Matthew Garrett ([personal profile] mjg59) wrote2011-10-28 07:04 am
Entry tags:

Feeding the trolls

A few years ago I got up on stage and briefly talked about how the Linux community contained far too many people who were willing to engage in entirely inappropriate behaviour, how this discouraged people from getting involved and how we weren't very good at standing up against that sort of behaviour. Despite doing this in front of several hundred people, and despite the video of me doing so then being uploaded to the internet, this got me a sum total of:
  • No death threats
  • No discussion about any of my physical attributes or lack thereof
  • No stalkers
  • No accusations that I was selling out the Linux community
  • No accusations that I was a traitor to my gender
  • No real negative feedback at all[1]

Which is, really, what you'd expect, right? The internet seems intent on telling me otherwise:

Well, she didn't do herself any favors by talking at conferences about women in tech, or setting up a feminist movement. If you wanted to attract abuse, that's a good way to go about it. It should be expected.

MikeeUSA is a troll. He has no means to actually harm anyone, and he does it purely for the lulz.

Thus, MikeeUSA trolled a woman, and she took the bait. I just don't get why this is news, I've been trolled before, I don't get a news story.


I was going to start a rant about how this behavior is encouraged by the macho men online, but this was just one guy harassing her. "Due to harassment" reads as due to harassment from the community, but she gave in to one idiot. She let him win.

The full comment thread has rather more examples. If you stand up and say anything controversial, you should expect abuse. And if you let that abuse change your behaviour in any way, you've let the trolls win.

These attitudes are problematic.

The immediate assumption underlying such advice is that the degree of abuse is related to what you've said, not who you are. I'm reasonably visible in the geek world. I've said a few controversial things. The worst thing that's happened to me has been Ryan Farmer deciding to subscribe me to several thousand mailing lists. Inconvenient, but not really threatening. I haven't, for instance, been sent death threats. Nobody has threatened to rape me. And even if they had done, I wouldn't need to worry too much - there's a rather stronger track record of violent antifeminism being targeted at women than men.

I don't have to worry about this kind of thing. That means I don't get to tell other people that they should have expected it. Nor do I get to tell them that they should ignore it, or that if they don't call the police then they have no grounds to complain. And nor does anyone else.

The trolls don't win because someone decides that getting out of the tech business is more appealing than continuing to face abuse. The trolls win because we consider their behaviour acceptable and then blame the victim for inviting them in the first place. That needs to change.

[1] It was justifiably pointed out that saying all this while standing on stage next to a mostly naked guy wearing a loincloth with a raccoon tail covering his penis may have weakened my message somewhat.
denise: Image: Me, facing away from camera, on top of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome (Default)

[staff profile] denise 2011-10-30 12:42 am (UTC)(link)
That's actually fairly mild. It was only generalized rape and murder threats, not specifically directed at me! I always count that a good day.

(Anonymous) 2011-10-31 04:01 am (UTC)(link)
Your mention of seven years of your inbox, together with your calling this "fairly mild", makes me wonder: does any archive exist where someone has posted a large volume of the offensive mail they get, just to give an idea of both scale and magnitude? I'm starting to get the impression that I have no concept of just how serious this problem is, and I already thought it was extremely serious.

I also wonder: if you've received non-generalized threats of violence, have you ever attempted to report them? I realize that this seems about as likely to succeed as trying to eliminate sources of spam, but just as it's always satisfying to read about a major spam hub getting shut down, it would be equally satisfying to read about someone sending such offensive garbage getting arrested for it.
denise: Image: Me, facing away from camera, on top of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome (Default)

[staff profile] denise 2011-10-31 04:41 am (UTC)(link)
I haven't heard of anyone keeping an archive, no. Generally, the "conventional wisdom" is to just ignore it (and, in my experience, ignoring it will make all but the most determined individuals go away, although of course it doesn't do anything about the endless stream of crap that replaces it). Geek Feminism had two posts about the problem, both linking to s. e. smith's "on blogging, threats, and silence", which are wonderful posts all three of them and really describe the kind of crap I've seen and experienced.

I, personally -- being not what anyone would call a shy and retiring flower -- have reported most threats that go beyond the usual level of nonspecific background noise (not repeated here to avoid triggering people, but I do have a fairly high tolerance level) to both the cops and the ISP/mail server/hosting provider/etc, unless I just don't have the energy to work to educate the cops that week. (Because of course no matter how often you report, the cops need an entire lesson from ground zero on what online harassment is; my wife works for the police department one county over, in their forensic DNA lab, and confirms that most police computer forensics departments consist of one officer who learned how to use disk recovery software in his or her spare time. The nuances are lost to them.) I've also reported to the FBI multiple times, when I can confirm it's interstate or international, and been the person who helped report on others' behalf a lot (since I used to run the LJ abuse team, where I saw a lot of this crap). The cybercrime division of my regional FBI office in my old jurisdiction (I've since moved) knew me by name, and we corresponded regularly.

