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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Will Trolls Break the Internet?

Back when I was the target of one little troll, I briefly consulted a local professor who is an expert on "cyberlaw". He did not encourage me to pursue a legal remedy (see this report). All he could do was to refer me to an organization for support of victims of revenge porn. That was of little direct relevance to my situation, of course, but it was then that I learned just how pervasive, profitable, and ruinous the "revenge porn" industry was. 

Should "revenge porn" be criminalized? I certainly believe so, and in fact, several states are already working on laws to that effect. To what extent such new laws will compromise our much valued social tradition of "free speech" remains to be seen, but it seems to me that it is practically inevitable that we will move in the direction of criminalizing online conduct that is deliberately destructive.

We must find ways to balance the rights of people to exercise free speech with their rights not to be violated by those who abuse the anonymity and ubiquity of the internet to persecute others. First Amendment devotees wring their hands about the "chilling" effect the loss of anonymity would have on public discourse, but we also must acknowledge the "chilling" effect that fear of harassment currently has -- especially on women (well, anyone who isn't a white cis-gender male, really). 

We cannot have bullies running the means of communication on which all of us have come to depend. And hoping that the internet will somehow regulate itself isn't really working out. We may romanticize the Wild West in movies and fiction, but the horror of being at the mercy of bandits in reality mostly led to unruly posses, lynchings, and a lot of innocent civilians bleeding out in the dusty streets of Laredo.

In the past several months, I'd been looking for a book that would help explain how the internet has become such a fertile playground for sociopaths, and why victims have such limited legal recourse.

I am currently reading Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, which is what compelled me to read up on programmer Kathy Sierra, one of the cases described in the book. And if you thought the wringer Anita Sarkeesian has been put through in the past year has been bad, Sierra's ordeal will take your breath away, in part because she faced it down all alone. Sierra was one of the first female high-tech bloggers to be targeted by hacker trolls and their followers ("Weev", her primary tormenter, is currently in prison for an unrelated conviction). She was sufficiently terrorized to withdraw from the public for several years, but now she's back -- and she's just published a rather raw but very compelling account of what happened to her "Why the Trolls Will Always Win."  

Campaigns like the ones against Sarkeesian and Kathy Sierra are relentless and sustained attempts to quash women who have earned a modicum of success or celebrity.* They are motivated by envy, fear, malice, and mob hysteria. They have little to do with ideological conflict or girls' intolerance for hurt "feeeelings". They are designed solely to inflict emotional and financial distress on women who are perceived as a threat (to insecure masculine egos that is); indeed, they are launched in order to intimidate an entire gender by instilling fear of real physical harm and the ruin of their professional and personal lives.

Will online misogynists and bullies "break the internet" by forcing us to forgo the very real benefits of anonymity? I sincerely hope not, but we need to start exploring alternative ways to stem the tide of abuse.

Social media sites like twitter, facebook, and youtube are finally getting on board, developing codes of conduct and policies with teeth, and not a moment too soon: their bottom lines depend on it. 

And it is amusing to note that nobody is faster to play the "victim" card than my own little troll, who was much incensed to discover, this week, that some malicious prankster had been impersonating him on twitter! He was even threatening to dox and sue participants in a subreddit who had dared to call him a fat, virginal neckbeard!  (And also "dox" his family although he provides no evidence to substantiate that claim.)

Apparently, sadistic, amoral trolls have "feeeelings" too! (But then, in the words of film-maker Errol Morris, "What is life without irony?") 

*Also check out Zoe Quinn's "Five Things I Learned...

8 comments:

  1. Have you seen this?
    http://www.wired.com/2014/10/trolls-will-always-win/
    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/10/the-unsafety-net-how-social-media-turned-against-women/381261/

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    1. Wow. The "global free speech experiment" shows mainly how global and universal and matter-of-fact misogyny is. It is mind-boggling.

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    2. @ Bodycrimes --Yes, note that I have linked to Sierra's letter published in "Wired" in my post. Thanks for the Atlantic link, though. I am gratified that these stories are finally being heard...

      @Anonymous at 3:53 -- Yes, the past two years following the "New Misogynists" has been a real eye-opener for me...

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  2. I'm going to read "Hate Crimes in Cyberspace," Cinzia -- tx for mentioning it.

    It is remarkable that having the right and opportunity to free speech is an invitation for so many to free hate, harass, and unleash their most primitive destructive impulses.

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    1. Is it so remarkable? Really?
      Think of the way people act in semi-anonymous environments. Big cities, heavy traffic, ect. Think of the way people treat those they don't need as compared to those they need/suck up to.
      Not remarkable really, more like a forgone conclusion.
      Human nature is ugly. Necissity is the mother of cordiality.

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  3. The law has so far to catch up with how far the world has come. A couple of generations ago trolls would have to satisfy themselves by sending threatening letters and phone calls, by slandering people within their physical communities, I believe our law enforcement is still thinking in those terms. Imagine if all those abusive tweets, emails and comments directed against Anita Sarkeesian had been written on paper and mailed to her? Then even the most obtuse person could see why this is such a problem.

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    1. Well said, Snork! It amazes me how many people are all "sticks and stones" in the face of online bullying that has resulted in cases like Rehteah Parsons, to name just one.

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    2. Not to mention Amanda Todd and Daisy Coleman.

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Thanks for commenting!