Thoughts on Internet “Justice” and Being an Adult Online

Posted: December 21, 2012 in Internet, Media
Tags: , , , , ,

Like a number of people I know, I’ve been reluctant to write online in light of what happened last Friday. Anything I could write, including a bunch of things I’ve got backlogged, seemed so trivial, and the last thing the internet needed was another opinion on the tragedy, so I wasn’t about to write that even if it would have been healthy to purge all the things running around in my head in something beyond a sad or angry twitter post.

Additionally, most of what I did read (and I was indeed reading and retweeting a bit of what others were all-too-willing to post) was shit . . . ideological, reactionary, narrow, disrespectful, etc., and all that despite of intent. More often than not, people need to shut up and think first instead of blurting things out online.

I’m ready to–not sure it is the right phrasing because the effect of events like this doesn’t just go away–move on; and that last sentence in the above paragraph brings me around to a more broad topic that a friend recently published an article on and I’d like to briefly chime in on.

Over at The Awl, my friend Whitney Phillips co-authored (with Kate Miltner) a piece called “The Internet’s Vigilante Shame Army.” The article deals with a lot of what has happened this past year with relation to individual online misdeeds/mistakes/creepiness and the subsequent retribution via doxxing/public shaming/IRL fallout carried out by groups of angry users. It is a long read, and covers a large number of subsets of behavior, but is quite excellent in analyzing one important aspect of where our online discourse is right now.  I strongly recommend anyone who finds this post reading it in its entirety before he or she bothers with the rest of my post.

A declaration of topic from the opening section by Phillips:

If recent high-profile controversies surrounding Violentacrez, Comfortably Smug, racist teens on Twitter, Lindsey Stone and Hunter Moore are any indication, it would seem that many people, members of the media very much included, are increasingly willing to take online justice into their own hands. Because these behaviors attempt to route around the existing chain of command (within mainstream media circles, the legal system, even on-site moderation policies), I’ve taken to describing them as a broad kind of online vigilantism. It might not be vigilantism in the Dog the Bounty Hunter sense, but it does—at least, it is meant to—call attention to and push back against some real or perceived offense.

Assuming you read the piece, I want to be clear that I’m quite in line with the bulk of the discussion in it.  I do, however, want to cite one of Miltner’s paragraphs at length and explore it a little.  She writes:

You brought up a key point about shaming targets “deserving” to be punished. One thing that I’ve noticed in quite a few of these cases is that a rhetoric of blame comes into play. And the blame often centers around the public nature of the activity as well as expectations of digital literacy— i.e., the shaming behavior is not only justified because the target did something “wrong,” but also because they were stupid enough to do it on the internet. I mean, the internet has been around long enough at this point, MORONS—what else can they expect when they post (X Y Z type of content) online? It’s their own fault, they totally should have known better. But that rhetoric comes scarily close to other types of victim blaming that most people no longer consider acceptable. For example, “What else can you expect when you go out in public after midnight wearing a short skirt? It’s her own fault, she should have known better.”

First, I find a logical flaw here in the (carefully hedged) comparison to other varieties of blaming victims for not knowing better than to do X. At least so far as the bulk of original examples given go, these were hardly innocent victims, but rather people doing not-so-nice things, and to some degree in public under their own names (or pseudonyms easily linked to their IRL personas).

Miltner follows this by bringing up Amanda Todd, who (according to my recollection) shared nude pictures with one person, subsequently was blackmailed and harassed by him, and then committed suicide due to ongoing persecution.  But Todd’s case wasn’t ever about what she did in a relative public sphere. Her case was what someone coerced her (a minor) to do in relative private, and then aggressively pushed for more of via blackmail, then what he did to her in public by spreading her pictures, harassment from others, and the end tragic result.  Point being, she was not really an agent in any of this, just someone who made a bad decision in private, to one other person; beyond that, she was a kid doing something that she later regretted.

My take on this is that Todd is an exception to the cases of vigilante responses and doesn’t fit the topic. She was taken advantage of by a predatory opportunist and a bunch of assholes. Plus, she was a kid.

As for the bulk of those outed and publicly shamed recently, I see a different general type: those who are at least nominally adults. And I would argue that, yes, that if one was stupid enough to do it on the internet, then it is a fair reason to be taken to task for it and suffer the repercussions.

My one hedge on this claim is obviously when the “offender” is a actually a kid (however vague that might be). We consistently (and for a long time) have allowed for stupid behavior from actual kids/teens/college kids to go with only a shaming or finger-wagging (which was previously much less public than it tends to be now). That’s the old fashioned punishment for being a dipshit in public as a youth, and it would be nice if people online would cut these particular foolish youth a little slack and not call their schools (as if that will do any good) . . . not that that is going to happen so long as Jezebel needs page views, which is another issue altogether.

However, what we are seeing now in the case of many of those mentioned in the article is the same sort of public finger-wagging applied wide-scale to entitled, attention-seeking adults who do similarly juvenile, stupid shit without thought about the fact that they are NOT actually anonymous online. The targets here, the Hunter Moores and, especially, ViolentAcrez of the world, ought to know better.  Repeat, they ought to know better. Either that or do the responsible thing and do stupid, offensive shit anonymously without the need for IRL backpatting.

