Very likely the first case of someone convicted for intentionally triggering an epileptic seizure over the internet.
If employers judged HR departments by their ability to prevent sexual harassment, most would have gotten a failing grade long ago. What HR is actually responsible for—one of the central ways the department “adds value” to a company—is serving as the first line of defense against a sexual-harassment lawsuit. These two goals are clearly aligned, but if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that you can achieve the latter without doing much of anything at all about the former.
Caitlin Flanagan on.
My main dealing with HR were in a previous job where I was bullied, in an organization with a known and endemic sexist bullying problem.1 It became pretty clear pretty quickly that the company was more interested in protecting itself than doing anything about my abusers—one of which had been with the company for decades—which is why I left the organization after a mere eight months…
- And from which, honestly, I got off lightly; some years later I spoke to another woman who’d left the same company after her bullying got some bad coworkers were showing up to her house at night to harass her. [↩]
There’s a lot of discussion about how we need to reach out and talk to people who disagree with us – how we need to extend an olive branch and find common ground – and that’s a lovely sentiment, but in order for that to work, the other party needs to be … well, not a raging asshole. Insisting that people continue to reach out to their abusers in hopes that they will change suggests that the abuse is somehow in the victim’s hands to control.
Geraldine DeRuiter tried feeding trolls.
Obviously content warning at the article, which has screenshots of the abusive messages on Twitter.
It’s in the cost of knowing that the rules are different for you and always will be; that you must be composed at all times and never scrap in the muck laid down by your opponents because your moral purity is measured differently to theirs.
You can be told 20 days in row that you should be raped and sodomised and beaten and strung up and thrown out and taught a lesson, but if on the 21st day you turn around and make a joke about firing men into the sun using a cannon, you are a scold who hates men and is teaching her son that he’s a rapist.
Clementine Ford on speaking out online while female.
The focus many students placed on the “majority” of the group not taking part in racist and sexist abuse misses the bigger issue. In pointing out that the group has facilitated and helped provide a space to co-ordinate a sustained (and growing) chorus of harassment, the argument isn’t that every single member within it is a terrible person or a racist. The question is more about whether there is something within the group’s culture, or the way certain speech is promoted and policed, that encourages a particular kind of aggressive behaviour.
Osman Faruqi on toxic culture.
[Content warning at the link, as the broader piece deals with harassment and Faruqi replicates some of the racist and sexist abuse directed at poet Ellen van Neerven.]
From a broader piece looking into the Mango Incident, where a young Indigenous author was viciously harassed by high school students after they were too braindead to understand one of her poems, that happened to be included in their end-of-school exams.
Why does it seem like “it’s only the internet!” is the new “boys will be boys”… and just as toxic and bullshit?
(Also: What the fuck is up with Kids These Days not understanding how fucking privacy controls work? Dudes. Your Facebook page is public. That means it’s fucking public! That means you don’t get to go crying about it when journalists start capping and publishing portions on it to call you on your bullshit. Yeesh.)
I know it’s easy to forget the more Gatery aspect of the online neo-fascist movement in light of everything else going on, but yes, they’re still active, and they’re still publicly harassing Anita Sarkeesian.
From her statement over the most recent incident:
To kick off the Women Online panel at VidCon last Thursday, the moderator posed the question: Why do we still have to talk about the harassment of women? I replied, “Because I think one of my biggest harassers is sitting in the front row.” He showed up with several others; together, his group took up the two front rows at the panel. Their presence was plainly not, as one of them later said in an “apology” video he posted to Twitter, to “give us the chance we never gave them” and to “hear us out,” but was instead to intimidate me and put me on edge. They will no doubt plead innocent and act shocked at what they characterize as the outrageousness of such allegations. This, too, is part of their strategy: gaslighting, acting in a way intended to encourage me and their other targets to doubt ourselves and to wonder if all of this isn’t just in our heads. But to anyone who examines their patterns of behavior with clear eyes, the intentions of their actions are undeniably apparent.
As Sarkeesian points out, these people literally make money–in the realm of thousands of dollars a month–endlessly harassing women online. And, not just that, because remember the tech platforms themselves, places like YouTube and Patreon, allow it.
VidCon should ban every single one of these assholes in perpetuity.
