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.

© 2017, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • It is unfortunate we are so far down the road in allowing this behavior to grow in a vacuum.

    I do think there is a argument that can be made that much of what we see today was born out of our inability to deal with piracy for an entire generation.

  • When we get back to the place where anything anybody says means nothing–when we get back to the place where we are not in any way dependent upon what others think of us–then this problem will disappear overnight. Will we get there? It takes will.

    I have been a recipient of online harassment of the strongest kind. It was disconcerting for both me and my wife, but I prayerfully hit the problem head-on in several different ways, primarily following a chain of command which took the problem over the head of the perpetrator–a high school teacher–to his superiors who subsequently dealt with him and his social illness. He is no longer employed at that school, and no longer leaves damaging messages about me on nor writes me threatening emails. His wife, who egged him on, no longer writes threatening letters either. Neither does she lie anymore about the police being involved.

    There are other kinds of online harassment as well. I have also been harassed by religious people who did not like my particular Christian viewpoint and so libeled and slandered me while lying that the police were involved. My words to them had been taken out of context, blown out of proportion, and twisted in such a way that they were unrecognizable.

    Through the years miscommunication with the lunatic fringe found online has caused me quite a bit of duress, but I have discovered that if I am far more careful about where I place my opinions or advice or what-have-you–all well-intentioned but not always welcome–then I have that much less stress when it comes to life on the net. I’m still an opinionated a-hole, but now I express my thoughts through my novels–the catharsis that can still be criticized, and often is–but the one that never ruffles feathers enough to imagine police involvement.

  • The best argument against harassment is this: “My inbox, my rules”. The reason why we have spam filters in our email is because we have the liberty to decide who walks into our “turf” and who does not. Freedom of expression isn’t relevant here and those who bring it up are trying to change the subject, because the subject is whether or not a person requires permission to enter another person’s turf, and the answer to that question is undoubtedly yes.

    If people wish to express their dislike for a particular person without bombarding an inbox that would be different. So in that sense starting a hashtag is okay. Lest we allow United Airlines a warrant for silence based on the viscous hate it has been getting lately.

    But it has to be said too: Twitter likewise has turf that it can put its foot down for… if it chooses. If I were editor of, say, Private Eye here in the U.K., I wouldn’t consider it beneficial to have a GamerGate cesspoll forming in the Letters-To-The-Editor section. If you want to imagine the state we are in now, picture a frothing-armchair writer to the editor having the ability to instantly communicate with other like-minded mouth-frothers instantaneously and let them all interact with and spew at each other. During the 90s printed papers didn’t have to endure such a thing with their choosing what gets posted, what bile could be rejected instantly, and crucially where it was all slowed right down and where everyone could breathe.

    This is a battle between the blacklists and the whitelists. The blacklists of a BTL comments section will remove and ban posts as they are posted one-by-one like whack-a-mole (isn’t it any wonder some sites have stopped with comments and expensive moderators?), whereas the whitelists have everything blocked by default and only the good comments are filtered through. Printed media were whitelists back in the day, online comments and Twitter are now blacklists.

    I’m unfortunately not sure what can be done about this. Twitter could decide to set up this narrow whitelist bottleneck where every single comment is checked by a human before being posted (because, let’s be honest, AI is overrated in this area). But they would end up losing to another website that decided to allow hashtag swarms on a blacklist model, as folk will inevitably be impatient with their messages not being instantaneous. We don’t like needless custom checks at an airport border for a reason, and as long as we have the tools to get around the border we’ll do it. If we do want to go through an “internet border”, it’ll be because we choose to, not because of a law from the top.

    Not a lot of people like it when I say this, but this is a “bottom-up” problem to solve, not “top-down”. We just need to educate people to avoid this stupidity, and ridicule those who feed the nastier sides of the blacklist medium. And there’s not a lot else that can be done, I’m afraid. Because in the end we are the ones choosing to spew bile, and there’s a lot of us that choose to do it. As long as that’s the case counterspeech is the weapon of choice – just remember how successful such a weapon was when it came to criticising religion and having western society be much more secular today than in the past.

    We shouldn’t be focusing on how we have “too much” free expression. There’s another pillar of liberty we’ve all forgotten about: freedom of ASSEMBLY. This is what causes folk to flock to the most outrage, trying to join in with petty contrarian observations about the previous guy’s post, rampant nitpicking until the top posts are the culmination of supportive retweets from those who support the post and ironic retweets from those who despise the post. Charlie Brooker’s cyber-dystopia series Black Mirror hones in on this despair very well.

    It’s because we have hyper-assembly. In the past it took tons of effort to organise meetings – you’d have to go out, post pamphlets, set a time and date, make a deal with the landlord, and then you’ve got a debate hall everyone had to have traveled to where folk can take turns to make their point, and noone has time to nitpick at every folly. Plus, moderators can kick out trolls. Whereas now, the “halls” being hashtags, they can be set up in minutes or seconds. Anyone can interject and shout and gain boos in response in a nanosecond compared to before. And it exponentially multiplies until all that’s at the top makes you feel guilty for walking into the hall at all.

    I would like to imagine a world where such top tweets contain wisdom, intellect and skepticism, but we are an overrated species, as the great Dr House once said. We think that because we can put men on the moon and eliminate smallpox that we won’t partake in a pointless obsession over a female game developer’s love life for no worthwhile reason, but we are wrong.

    Laughing at it is the best weapon, like it has been for so many much scarier ideas throughout history.

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