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The internet is too big to take on
April 20, 2011 9:45 AM   Subscribe

Writer Cath Elliot, recently nominated for the Orwell Prize for political writing, posts about what are, sadly, often the occupational hazards of being a political woman online. (NSFW language; author has tagged post with a trigger warning fwiw)
posted by mippy (50 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
And this appears to only differ from Scott Adams' "defending myself adventure" on mefi in that Cath didn't do it anonymously, but did pull a 'call their provider/host to pull the plug' gambit ? (yeah, ok, those folks were meaner than mefi, but fight with a pig, get dirty, pig likes it, etc).
posted by k5.user at 9:55 AM on April 20, 2011


Oh yeah, rabid homophobia and misogyny is totally equivalent to how Metafilter treated Scott Adams.
posted by kmz at 9:57 AM on April 20, 2011 [12 favorites]


Rule 1 of the internet is don't feed the trolls.

Rule 2 is don't tell the trolls you aren't feeding them.

Rule 34 makes clear that no matter what you do the trolls will get off on it one way or another.
posted by caution live frogs at 9:58 AM on April 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


Not to mention, the anonymous part is the crux of Adams's bad behavior here.
posted by kmz at 10:01 AM on April 20, 2011


It makes me sad to be reminded that there are people out there who truly are a waste of oxygen.
posted by Mooski at 10:03 AM on April 20, 2011


Those comments are obviously horrible, but she seems to really like drawing attention to them. There's a weird masochism at work in her post. I mean, seriously, why the fuck would you link that shit on Twitter?
posted by nasreddin at 10:05 AM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Isn't the phrase "trigger warning" going to become the ultimate trigger? I mean, as it's usage spreads and people know what it means, people might go to that bad place just by seeing those words... And worse, it's universal so it works for whatever it is that triggers you.
posted by keep_evolving at 10:17 AM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Those comments are obviously horrible, but she seems to really like drawing attention to them. There's a weird masochism at work in her post. I mean, seriously, why the fuck would you link that shit on Twitter?

Yeah, wanting sympathy and solidarity from your friends when people are treating you like shit is sooooooo masochistic amirite
posted by mightygodking at 10:20 AM on April 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


caution live frogs expressed it more concisely.

The internet is full of haters and griefers who are great at finding/pushing your (generic your) buttons.

Cath chose to (foolishly, IMO) interact with them, and got more buttons pushed.

Now, how do Cath's actions differ from this ? That is a good question. I see them as fundamentally different, even though the sexual harassment is similar.

(after re-reading, mefi was pretty darn ugly towards Scott Adams. Did it devolve into the abject name calling like what was aimed at Cath ? No, but it was higher-brow ugly name calling none-the-less)

mightygodking: what's the expression here at mefi when people get heated ? Turn your monitor off and go take a walk ? (or don't pick the scab ?)
posted by k5.user at 10:21 AM on April 20, 2011


Yeah, wanting sympathy and solidarity from your friends when people are treating you like shit is sooooooo masochistic amirite

Yeah, because every time I get a nasty email from someone I rush to post it on a platform known primarily for helping celebrities self-promote.
posted by nasreddin at 10:24 AM on April 20, 2011


what's the expression here at mefi when people get heated ?

In some cases, Flag It And Move On.
posted by epersonae at 10:25 AM on April 20, 2011


Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Twitter, but it's really not the place you go to post something traumatic unless you want to attract attention to it (and yourself).
posted by nasreddin at 10:28 AM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


We tried keeping the Internet anonymous. It didn't work well. It should be the norm that you stand behind your views with your name, like in any other medium or in real life.
posted by Triplanetary at 10:30 AM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can see how the advice to turn off the monitor and go for a walk would work in every instance but where they take over your keyboard's controls and make you type the insults to yourself.

Then what do you do?

[not rhetorical question]
posted by infini at 10:32 AM on April 20, 2011


Then what do you do?

Hard to say, because while what you're saying is perfectly reasonable, the kind of feelings this sort of back and forth inspires are remarkably reason-proof.
posted by Mooski at 10:37 AM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The namecalling is coming from inside the house ?
posted by k5.user at 10:37 AM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Did anybody actually read the article? It's short, I promise. She knows she shouldn't have fed the trolls, she feels between a rock and a hard place and wonders if there's another option.