I was called a bitch, a cunt, a whore, an autistic, retarded, a fucking idiot, a faggot, a middle-aged mom, (that one was hilarious because it’s true but I guess was an attempt at an insult) a fake geek girl, and stupid too many times to count. I was told repeatedly to kill myself, drop dead, jump off a cliff, and deserved to be killed “700 ways” as well as numerous threats of rape and other forms of violent harm. I was told over and over that no one cares about me, or what I was saying, or what I did with donating my money, yet hundreds and hundreds of people were seeking me out to bully me, threaten me, and even photoshop a fake tweet meant to look like I wrote it that said “I really want all these trolls to die. In fact I’m going to kill them all myself.” This is a hell of a lot of effort going into not caring what I have to say. […]
What was crazy to me in all of this were the people coming after me to say that they “didn’t see a single threat” in my Twitter mentions and that I was lying. I guess when one lives online among a community of people who treat each other like this on a a daily basis, they think that kind of talk is perfectly fine.
–Anne Wheaton versus GamerGate.
This was prompted after Wheaton went to Calgary Expo and tweeted a photo praising the “cosplay does not equal consent” poster she saw there. The harassment intensified after she announced she was going to donate $1 per harassing tweet to Feminist Frequency, I guess because the Goobers thought they could, IDK. Bankrupt her or something? Which sort of worked, in that she ended up having to cap her donation, but Feminist Frequency, RAINN, and the ACLU still each got a cool grand out of the whole sorry episode.
But I like Wheaton’s point here in the quoted text: that people who exist online in toxic spaces don’t necessarily see how toxic those spaces are. There’s a reason Gators are associated with cesspits like 4chan, and a reason why we use words like “cesspit” to describe places like 4chan. Basically, if “fun” in your online spaces is predicated on the vicious tearing down of other people in that space, ((FWIW, this attitude is prevalent in progressive spaces, too. It just takes a slightly different form.)) then my friend? You have bigger problems than Anne Wheaton tweeting a con poster.
So did you know that researchers at Cornell University, in partnership with Google and Disqus, believe they’ve developed an algorithm that can auto-ban internet trolls.
In order to talk about this, I first want everyone to take a moment to contemplate pretty much any cyberpunk or near-future sci-fi that came out of the mid-to-late 90s. Pick one, any one. I can almost guarantee you that, whenever communications technology is mentioned, it will be at least once part of some kind of lament about a deluge of spam that’s killing the internet/CyberScope/VirtualTube/whatever. Go back five to ten years earlier than that, and everyone is worried about self-replicating viruses, as in Pat Cadigan’s 1992 novel, Synners. In the late nineties and early noughties, it was intrusive popup advertising. Hell, even Twilight–not exactly a techno-thriller–has a scene where Bella is deluged by popup windows the moment she opens her browser.
Hands up. When was the last time any of you actually saw a pop-up ad? Not those PitA interstitial lightbox things, but an actual, proper, for really reals popup window?
Viruses were the Hot New Thing in cyberpunk the early 90s because in 1988 approximately ten percent of the then-Internet was taken down by something called the Morris worm. This was the world’s first “wild” self-replicating virus. Previously, viruses had to be introduced into a system, such as by a user putting in the wrong floppy disk1 and opening the wrong file, and they tended to stay on the system they were on. But you could catch, and spread, Morris just by being connected to the Internet. SFF authors of the time took this terrifying idea–the machines are becoming alive! they’re replicating themselves without our intervention!–and ran with it.
Hands up time again: when was the last time you got a worm on your computer? Not a virus or a Trojan–something you specifically had to open and interact with–but something that infected you just by virtue of your computer being on? I remember mine: it was over a decade ago, in 2003, when I caught Blaster off the university LAN.
And spam. Again, hands up: when was the last time your inbox was so deluged by spam as to be unusable? Not your actual spam folder, but your inbox? Again, this was a thing of massive angst in the early 2000s, and it has to do with the rise of automation versus the drop in cost of computing power and bandwidth, plus the rise in the growth of the Internet. Basically, it got to a point where you could press a button and send a whole network of computers off trying to send an email to hundreds of thousands of randomly generated addresses, in the hope that one would reach the eyeballs of someone real. It’s the coral spawning method of cyber fraud, with all the burden of cleanup placed on the shoulders of end users. For a while there, everyone was predicting the death of email via spam. Like, that is literally a thing people were predicting a decade ago. Except, go read that Salon article again and see if you can pick the thing it doesn’t mention.
Found it yet?
The article doesn’t mention Gmail. It doesn’t mention Gmail because Gmail launched as an invitation-only service in 2004, two years after the Salon article was written. Gmail wasn’t open sign-up until 2007. Gmail is critical in the history of spam because Gmail was the first big public email provider to really seriously kick the shit out of the problem. Back In The Day, people would switch to the service from their Hotmail/ISP/self-hosted email accounts just to leverage Gmail’s spam filter, which was miles ahead of everyone else’s, and the reason it was ahead was because it was, in effect, one giant, user-driven learning engine. The same sorts of content algorithms that figure out what you really meant to search for when you type
hpw gmsil killrd soam are the ones that keep your email inbox (mostly) usable.
