Trigger warning for discussion of and graphic examples of threatening online harassment.
Seen s.e. smith’s post on blogging and harassment yet? You’re about to see it everywhere (on the social justice blogs) because it’s very powerful and true:
by the time I’d clocked around 20 threats, and was up to around 30 readers, I’d learned the art of triage. The quick skim to find out if there was any actually personal threatening information, like identifying details, or if it was just your garden variety threat with no teeth behind it. I kept them all in a little file in case I needed them later, and forwarded the worst to the police department, not in the belief they would actually do anything, but in the hopes that information would be there, somewhere, in case it was needed someday.
“I hope you get raped to death with a gorsebush,” one email memorably began. I gave the letter writer some style points for creativity, but quickly deducted them when I noted he’d sent it from his work email, at a progressive organisation. I helpfully forwarded it to his supervisor, since I thought she might be interested to know what he was doing on company time. “Thanks,” she wrote back, and I didn’t hear anything more about it. Several months later I attended a gala event the organisation was participating in and watched him sitting there on stage, confident and smugâ€¦
I was careful in all the ways they tell you to be, to make it difficult to find my house, for example, and most of the rape threats, and the death threats, the casual verbal abuse from people who disagreed with my stances on subjects like rape being bad and abortion being a personal matter, weren’t really that threatening in that they didn’t pose a personal danger to me, and I was rarely concerned for my safety. That wasn’t the point, though, which is what I told a friend when she got her first rape threat and called me, sobbing. I wished she’d been spared that particular blogging rite of passage, but unfortunately she hadn’t been.
“They want you to shut up,” I explained. “That’s the point of a rape threat. They want to silence you. They want you to shrink down very small inside a box where you think they can’t find you.”
And it works. I see it happening all the time; blogs go dark, or disappear entirely, or stop covering certain subjects. People hop pseudonyms and addresses, trusting that regular readers can find and follow them, trying to stay one step ahead. Very few people openly discuss it because they feel like it’s feeding the trolls, giving them the attention they want. Some prominent bloggers and members of the tech community have been bold enough; Kathy Sierra, for example, spoke out about the threats that made her afraid to leave her own home. She’s not the only blogger who’s been presented not just with vicious, hateful verbal abuse, but very real evidence that people want to physically hurt her, a double-edged silencing tactic, a sustained campaign of terrorism that is, often, highly effective.
[That is a relatively short excerpt, read the whole thing.]
I think it’s time to take a look at the reflexive “don’t feed the trolls” advice, frankly.
It was developed, I think, for Usenet (at least, the earliest known usage of the term ‘troll’ in this sense is from alt.folklore.urban in 1992, which suggests that that formulation probably originates similarly), and was adopted by email lists and blogs in due course. I’ve always been suspicious of it in the case of forums like email lists where messages can’t be recalled: some people implement it as just leaving the troll to continue sending messages into the void – except that it’s not a void. Experienced people may have blocked the troll, inexperienced people are there to be frightened either specifically by the troll or by the apparent unremarkableness of the troll’s behaviour. (This is one of the reasons I am less and less on-board with the free software community’s continued preference for public mailing lists. I like my email client a lot too, but I like spaces where harassment can be removed quickly from all reader’s view more.)
There’s certainly some wisdom in “don’t feed the trolls”. Consider for example Gavin de Becker’s advice in The Gift of Fear: if you, say, return harassing phone calls on the 50th time, you’ve only taught your harasser that they need to call 50 times to get a response. They need to learn that they cannot reach you, that there is nothing they can do to make you reply to them.
So far it seems sensible, but what it doesn’t account for is having multiple harassers, who either may not be aware of each other or who may be actively encouraging each other and coordinating attacks (via hate blogs or forums or the more wildcard ‘lulz’ variants thereof). It’s not so clear there that en masse silence is a useful strategy, it varies by case, and the off-hand use of the “everyone knows that you don’t feed the trolls!” wisdom that was (arguably) effective in the case of lone trolls is in effect a message to people being targeted for harassment by a coordinated group, or who have a number of individual harassers, that no one gives a shit. Don’t talk about it, we don’t care about your problems.
It also means that we are continually surprised by the size and scope of the problem. Death threats? With your address attached? Weekly? This is a problem not only because of the continuing coziness of the “yeah right, never happens to me” crowd, but because we often aren’t sharing information among targets.
It’s not just you.
It’s not just you.
Every single time, there is someone who has been hurt by thinking it’s just them.
I by no means advocate compulsory reporting of harassment, in fact I am very strongly committed to empowering survivors by allowing them a coercion-free space to do whatever the hell they please in terms of reporting or not. But “don’t feed the trolls” isn’t any more coercion-free than “stop hir hurting someone else! report now!” The coercion is this: thirty years of Internet are saying keep this to yourself, damn you (stop hir hurting someone else)!
Thirty years of Internet, per above, don’t have the whole story.
This scale of harassment of bloggers also brings us into a realm where people without the financial resources of celebrities to, eg, pay Gavin de Becker’s people to read their mail for them and alert them only to genuine immediate threats, have to deal with the same scale of harassment. This isn’t totally new to the Internet (being, eg, the family member of someone who has either committed or been the victim of a well-publicised unusual crime, has long attracted the same kind of attacks) but it is hard enough for rich powerful people to protect themselves mentally and physically from this level of hostile attention, let alone people with the typical resources of a social justice blogger (generally relatively privileged yes, able to afford state-of-the-art personal security, no).
On that, I’m honestly not sure what to do except that it scares me. There appears to be no known effective defence against sufficiently many motivated harassers. There doesn’t even appear to be a lot of giving a toss about it.
Update: Hey folks, on reflection I realise that my last paragraph kind of invites advice, but it’s probably safe to assume that if you’ve thought of doing X in response to trolls that so have people like s.e. smith, and either X is in their arsenal, it doesn’t work, or it isn’t reasonably possible for them (that is the cost-benefit trade-offs don’t favour it).
Responses from people with unusual expertise on personal security or on community management and similar areas giving facts advice or facts might be useful, but if your expertise is “average experienced netizen” please step back and give people affected a chance to talk.