Thuggery on the internet
Sexual harassment and threats of sexual violence prompted Shaw Kenawe, author of Progressive Eruptions and long time member of this community, to remove her web log from Cyberspace.
(Actually the blog is still there, but Shaw has apparently suspended blogging for now.)
When I read this, I immediately thought of the case of Jen McCreight two years ago, who also gave up blogging in the face of what seem to have been similar threats, though she eventually returned. I hope Shaw will return too, but only she can decide what's the right thing for her to do, and it's difficult for outsiders to evaluate the situation since yesterday's announcement contains almost no specifics or examples about the threats in question, only characterizations of them by others.
It's maddening to see a blogger driven off the net by such behavior, especially since it's very difficult to do anything about the behavior. Legal protections for free speech in the US are (thank goodness) quite a bit broader than the author of the announcement seems to believe -- threats are an exception, and there's some hope of legal action against the perpetrators if evidence is preserved, but the anonymity facilitated by the internet makes even this very difficult.
(There is one point of comfort to offer -- such threats are empty. Consider how often one hears of bloggers being verbally threatened or harassed, and then how rarely one hears of the threats actually being carried out -- I can't recall a single such case.)
As I've seen again and again, the other measures which people instinctively try in such situations are useless. Appealing to the bullies' better nature doesn't work. Scolding them for their viciousness doesn't work. Invoking sympathy or fairness doesn't work. Flat-out demanding that the behavior stop doesn't work.
It's important to be supportive of fellow bloggers who are being subjected to harassment. Moral support from others can be of great value to the victim in such a situation. But always be aware that pleading with harassers, or lecturing them on how bad their behavior is, will probably work about as well as trying to scare ants away from a picnic by pouring sugar on the ground, and for the same reason.
I've been the target of harassing or threatening messages a few times over the years. I can't tell Shaw or anyone else what they should do -- every situation is a little different, and every victim has individual concerns. All I can say is what worked in my own case.
Bullies basically thrive on attention. They want to know they've made you feel hurt or frightened or upset, and they're looking for some reaction from you which confirms that. When they get it, "the troll is being fed", as the internet saying goes, and they'll be back for more.
So I don't give them any reaction. I give them nothing at all. The first time something like this happened to me, it was through the mail -- the internet didn't exist yet. Being naïve, I tried to reason with the people doing it. The harassment continued. I told them there was no point in continuing the discussion. The harassment continued. At one point I even threatened legal action, but it still continued, though toned down a little. Then I just stopped answering their letters. They kept writing for a while, but after several had gone unanswered, they stopped.
When I get targeted by some crank on the internet, I do the same. This has happened three times that I can remember offhand. I give them nothing at all. I don't reply to their e-mails. I delete their comments in moderation so they never appear here. I don't post anything that mentions them, whether explicitly or obliquely. If they write about me on their own blog or in comments on some third party's blog, I ignore it and don't respond. And eventually -- usually pretty fast -- the harassment stops. The harasser is not getting any psychic nourishment from it. This is the only thing I've ever personally found that works.
As I suggested at the time of the Jen McCreight episode, perhaps the ultimate solution is for a sort of cadre of people with special internet expertise to form and offer their services to track down and identify the harassers in such cases. But so far I see no sign of any such thing happening in any organized way, and until it does, we have to deal with it ourselves, as best we can.
Update: The people threatening Shaw better watch it. Here's a case of a man who got a four-month jail sentence for making similar threats.