Ditto for the death of pop-up ads. They annoyed the shit out of people, and are a pain in the ass to deal with… for a human. But the code that spawns them are easy for a computer to detect with a few lines of regex. For a while there, every software dev and her cat were writing desktop proxies to strip popups. Later, these moved to in-browser extensions, until finally popup blocking options were integrated natively into web browsers. Nowadays, most browsers will ask you whether you really meant to spawn a new window whenever one tries to open in a pop-up style context. As such, pop-ups have all-but disappeared, which is good news for Bella Swan the next time she needs to research supernatural entities2 online.
So is it with self-replicating worms. Antivirus technologies certainly have their flaws, but the one thing they are exceptionally good at is protecting today’s users from yesterday’s problems. Again, they do this with algorithms and pattern matching based on past learning of what is “good” and what is “bad” code.
Worms, spam, and pop-ups. The thing these have in common is they’re all past scourges of the internet, all of whom have been, if not defeated, then at least tamed by the same method.
That method? Better algorithms.3
So here’s a prediction for you: the next Scourge of the Internet is going to be remembered as trolling. It’s another one of those problems that’s been around forever, but seems to be getting worse (or at least more attention), to the point where “don’t read the comments” has become its own meme, and turning comments off has become trendy both for individual bloggers and large sites alike. Trolls destroy communities and they destroy lives. If I was going to be writing a cyberpunk-esque book right now, predicting a dystopian near-future internet, it would be one where online spaces resembled nothing so much as a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland, with pockets of civilisation huddled in the dark, defending against the sealioning GamerGate onslaught outside.4
And yet… in some ways, I think this is already becoming yesterday’s problem. Tolerance for trolling is plummeting even as–or because of the fact that–the aggression of trolls is skyrocketing. The narrative is slowly shifting away from “it’s only the internet” and into “the internet is life“. Online gaming and social media companies, long guilty of turning a blind eye to their services being used for threatening purposes, are starting (slowly) to crack down as they realise fostering toxic atmospheres actually, surprise surprise, loses them business.
When the social climate changes, so too does the technology. If worms didn’t destroy computer systems, we’d be swimming in them.5 If pop-ups and spam didn’t aggravate people, they’d be the only things we saw. So too will it be with trolling. Already, both companies and individuals are developing innovative technical methods of curbing trollish and harassing behaviour. The backlash, from people who apparently believe they have some kind of inalienable right to be assholes, has been severe.
The terrible irony here is that the more the trolls come out of the woodwork–the more real-world harm they cause–they more likely they are to lose out, long term. It’s really hard to shrug trolling off as “just the internet” when people’s lives are in danger. Laws and law enforcement is slow to catch up, but catch up it will.
But I also think there’s a growing awareness that online trolling and harassment is a problem that needs to be addressed at the root, long before it gets to the stage where federal authorities are investigating incidents of terrorism masquerading as “pranks”. If you run an online space–from the smallest blog to the largest social media site–and that space is toxic, then it’s your fault. Weeding out individual trolls is emotionally taxing and incredibly time consuming… but so was sorting spam back in 2001. Nowadays, all it takes is typing an Akismet key or installing a reCAPTCHA plugin or clicking “mark as Spam”.
The systems have caught up. So to will they for trolls.
So this is my claim chowder of the day. I predict that, in the next few years, you will be able to sign up for services that block trollish and harassing messages based on heuristic learning algorithms. Services like Block Together are the first step. These tools will slowly migrate from being stand-alone, manual systems, into being adopted by major platforms; Google, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. The data inputs from the huge sites will fuel learning across the board, in the same way spam and antivirus heuristics work now.
By 2025, I predict that finding a “get raped and die cunt” message on any major social media or blogging platform will be as archaic and quaint as finding a spam comment is in 2015. Online spaces devoid of this sort of discourse will be the norm in the same way offline spaces where people don’t routinely spit on each other over minor disagreements are the norm. Not only that, but legal instruments will catch up to the point where launching a sustained harassment campaign will be prosecuted as routinely as any in-person stalking charge.6
In short, the future won’t be perfect, but it’ll be… better. First comes social change, then technical controls, then the law. It’s happened before. It’s happened before on the Internet, even; shocking, I know.
