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There’s been a lot of discussion of Internet harassment lately. We’ve covered the harassment women can experience on Twitter, but I think there’s one crucial element of all this that’s been missed. Today, I’m going to talk about the online harassment you don’t hear about.
When you think “online harassment,” you most likely think of GamerGate – the weird and angry pseudo-movement in certain corners of the gaming community – and the harassment of Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian. Pretty much everyone agrees that the death threats and mountains of hate mail were over the line, and the greater online community has gone to great lengths to censure the GamerGate movement in general because of it. The backlash got so big that Law and Order did an episode about it (with their usual subtlety).
I am entirely on board with the backlash – I think what happened to these people is genuinely nasty. But let’s take a step back for a moment, and look at this in a broader context.
Quinn and Sarkeesian have a few important things in common. They’re both public figures – that means they’re good at interacting with the press. They both have fans, money, and contacts. They both advocate popular beliefs (feminism and social justice). When something bad happens to them, it’s a good story, and they’re good at getting that story told. There’s a clear-cut victim and a clear-cut villain.
That’s not surprising – it’s why these stories got so much attention in the first place. The same holds true for other high-profile victims of Internet mobs – these are the stories that we see, and the ones that define the narrative about what online harassment is.
So what happens to victims who aren’t good at interacting with the press, or do or say unpopular things?
A Culture of Silence
How about the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion? If you aren’t familiar, Walter Palmer is a Minnesota dentist who went on a safari vacation and shot and killed a beloved Zimbabwean lion named Cecil – a famous lion that was the subject of intensive research.
The internet backlash was brutal. Outraged fans of the lion doxxed Palmer and his family and bombed his Yelp page with fake reviews. The dentist received death threats. People vandalized his office and home with threats and invectives, causing his business to shut down.
These are precisely the sorts of harassment tactics employed by GamerGate. So, presumably, journalists and the public have taken a principled stand against these people and everything they stand for – right?
Well… no. While there have been a few articles pointing out just how ugly this whole thing has become, the overwhelming majority of the coverage of the harassment has been neutral, or even positive. When Yelp removed the fake reviews of his practice, the IBTimes reporting was sympathetic to the outrage of the mob, and makes special note of their petition against Yelp, which reads like parody:
“Yelp’s autocratic censorship of this this [sic] historic, unprecedented outpouring of participation in public debate silenced and disempowered their loyal contributors and deceptively erased the debate from public view – apparently to protect River Bluff Dental and its criminal dentist Walter Palmer.”
When threats and vandalism drove his practice out of business, the Huffington Post ran this article,
“You disgust me. You are not a man. You are a rich killer who happens to be a dentist whose practice has now closed because your patients are disgusted by what you did and have found another provider. Karma’s a bitch and you’re not a man.”
When a few commentators went so far as to suggest that maybe we should keep a sense of perspective about the death of one lion, the Observer wrote an impassioned article about how a sense of perspective is for suckers.
In short, there has been very, very little outrage over the tactics being used to shame and harass Walter Palmer, but there has been a great deal of support for it. And all of this is not to say that what Palmer did wasn’t terrible – it absolutely was, and he deserves whatever (official, legal) justice is coming to him. But Internet harassment is wrong for reasons above and beyond “they didn’t have it coming.” Punishments should not be handed out by a jury made up of the most angriest people on the Internet. Threats of violence should not be tolerated just because the victim is a prick.
And, lest you think this is an isolated incident, consider the case of the pizza parlor that was driven out of business for saying it would decline to cater a gay wedding (and then given almost a million dollars by an angry mob from the other side of the debate).
Or the scientist who wore a tacky shirt during an interview about the Philae comet landing, and was the subject of a short-lived by vicious Internet campaign to get him fired. His tearful apology is pretty tough to listen to, and it’s difficult to imagine that the process constitutes any sort of justice.
It isn’t just men, either. What of Christina Sommers, the controversial critic of feminism? When she attempted to host a “GamerGate” themed talk the venue was harassed by phone, email, and Twitter, and the event was eventually ended by a bomb threat. One of her talks, at Oberlin university, was disrupted by jeering hecklers, and the campus was blanketed with fliers warning that her talk could be traumatic. You likely didn’t hear about any of this. Or, if you did, it was paired with lengthy disclaimers about her political beliefs and character, by way of justification.
