Fighting abuse is a two-step fight. Actually deterring abusers is the easy part.
The real problem is raising awareness about abuse. Just about everyone talking about the reality of harassment online has expressed skepticism about its prevalence, and reasonably so.
This story by a former LJ user provides a helpful look at two of the barriers to understanding and ending harassment.
First of all, the frequency of harassment varies drastically based on the subjects you talk about and how many readers you have. Talking about politics is more dangerous than talking about movies, for instance, but even innocuous subjects can draw wrath if you have enough readers overall.
But “the right subjects” and “enough readers” is difficult to define. Some people can go for years or even decades without encountering the vitriol that others experience. As for Yonmei, she quickly discovered that while she could go for years using her real name online, going to the “wrong” place and saying the “wrong” things can have dangerous consequences.
The second barrier, often enough, is the ignorance of people who are supposed to deal with harassment and abuse. Yonmei recounts a truly epic clusterfuck of responsibility from Livejournal (emphasis added):
I reported them to LJ Abuse, who did nothing.
The worst two were actually cartoons, not verbal – sketched pictures of a woman being raped and mutilated. I reported them to LJ Abuse as usual but this time with added urgency. After a day or two I hid the cartoons from sight (I could see them when I was logged in) following protests from several of the women who were reading the thread that they understood why I hadn’t deleted them, in order to get LJ Abuse to act on them, but they could not bear to see them whenever they scrolled down through the discussion on my journal. I notified LJ Abuse at the time that I had had to hide the pics for this reason, and would they please let me know when they investigated my journal so that I could un-hide them again.
It was quite a few days before I heard from LJ Abuse, and then it was an email from one of their volunteers to say they’d looked at my journal and seen no evidence of any offensive cartoons. I emailed back to point out I’d had to hide them and would unhide them now to let them investigate.
Then LJ Abuse suspended my journal. (This was in the middle of the whole breastfeeding row – I’d already been warned that my journal was going to be suspended.)
Then I got another email from LJ Abuse to say that they couldn’t investigate the offensive cartoons because my journal was suspended. I wrote back to point out that they’d suspended my journal, and they could un-suspend it – not permanently, obviously, but for long enough to check out these ugly cartoons, track whoever had posted them, and do whatever was legally required / required by their TOS to the people responsible.
I got a personal email from Denise Paolucci, the head of LJ Abuse then, now the founder of Dreamwidth, to let me know that they weren’t going to do that unless I changed the default icon which they’d suspended my journal for.
What’s interesting here is the decision not to investigate harassment claims because of previous TOS violations — as if posting a picture of breastfeeding were no better than the deliberate harassment of other users.
So in refusing to lift a finger against people who were harassing not just Yonmei but all of her followers, LJ decided to side with the abusers, allowing them to continue to harass other, potentially more regulation-abiding users.
And they’re not alone. One needs only to look at the number of excuses given for this kind of behavior (from “it’s the Internet” to “you’re overreacting) to realize that astoundingly enough, even people whose job it is to ensure a safe environment are often as not completely clueless as to what this requires.
Here’s a hint: it requires you to not just twiddle your thumbs when someone sends you a report.