Can we balance free speech and privacy with basic decency in online communities?
Image from Flickr via uros velickovic
By Michelle Koufopoulos
As a female writer with a burgeoning online presence—I’ve written frequently on feminism, liberal politics, and reproductive rights for The Faster Times, and a few of my pieces have been republished on the Community page of Feministing—I’ve received these judgments through (mostly anonymous) comments: “C*nt,” “Baby killer,” “Morally bankrupt,” and “Hitler with a new Last Solution” (that one thanks to a Live Action blog post that encouraged its readers not to be fooled by my seemingly logical argument for the protection of Planned Parenthood).
The first particularly hateful comment I received was a simple “C*nt.” —no additional explanation or incoherent ranting attached to it, not even a halfhearted pseudonym to identify its author. I remember staring at it—c*nt—with a mix of shock and cynicism: the comment seemed absurd to me and yet, in a way, also like my official induction into the blogosphere. I was now part of the legion of Internet writers everywhere who are subject to often-anonymous comments running the gamut from inane disagreements and digressions couched in sexism, racism, and homophobia, to those that are much uglier and more alarming: in particular, neither rape threats nor death threats are scarce among responses to feminist bloggers.
This was highlighted to a disturbing degree recently by Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist pop culture critic who created a Kickstarter campaign to fund a video series examining recurring stereotypes of female characters in video games. The mere creation of the campaign resulted in an onslaught of harassment, much of it vicious, directed at Sarkeesian personally. The comments she received numbered in the thousands, a coordinated trolling effort that occurred over the course of just a few hours. Her Wikipedia page and YouTube video were vandalized; she received messages through Facebook, Twitter, and email that threatened her with sexual assault; and an online “game” was created that invited its users to “beat up Anita Sarkeesian” to stomach-churning effect—the final image one of her face battered and bruised, eyes swollen shut, blood trailing down her cheeks.
Does merely publishing something on the Internet today—especially on politics—mean that you’re implicitly consenting to verbal attack?
The term trolling derives from a fishing technique in which one drags a baited line behind a boat. Throw something squirming or stinking into the water, sit back and wait for the biting frenzy. Though there’s some ambivalence on what exactly constitutes “trolling,” the Guardian’s definition is particularly clear: “Trolls …don’t just want to insult a particular person, they want to start a fight—hopefully one that has a broader application, and brings in more people than just the object of their original trolling… what they’re looking for is that sharp intake of breath; the collective, ‘How can you say that?’ outrage.” Indeed, it wasn’t just feminist blogs that carried Sarkeesian’s story; rather, publications as disparate as Wired, Forbes, The Huffington Post, the New Statesman, and Kotaku.com reported on the attacks.
Given how prevalent online harassment has become, it’s easy to conclude that anonymity breeds hatred, or at the very least, a troubling disconnect. It’s much easier to rage against a writer or a fellow commenter if there’s a ready-made mask to slip on.
After Daniel Tosh made a female audience member the explicit subject of a rape “joke” in July and subsequently was both defended and vilified online, Roxane Gay wrote in Salon that you can say whatever you want—you certainly have the right to do so—but what you choose to say, as much as how you say it, is not without consequence: your statements are a reflection of you, and what we tolerate in our online communities should surely be no different than what we tolerate in our real-life communities.
Does merely publishing something on the Internet today—especially on politics—mean that you’re implicitly consenting to verbal attack? Should we grant commenters carte blanche to say whatever they like in forums, no matter how troubling or problematic, because anything less infringes on that most cherished of Internet principles: democratic and open communication? Or should we carefully moderate our sites in order to maintain civil, sane, and productive dialogues? And given political and rational divides, what would unbiased moderation even mean? Or, for sites that are prone to particularly egregious comments, should we go a stricter route and ban comments entirely? If community standards shape community dialogue and reputation, what kind of discourse do we want to have?
What passes for courage in your average comments section are most often cheap shots and the ability to push “publish” without ever stopping to think twice. If even the most vitriolic comments are a litmus test of the population, perhaps it’s better to have it all out in the open where everyone can see. No reasonable person could then claim that sexism is obsolete, or that hate speech is just a relic of a hazy past. Instead, the American public would see the work that still needs to be done, and they would see it even on “mainstream” sites like CNN, Yahoo!, and ABC News, to say nothing of more tabloid-style publications like the New York Post.
On Tiger Beatdown, s.e. smith took that approach when she published a small selection of the nastier comments their writers receive on a daily basis: “*GAG GAG GLUCK* You have discovered the only vocables worth hearing from Sady’s cock-stuffed maw,” read one comment; “die tranny whore” read another. A common refrain to bloggers is “Don’t feed the trolls,” meaning don’t bother responding to baited comments, as doing so only encourages them. While there may be some truth in that, opting to stay silent can feel like its own form of permissiveness.
