Monday, September 19, 2016

Who Ya Gonna Call


[content note: online harassment]

Here's an interesting concept:
"Are you a female journalist who has been subject to online harassment and abuse? If so, this one’s for you. An organization dedicated to combating online harassment is seeking 100 women writers and journalists to participate in a social media monitoring program called the Pilot 100. The initiative follows on from a year-long study by the organization TrollBusters, which was founded by Michelle Ferrier, an associate professor at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.

TrollBusters—whose tagline is 'Online pest control for women writers'—has spent the past year studying instances of harassment reported by journalists through its website. The group also is developing tools to monitor harassment in real-time and providing assistance to targets of online abuse."
The TrollBusters site provides an incident response form, where users can report harassment received on Twitter (for either themselves or other users).  The response involves sending positive messages to the person under attack. 

In the midst of an online attack, it can be validating to receive positive, supporting messages.  It, of course, doesn't punish the attackers or take away their ability to continue to harass. But, I think such a response can be a helpful part of what, in order to be effective, will necessarily have to be a multi-faceted response to online harassment.

Other critical components would include (a) platforms developing better tools, human resources, and policies to manage harassment and (b) the criminal justice system adequately responding to harassment when threats and defamation are involved. In the absence of such components, we - users of the Internet - will have to continue managing this problem ourselves in more grassroots, creative ways.

For the past week, for instance, one user has taken an obsession to my blog. He first used a neo-nazi-esque handle and then later left an anti-gay slur directed toward another user. Like many a harasser, once banned, he claimed I just couldn't handle his impressive intellect and that I have nothing of substance to say. (But XENA posts tho!)

He began flitting from IP address to IP address, also changing his username in order to sockpuppet. After I required manual approval of comments, he continued to post comments (seen only to me) admitting to and taking pride in being part of the "alt-right." His admitted goal was to "frustrate" my readers and cause me to change my blogging/comment moderation behavior. (Side note; Has the rise of Trump emboldened this type of harasser? Many anti-LGBT and racist commenters I've interacted with pre-2016 often expressed a more.... subtle bigotry).

In final temper tantrum he called me a "loser" (hmm, sounds familiar) who can't "handle" "real world interactions." Now here, we must also understand that the online harasser is usually a miserable person. Imagine spending your free time deliberately trying to irritate people, rather than spending time with loved ones and doing things that are.... actually cool? Many online harassers have the aim of irritating others and then berating people for taking actions that stop the irritation.

That approach is a key tool in the online abuser's toolbox. They poke and poke, seeing what they can get away with, and then when they find a boundary you don't let them transgress, they see the act of setting a boundary as weakness. With the exception, I guess, of establishing giant walls to keep out scary scary immigrants, the harasser sees the establishment of boundaries itself as proof that the boundary-maker is a loser.

Which brings me to the observation that the harasser's real issue is not that boundaries are established, but that he doesn't get to establish which boundaries for which people are allowed to exist.

That is the entitled mentality that solutions to online harassment will have to address through policy, technology, and human effort.

Every person who runs a forum will have to decide for themselves what conversations and content to allow. For me, when I run into what I call the "Aggrieved Abuser" (think: "You fag! Wait, how dare you ban me you weakling!") type of online harasser, I will often allow a comment or two to demonstrate that these are the deplorables* that many Internet users actually have to deal with. And then, if the person continues commenting, I will institute a ban to secondarily show that such viewpoints are not welcome here.

In this instance, I can take action to disallow certain content. However, the responses to online harassment will have to be tailored to account for the nuances and features of each platform.

It has been widely acknowledged, even in mainstream media sources, that online harassment is a problem. While a helpful first step, we also need more people thinking about how to tangibly address the issue. Kudos to TrollBusters for taking that next step.

*Deplorable as a noun is happening. Hillary has made it so.

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