I would love to have a week where I can stop talking about the human toll of Internet harassment. It would mean that the problem would be, if not solved, then at least have subsided to a dull enough roar that it’d be possible for me to tear my attention away to happier topics out of sheer exhaustion if nothing else.
This week is not that week.
Many people have accused my concerns about online harassment of being politically biased. It’s true that I think the claim that our media landscape is somehow dominated or controlled by lefty “SJW” activists is nonsense; I think if there is any asymmetry it’s demonstrably the Right that has the scarier people in it.
But online abuse has no official party affiliation and the urge to exert power over other people through psychological cruelty is culturally universal. We can agree that a lot of the abuse Justine Sacco absorbed in the name of anti-racism was not okay, especially with the amount of sexually charged abuse she got that was ignored as long as it was attacking her original offense. We can agree that doxing and calls to violence are not okay, especially when the Internet makes them so easy to issue and hard to take back, especially when so many are tragicomically misdirected.
And the most striking thing is that politics is so often irrelevant. People keen on ganging up on someone like to invoke grand political or social causes, often to the point of ridiculous conspiracy theories, but all that’s really needed is personal dislike. (A personal dislike that women and people of color are more likely to be on the wrong end of, but that’s life in our society.)
Which is why the most recent example of online abuse I’m going to talk about involves several things I’m a big fan of: The cartoon Steven Universe. The “fat acceptance” movement. And critical commentary on media and art that takes social context into account.
All of those are good things. None of those are good reasons to repeatedly hound a teenager who does unpaid fanart until she eventually attempts suicide.
The “Zamii070” saga is too long and ridiculous to repeat in detail here, but, essentially, drawing more-popular-than-average fan interpretations of Steven Universe characters predictably led to a tall-poppy-syndrome-obsessed anti-fandom to develop around one random teenage girl from Arizona.
She was accused of not being as good at figure drawing as her fans thought she was. Of being “friends with” or “a supporter of” or “connected to” a pedophile through the usual set of Internet links through links and therefore morally as bad as a pedophile herself. (I’m familiar with that particular tactic.)
And, yes, that her art was racist, sexist and, in one memorable incident, fat-shaming because she drew the normally zaftig character Rose Quartz as thinner than she is in the show.
Now, I personally agree that I don’t like “drawing characters as Pocahontas” and think Native Americans have a right to be annoyed by drawings like that. I also think that — after we’ve been flooded with My Little Pony porn by the Internet for years — it’s totally relevant to complain about sexualizing characters originally aimed at kids. And I definitely do have a problem with “slimming down” characters to all fit a specific body ideal. Steven Universe’s positive portrayal of fat characters is a huge part of its appeal and fans definitely have the right to roll their eyes at people who don’t seem to get that.
But, again: None of this is a reason to specifically stalk this one random teenager across the Internet for the crime of being semi-popular on Tumblr. None of this is a reason to create 40 Tumblr accounts that exist for the purpose of cataloguing each and every one of her misdeeds over the course of years.
None of this makes the endless hounding she got, of which the image archive I linked is only a small sample, anything close to proportional or justified or productive or even vaguely socially acceptable. It’s remarkable, in fact, how anything I care about can be tainted by Internet bullies into something I want to distance myself from really fast. (I mean, I also used to care about ethics in game journalism, and look how that’s turned out.)
Of course, now that her suicide attempt is public knowledge and the crew of Steven Universe themselves have been moved to speak out on it, her harassers are rapidly disappearing into the woodwork. We’re likely to now hear about how none of the decent people in any fandom or anywhere on the political spectrum supports this kind of behavior.
It sucks that it took Zamii070 attempting suicide for people to take this seriously. It especially sucks that this is exactly the kind of thing that encourages people suffering from suicidal ideation to act out suicide attempts in the hope that they’ll be listened to. But at the very least, Zamii070 has now been heard, and her harassers are no longer “getting away with it.”
But what about everyone else?
I’m picking on this case because it just happened and because it was people nominally on “my side” who did it. But it’s far from the only one.
“Tumblr,” for one thing, is a Web platform, not a specific community, and the technical flaws that make it very easy to create a “harassment Tumblr” — a Tumblr that does nothing but reblog other people’s posts in order to draw negative attention to them and give them a hard time — work in all directions. There’s neo-Nazis on Tumblr, MRAs on Tumblr and just straight-up obscene nasty trolls on Tumblr. Just like Twitter gets painted as a “left-wing outrage machine” when it’s also been by far the most successful platform for reactionary anti-feminist movements and targeted anti-feminist trolling.