NPR.org, the New York Times, and Guernica all moderate their comments; Gawker Media and Salon.com recently overhauled their comments sections as well. Gawker, whose comments section was once notorious for its air of exclusivity and heated arguments, is now focusing on how to create and curate productive discussion amongst its readers. According to a published memo from founder Nick Denton, “We plan to make the new discussion areas civil enough to encourage authors, experts and celebrities to come in for open Web chats…writers should feel the comments are a place that you can develop your points with your sources, tipsters and friends. You should be looking forward to seeing the reaction to your article, not avoiding toxic commenters.”
The disconcerting progression from “I disagree with you” to “You’re Hitler” can be attributed to more than just easy anonymity and cyberspace disconnect.
Salon now requires potential commenters to register through Facebook, Google, or their Core program in order to post comments, and promised greater aggression in monitoring and deleting “inappropriate ones,” while allowing readers to respond to specific comments, review their comments before publishing them, and search published comments via Google.
NPR’s new policy requires every new prospective commenter to go through a probation period during which each of their comments would need to be approved by a moderator. Kate Myers, the network’s product manager for social media tools, told the Daily Beast “We make those calculations and make those balances [on the trade-offs of freedom vs. safety] every time we talk about making changes,” she said. “Because we really are committed and believe in the idea of the free and open community. But we know that we want to have these sometimes conflicting goals of encouraging a safe space for people to comment and to have a civil discourse.”
Also in the Daily Beast, Bassey Etim voiced the Times’ philosophy on commenters: “When you’re coming to the Times, what you’re coming for is urbane and literate content, and there’s no reason for comments to be held to a lower standard than that… If your comment is incoherent, we don’t approve it… If you use all caps we don’t approve that. If your comment is clearly just trolling we don’t approve that either.” It should be noted that the New York Times employs both full time and part time moderators; but this is an option that isn’t financially feasible for many sites.
YouTube, one of the most egregious offenders for derogatory comments, now requires users to log-in through Google+, while other sites use Facebook to link accounts; both policies are far easier to implement than hiring moderators, and operate under the assumption that one is less inclined to make particularly offensive attacks if you are required to do so under your real name. While this isn’t a perfect solution (see, for example, the comments on an article from the Post on what should be done with the theater where the Aurora massacre occurred) at least there is some accountability involved.
If you want to be heard in a particular community, you’ll have to abide by that community’s social rules—a lesson that can stand to be writ large.
The disconcerting progression from “I disagree with you” to “You’re Hitler” can be attributed to more than just easy anonymity and cyberspace disconnect: we emulate the toxicity we see played out by pundits who are rewarded for their screaming matches and hyperbole with additional air time and sensational media coverage. Edward Wasserman, a Knight Professor in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University speaks to this in an article on the Santa Clara University Ethics blog, saying, “Unfortunately, mainstream media have made a fortune teaching people the wrong ways to talk to each other, offering up Jerry Springer, Crossfire, Bill O’Reilly. People understandably conclude rage is the political vernacular, that this is how public ideas are talked about… It isn’t.”
Banning comments entirely might be the easiest option, especially for publications that have dealt with defamation suits (though websites aren’t legally liable for comments they host, such cases can be a headache nonetheless), and writers as disparate as Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic and Gala Darling of Galadarling.com continue to have popular followings despite their moratoriums on comments sections.
An Anonymous Free Speech Ban was even proposed in New York this past May by Republican State Sen. Thomas F. O’Mara, who intended to crack down on cyber bullying. The ban would have amended “the civil rights law, in relation to protecting a person’s right to know who is behind an anonymous internet posting,” and have provided “that a web site administrator remove any comments posted upon request unless the poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post.” The amendment, or any that resembles it, isn’t likely to be passed anytime soon though, given the issues it would raise over user privacy, legal liability, and the First Amendment. And while I’d wager that most trolls who use anonymity for bullying purposes aren’t also risking their lives or livelihoods to make statements they deeply believe in, anonymity can be useful if not vital in online communities that also serve as “safe spaces”—sites for victims of domestic or sexual violence, let’s say, or kids who want to come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered to a supportive audience without the fear of backlash from family or peers.
Perhaps one way to meet the genuine need for user privacy would be an internal registration system, where one publicly reveals only their first name or initials, while providing greater identifying information to the site’s back end for use in case of a violation of the Terms of Service. Alternatively, anonymity can be treated as a privilege and not a right; if you’re flagged for harassment, you don’t get to keep wearing a mask. Identifying exactly what constitutes that harassment can certainly be its own debate, the nature of which may vary from blog to blog, news site to news site. However, it’s important to note that every site is entitled to come to their own conclusions on the matter and embed them in their regulations. If you want to be heard in a particular community, you’ll have to abide by that community’s social rules—a lesson that can stand to be writ large. Maybe we’d all be a little more civil if we felt we had more to lose.
Michelle Koufopoulos is a writer, editor, blogger and book lover. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and studied writing at Oxford University. Michelle is currently the Managing Editor of Freerange Nonfiction, an Assistant Editor at The Faster Times, and an Editorial Assistant for Guernica.