Trigger Warning: The Poisoned WELL

By Tim Hardy

They say he raped them that night. They say he did it with a cunning little doll, fashioned in their image and imbued with the power to make them do whatever he desired. They say that by manipulating the doll he forced them to have sex with him, and with each other, and to do horrible, brutal things to their own bodies. And though I wasn’t there that night, I think I can assure you that what they say is true, because it all happened right in the living room — right there amid the well-stocked bookcases and the sofas and the fireplace — of a house I came for a time to think of as my second home.

A Rape in Cyberspace, first published in The Village Voice

In 1993 Julian Dibble wrote the first ever article to expose sexually abusive behaviour online with an account of a “virtual rape” in the LambdaMOO online community.

A man using an avatar named Mr Bungle used an exploit to publicly control and abuse another in-game character, traumatising the woman who controlled the victim’s avatar.

The response of some members of the community was wearily familiar:

And then there were what I’ll call the technolibertarians. For them, MUD rapists were of course assholes, but the presence of assholes on the system was a technical inevitability, like noise on a phone line, and best dealt with not through repressive social disciplinary mechanisms but through the timely deployment of defensive software tools. Some asshole blasting violent, graphic language at you? Don’t whine to the authorities about it — hit the @gag command and the asshole’s statements will be blocked from your screen (and only yours). It’s simple, it’s effective, and it censors no one.

But the Bungle case was rather hard on such arguments[…] Many of the biologically female participants in the Bungle debate had been around long enough to grow lethally weary of the gag-and-get-over-it school of virtual-rape counseling, with its fine line between empowering victims and holding them responsible for their own suffering, and its shrugging indifference to the window of pain between the moment the rape-text starts flowing and the moment a gag shuts it off.

Neither the abuse itself nor the “shut up and ignore it” response of the overwhelmingly male technical managers of such sites is new. As more and more public discourse moves online, however, what was an anthropological oddity in 1993 is becoming mainstream.

On accepting the award of  “Twitter Public Personality” today, Laurie Penny noted:

Unfortunately, over the past two years social media has also become an increasingly hostile place for women writers and journalists, as well as for writers of thinkers of colour and of different faiths. I know of a number of talented women writers who have withdrawn from the arena of public debate in Britain because of the sheer scale and viciousness of sexist bullying that has come to poison the arena of political debate in this country, particularly online.

I would like to use this opportunity to call upon all of the editors, journalists and commentators in this room to take an active stand against sexist trolling and hate speech in your publications and on Twitter. Call it out whenever you see it and refuse to host it on your websites, because it demeans and cheapens all of us who feel proud to call ourselves members of the British press.

(Laurie Penny)

A week ago, Adrian Chen outed Michael Brutsch, the Texas man behind the notorious Reddit troll Violentacrez , an online persona who had built his reputation on distributing pictures of underaged girls in bikinis and being offensive as possible.

Chen has been widely criticised by the current generation of technolibertarians but he has refused to apologise:

Under Reddit logic, outing Violentacrez is worse than anonymously posting creepshots of innocent women, because doing so would undermine Reddit’s role as a safe place for people to anonymously post creepshots of innocent women.

I am OK with that.

As one commenter pointed out in response to those defending Brutsch:

Let’s be real here. Like all trolls, this is a story about privilege. It’s great for him to talk about niggers, to post pictures of sexualized preteen girls, to “incite reaction” from the crybabies, because he is a rich white man. He’s never had to deal with racism, sexism, being on the other end of hatred. If he had his face pounded into the cement by a gang of white thugs screaming “faggot” and “chink,” if hadn’t been able to leave the house without catcalls and the constant threat of sexual assault since he was 11, if his mother had been in a concentration camp, he wouldn’t think this was all such a joke.

I don’t believe that the increasing trend of imprisoning people for saying vile things using social media is the answer but I am concerned about the chilling effect of a culture of privilege online that silences contributions from all but a few and dismisses those who speak out against  misogyny, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination as “moral faggots”.

An increasingly popular belief is that there is no separation between online and offline, that to speak of the internet is an anachronism – and yet paradoxically those who hold this belief are just as likely to claim that what happens online has no consequences and should not be subject to the same codes of behaviour that govern our offline interactions.

And it’s not just the bigots hiding behind the mask of libertarianism who are are confused.

When “gay girl in Damascus” Amina Abdullah Arraf al-Omari was exposed as being a 40-year-old, married American man living in Scotland, Tom MacMaster, the Guardian ran a piece by technology commentator Aleks Krotoski arguing:

Consequence-free online environments allow us to practise and play without fear of offline repercussion, and offer an extraordinary place to experience the fluidity of our selves. On the internet, I can be anyone, even a dog. As Tom MacMaster found, there still are places online where this is possible. He found his audience, as have I: I tweet, therefore I am.

(Online identity: Can we really be whoever we want to be?)

In response to the unquestioned privilege of such a position, I can only quote two LGBT activists from Syria:

There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country. We have to deal with too many difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us.

(Sami Hamwi and Daniel Nassar, From Damascus with Love: Blogging in a Totalitarian State)

Perhaps the inherent narcissism of social media encourages us to ignore the feelings of others and instead use their reactions to feed our egos. Nobody exists but me. All that matters is my playful self-expression. I tweet, therefore you aren’t.

15-year-old Amanda Todd would neither have found Violentacrez funny nor thought that online activities were consequence free: sexual cyberbullying was an important factor in her suicide.

Right now Anonymous are engaged in vigilante action against the men they claim drove her to her death.

Unfortunately, there are many in Anonymous who are part of the very culture of casual misogyny and rape apologism that makes such intimidation and abuse possible: it was not long ago that the targets of their “doxing” were the women who have accused Julian Assange of sexual assault and rape.

I don’t want to live in a world where a woman does not dare report a rape because she is afraid a group who hide their own identities behind masks might publish her photograph and her home address.

We need to start questioning the lazy assumptions that govern our interactions online.

Next time someone attempt to blocks discussion of abusive behaviour by drawling “But it’s the internet…” – challenge them.

Next time someone says “But it’s free speech…” – challenge them.

In 1913, at a crowded Christmas party for striking mine workers and their families in Calumet, Michigan, someone shouted “fire!” Seventy-three people were crushed to death in the panic including fifty-nine children. There was no fire. Strike-breakers hired by the mines deliberately raised a false alarm.

Reckless and malicious speech, popularly described as “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theatre”, has never been part of free speech.

How many of the men who engaged in virtual rape would have carried out a rape in the flesh? How many of the men who threaten to kill or rape journalists in the comments threads below articles would make such a threat face to face? How many think that they are merely engaged in an act of self-discovery in a consequence-free environment?

We have a long way to go online and offline. As Sady Doyle argued yesterday:

Ending bigotry and sexual harassment is not as simple as selectively unmasking one or two perpetrators. It relies on all of us working daily to create a culture in which such behaviours aren’t tolerated. Harnessing internet outrage is much easier – and more immediately satisfying – than changing the attitudes of the culture itself, but it’s that longer, harder work that will save us all in the end. Knowing Michael Brutsch’s name is less important than knowing that we will challenge attitudes like his the next time we meet someone who expresses them. After all, right now he’s still likely to be applauded for them when he goes online.

(Outing online sexual predators is a sensationalist stopgap)