Stopping cyberbullying

crossposted from Larvatus Prodeo

Friday was, on short-notice, announced as Stop Cyberbullying Day by some US blogs. This was in response to high-profile software-usability author and blogger, Kathy Sierra, writing about how she has cancelled an upcoming conference speech and other engagements due to overwhelming fear following hate-speech and threats directed at her online. The threats were at a sufficiently high level that Sierra has reported them to the police and apparently the FBI is investigating them, because making death threats online, just as in “real life”, is a crime.

Sierra wrote particularly about her sense of betrayal that some of the hate-speech was allowed free reign on some “trashtalk” sites (i.e. specifically for sledging others) that were set up and/or recommended by other tech bloggers whom she knows and often meets in person at tech conferences. The trashtalk sites have now been closed down and pulled from the web, at least one of the other tech bloggers Sierra named, Frank Paynter, has apologised unreservedly for his involvement in setting up the sledging site and the only woman tech blogger named, Jeneane Sessum, has felt unfairly included in the names Sierra named, although also apologising unreservedly for pain that has come to Sierra from what she describes as a peripheral involvement in the sledging site. Another named blogger, Alan Herrell aka ‘The Head Lemur’, claims that his blog IDs have been hacked, that threatening posts which appeared to originate from him were forged by someone unknown and that he is so disgusted by the hit to his reputation that he’s taking a break from blogging to regroup. Yet another of the named tech-bloggers, Chris Locke aka ‘rageboy’, is defending himself vigorously from what he sees as an unjustified attack on his reputation contained in Sierra’s post.

There has been great surprise expressed by many that a site set up to encourage free speech for “meankids” (the name of the site) could degenerate into such a pit of festering hate. It was just meant to be “a bit of fun”, a place to “blow off steam” and “be creative”. Many others have expressed surprise at the surprise: without written standards, a tight comments/posting policy and proper supervision to see that standards are met, this sort of degeneration into outrageous abuse, almost as if there is some offensiveness competition, is seen time and time again in “free speech” communities. This was seen in the AutoAdmit forum’s cyberobsession with Jill Filipovic and other female law students — the more outrageous the statements, the more kudos from fellow forum members. The more moderate members are either intimidated or disgusted into leaving and the community becomes a sewer.

We’ve copped a lot of flak from some for our comments policy here at LP, with accusations of stifling free speech, but it is this sort of often-observed degeneration into abuse that is exactly the reason for the enforcement of our policy. We value the fact that LP is a site where people new to blogging can come and not be intimidated/disgusted by commenters hurling outright abuse, although we’re not wowsers about the rude vernacular i.e. a peppering of profanities and obscenities. There’s also the question of the possible legal responsiblity of blog-publishers and members of a group blog for allowing threatening/abusive/slanderous comments to remain on the site for others to read, a question which is yet to be tested in court.

Joan Walsh, editor of Salon, uses the Sierra affair to talk about the fact of common misogyny on the web and how Salon is soon to implement better comment moderation tools in order to better control the level of vitriol in comments threads because they feel that discourse is being stifled by hate speech. A Salon Broadsheet article on Sierra provides exactly the petri-dish of online misogyny that Walsh describes, with Sierra being described as a ‘liar’ and ‘weak’ because of her reaction to online abuse and threats.

The ugliness of online misogyny is not only directed at tech-bloggers and left-leaning columnists: Michelle Malkin is just one of the right-wing women who have also been the target of hate-speech in posts, comments and email — people have written about wanting to see her and her family tortured, raped and murdered. I disagree with nearly every word she writes and find some of her partisan strategies loathsome, but she doesn’t deserve to have her life and her children’s lives threatened by bigoted nongs. Malkin asks, in the wake of the outpouring of sympathy for Sierra, where has been the broad sympathy and BBC articles about her being threatened in exactly the same way?

The hate is not only directed at women. Gay men, or men considered as in any way failing to embody an acceptably masculine/macho persona, also get the hate mail which escalates to rape and death threats. The Salon article upthread mentioned that Andrew Sullivan, who is openly gay, got just the same sorts of comments and mail threatening rape and death as the female writers at Salon, while other male writers, while still receiving hate mail, did not get the sexualised vitriol. Chris Clarke, a nature writer and political progressive blogger, was derided by commenters as a tree-hugging girly-man for weeks before then getting a credible threat to the life of his dog, which, in light of a long history of violence from anti-environmentalists towards eco-activists, motivated him to take down his blog for a while.

Violet Blue, a columnist for SFGate, writes of her own experiences with online hate-speech:

Ask any three women who publish online if they’re ever been stalked, sexually threatened or threatened with violence on other blogs or in comments. I don’t need to bet money to know you’ll get a yes from one of those women. Too busy to ask anyone? That’s OK, I’ll raise my hand for all three.

