Online Harassment & The Internet Experiment

In last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, staff writer Jenna Wortham asks Why Can’t Silicon Valley Fix Online Harassment? Citing some alarming statistics from a 2104 Pew Research study, she writes …

“… 40 percent of adult internet users have dealt with online harassment. And those numbers go up among young adults (especially women) and nonwhite users. Women are significantly more likely than men to report being stalked or sexually harassed on the internet, and 51 percent of African-Americans and 54 percent of Hispanics said they had experienced harassment, compared with 34 percent of whites.”

Online harassment is no joke. At scale, it can be emotionally devastating and legitimately terrifying for victims. It has been known to cause economic and social harm and to catalyze both physical assault and suicides. While we extoll the virtues of connectedness fostered by an “open” internet, harassment is the mutant howling in the basement nobody wants to talk about. And Wortham rightly observes that the monster is a byproduct of Silicon Valley’s unique blend of new-money libertarianism built on a foundation of faded, hippie idealism—incongruous doctrines that were, for many, synthesized in the manifesto A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, delivered by John Perry Barlow at Davos in 1996.

But if online harassment is a disease and the first step to recovery is admitting there’s a problem, then perhaps that first step is to properly contextualize Barlow’s Declaration as the naive and petulant outburst it was. A moment of whimsy rather than the foundation for a sustainable, or even humane, proposal. Nevertheless, the belief that cyberspace remains some magical realm beyond the normal boundaries of society continues to delay rational discourse on any number of problems specifically caused or exacerbated by the technology.

Although harassment will occur on a public forum like Twitter, it often begins by brewing on a site like 4Chan, a “discussion” board populated by mostly males from pre-teen to mid-30s, who, in every sense of the cliché, have too much time on their hands. And although everyone on 4Chan is anonymous—it is in fact the site where the hacktivist group Anonymous began—they might collectively be seen as that mutant creature borne by Barlow’s Declaration. Like most adolescents, the thing they seem to hate most is being told what to do—hence the the harassment-filled shitstorm known as “Gamergate.”

Although I would never condone harassment, I think I understand how at least some of it starts. This blog has very occasionally elicited accusations of racism or sexism because there are people in the world who will filter literally any topic through such lenses, even when there is no rational basis for doing so. If I were an adolescent who spent inordinate time among other adolescents in a forum like 4Chan, the temptation to retaliate against these absurd accusations by weaponizing overt racism or sexism—at least for my own amusement—could be very great. And once it begins, it’s easy enough for a little spark to become a flash fire.

In all likelihood, the majority of trolls out there are young men who harass for the lulz—an expression derived from the acronym LOL. Think of this class of trolls as easily excitable chimpanzees who will gather around a target of ridicule and pile on, but who are also easily bored and distracted by the next shiny object. So, if the target of their ridicule or cruelty doesn’t respond, this group usually returns to its natural state of online gaming and metaphorically throwing feces at one another.

But if the target of their ridicule does respond, this only increases the opportunity for lulz, which means the chimps remain engaged and incentivized to keep raising the bar of harassment of their target. Hence, the truly hideous invocations of rape and murder—complete with photographic depictions of these acts—that are so commonly employed by harassers of this nature. From this phenomenon comes the common-sense directive Don’t Feed the Troll, which is fine up to a point but can also be a form of victim-blaming as the volume and virulence of the harassment increases.

Wortham notes the apparent futility of “counterspeech,” which she describes as “the practice of bystander intervention that overpowers aggressors in an attempt to deter them.” I’m not at all surprised the EFF endorses this self-governing tactic as a “solution,” seeing as the organization (co-founded by Barlow) remains mesmerized by the fallacy that the internet naturally enables good to triumph over evil as long as pesky rules don’t get in the way.

I’m also not surprised that the two organizations Wortham highlights as designed to deploy “counterspeech” seem to be finding the method ineffective. If the general rule of thumb is Don’t Feed the Troll, then an attempt to surround a victim in a barrier of Twitter-hugs is like dipping her in chocolate and Cheetos. It’s only going to whip the trolls into a feeding frenzy. As stated above, it is important to remember that a large segment of the people who engage in this kind of harassment HAVE NOTHING BETTER TO DO. This is a hobby for many a young male, who really needs to get a life; and it is therefore difficult for people who do have lives to outlast or overwhelm the harassers.

Presumably, there are casual harassers as well—people who don’t spend time seething on 4Chan, but who obey an impulse to add their 140 characters of vitriol when they see a trend piling onto a target they don’t like or who has pissed them off. And I suppose we have to assume at this point that people can be harassed by bot swarm as well. But the fact that a real human being can be remotely and anonymously hounded to the point of being harmed or harming herself is a very real problem we have yet to confront in any substantive way. What is the responsibility of one voice in a million that feeds the proximate cause of a suicide? I don’t know, but it sure as hell belies Barlow’s dreamy assumptions.

Of course the thesis question Wortham asks is this: Can Silicon Valley do anything about online harassment? In theory, why not? As stated in several other posts, the internet companies are telling a half truth at best when they claim to have free speech obligations. They may wish to support free speech, and that’s fine, but the individual platforms are no more bound by the First Amendment than a retail store or restaurant in the physical world. Wortham is right to view the deciding factors as both ideological and financial, and in that order—a story of what happens when hippies become billionaires.

The policy positions and Terms of Service that still flow from Barlow’s Declaration have made the internet into a computer model of a social experiment which—to an extent—places people in philosopher John Locke’s hypothetical state of nature. Like Locke, the model then asks whether or not Man really needs to make a bargain with the State in order to protect his sovereignty as an individual. In 1996, Barlow declared the internet to be a “home of Mind,” a place where the legal conventions of statehood (namely law) have no purpose—an ideal based on the assumption that people are basically good and law is exclusively coercive.

But in 1689, in his Second Treatise of Government, Locke argued that Man in a state of nature (i.e. without government) is more free but also more vulnerable to human predators, who may enslave him, kill him, or take his property. Hence, the bargain one makes with the State is to trade as little freedom as possible in exchange for relative security. Thus, if a woman in a Target store were harassed in Twitter style (i.e. told by a swarm of men that they hope she gets raped and killed), the security and police who will soon arrive on her behalf are a manifestation of that Lockean bargain.

In principle, the major platform owners can take steps to mitigate online harassment, and they will likely discover this ability the moment there is a financial incentive to do so. But in the meantime, we might learn something from the computer model, which reveals exactly what can happen in a stateless and lawless “community.”

Consider the rash of hate crimes and threats following the election—all presumably committed by people who believed Trump’s presidency granted them permission to act upon latent antipathy. But how many Swastikas have been spray-painted by committed Nazis and how many by teenagers doing it for the lulz? Hard to say, but it’s likely that both motivations are present and that this is one way in which real life comes to resemble cyberspace rather than the other way around. And that may prove to be the most dangerous phenomenon of all.

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