I have a folder in my filing cabinet with a lot of police reports and a collection of case numbers that have all been closed due to "well, what the fuck do you want us to do about it, then?" The most result I've ever gotten has been getting a few external sites created solely to poison my Google results shut down (not all, but most) and the Wikipedia attack article created about me deleted and oversighted. The amount of effort to get a John/Jane Doe subpoena to compel an ISP or other provider to release information on who's behind an account is honestly just not worth it, especially since legislation lags far, far behind reality and jurisdictions just don't have the resources to pursue what they consider minor problems (and, honestly, if someone halfway across the globe is threatening me, I'm really okay with that being a priority underneath more real-world-plausible problems; my comfort level is set far past what a lot of other women's is, simply because I've seen so much of this crap). I'm also lucky in that I have lawyer friends with pro-bono time who are willing to help me out, although actually prosecuting is a bitch because you have to get someone licensed in that jurisdiction, travel, yadda. On the whole, it's really just more trouble than it's worth.

The 'best' threat I ever saw, by the way, was <rot13 to avoid triggering>n pbzzrag jvgu n .wct bs na (bcra) obk bs ohyyrgf, n .wct bs n unaqtha gung zngpurq gubfr ohyyrgf, naq gur Tbbtyr Fgerrg Ivrj erfhygf sbe gung crefba'f nqqerff. </rot13>. That one wasn't directed at me, but it was at another woman of my acquaintance.

(Anonymous) 2011-10-31 05:41 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you so much for your detailed response. I can't come up with the words to convey the respect I have for your attempts to solve this problem.

My sympathies for your lack of traction with law enforcement; I wish we could get as much effort put into tracking down anonymous threats as we currently have for anonymous copyright infringers. Not that that will solve the problem, but it would certainly help to stop all the harassers too stupid to use Tor, as well as the ones smart enough to use Tor but afraid of what they see happen to the ones that aren't.

It bothers me immensely to hear that despite your rapport with the FBI cybercrime office you still couldn't get these threats tracked down. That's really discouraging. All I can say is, if I had the resources to throw at you to help you solve this problem the way people with money manage to get such problems solved, I'd do it.

As for ISPs, most of their terms of service *explicitly* forbid harassment and similar behavior, so it saddens me to hear that that apparently remains just empty talk. Seems like a disconnect-on-first-offense kind of issue, to me.
denise: Image: Me, facing away from camera, on top of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome (Default)

[staff profile] denise 2011-10-31 05:57 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you for your sympathy, and your kind words. It's been a nice anodyne to the usual jolt of "oh god" I always get whenever I see a comment repsonse in my inbox labeled anonymous, that's for sure :)

I've given a lot of thought to the best ways to handle the problem, as have a lot of other smart women out there, and I just don't have an answer. There have been a lot of suggestions that someone should maintain (for instance) a resource to display, name&shame, etc, threats and other harassment. I personally think that could be counterproductive -- either these troglodytes egging each other on to do worse and worse, or piling on a particular target, or just poisoning the well with false reports -- but I don't know; it could work. I wish I had solutions. All I can do is try to make Dreamwidth an open-source community where that kind of behavior will get your ass booted out the door in half a heartbeat if it happens. (And many, many people have thanked us for it.)

(Meanwhile, the problem with ISPs et al -- having been on the other side of that equation myself -- is that it's really, really hard to come up with a bright-line test for that kind of behavior. The stuff I'm discussing obviously falls over the foul line, but it is a continuum, and sometimes it's really hard to judge. There's also a very strong tension in most geek communities with the "free speech at all costs!" crowd, most of whom will stand up for the harassers to keep harassing because "it's not all that bad" and "censorship is a greater evil" and some nonsense about the slippery slope. You can see that attitude most prominently in ESR's response to MikeeUSA's removal from Sourceforge, and it's another reason why most women I know won't bother to report things like that in geek communities; they're tired of hearing that their harasser has more rights than they do.)

(Anonymous) 2011-10-31 06:36 am (UTC)(link)
I don't think an analogue to Chilling Effects for harassment/threats would have the desired effect either. That kind of behavior needs to get shut down, not just shamed away. I think behavior that reaches the level of harassment/threats as you've described falls well outside the "fixable behavior" category where you can potentially get the person in question to stop. A repository of resolved cases might help, as a gallery of smoking craters meant to discourage such behavior in others.

