01 October 2014

Thuggery on the internet

One of my favorite political blogs, and one which I always read regularly, is Shaw Kenawe's Progressive Eruptions.  For a short time a few days ago the blog was taken down, and yesterday this announcement appeared there, written not by Shaw but by another person who occasionally co-blogs there.  It's long, but here is the gist of it:

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.


Blogger Ahab said...

Shaw -- I'm sorry to hear that this is happening to you. It pains me to know that your online voice has gone silent because of bullies. However, if you need to do this for your own peace of mind, I support your decision. Wishing you peace and strength.

Infidel -- I didn't know that you'd experienced online and mail harassment as well. Perhaps this is more common than any of us realize.

01 October, 2014 06:57  
Blogger (O)CT(O)PUS said...

To put the matter into perspective on behalf of the victim (nobody gives a damn about the perpetrator), I think a relative risk assessment is advised

In the matter of Kathy Sierra, here was a successful and established author with a high profile in the computer industry. And there was a trade exhibition where she was scheduled to speak; a tradeshow attended by thousands of people (any of whom might be potential assailants). It meant Kathy Sierra would be in a hotel room, using elevators, and passing through hallways – not always in the presence of people. The reason why Kathy Sierra cancelled all public appearances is obvious: HIGH RISK.

On the other hand, a web author under a fictitious moniker and living in a large city: LOW RISK. We might also infer that sandbox bullies are themselves cowards. The belligerent boneheads on the Internet validate each other in comment threads, and fellow boneheads give them reinforcement and comfort. Offline, they are an inert gas of misfits and losers. Nevertheless, it is always wise to err on the side of caution.

01 October, 2014 07:41  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't get all worked up about this. A person can use comment moderation as you do. A person can set comment levels, or have invited readership only. Why would anyone get so upset by vulgarity from an anon. anyways? Just stop it from coming to your mail box. If you are taking this crap seriously then you shouldn't be blogging and giving your opinions, because there will always be someone to call your opinions nuts, or worse.

01 October, 2014 08:11  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ahab: That's part of why this is so bad -- the worthless drive out the best.

I think internet harassment is a lot commoner against women than against men, actually. Some of my interests draw me into circles where there are unsavory characters, so I may have encountered this problem more than most (men) do.

(O)ct(o)pus: That's true. Different people face different levels of risk. I've always been careful to keep my online and meatspace lives separate. Someone who's already somewhat known publicly doesn't have that option.

Anon: The post over at Progressive Eruptions, and even the brief excerpt from it that I copied, makes it clear that actual threats were involved here, not just vulgarity or insults (neither of which would bother me personally very much, but threats are another matter).

While a thick skin is advisable on the internet, that doesn't mean we shouldn't do what we can to track down and squelch the kind of bullies who harass people and try to silence them. All, voices, not just those emanating from armored hides, can have value.

01 October, 2014 16:46  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It used to drive me mad when people tried to be reasonable with the trolls. You're dealing with people that have nothing to lose, so they should be handled accordingly.

Threats should be taken seriously. I'm all for finding ways to make the bully's life more miserable.


02 October, 2014 08:45  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having read what's available I see nothing more than typical verbal garbage one can find on many blogs including Octo's. I suggest Shaw put her blog on invited readers only, not comment on conservative blogs, and ignore the garbage. Seems shutting her blog down is the kind of reaction you advise against and just what the bullies wanted. If there is more to this no one wants to talk about then it's hard to empathize with her problem without that information. What's here does come under the "thick skin" category.

02 October, 2014 20:39  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Vic78: Yes, apparently Shaw kept records and evidence of the threats, so hopefully some kind of legal action can be taken here.

Anon: Again, you're ignoring the fact that apparently actual threats were involved here, not just "verbal garbage" and unsolicited porn, even if the threats haven't been posted verbatim.

03 October, 2014 04:27  
Blogger okjimm said...

I agree...it is best to just ignore them. Most are just Attention Whores and when they do not get what they need, they leave. Conversely...why should anyone have to put up with that kind of harrassment and ridicule?

