Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Internet: Still the Wild West

In the past several months, cyber blackmail tactics like revenge porn have been widely publicized. These crimes fall disproportionately upon women. The victims of these attacks have conceded that law enforcement has been inexcusably slow to adapt to the changes of the modern age. A variety of activities and tactics meant to shame and humiliate victims have been used by mostly anonymous harassers and cowardly bullies. While it is factual that a younger set is more devoted to the internet, it should be noted that this intimidation is not something that only happens to young adults.

Recently, I've explored the morass that passes for the comment section in a variety of online publications. Ordinarily this is an activity I usually take great pains to avoid, because such places are always are full of harsh criticism and jaded spleen. Even if I enter with the intention to stay calm, it doesn't take long before my blood starts to boil. Though I concede my decision may have been only an exercise in masochism, it wasn't a total loss, either. In any case, I've been able to understand better the motivations and psychology of those who post inflammatory content in an online forum.

For many, the bickering is fun, and not to be taken seriously. It's a way to vent usually repressed hostilities and frustrations. While on the subject, I am reminded of a trip to Boston several years back. The person driving me around town enjoyed riding the bumper of rude drivers, letting them know she was not about to let them get away with it. It made for a terrifying ride, made even more frightening by her frequent loud peals of laughter. This was a kind of competition, somewhat akin to a game of chicken. And as for whether or not this was the best way to seek to even the score, I will say only that there may have been healthier options available.

My father finds feminism enraging, and if he were to really verbalize his thoughts, he would admit that he is afraid of unsmiling, emasculating feminists making unreasonable, curtly worded demands. When I read the comments of an article written by a woman or a group of women who are feminists, I see echoes of Dad's perspective everywhere.

The movement threatens him and, in his mind, the radical voices of a bygone era symbolize the views of everyone who takes up the mantle. In reality, feminism was hardly any codified movement, even in its watershed days. Eventually it broke apart due to the fissures and disagreements that had been evident for years. Today, it is predicated upon a few prominent issues and intersections, but no set orthodoxy exists and it never has.

Curiously, my father married my mother. She was a devotee to what was then usually called women's liberation. Despite the sometimes massive differences in political opinion, they've been married almost forty years and will likely remain together forever. This only proves that even strongly held political views can take a subordinate role to love and devotion. As for ideology, my mother drifted away from feminism when she started having kids. It's hard to have an evolved and informed consciousness while in the middle of changing diapers and breastfeeding. But it didn't completely ride off into the sunset.

Men are weak. This was my mother's mantra. While she might not have had the stamina, as a young mother, to remain on the cutting edge, it gave her no small amount of pleasure to get a dig in here and there. This remark was usually directed towards male public figures who became ensnared in sex scandals, or those who out of impulsive lust made risky, boneheaded decisions. Everyone has his or her own Achilles's heel, but I happen to know that men and women both have extramarital affairs. The clincher here is that a man's fall from grace may make a more emphatic sound.

Dad and I recently watched MSNBC for five minutes while Rachel Maddow's show was airing. It completely set him off. He was livid. Can't you see how angry she is? I kept my mouth shut to avoid an argument that would have never headed anywhere productive. I've not once thought of Rachel Maddow in those terms. Her analysis has always appeared to these eyes as even-handed and respectful. My father's response had everything to do with himself and nothing to do with a woman in a studio speaking to a television audience.

Feminism, especially when it is first introduced by a woman, makes many men see red. Once again, it's zero-sum game thinking, where everything a woman achieves will come at the expense of men. This drives the hateful, violent commentary that women with any stature receive with frequency. Amanda Hess's column linked above discusses in depth the risks that women writers take, the ones that inevitably that follow every post or publication.

After I received my most recent round of threats, I asked Jessica Valenti, a prominent feminist writer (and the founder of the blog Feministing), who’s been repeatedly targeted with online threats, for her advice, and then I asked her to share her story. “It’s not really one story. This has happened a number of times over the past seven years,” she told me. When rape and death threats first started pouring into her inbox, she vacated her apartment for a week, changed her bank accounts, and got a new cell number.

When the next wave of threats came, she got in touch with law enforcement officials, who warned her that though the men emailing her were unlikely to follow through on their threats, the level of vitriol indicated that she should be vigilant for a far less identifiable threat: silent “hunters” who lurk behind the tweeting “hollerers.” The FBI advised Valenti to leave her home until the threats blew over, to never walk outside of her apartment alone, and to keep aware of any cars or men who might show up repeatedly outside her door. “It was totally impossible advice,” she says. “You have to be paranoid about everything. You can’t just not be in a public place.”

Since reading the above article, I've sought to understand the psychology of online blackmailers and trolls. Some of them, in my experience, are provocative only to needle and to get a desired response. But even then, I know that there is a vast amount of difference between an insulting, injurious comment and a death threat.

Death threats, rape threats, and those threatening imminent physical harm should always be taken seriously, but the vast majority of the childish games featured here are mostly designed to produce indignation, anger, frustration, and fear. I've ignored my own detractors as best I can. While I may think they've gone away for good, some always resurface months later. Their behavior is nothing I can control. All they really want is attention in the worst way possible.

I have not received death threats, but I have dealt with one particularly persistent troll. He insults me on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, then is nowhere to be found. When I least expect it, he's back, this time with a new username. By contrast, when I post to Daily Kos, I receive usually respectful comments from readers.

Even so, I run into a few people here and there who isolate and misinterpret a specific passage of my latest diary, deliberately confusing it with the theme of the entire post. Hairsplitters look for ways to be contrary, and I do lose my patience with them before long. They hone in on particular phrases and then take the entire main idea out of context, intending only to be right, not to be enlightened or informed.

Internet-based discussions can be rewarding but they can also be a little traumatizing. It makes me wonder why we just can't be honest with ourselves. Instead, we disguise who we are and let loose with avalanches of negativity and insults. Each of these thoughts comes from within us, somewhere. Mean-spirited comments have been percolating in the minds of many for a long while before they are voiced in a public forum.

It's difficult for me to see that of God in everyone on a website or a listserve. Even among people of faith, the false sense of anonymity makes our discussions vituperative. We lash out at the people who we ought to love the most. I wonder if we can lessen and diminish this problem with greater innovation. Until then, the Internet is still the Wild West, a mostly unregulated universe evolving and growing, even if we don't know where we'll be next.

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