Saying "She really shouldn't have drawn attention to it" isn't adding to the discussion because that's the point of her article.
posted by lumpenprole at 10:41 AM on April 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Did anybody actually read the article? It's short, I promise. She knows she shouldn't have fed the trolls, she feels between a rock and a hard place and wonders if there's another option.

Yeah, I read it. There was a lot of handwringing over whether she should have fed them or not, and it seems that on some level she's aware of the fact that she was doing it, but it doesn't seem to get through to her that the only reasonable action is to ignore it and not copy the stuff into a Word document (wtf?) or repost it online.
posted by nasreddin at 10:43 AM on April 20, 2011


She knows she shouldn't have fed the trolls, she feels between a rock and a hard place and wonders if there's another option.

Sadly, I think the answer is "no, there is not another option." The internet has many nice features, but it gives a voice to unpleasant people who feel emboldened by their relative anonymity to act out. In a lot of ways, her story reminds me of like this story from yesterday, only without the positive (-ish) ending.

I could imagine a similar solution -- connect these posters with their comments in real life and making sure their families and friends see what jackasses the posters are. That's not possible as far as I know, and online near-anonymity has positive aspects as well, so what other option is there besides "ignore the troll?"
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:54 AM on April 20, 2011


lumpenprole: "Saying "She really shouldn't have drawn attention to it" isn't adding to the discussion because that's the point of her article."

The article itself draws attention to every mistake she made, complete with the ugly, nasty comments she got in response. And includes an acknowledgement that dredging it up again is likely going to draw attention to the mistake again, resulting in a new round of ugly, nasty responses. Whatever the intent of the article, it isn't making the point it tries to make, except by bad example.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:57 AM on April 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I can't read the article, because it's NSFW, and maybe I'm reading you all wrong. But is what you're saying that there's really nothing that women can do about being harassed on the internet except to realize that's the price we pay for being women in public? Because if so, that's kind of a shitty response.
posted by craichead at 11:07 AM on April 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


I can't read the article, because it's NSFW, and maybe I'm reading you all wrong. But is what you're saying that there's really nothing that women can do about being harassed on the internet except to realize that's the price we pay for being women in public? Because if so, that's kind of a shitty response.

How is it "shitty"? You don't like seeing nasty comments posted about you, don't keep feeding the troll. You think it's more important to prove a point, keep feeding the troll, but then don't expect the nasty comments to stop.
posted by nasreddin at 11:30 AM on April 20, 2011


But is what you're saying that there's really nothing that women can do about being harassed on the internet except to realize that's the price we pay for being women in public?

Only way to win against trolls and griefers is to not engage. Just don't. This is the Internet, people will do all kinds of random shit for the lulz and once you've been in the bull's eye you'll forever be a target.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 11:34 AM on April 20, 2011


But is what you're saying that there's really nothing that women can do about being harassed on the internet except to realize that's the price we pay for being women in public? Because if so, that's kind of a shitty response.

That's not precisely what I would say. First of all, this sort of bullying doesn't only happen to women online, so its not the "price you're paying for being women in public." This happens to the fat kid and the homosexuals, and so on and so forth.

Secondly, it isn't that there is nothing we can do about being harrassed online. We could force every single internet posting on any bulletin board to be signed by a real name, maybe tagged with a real life address and phone number too. But then, that would destroy one of the fundamentally glorious things about the Internet. And if you don't find it fundamentally glorious, try being a democratic activist in China for a while.
posted by Inkoate at 11:54 AM on April 20, 2011


I went through a bit of this last year. Our picture wasn't on just digg and reddit, but all sorts of image boards, a body-building forum, and Stormfront (Stormfront!).

We kinda knew when we made that sign that we'd be attracting attention; I mean, we were participating in a protest march, and worked hard to get our message out. We knew we were stirring things up a bit--that was the whole point of making the sign. And, believe me, there were lots of things I wanted to say, especially in response to comments about my wife's attractiveness, but jeez, I've been around the net long enough to know how that would go. Thankfully, in most cases the positive comments outweighed the negative so very much that I didn't really feel like I needed to say anything, but I certainly get where Elliot is coming from. I also think she went about it wrongly.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:11 PM on April 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I went through a bit of that too in the comments section of Wired when my album came out three weeks ago. I don't know what can be done about it. Trolls will troll, and bullies will bully. I do think that certain sites have to start taking responsibility for their comments section -- many online magazines and newspapers pretty much provide an open forum for the most egregious behavior imaginable, and everybody sort of agrees that it's terrible, but nobody every does anything, and I think it's fair to say that the newspaper or magazine is responsible for the discussions they house. Not legally, but ethically. MetaFilter has demonstrated that it is very possible to have an online community where civility is the norm, and not an aberration, but that it takes commitment, and I think most places are not ready to make that sort of commitment, but have convinced themselves that a comments section is necessary, whatever ends up in there. (They also believe that if they moderate such a forum, they become legally responsible for the content of the forum, and so feel a hands-off approach is legally safest; from my understanding, there is no proof of this.)