Imagine as a woman working really hard to earn the reputation of a respected voice in the world of tech journalism and blogging — a world populated by disproportionately more men than women — and finding yourself the target of a hate-filled website. The tone and content of the site centers around sexually threatening you, suggesting ways you could be killed and have your corpse defiled, stating that you are a “slut” and that your gender is in question. Your straight male colleagues don’t have this problem.

Then the person running the hate site blogs about every word you say, every time you make a post or publish an article. And targets your friends. And posts the names of your family and Google satellite maps of your family’s homes. They deface your Wikipedia page at every opportunity, with sexual slurs, objectifying you at every possible chance. It’s enough to make a girl choose not to be a tech journalist.

In this particular instance, Violet Blue is describing a friend of hers being targeted. Although she too has received violent sexualised threats, she has not been stalked online in the same all-consuming way as her friend. She points out that the only media attention given to her friend’s case involved a New York Times article portraying the stalker as vaguely mischievous and linking to his blog (thus sending it high traffic) and not linking to her friend’s blog at all. The hate site continues to cyberstalk her friend, with no objection from the tech-blogging community at all.

How the blogging community reacts to open sexual hatred of women bloggers and writers is worth examining. In the Sierra case, she describes herself as feeling so helpless as to have to run and hide, saying on her blog: “I have canceled all speaking engagements. I am afraid to leave my yard. I will never feel the same. I will never be the same. … I have no idea if I’ll ever post again.” And Sierra has received support from many.

My friend did not characterize herself as helpless at any point, and neither have I. And with my friend, there was (and still is) no “bloggers-stick-togetherness” in our corner of Blogistan. The question is, Do we women need to portray ourselves as victims to garner support when men threaten to defile our corpses if we gain notoriety?

It is an interesting question. Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan both received thousands of hate emails during and following the Edwards Blogger Scandal, including hundreds of threats of violent sexual assault and dozens of death threats. They wrote of these experiences on their blogs and in other media and McEwan especially wrote that it was the threats that made her decide to resign from the Edwards campaign, but neither woman represented themselves as helpless with fear. As with Malkin, while they received much support from people who were already sympathetic to them and a few much appreciated gestures from across the partisan divide, the broader sympathy and mainstream media interest generated by the Sierra affair failed to appear.

Sierra’s unique achievement as a target of hate speech and threats has been in garnering a great deal of (totally deserved) sympathy for detailing the fear she feels for herself and her family. Nonetheless, there are some appallingly unsympathetic threads [e.g. Salon Broadsheet article referenced above] of the usual “grow a spine” variety, claiming that she’s giving in to the threats by cancelling her appearances, that she’s playing the victim, that she should just “have a sense of humour” about “obvious jokes”. Somehow I doubt those making “jokes” about rape would think that African-Americans should just “have a sense of humour” about lynching “jokes” (these days, anyway – apparently exactly that was expected before desegregation in the South).

It is interesting that it has taken threats against a non-political woman blogger who openly acknowledged her fear and sense of helplessness before there has been a general swell of outrage against the vileness of online hate speech. As Sierra titled her blog-post: death threats against bloggers are NOT “protected speech”. Too much has been excused in the past by chanting the mantra of “free speech”, mostly from people who wilfully misunderstand the nature of the right to free speech in a liberal democracy: it’s a guarantee that the government won’t silence speech, not that any forum anywhere has to tolerate any and all speech, no matter how obnoxious and bullying.

The Australian blogosphere seems to have largely avoided the ugliness seen in the instances described above. The chilling effect of targeted sexualised abuse through cyberstalking has not been documented here as far as I am aware (although statistically it is likely to have occurred, it just hasn’t been made widely known). Intemperate stoushes are reasonably common, with garden-variety abuse and the occasional slander (usually quickly deleted). An abusive poster dominating threads on certain topics in an obsessive way is not entirely unknown. Incivility abounds, of course, everywhere that it is allowed to flourish. A strict commenting policy, tightly enforced, keeps this potential anarchy under some control.

It seems to come with the territory of interacting with a screen instead of with people who can be seen: the bloggers and other commenters seem unreal and undeserving of common courtesy of the sort that is expected in the flesh. Words that we would never dream of allowing to escape our lips in person trip lightly from the tips of our fingers into the pixels on our screens. Kathy Sierra’s story reminds us that there is always a real person sitting behind another screen, that words that wound are cruel, and words that threaten pain and death are criminal.

Categories: social justice

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  1. Women online: coping with abuse, threats and cyberstalking « Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog
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