The thing is, the internet, at least when I started using it regularly in the late 90s and early 00s, used to be mostly a place for pseudonyms and some sense of guardedness as to one’s IRL identity. Not so much these days. With the current “authentic user” paradigm that emerged from social media, the internet is more and more roughly equivalent to the public sphere of discourse. And people’s actions online are increasing those done in this public sphere, despite the remnants of the guise of pseudo- or ano-nymity.

Add to that the desire for attention and approval people want from those they interact with online, which now is insufficient to be doled out as props to an anonymous avatar (the growing need for individual respect desired by those working under the Anonymous banner is another example of this), and I can’t see any way to not side with the mob on these public shamings and say, yeah, you deserved that, dumbass.

At its heart, it is a question of which actions are reprehensible enough to be pursued, which is a point made by the original column. But knowing the audience is part of writing or speaking in public, otherwise, I guess, one should “lurk moar,” as they say. There’s really no excuse these days, beyond youth and inexperience, to act like a dumbshit online and not suffer the consequences.  That is, unless one is wise enough to distance the avatar from the IRL persona, as older internet users (and presumably the worst miscreants) tend to be accustomed to.

In closing, the problem seems to be largely with adults acting like kids but not taking adult actions to keep their juvenile behaviors from following them.  While the method of shaming is amplified, how is this any different than the results of poor choices at an office X-mas party?

Your thoughts are welcome; I’m up for debate on this and wrote it quickly and without my usual “sit on it and reread” policy, which obviously makes me a bit of a hypocrite.

  1. Whitney Phillips says:

    I think this is a fair assessment, and with some basic qualifications agree with you. First re: the Amanda Todd case — not to put words in Kate’s mouth, but her overall point was to call attention to the gross, over-reactionary moral policing that occurred after Todd was coerced to post that picture. What Todd did and what her abuser did set in motion a slut-shaming hivemind that followed Todd around for years, and (arguably) lead to her suicide. Because it was also the kids at school who reacted & joined the fray (“because what kind of WHORE would do such a thing!!” -they asked, while downloading SnapChat). Kate’s criticism is how quickly a mob can be whipped into a froth, particularly around issues of (what is perceived to be) sexual transgression. This is part of the problem — that initial pushpack against a real or perceived sin (regardless of how justified that pushback might be; in Amanda Todd’s case, it was an unfair premise to begin with) will quickly spin out of control. And it’s the spinning-out-of-control that’s the biggest problem, particularly when the target is “guilty” of doing something everyone has done at one point or another, the only difference being they weren’t called out publicly.

    Which is where my opinion diverges slightly from yours. I agree that adults should be held accountable for their stupid behavior, and if there were a way to ensure that the hivemind would dole out *just* enough punishment to fit the crime, then cool, ok. But the hivemind doesn’t know when to stop, especially if it’s been infiltrated by trolls and/or people who don’t really care about the case but are in the mood to ruin lives. That’s why I’m ultimately not comfortable making any sweeping statements in favor or against this sort of reactionary behavior. So much depends on who is targeting whom, why, and what ends up happening to the target.

    • nightwork says:

      I didn’t realize you had commented (stupid notifications), so sorry for a delay in response.

      Good points. And I’m not entirely, across-the-board supportive of the kind of reactionary shaming behavior we see here. I think I’m mostly a privileged ass who has been online so long that when I see adults acting like serious creeps or idiots and not protecting it via pseudonymity I can’t do much but laugh at them for not knowing better. And while I don’t think that lady should have been fired for her stupid facebook picture at Arlington, I don’t feel all that bad for her either. Christ, it’s 2013 already people! If you have a fb, twitter, and reddit account, not to mention a smart phone, you should have some idea how this all works, you overprivileged moron. How many billions of how-to-not-ruin-your-job-prospects-via-social-media articles are there floating around online already?

      My baseline p.o.v. is that this behavior exists (and will continue to exist) online, and it isn’t (at the core, anyway) really a new phenomenon. What’s new is the broad scale of exposure and piling on allowed by social media and the like. And, barring draconian, nanny-state interference with the internet, it will continue to happen, likely with more regularity. Which isn’t in itself necessarily a great thing, but the alternatives/correctives would be even worse. And I’ll take the handful of really deserving vigilante pushbacks (violentacrez, Hunter Moore, and now, especially, Steubenville) even if sometimes someone gets fired for posting a stupid picture on facebook. (Again, I don’t think that the kind of shaming and harassment in the Amanda Todd case is in the same category.)

      Additionally, public shaming of this vigilante sort may push back against the drive for authentic user identity and across-the-web connectivity of all platforms, which is a good thing to my mind. As people realize what might happen if their lol/jk pseudonymomous (???) fucking around can so easily be tied back to their serious profiles, maybe they’ll step back and realize maybe linked their linkedin to twitter to their misc account or whatever isn’t a good idea. Maybe I’m just nostalgic, but a bit more separation of self from avatar might be a good thing in this solipsistic and attention-hungry webworld.

  2. Whitney Phillips says:

    Reblogged this on a sandwich, with words??? and commented:
    More thoughts on the vigilante/hivemind/shaming question…