot of the perpetrators of online harassment don't think much of their comments.

Read More at CNBC: Harassment at work: 52% of women report bullying

'The anti-Reddit'

Amber Gordon, co-founder at Femsplain, is creating something that's hard to find online: A safe space for women.

Femsplain calls itself, half-jokingly, the "anti-Reddit."

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"A big part of my life has always been playing video games, and it has always been not a safe space for women," Gordon said. "I used to play as a male character, so I didn't have to worry about people threatening me."

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With Femsplain, Gordon, a former Tumblr employee, hopes to create that safe space. The comments are moderated and the author's name is never published at the top of the article to make it more difficult for trolls to find them online.

Once the site began to gain more traction through its Kickstarter campaign in February, Gordon noticed an increase in harassing tweets.

Some emailed Kickstarter to get the campaign taken down. Some baited Gordon by sending emails asking general questions about the site and then would use her reply as an invitation to continuously email Gordon harassing messages for weeks.

On International Women's Day in March, hackers brought down Femsplain for four hours.

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"It was awful but really amazing at the same time because a lot of people voiced their support," she said.

Gordon said that when harassment comes, she wouldn't be able to deal with it without her community.

"Anytime I've experience harassment, I've always had people who also were there to fight them or combat them," she said. "I used to just accept it, but it's not OK, and it's not fair that we have to deal with that because we have a voice."