Last Friday was the Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics held at Loyola University Chicago. Throughout the day the audience heard several presentations from both academics and industry representatives that focused on rights and the web. Of particular interest was the issue of abuse, a topic covered by a few of the presenters and the keynote speaker, Anita Sarkeesian.
While trolling, or generally being malicious to others in cyberspace, is to an extent criminalized in the UK, such language is seemingly protected by the First Amendment in the United States. The different makeup of the internet as compared to the physical world is in fact one of the reasons that underwrites the notion of digital ethics. There is a clear question of whether and how the internet should be regulated or even policed.
A topic which likely grabbed the attention of most of the symposium attendees was dealing with people who abuse others on the web. This abuse is wide ranging in its intensity and includes acts like trolling message boards, cyberbullying, engaging in malicious behavior such as attacking websites, attempting to have content removed, without it violating any rules, and threatening physical harm.
These behaviors are not incidental. They have resulted in young people committing suicide and a pattern of abusive cyber attacks that have threatened to cross over in to the physical world as demonstrated by #GamerGate, significantly impacting the lives of several prominent women in gaming including Brianna Wu, Zoe Quinn, and Anita Sarkeesian, not to mention the many other people who don’t have these women’s profile. The threats are not incidental: one anonymous person threatened to execute a terror attack if Ms. Sarkeesian were allowed to speak at Utah State University.
I have no doubts that the violence is real. I had asked a friend a while back who has posted a lot on the #GamerGate scandal and the antisocial behavior that defines it to write a piece for Judicalis. He said, “with a pregnant wife at home, I don’t think I can risk it.” If that wasn’t enough, all I had to do was look at the half dozen or more cops who were in the room as Ms. Sarkeesian spoke.
In considering to what extent web content providers ought to remove malicious comments, Caitlin Ring offered that “[Allowing] hate speech on [social media] platforms silences the people it targets.” Dr. Ring’s statement is an important one. If generally true it indicates two phenomena. First, it indicates the success of bullies to oppress their targets. Second, it indicates a lack of effective governance on the web that allow for targets of hate speech to report such behavior not only to the platforms upon which the hate speech is located, but also to law enforcement if the hate speech starts to amount to harassment or threats of physical violence.
In her keynote address , Ms. Sarkeesian also offered several “band-aids” to help reduce access to abusers. These included
- sharable block lists;
- allowing friends of targets to report harassment;
- an option to block any accounts that have been very recently set up (within the past 2 weeks or 1 month);
- an option to block any user has also been blocked by other people one is following or is friends with;
- an option to auto block messages and users whose replies or comments include specific words; and
- an option to block all users with less followers or subscribers than a specified threshold.
On their face, most of these suggestions seem very practical, particularly the sharable block lists and facilitating friends or watchdogs to report harassment. Such actions would restrict access to the space where a lot of the abuse occurs.
However, there is a fundamental question of how effective would these measures be over time. Some of these solutions, particularly those that screen accounts based on status or key words, could have unwanted effects such as filtering out fans or supporters, thus restricting access to people who are using the space appropriately. Moreover, such automated filters could be overcome with some planning. It wouldn’t be too hard, for instance, to develop an “account mill” that would preemptively generate accounts designed meet the parameters required for authorization on a social media space. Though the abuse could be taken down quickly, it could still exist at a reasonably large scale.
Moreover, both Dr. Ring’s proposal of removing hate speech and Ms. Sarkeesian’s band-aids seem to focus on only one aspect of the abuse – trolling. An important element to consider is what would happen to trolls if their access to trolling spaces is limited. Surely some would cease to participate in such abuse. However, it is possible and maybe even probable, given that it already occurs, that others would seek to engage in other antisocial behaviors such as coordinated takedowns of websites and content. Given the prevalence of doxing, the exposure of someone’s personal details such as their home address and private phone number and email, the takedown attacks, and the smear campaigns, amongst other things, it is unlikely that anti-trolling behavior would deter such actions.
It seems that little time or effort seems to have been invested in naming and shaming abusers. While the issues is gaining international attention, to date, no charges have been filed against attackers which seemingly indicates they are getting away with it scot-free. Given that the best deterrence is a near certainty of being caught, it seems that resources ought to be invested in being able to trace abusive comments and threats back to the individuals who wrote them.
Admittedly, it is possible that, the increasing ability to anonymize oneself online is only going make tracking abusers more difficult making deterrence through certainty of capture impossible. If that is the case then we really need to consider how, as denizens of the web, we want that society to look like and how to go about constructing it so it.
Finally, there seems to be little understanding of the makeup of the population that is engaging in such antisocial behavior online. Though it has been suggested (and is probably likely) that the individuals who are attacking Ms. Sarkeesian, Ms. Wu, and Ms. Quinn and while males, estimates of their numbers and an analysis of their behavior in terms of how they coordinate and why the coalesce around certain topics remains relatively unexplored. Such a research agenda could help us develop strategies in identifying such abusers successfully, deterring them efficiently, and dealing with the undeterred or most violent appropriately.
Until that happens, though, it is important to understand these oppressive actions hurt people either emotionally, psychologically, or by restricting their freedoms. And until we recognize them as what they are – acts of violence – we will not be able to move forward with the policies necessary to combat them.