Changing the Conversation: ‘Netizens’ Director Cynthia Lowen on Standing Up to Online Harassment

The trailer for Netizens, directed by Cynthia Lowen.

In 2014, soon after feminist critic and podcast host Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a talk at Utah State University due to threats of violence online, director Cynthia Lowen began to research the discussion around online harassment, specifically as it pertained to women. “There was this attitude that internet attacks were a ‘normal’ part of life online,” she says. “And I really objected to that.”

Lowen, who had previously produced Bully, a documentary feature about school bullying directed by Lee Hirsch, soon began working on a new film about online harassment called Netizens. The documentary, which features Sarkeesian and internet privacy attorney Carrie Goldberg, follows the targets of online attacks as they confront digital abuse and strive for equality and justice online.

In 2016, Lowen launched a Kickstarter project to fund the editing phase of Netizens, which will premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival on April 22. Here, Lowen discusses how she approached building a community around her directorial debut, and how she hopes its release will change the public conversation around online harassment.

—Maura M. Lynch


Media critic and creator of “Feminist Frequency” web-series Anita Sarkeesian working on her computer in ‘Netizens.’ Courtesy of Train of Thought Productions.

How did you begin working on Netizens?

In the fall of 2014, a lot of news coverage started to bubble up about coordinated online attacks targeting women. I was outraged and appalled that this was happening, and also really shocked at the extent to which law enforcement seemed unequipped to intervene. It seemed like the web platforms themselves were not doing very much to prevent these kinds of attacks on individuals.

The internet isn’t just this abstract part of our communities. It’s something we need to [use in order to] get an education, to get employment, to express ourselves. It’s this critical tool [required] for us to participate in all of the things that are key life opportunities. The fact that so many women were, and continue to be, forced offline or silenced was something that I thought was worth digging into.

At what point did you decide that you wanted to fund part of the film on Kickstarter?

I knew that in order to keep the momentum of the film going and to be able to bring on some of the grants that we would eventually need to finish the film, I had to start editing. I had to be able to show that it wasn’t just a concept. I knew I had to do a Kickstarter project to get over that hump of getting the edit going and being able to demonstrate that we had a real film here.

“The fact that so many women were, and continue to be, forced offline or silenced was something that I thought was worth digging into.” 
 — Cynthia Lowen

Did you have any reservations about running a Kickstarter project?

Everyone was like, “It’s the hardest thing in the world.” And it is really hard! It was also a great experience in terms of jump-starting the project, community-building, and figuring out who your people are.

It was kind of like a coming out. For a lot of filmmakers, I think it’s the first time they are really exposing this work in progress to the world. It’s vulnerable and it’s a real leap of faith, but for Netizens it was a great experience. We [held] our notes screening at the Kickstarter theater [in Brooklyn], and that was fantastic. That was the first moment that we were like, “We have a movie. We really have a movie. It’s going to be okay.”

Now, when we are at the stage of festival premieres, we have a community we can call on to say, “Hey. The film’s coming out. Come see us.” All of our Tribeca screenings are sold out. Building that network through Kickstarter was really helpful.

Was there anything that surprised you during the campaign?

I was totally thrilled when Neil Gaiman, Monica Lewinsky, and other people I have so much admiration for tweeted about the project. Like, “Woo-hoo! They’re behind it!”

I was also really surprised by how many people I didn’t know supported it. You can certainly rally your family and friends, but you’re going to need to find a way to get beyond your one-degree-of-separation community to pull it off.

Did you have a strategy in mind for reaching people that you didn’t know?

Definitely. I brought on a publicist, who helped me place stories in different outlets and with journalists with whom I thought the subject matter would really resonate. Not only were we able to build community early on, but we now have a really nice list of press mentions that we got during the Kickstarter campaign.

Tina, a target of online harassment featured in ‘Netizens.’ After an ex-boyfriend created numerous reputation-harming websites, Tina’s successful career as a commodities trader was derailed. Courtesy of Train of Thought Productions.

Do you have any advice for fellow filmmakers looking to fund their work on Kickstarter?

Think creatively about how you can reach beyond your direct community, and how you can talk about your project in a way that will resonate with a lot of different kinds of audiences. Think about how big of an umbrella you can create to bring people into your issue.

What do you think are some of the more interesting or productive conversations happening in the space of online harassment and online safety?

Not a day goes by that I don’t hear a story in the news that somehow connects to [these themes]. We’re hearing about more and more cases where people’s lives are transformed by things that are happening to them online. I think if we can acknowledge that [online violence, harassment, and abuse] is real, it gives us an opportunity to really address it in a meaningful, constructive way.

There have been some great strides made by advocates and policymakers to protect targets of non-consensual pornography. There have been a number of cases where women have courageously come forward to speak about the devastating impact it’s had on them personally and professionally, such as in the case of Marines United, where several women in the armed forces were impacted by this kind of privacy violation and harassment.

I think that social media platforms are taking the issue much more seriously than they ever have before. They are starting to give users more tools to protect themselves and get help when they need it — but I think there’s still a really long way to go.

Sexual assault attorney Carrie Goldberg in her office with a client in ‘Netizens.’ Courtesy of Train of Thought Productions.

Have there been any responses to the film so far that have surprised you?

I’ve been really pleased that the responses from the men who have seen the film have been just as powerful as the responses from women. Even though this is a film about the way women are targeted online, men [also] understand how vulnerable we all are to having our lives derailed by someone who decides to use the internet to destroy our reputation or career. They may not necessarily relate in the same way to the physical threats, but I think that they really connect to the fact that the internet is a very profound weapon that can totally change the entire course of your life.

What do you hope this documentary will accomplish?

My big hope with the film is to challenge the idea that online harassment and digital abuse is a normal part of our lives online. Once those attitudes begin to shift, I think expectations will really begin to shift — the kinds of protections of our privacy that we expect and our security from social media sites and websites and search engines. I think expectations of law enforcement will begin to shift, and I think the kinds of behavior that we find acceptable from our peers will begin to shift.

My big hope with the film is to challenge the idea that online harassment and digital abuse is a normal part of our lives online.
—Cynthia Lowen

This film deals with some really heavy subject matter. In making it, you’ve heard a lot of troubling things about the internet, and yet you (like many of us) use the internet all the time. What are the places on the internet that give you hope?

What is happening with the Me Too movement has been amazing. If we ever needed a demonstration of the power of women’s voices online, that was it. That was a real phenomenon of people being able to express their experiences and connect with other people — and it’s leading to all these other changes in workplaces and schools and the media. That’s been awesome to see: the power of people’s voices online can lead to change.


This interview has been condensed and edited. To learn more about the film and for resources regarding online safety, visit netizensfilm.com.