I do understand the issue of free speech, and no ISP wants to present the appearance of violating a right that gets far more people riled up. And many of the rights we care deeply about get tested most when the most despicable people take advantage of those rights; hence why so many people hate organizations like the ACLU, and occasionally the EFF. However, as you said, the behavior you mentioned crosses far past the line. Threats actually cross the line from a legal perspective, so it seems like ISPs ought to accept that one pretty readily. And ISPs who have anti-harassment provisions in their terms of service ought to actually enforce them, at least against the less "borderline" cases. The lack of traction you described suggest that neither of those theories actually work in practice, which makes no sense to me.

(For the record, I do actually consider censorship a serious evil, and in general I favor technologies which make it difficult or impossible to censor, primarily because the same mechanisms used to apply censorship in cases I'd agree with can apply it in all cases. Communication tools remain one of the most important means we have of eliminating *other* evils in the world. All that said, as long as we have the ability to track down and stop evil, let's do so. And I really despise the concept that leads to "has more rights than they do"; that really takes the issue too far.)

On a vaguely related note, I wonder if a Bayesian filter could learn to classify harassment the way it classifies spam? And, could it tell the difference between harassment and discussion about harassment? (Ignoring the case of direct quotes.)
denise: Image: Me, facing away from camera, on top of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome (Default)

[staff profile] denise 2011-10-31 06:50 am (UTC)(link)
The lack of traction you described suggest that neither of those theories actually work in practice, which makes no sense to me.

I don't want to suggest that there aren't ISPs and other providers that don't shut things down -- many do, and many make at least some attempts at preventing the endless game of whack-a-mole when the harassers just open additional accounts. It's just not as universal as it could like.

On a vaguely related note, I wonder if a Bayesian filter could learn to classify harassment the way it classifies spam? And, could it tell the difference between harassment and discussion about harassment? (Ignoring the case of direct quotes.)

Huh. Gut instinct is to say that it would have trouble telling between harassment and the discussion thereof, and would especially have problems with discussions that tend to be more overtly feminist (those being the ones most likely to be discussing threats of rape, etc, so the filter couldn't just say "any sort of this discussion is likely harassment") aka the ones that are more likely to need the protection. But I wonder how smart it could get over time.

I tell you though, I sure as hell wouldn't want to be working on that project, no matter how helpful it might become in the future; talk about making yourself a lightning rod even more than I already am! I am convinced such a project would need to be led by and worked on by someone(s) close to frequent victims of harassment (gendered or not) but not often targeted him/herself, and possessed of an epic level of don't-give-a-fuck. And probably living in a secured building. (That's the one thing I regret about buying a house last year: losing the keycard-only, 24/7-security-guarded building my wife and I had been living in. Especially since -- for various personal reasons -- it's not possible for us to keep firearms in the house. I have actually had people show up at the building and not be able to get in before; we took some steps when we moved, but I definitely do feel less safe, and been consequently less likely to shoot my mouth off in public, since.)

(Anonymous) 2011-10-31 08:11 am (UTC)(link)
It bothers me immensely for the situation to have become so bad that you have to consider your personal safety a factor affecting your choice of online activities. That just sums up so much of the problem right there.
denise: Image: Me, facing away from camera, on top of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome (Default)

[staff profile] denise 2011-10-31 09:00 am (UTC)(link)
*nod* It really, really does. And, see -- not to say anything about your specific reaction, this is just a general observation I've noticed in previous rounds of this discussion -- this is the kind of thing that is, IMO, one of the most major points of disconnect whenever the discussion takes place. Group A (often, but not entirely, composed of women) mention that online harassment and threats of reprisal have made them fearful for their safety, or has caused them to curtail their (online or offline) behavior. Most everyone who's been online in any fashion for more than about, oh, ten minutes, has seen some forms of online harassment, chest-thumping, hyperbolic language, idle threats, etc -- things of the "I'm gonna hit you until candy comes out" kind of exaggeration. Group B, hearing a statement from a member of Group A to the effect of "online harassment has made me fear for my life", thinks said member of Group A is referring to the kind of harassment everyone sees, not realizing it's more systemic, more sinister, and more creepy than the usual chest-thumping. (Which, I mean, the usual chest-thumping is not all that great either, but it's not something that most people would consider credible threats.)

So, some members of Group B might think our member of Group A is just being hypersensitive, and make comments coming from that perspective, which leads to "you're just hysterical/oversensitive" type discussions -- which, when the member of Group A is a member of a historically-underprivileged group, has a lot of really ugly historical resonances. (Outside the scope of this comment, really, and I'm having trouble off the top of my head locating a good resource for why that type of discourse is so ugly, but Finally Feminism 101 would be where I'd look in depth -- maybe somebody else driving by would be able to offer a good resource there.) So of course our member of Group A thinks that our members of Group B is telling her that this kind of behavior is acceptable in the community, while most if not all of our member of Group B would possibly be horrified if they realized what was really going on.

