I knew when I took this job it would come with online and offline slings and arrows.
Online blowback is par for the course when writing a column on race and social justice for a general audience. I also knew that my gender, ethnic background and sexual orientation would make me a target for identity-based abuse, and that has definitely proved true. In addition to the feedback that questions my intelligence and viewpoints, there are race-based comments such as ones asking me to atone or apologize for the actions of the Japanese government during World War II, using racist language I would not want to repeat.
I have unfortunately become pretty numb to a lot of it, but I was not at all prepared for what my sister found after Googling me on Aug. 24. At the top of her search results was a Wikipedia page that said, “… Naomi Ishisaka is an American writer and a former convict for attempted murder.”
The page, published on Aug. 8, said that when I was 14 and a high school student in a Seattle suburb, I shot my classmate, was convicted and imprisoned. It said that while I used the pen name “Naomi Ishisaka,” my real name was similar but not exactly the same.
I was in shock. I expected online harassment but never imagined it would look like this. I immediately assumed someone had created the page as a retaliatory attack for my recent writing on the racial justice movement and policing.
After Googling the other person’s name, it turned out there was a shooting in 1991 by someone with a similar name and ethnic background, but we were not the same age, or from the same city, and went to different schools. I am not naming the person because she was a teenager when she was convicted, and the shooting happened 30 years ago.
With the help of friends and colleagues, I scrambled to figure out how to get the page removed, how to get Google to stop promoting the page, how to prove who and where I was in 1991 and how to prevent the misinformation from spreading further on the internet.
And it wasn’t just a Wikipedia page, Google had created a “Knowledge Panel” when you Googled me that talked about my actual work as well as my conviction for attempted murder plus my other supposed aliases. When you searched my name, suggested searches included (and still do) “who did Naomi Ishisaka shoot.” When you search the other person’s name, my picture is the first to appear.
One of my eagle-eyed coworkers found a Wikipedia page that was discussing the reports of mistaken identity that we had submitted. In it, the person who created my page – who has the ironically named handle “Factfanatic1” – was asked how they came to conclude that we were the same person. Factfanatic1 said they assumed just based on our names that we must be, even though there was no substantiation to be found. Factfanatic1 later admitted they had made an error in linking us but wanted the page about the woman who shot her classmate to be preserved, because “a lot of work was put into it.” To their credit, the admins said that they would not reinstate the page, in part because it was a “serious” violation of Wikipedia’s rules around Biographies of Living Persons.
A spokesperson from Wikimedia, the foundation that hosts Wikipedia, said that the guidelines on biographies are designed to safeguard against what I experienced. They also said, again ironically, that there was no way for them, me or anyone to know the identity of Factfanatic1 out of concern for the editors’ security and to protect against doxxing (publicly sharing private information on the internet), and that the user had “retired” themselves after the page was deleted.
(Update Sept. 3, 2020: Factfanatic1 became active again on Wikipedia after this column was originally reported. As a Wikimedia spokesperson noted, “‘retired’ doesn’t necessarily mean a permanent account shutdown.”)
It was some small comfort that instead of a malicious attack, it appeared I was the victim of just good old-fashioned everyday racial ignorance and sloppiness. Factfanatic1 apparently could not fathom that there could be two separate people with similar “ethnic” names from the same part of the world so they just slapped us together and no one noticed for weeks.
But the situation got me thinking about something I had already thought about a lot: the impact of pervasive online harassment on women journalists and especially women of color journalists.
According to a survey of women and gender non-conforming journalists by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 90% of U.S. respondents said online harassment was the biggest threat they faced.
Seattle University Associate Professor Caitlin Carlson co-authored a paper on “Online Harassment of U.S. Women Journalists and its Impact on Press Freedom” and interviewed more than 100 women journalists last year. Most of the women she interviewed said that negative feedback went beyond their work to target them personally, focusing on their gender and sexual orientation. Attacks were most frequent when women journalists covered topics that were seen as the domain of men, or topics that were controversial, such as immigration, race or feminism.
Carlson said while survey respondents said they didn’t shy away from controversial topics due to harassment, a strong majority believed that online harassment impacted press freedom for women journalists in the U.S.
The biggest threat, Carlson said, is that the grind of anonymous online harassment and the threat of even more dangerous attacks like doxxing, swatting or personal defamation, will make women, nonbinary and trans people think twice about joining an already tenuous profession. This, when a multitude of voices in journalism is critically important.
Harlo Holmes, the director of San Francisco-based Newsroom Digital Security at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said women – and especially women of color –have been the “canaries in the coal mine” for a long time when it comes to online harassment.
While she said she didn’t know if the problem would get worse, she was “prepared to be surprised by how it gets different … The new tool, the new tactic that people are going to use in order to continue to harass, stalk, terrify and otherwise place a chilling effect on the work that people like yourself do.”