But the place she went to sounds like the sort of place that actually exists to troll. There will always be some of that on the web, and it's a pity, really, but I don't there is much that can be done about it. Whatever odious thing people say about you online, it's only going to effect you if you read it. When I saw how the Wired discussion was going, I walked away, and have never read the rest of the comments. I may not be able to stop the discussion, but I can refuse to participate in my own abuse.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:35 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


craichead - it's a shitty situation in general.

I'll try to begin by saying that abuse on the internet is not the price people pay for being women, or black, or gay, or whatever.

We all have to put up with it because the societal costs of ultimately silencing that abuse are greater than the societal (but not personal!) costs of allowing it.

I think any hosting service is free to write their own terms of service and disallow any speech stored on their private servers. This is why I'm not worried that Ms.Elliot's original message went to the hosting company and resulted in a thread deletion. However, as you can see in the article, they pretty much just re-created it. If she were to carry on that campaign, she might eventually force those people to change hosts, but I do believe that they'd wind up on a host that would refuse to take down threads.

The only step we could take after that would be using government power to force the issue, which I don't think is a good idea.

Which leaves us with the question of what do you do if you're experiencing something like what Ms. Elliot is experiencing?

Unlike a few people in this thread, I don't think there's an easy answer that would work for everyone. Personally, for me, I feel like maybe I would have been best served by making a post that linked to the original thread and than refuting some of the common insults with statements like "I do not hate men. I am beautiful. That you say hateful, shitty things about me does not mean I'm wrong." etc.

I have no idea if that might have worked better or worse for Ms. Elliot. I also don't think her range of responses is deserving of the contempt or derision they've seen in this thread. When someone says something that actually gets to you, it's pretty tough to come up with a good response. L'esprit de l'escalier isn't a common phrase for nothing.
posted by kavasa at 12:42 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I am Scott Adams.
posted by yellowcandy at 1:12 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The namecalling is coming from inside the house ?
posted by k5.user


No, some kind of remotecontrol of the keyboard or cpu by which the words that I attempt to type, like right now, can be changed to whatever the harasser wants to say.

It goes beyond "Its an internet trolling thing" and into "we won't let you write (for a living) in piece and make you abandon your blog and destroy your social network" kind of thing. Should we still not feed this troll (stop giving it your fingers on your computer?) and accept it as the natural outcome of being a woman and a minority?


We all have to put up with it because the societal costs of ultimately silencing that abuse are greater than the societal (but not personal!) costs of allowing it.


That's the next step so this issue may really have to be looked at with far more nuance, imho. When it gets into your touchscreen while texting? When it follows your log ins to another continent?

Targeted personal attacks for lulz are the price of freedom?

/wipes froth and pretends calmth
posted by infini at 1:20 PM on April 20, 2011


No, some kind of remotecontrol of the keyboard or cpu by which the words that I attempt to type, like right now, can be changed to whatever the harasser wants to say.

Huh? What the hell are you on about?
posted by nasreddin at 1:24 PM on April 20, 2011


Yeah, I'm with nasreddin. Infini, where are you getting this hypothetical? If someone is trolling by actually taking over someone else's computer, there are all kinds of other concerns that get triggered, beyond the simple free speech implications of an anonymous internet.
posted by Inkoate at 1:28 PM on April 20, 2011


Huh? What the hell are you on about?

I wish I knew. I only see the effects and they've been going on for some time. But forget I said all this, I don't have the technical knowledge to answer you.
posted by infini at 1:28 PM on April 20, 2011


You're really gonna have to give us some links or something, I literally have no idea what you're talking about. I mean, yes, there are things like LogMeIn that will let you take over someone's computer with their consent, and there is presumably some kind of malware that will let you do the same thing without it, but I've never seen this affect anyone's blogging.
posted by nasreddin at 1:30 PM on April 20, 2011


Inkoate, I'm a simple user and just assumed it was some new gadgetry but yes, I have this experience, its not a hypothetical. Its too far fetched to be one innit?
posted by infini at 1:32 PM on April 20, 2011


but I've never seen this affect anyone's blogging.