We’ve got a long way to go, true. But I think the future is bright. And I, for one, welcome it.
- That was what we used to call USB thumbdrives Back In The Dark Ages, kids. [↩]
- Or parenting. Or the parenting of supernatural entities. [↩]
- Also, just so you know, before spellcheck gets to it, that word tends to come out of my keyboard looking something like “algorhythmns”. Needless to say, that’s made writing this post “fun”. Fuck you, whole word reading method. [↩]
- Actually… hey. That could totally work. First dibs! Editors, email my agent! [↩]
- And, actually, we are swimming in the ones that don’t. They get called by euphemisms like “APTs”, and they’re used in cyber-espionage. They are incredibly difficult to detect, mostly because their primary objective is not to be detected, which means being “light touch” on the systems they infest. [↩]
- Which is to say, not perfectly, or even particularly well. But better than the current status quo of “why don’t you just turn off the computer?”. [↩]
I’m going to tell you a story about a woman that I don’t know. I don’t know her name, and quite honestly, I don’t even remember her face. Instead, I remember what happened to her and my response.
This was at the beginning of my career and I was new to conventions. It was late one night, and several of us, including her, were in the lobby chilling out, as we are wont to do. This man walked up, and I was excited, swooning, because I knew him. Or at least, knew of him. Everyone at that convention knew him. He’s as close to famous as you can get without being Stephen King in the field. Anyway, we were all talking and chatting, and then the Famous Writer Guy bent over and stared directly into this woman’s face. Just hovering there, ignoring the rest of us, blocking her from us. The woman looked around Famous Writer Guy to continue the conversation. Then he started touching her, lightly rubbing his finger up and down her arm, and then poked her, hard. She held up her arm to block him and stepped away, doing her best to ignore him. Famous Writer Guy moved closer to her and began rubbing her again. She looked to me and to the group. She’s thinking what I’m thinking, “This is Famous Writer Guy, what can I say? If I scream at him to cut it out, I’ll look angry and as if I’m blowing it out of proportion. If I smile or talk to him, he’ll think I’m interested in him. I’m scared.”
But none of us said a word. Nothing to help her out. This was her problem. One that I was damn glad that I didn’t have, so that I could ignore the hell out of it.
After a moment, she gave this meandering excuse about needing to get up early and left. Famous Writer Guy wandered off shortly after. Finally, I leaned in and whispered to the guy beside me, “That was uncomfortable. I hate seeing it because I’ll never be able to see him the same way.”
The guy’s response: “He was drunk. He’ll be better in the morning.”
Famous Writer Guy would be better in the morning. He would feel better, so obviously everything would be better. No Name Girl didn’t matter. She was simply a character in Famous Writer Guy’s story, a throwaway stand-in that could perhaps help him become a better person. That was all.
–Chesya Burke on harassment in horror.
[Content warning in the above and at the link, for discussion of harassment and rape.]
Sorry for the long quote, but it’s hard to have the denouement without the set-up for this one.
Burke’s post in general is about harassment in the horror genre, and she explicitly queries the link between acceptance of harassment with acceptance with the over-worn trope of rape in horror fiction.
Something of an aside: I love horror in general but I am so fucking sick of rape as a plot device, especially as written by men. Recently, I read an anthology of Shirley Jackson stories. These aren’t “horror” in the sense of “monsters and zombies and gore, oh my!”, but definitely “horror” in the sense of “horrible things people do”. They’re also all very understated–Jackson’s most well-known story, “The Lottery”, is also arguably the least subtle–and, notably, almost all of them are about women and/or women’s concerns. It wasn’t until after I’d finished reading the book that it occurred to me I’d gotten through the entire thing without that usual feeling of “… urgh” I inevitably get when reading works by men. You know the one I’m talking about, ladies.
It was kind of a stunning realisation, particularly for stuff nebulously labelled as horror–I’m too used to that genre being packed with “… urgh” moments, even for writers I quite like–and particularly particularly for stuff written in the first half of the 20th century (Jackson died in ’65, and a lot of her stories deal with the suffocating life of the pre-60s housewife).
Anyway. The next book I flicked to was another anthology, this one of Ray Bradbury. Literally the second story in the book, called “The April Witch”, turned out to be the pinnacle of “… urgh” moments.1
Male authors, amirite?
Tl;dr, female voices, yo. Important for every genre!
- Seriously, dudes, if you don’t get what I mean by “… urgh” moments then go read this story, think about why a woman might react extremely negatively to it–and, spoiler alert, there’s more than one reason–and your essay is due back on my desk by Monday. [↩]