Again, none of this is intended to endorse these people, their actions, or their beliefs. But that isn’t the point. The point is, both mainstream journalism and the blogging world is remarkably silent about Internet harassment – so long as it happens to the wrong sort of people. Lots of people are eager to take a stand against online harassment, including influential public figures like John Oliver.
But nobody is lining to stick their neck out for a lion-killing dentist.
And that’s a problem. We can’t take a principled stand against harassment only when it happens to people we like. To quote Jon Stewart, “if you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbies.”
Or, as satirist H. L. Mencken put it, more than a hundred years ago:
“The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”
This is not exactly the same thing as Mencken was talking about, since it’s a question of harassment and not legal oppression (which is much more serious). However, the principle applies. We have to take a stand against harassment even when it happens to unpopular people. Otherwise, we aren’t crusaders for safe discourse and good conduct – we’re just bullies.
How Internet Harassment Happens
By indulging online harassment we also help to promote a narrative that simply isn’t true. From the coverage that we all see about it, you could be forgiven for assuming that online harassment only affects women/feminists and is only perpetrated by creepy Internet neckbeards. However, I don’t think this is actually what’s going on.
There’s a lot of online harassment happening, and just about every organized online movement is guilty of it to some degree. Online harassment isn’t a conspiracy by a specific group or movement. It’s a structural problem with the Internet itself. I also think it’s worth noting that most of the people involved are not doing anything (from their perspective) all that bad – just like no individual pebble feels responsible for an avalanche.
The problem is that the Internet, more than anything, is a feedback loop. The act of being seen makes a piece of content more likely to be seen again. This is especially true if that piece of content effectively mobilizes peoples’ anger. According to researchers, anger is the most “viral” emotion – it spreads quickest through online communities. The same phenomenon behind viral memes and cat videos can also serve to round up an angry mob.
The upshot of this is that the Internet is completely lousy at having a sense of proportion. A lot of bad or troubling things happen every day. The Internet latches onto a handful of them – those that happen to have a particular striking detail (like a vivid shirt or a lion with a silly name), or which exemplify the issue du jour. This brings wildly disproportionate attention to bear on these troubling things. The subjects of these firestorms have no public face, no identity, and no defense.
They get dehumanized pretty much instantly.
This is a situation that’s ripe for harassment. What feels like activism to the individuals involved can become harassment when there’s a million people all angry at the same person. And, with all the added attention comes a greater risk of involving people who are a little bit unbalanced, who will go further. Who will escalate to threats, vandalism, and actual violence. To stretch the avalanche analogy a little, when enough pebbles are falling, sooner or later they start to dislodge boulders.
As for why nobody stops this stuff, remember that there’s little motivation to fix it. There are few consequences for those involved, and the sad fact is that online harassment works really well. If you want to suppress dissent, randomly selecting people who step out of line and ruining their lives is a great way to do it. It’s not deliberate in most cases, but it does make for a pretty strong incentive not to try too hard to prevent it. Especially when you know that the victims likely don’t have the social capital to make much of a fuss about it.
So, what can we do about it?
Shutting Down Mob Logic
The one piece of good news is that mobs are sometimes surprisingly easy to derail. Again, most of the people involved don’t feel like they’re part of a mob. They’re angry, and they’re expressing that anger in a seemingly reasonable way, reinforced by people around them assuring them that they aren’t going too far. The mob acts unanimously, or not at all. It doesn’t take many dissenting voices (from those respected in the community), before people start to say stuff like “boy, guys, do you really think we need all these buckets of tar?”
All of us are part of many online communities, and sooner or later, some of them are going to be a part of one of these harassment campaigns. And we have the power and responsibility by helping to derail this stuff by loudly pointing out when the tone starts to turn ugly. Will this work? I honestly don’t know – but I don’t have a better idea.
Have you been the subject of internet harassment? On the flip side, have you participated in one of these campaigns? Do you regret it? The discussion starts in the comments.