Doesn't matter if its a blog or an essay or an email - if your writing/typing is constantly interrupted by a stream of garbage (I have some cut and pasted documentation) then you aren't able to get any writing/thinking done adn finally after weeks of it you stop/are unable to anymore.
posted by infini at 1:33 PM on April 20, 2011


Ok, then whoever took over your computer has violated laws, like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act if you're in the US. Whatever they do with your computer without your permission is illegal and have nothing to do with "the price of freedom" or, really, with the article linked to originally.
posted by Inkoate at 1:35 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Doesn't matter if its a blog or an essay or an email - if your writing/typing is constantly interrupted by a stream of garbage (I have some cut and pasted documentation) then you aren't able to get any writing/thinking done adn finally after weeks of it you stop/are unable to anymore.

Why didn't you back up your files, wipe your computer, and reinstall? It's what you do minutes after you detect something like this happening, not weeks.
posted by nasreddin at 1:37 PM on April 20, 2011


I did reformat the whole laptop. Didn't make a difference. Thought it might be my gmail log in so stopped that on the clean laptop - nope. Forget it, i didn't mean to hijack the thread. It also goes on on my smartphone. Unless the gmail identified the hardware everywhere and its in somehow. I'll have to wait to replace these machines till I can afford to.
posted by infini at 1:47 PM on April 20, 2011


Inkoate, how do we know who it is? :)
posted by infini at 1:48 PM on April 20, 2011


For the purposes of this discussion, it doesn't matter who it is (although of course I recognize that for your purposes it is of the utmost importance).

The point I'm making is that you're conflating what you are experiencing (which appears to be a personal attack on your computing environment) with what the thread was talking about earlier, which was the relative values of free speech in the online environment vs. the emotional harm that can be caused by trolls. Your experiences, while certainly maddening to you, have very little to do with the protection of free speech online, as they are already prohibited by law.
posted by Inkoate at 1:54 PM on April 20, 2011


The author is writing in the UK - I don't know where the other site or their writers were located, but please let's not assume that the US constitution applies to all online communication.

The judgement on online free speech isn't a given here - a popular newspaper talkboard I posted on for almost a decade was recently and swiftly shut down thanks to libel action - we don't know what, exactly, but I'm led to believe the comments that the individual objected too were not even on the same level as some of those in the article. Of course, shutting the talkboards down was under the newspaper's own jurisdicture, but it's an interesting case.
posted by mippy at 2:07 PM on April 20, 2011


As a woman who writes about politics on the internet, I have been publicly called every synonym for fat or ugly in the thesaurus (and some you'll only find on Urban Dictionary), often by people who have never even seen my picture. I've been called a bitch and a harpy and a whore. I've been called stupid. I've been called hysterical and shrill. I've been told that if I were attractive enough to find a real man (as opposed to the "beta male" who settled for me), I wouldn't be so bitter. I've been told that if I were anything resembling a good mother I would shut my mouth and get back to raising my kid.

This is typical. This is trolling. I get it. I do my best not to let it faze me. Flag and move on.

But I've also had people-- sometimes, it's turned out, the same people whose initial more run-of-the-mill trolling I'd purposefully ignored-- threaten to come to my house and "show me" why I'm wrong. I've had people publicly accuse me of being a terrorist sympathizer who should be investigated by the police. I've had men tell me I deserve to be raped. I've had people say my family members should be kidnapped or killed. And I'm not even famous, or that influential as a writer. My contributions to the political discourse are pretty small-time. But they still cause considerable personal blowback.

One friend of mine who is a prominent political blogger had the constant harassment and death threats against her escalate to the point that the FBI decided her kids needed a police escort to school. Many friends and colleagues of mine who are women who write about politics-- brilliant women, good writers, with useful ideas-- have cut back, burned out or totally quit in no small part because the atmosphere we work in is so consistently, ruthlessly hostile. It wears on you. Even if you try your best not to let it.

Where is the line between toothless troll and unhinged harasser? When is calling people out for their bad behavior "feeding the trolls," and when is it necessary self defense? I don't know. But I do know that far too many women with talent and ideas that should be shared with the world choose silence. And the prevalence of this sort of harassment is a big reason why.