...and another thought....and I have gone to some of those blogs....the fact is...and to me this is most offensive, they are BORING. Boring is sinful, if I believe in sin, and unless it comes in a glass on the rocks, I don't.

If you cannot be fun,make sense, inform...get the fuck out of the way.

03 October, 2014 07:29  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not ignoring it, I don't see it with what was available to read. "apparently actual threats" is only an accusation at this point and I never read anything like that. I'm not going to pick sides, especially with no outrageous evidence. I don't consider the vulgarity I've read to be outrageous for the blog world. I will admit that much of what I read on the blogs is outrageous to me, even without being vulgar.

03 October, 2014 09:19  
Blogger (O)CT(O)PUS said...

To the anonymous commenter(s) who "can't get all worked up about this" or who sees "nothing more than typical verbal garbage" (including Octo's), you missed the point.

Had you read my article, you would have read this:

"In America, hate speech – no matter how abhorrent - is legal. Hate groups are free to associate, assemble and demonstrate in the streets. A rabid rabble may denigrate any nation or any race or any ethnic group at will. Holocaust denial - no matter how repugnant - is legal."

Agreed, there are foul-mouth narcissists and sociopaths everywhere in Cyberspace. Predators and stalkers who menace people are another matter:

"These email assaults on Shaw are NOT FIT FOR PUBLIC CONSUMPTION. Having seen them myself, I shall describe them only in brief: Hate messages, threats of sexual violence, allusions to smearing victims in excrement – illustrated with vile pornography."

Any threat of physical violence is a CRIMINAL OFFENSE (an "attempted assault" charge). Any threat of sexual violence is a CRIMINAL OFFENSE (a "stalking" and "attempted assault" charge). DIstributing unsolicited and unwelcome pornography through email is a CRIMINAL OFFENSE.

There is no partisan viewpoint with respect to crime. DON'T TURN THIS INTO ONE!

Although unfit for public consumption, I see no alternative. Next week, I will post some of this garbage online as examples CRIMINAL CONDUCT - mainly in response to comments like these.

03 October, 2014 15:17  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Okjimm: I make myself read some right-wing sites (not the blogs that are attacking Shaw, though) to keep up to speed on their "thinking". I usually don't like it much, though.

Anon: If you're insinuating that Shaw might be lying about being threatened, I don't believe that at all. And she said she had kept evidence of the threats, even if she hasn't chosen to post it (yet). Aside from that, I think Octo's response pretty well answers you.

Octo: There is no partisan viewpoint with respect to crime. DON'T TURN THIS INTO ONE!

Unfortunately that horse left the barn a long time ago. Everything is completely partisan with these people. Excuses are always made for any conservative wrongdoing or any attack on a liberal, whereas the exact same attack on a conservative would be treated as an outrage. They're all trying to minimize this particular incident, while they'd be bellowing with fury if a conservative blogger were targeted in the same way.

03 October, 2014 18:58  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Anon, your last comment contained more straw men and distortions of what other people said than I'm up for dealing with here. I'm wise to those kinds of deliberate time-wasting gimmicks and won't put up with them; take it elsewhere.

04 October, 2014 02:13  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Just rejected another comment from the same Anon. Excerpt from the first one:

I'm not insinuating Shaw is lying.....my request for evidence is not the same as calling anyone a liar.....

Excerpt from the second one:

I'm wise to liars who have been well practiced in deception. I don't believe any of this.....

This is just a sample, to illustrate why it's pointless to engage with these people on any level. They do not argue for reasons -- they merely argue. They do not debate in good faith -- they just throw out a bunch of stuff that requires laborious explanation and repetition in response, with the goal of wasting your time and energy.

This the kind of thing comment moderation is for.

04 October, 2014 14:30  
Blogger (O)CT(O)PUS said...

In response to the anonymous commenter who said: “I'm not insinuating Shaw is lying.....my request for evidence is not the same as calling anyone a liar.....

There is a follow-up post that puts some, but not all, evidence in the public domain as demonstrative examples: CYBER-BULLIES: ENABLING PREDATORS.

06 October, 2014 07:13  

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