This disconnect is one of the reasons why I am, ultimately, glad that these discussions are happening, even when they're personally tiresome or disheartening or exhausting, and it's why I'm so thankful for the many fierce and courageous women who have spoken up to detail their lived experience, and why I'm so thankful for the many supportive allied men (such as our host for this discussion!) who speak up to say no, it actually is like that, even if you don't see it. Whenever I personally wind up disheartened about "oh god, this conversation again?" I remember that I have been told at least a double dozen times that something I've said or done or shown has helped to convince someone else that there is a problem and help inspire them to act on it, and that's a really heartening feeling.

(And that's something that allied men can do that's really simple and easy, and helps so much -- you really have no idea how much -- in discussions of sexism in geek communities: just speak up and say "yes, I believe you, and yeah, everybody else, it really is that bad, and yes, this is not okay." It may feel like it's nothing big and nothing special, but hearing that at the right time has personally kept me going a lot of the time, and there's proven research stating that members of $group will hear things from other members of $group that they just won't hear from members of $notgroup.)

[identity profile] 2011-11-01 09:20 pm (UTC)(link)
I hear you, and I agree, that this is not okay.

For many years I had no clue that this sort of harassment was going on, and I was shocked when I found out. If speaking up helps, I will speak up.
denise: Image: Me, facing away from camera, on top of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome (Default)

[staff profile] denise 2011-11-01 10:56 pm (UTC)(link)
It really, really, really helps when people say that. Thank you :)

(Anonymous) 2011-11-04 10:11 pm (UTC)(link)
I've seen that same disconnect before, and you've just provided the clearest explanation of it that I've ever seen.

For a long time, I had no idea about the depth of the problem. I believed that a problem existed, because people said it did, and because I'd seen the occasional bit of questionable behavior in public; however, I mostly lumped it into the same category as various other immature comments of the sort you might see quoted on, and certainly never into the category of "fear-inducing".

Then I started occasionally seeing real explanations and reports of harassment, threats, and worse. And suddenly, I started to grasp the real severity of the problem.

Now, I'd like to think I understand the problem as well as anyone can who has not personally experienced it and who doesn't personally claim membership in any
group subject to these kinds of problems.

So, for the record, if I ever find people doubting that this problem exists, or misunderstanding the severity, I can definitively say that the problem *does* exist, and I can point to some of the mails and comments mentioned in this discussion if anyone doubts the severity. Count me as one of the people who agrees that this behavior is *not OK*, and will say so if it helps.

(On a related note, I also think some males want to avoid coming across as the stereotypical whiteknighting male defender role, which attracts its own form of ire, and taken to extremes represents an entirely different form of somewhat patronizing discrimination. There's a certain social convention to just shut up if you're not a member of the ingroup in question.)
baggyeyes: C3P0 (C3P0)

[personal profile] baggyeyes 2011-11-03 08:14 pm (UTC)(link)
More effort is put into online piracy than is put into online harassment. If all harassment victims had the money the music industry did, that'd change.
floatboth: (Default)

[personal profile] floatboth 2011-10-31 12:50 pm (UTC)(link)
I wonder if we can get mainstream media attention if the journalists will see the amount of crap people get…

I mean, not "someone has posted", but a web app that allows people to post the threatening, harassing, trolling, offensive comments and emails they get. With statistics, of course. For email, just select everything and forward.

For filtering, how about a voting system that'll count votes from users logged in with Dreamwidth OpenIDs as 10? Or does anyone who's here really want to specifically read the shit other people get and decide if it's really offensive?

Of course, most assholes won't stop being assholes after seeing an article about what they're doing in a newspaper (or just the content itself). But this can do good. Like, I don't know, parents paying more attention to making sure their children aren't misogynist/homophobic/transphobic/racist? People who aren't actively harassing anyone (thinking that being gay is unnatural, not respecting women enough, trying to avoid black people, whatever) becoming allies, or at least just understanding these people don't deserve it?

(Anonymous) 2011-11-03 09:31 am (UTC)(link)
I think there's a serious risk that any kind system that tries to shame trolls will be perverted into an inverse-gamified game of "who can troll the hardest"
tiferet: cute girl in pink dress captioned "not all bad girls wear black" (Default)

[personal profile] tiferet 2011-10-31 11:51 pm (UTC)(link)
The paedophilia was a new one on me. *shaking my head*