Right now I’m observing a situation — one I’ve been asked to avoid giving details of to avoid further harassment — where one nominally left-wing person has sicced a mob on another nominally left-wing person for the crime of disliking Star Wars without having watched it, forcing the victim to lock his Twitter account and retreat from the public eye. Petty shit like this happens daily, at international scales and small-town scales. If you have a kid or know a kid under 18 they’ve probably lived with the risk of this kind of harassment their whole lives, and you’ll never hear about it until somebody dies.
All of the positives that I remember trumpeting about the Web in the 1990s and early 2000s, in my starry-eyed youth, seem at this point to have revealed their dark and ugly side in their full glory.
“The Internet never forgets”: Zamii070 had multiple “receipts blogs” dedicated to capturing everything bad she’d ever done, to be repeated as an angry litany every time she misstepped again. “The Streisand effect”: When Zamii070 was attacked for, say, posting Native American-themed fanart her followers found offensive, the fact that she took down the image created even more criticism as people attacked her for trying to “hide” her wrongdoing.
And, of course, there’s the asymmetrical power that comes from Internet anonymity. Zamii070, who was using Tumblr for a positive purpose, to share art and make friends, had an incentive to keep a persistent, known online identity, which made her vulnerable for abuse. The people online for negative reasons — the accounts that existed for no reason but to attack Zamii070, the ones with names like “zamii070shitposts” and “zamii070attendingprosecutor” and “zamiiisgarbage” — were, by contrast, safe.
Tumblr’s account creation system allowed any of their misdeeds to remain safely hidden while they flung shit at Zamii070, under names that existed only for that purpose, that could be deleted without consequence if their harassment drew negative PR, as it’s doing now. Zamii070 will never be able to confront any of them on what they did, or take them to court, or even know if they were all separate people or sock puppets of one or two dedicated haters. The attackers have all the power, the defenders almost none.
That’s how the Internet of 2015 works. It’s a system that hands loaded guns to everyone but where bulletproof vests are in short supply.
It’s hard to lay the blame on any individual. It’s not like the frightening environment we live in started yesterday. Reddit famously only this year cracked down on r/FatPeopleHate, a community of anonymous trolls who gained pleasure from finding random fat people’s photos online and sending waves of abuse and mockery their way. It’s not surprising that some fat people online might get sensitive, even hypervigilant about being given shit for being fat; it’s not surprising that some of those people might be in the Steven Universe fandom and might be much nastier about what they see as anti-fat prejudice than if they hadn’t been taught the Internet was an anything-goes war zone.
That’s not an excuse for what they did. But it’s an explanation: People constantly faced with aggression respond by becoming more aggressive. People who blithely tell people to “grow a thicker skin” online don’t realize that growing callous tends to come with a growing comfort with hitting back, that being comfortable around assholes without becoming an asshole is extremely difficult.
And, of course, Tumblr doesn’t do anything about it because the rapid creation of blogs that complain about other people’s blogs and blogs that complain about the complaining blogs in retaliation is good for their business — it creates more clicks and sells more ads.
Just like Twitter has no particular reason to crack down on Twitter bots or impersonation accounts, to slow the spread of malicious retweets or quote-tweets, to reduce the potential social reach of new (“egg”) accounts, or any of the other obvious steps that might make Twitter a more livable space but would also decrease the “engagement” they make their money on.
This is true of every major platform. Reddit has no incentive to limit “brigading” between different subreddits because that kind of “brigading” is how they get viral Reddit posts that bring them traffic. Facebook doesn’t want to make it harder to stalk people on Facebook because the possibility of doing so incentivizes people to get on Facebook and makes it easier to sell the target ads that are their “secret sauce.”
In every case the desire for more engagement — for more hands-free growth, for a rapidly expanding and therefore highly profitable community that the company doesn’t have to expend resources managing — leads to a push to empower aggressors and abusers and to skimp on the tools that might slow down or prevent their abuse.
Zamii070 was facing abuse for years. The abuse being launched at her was hardly secret — it was in the names of the Tumblrs created to harass her, and in the names of the Tumblrs created to oppose the Tumblrs harassing her, and in the names of the Tumblrs created to discuss her ongoing harassment.