Arguing about whether Cath Elliot handled this business appropriately, while failing to address the larger issue she raises of harassment of women writers online is, to me, is like arguing about what women ought to wear on the subway to avoid being flashed.

I am a strong advocate of free speech, and I do not think we should sacrifice the benefits of internet anonymity in the name of safety. But I do think that we, internet content creators and users, as a global community, need to discuss ways to make it less socially acceptable to harass women online.

And don't tell me making the internet more welcoming to women and more respectful of their opinions simply can't be done. I've seen tremendous improvements in cultural attitudes toward women happen on the small scale in many internet communities over the years. (Metafilter is a very good example of a place where a boyzone vibe has been successfully overcome.)
posted by BlueJae at 2:11 PM on April 20, 2011 [26 favorites]


Thank you for writing that Bluejae, I needed to read it.

As someone told me irl, that you get a lot of flack because no one expects someone who looks like you to speak forth so (confidently? authoritatively? competently? insightfully? who knows) - looks as in small minority woman failing to meet stereotypes. I've accepted that all my life, as part of the price of breaking the norms (in my generation) of my culture's patriarchal expectations. However, its the online kill threats and false accusations of whatever they can lay their hands on, almost exactly as you articulate in your comment, that are a step beyond what should be accepted in silence.
posted by infini at 2:24 PM on April 20, 2011


I started trying to say a lot of these same things, BlueJae, but I was failing. Thanks for doing better than I did.

I've been on the internet for a pretty long time, and I've definitely seen many transformations, both in discrete communities and even in the general internet zeitgeist. I've had a lot of the same criticisms, including death threats. One I remember well was when a very mild feminist blog had (with my permission) quoted some dumb joke I made on Usenet, and I found it during an ego search some time later. The comments were full of graphically violent threats of murder and rape. When I emailed the site's owners, they said, in a nutshell, "Yeah, I'm sorry. That happens to us a lot," and my response was, again in a nutshell, "Yeah. Yeah, it does, huh?"

And I really do think attitudes have changed for the better. Sure, people are still misogynistic and hateful and even dangerous, but I don't think they get away with it the way they used to.

And I think that's because there are people out there who don't just blow things off the way I did.

The internet isn't too big to take on, and it's not nearly as monolithic as some would like us to think.
posted by ernielundquist at 3:52 PM on April 20, 2011


I can't read the article, because it's NSFW, and maybe I'm reading you all wrong. But is what you're saying that there's really nothing that women can do about being harassed on the internet except to realize that's the price we pay for being women in public? Because if so, that's kind of a shitty response.

There is nothing people can do about being harassed on the internet except to realize it's the price we pay for being people in public.
posted by gjc at 5:59 PM on April 20, 2011


She doesnt link to the site in question (for good reason) and I don't want to give them traffic, so what sort of site is this?
posted by brundlefly at 7:02 PM on April 20, 2011


The "there's nothing we can do" attitude makes no sense to me at all. I mean, it's true in a sort of "can't control every corner of the web" sense, but in fact a HUGE amount of the harassment that happens, happens in spaces that *could* be better. With normal human techniques, not crazy anti-anonymity technical hijinks.

Site owners and participants can *choose* to moderate more effectively. We can encourage them to do so. We can refuse to frequent spaces that are toxic. We can build tools to help moderators do moderation. It's totally possible, and claiming it's not is a giant fucking cop-out.
posted by feckless at 7:46 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Site owners and participants can *choose* to moderate more effectively. We can encourage them to do so. We can refuse to frequent spaces that are toxic.
Sure, they can but other site owners will just pick up the slack.
posted by delmoi at 12:01 AM on April 21, 2011


I'm offended, therefore I am.
posted by joannemullen at 2:03 AM on April 21, 2011


And moderation takes one or more of: time, money, dedication, incentive.. If we're talking news sites, well, aren't most newpapers losing money hand over fist ? Though as someone pointed out up-thread, in the UK there's some legal incentive. In the US there's the whole common carrier law (I think that's the right one) that holds hosts immune from user content.

I don't want to dismiss the nasty things said to BlueJae or Cath, but we're talking griefers. Female, male, kid, adult, gay, straight, whatever. They are going to say nasty things. Saying that any one group is treated worse by griefers is a war of attrition where everyone loses.
posted by k5.user at 6:26 AM on April 21, 2011


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