If Tumblr were monitoring activity on their website proactively at all, they would’ve had a slam-dunk case for shutting down accounts that exist for no purpose but to harass and abuse a single user. But they had no incentive to do so. That would require paying human beings money to actually read and participate in their site, which would limit their growth. That would require “taking sides” on a matter before their hand was forced by the law or by overwhelming bad publicity, which would create a “chilling effect”, i.e. make it less appealing and effortless to create new blogs at a whim, which makes less clicks for advertisers.
I’ve argued before about Section 230 of the CDA and the ruinous effects of shielding the social media platforms that profit from “engagement” from any legal consequences for the effects of that engagement.
In light of the “loaded gun” metaphor I just used, I think there’s a useful parallel to be drawn to the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. It marks the rare case where I personally agree with Hillary Clinton and disagree with Bernie Sanders — the PLCAA is to gun manufacturers as Section 230 of the CDA is to Web publishers.
It’s a law that says that no matter what happens, no matter how egregious the crime, no matter how careless the sale to a dangerous individual, no matter how carefully and effectively the weapon was engineered and sold as an instrument of murder, no gun manufacturer or dealer can be held liable for the actions of their customers.
It’s unsurprising that this has the same economic incentive as shielding Internet companies from any legal liability for the actions of their users. Why should gun manufacturers put effort into trigger locks or “smart” guns when that will only make them more expensive and harder to use? Any cost incurred by not having safety measures — the odd case of someone’s kid taking their gun and going on a murder spree — is no skin off their nose, since they’ll never be party to a lawsuit over it.
In fact, the proliferation of guns with no end in sight makes gun sellers’ business self-sustaining. The primary reason people feel the need to buy guns to protect themselves is the fear of being surrounded by other people with guns — a literal arms race. Gun purchases spike upwards after every mass shooting. For gun sellers, any news is good news.
Up to a point, the same is true for the loaded guns of public opinion. “Reputation defense” services advising people under attack from chan mobs end up suggesting doxing and intimidation tactics as a defensive tactic to try to get trolls to back off. The way to feel “safe” online is familiar to anyone who’s been to high school — build up a strong network of people who have your back and are willing to return fire if one of their own is threatened.
Metrics like follower count, social reach, and “clout” matter not just for ego-stroking purposes but as a sort of military strength. Small businesses live in fear of what happens if their business gets blasted online and are told to build up their presence on social platforms — even if they have to pay those platforms in the process — as a prophylactic against a PR nightmare.
And more and more, people go “dark.” To be anonymous and attacking someone else online is a position of strength — to be non-anonymous and to put out a sincere opinion or work of art to be attacked is a position of weakness. Many of the people, possibly most of the ones harassing Zamii070 had probably been attacked before and were putting themselves in the attacker’s seat as a way to get power back. All too many of us who’ve been the target of hate campaigns can remember the pleasure of participating in hate campaigns, even if only as small-time contributors, the people Jon Ronson diagnoses as addicted to the consequence-free pleasure of being just one face in a powerful mob.
Optimists like to say that this is a problem we can solve through simple market forces, that unpleasant, destructive or low-quality sites will simply wither as people “vote with their feet” and move to hypothetical higher-quality sites more deserving of our business.
But the free market has no particular wisdom and doesn’t respond to our wishes for what an ideal society will look like. It responds to the short-term desires — and, most importantly, the short-term fears — of all of us as individual customers, no matter how perverse the collective result of our decisions may be. It wasn’t so much that people specifically wanted worldwide proliferation of nuclear weapons as the invisible hand of game theory pushing us all, unwillingly, toward nuclear war.
It isn’t so much that anyone wants more school shootings, and accidental gun deaths, and guns finding their ways into criminal hands as we’ve created a set of economic incentives — through what we do and don’t choose to regulate — that makes gun proliferation inevitable.
And this Web we live in? It’s not a natural phenomenon. It didn’t have to be this way. We made a series of decisions to make an Internet where all the money pours toward rapid growth and extreme interconnectivity and erosion of privacy and social barriers. We tell ourselves these are inherently good things, inevitable things, when they’re really the results of choices we made.
As with all such choices, the headlines we decry are just the fruit of what we’ve sown.