Sometimes the internet sucks. I was thinking about this the other day when I noticed a letter to the editor in my local newspaper had garnered what seemed to me unnecessarily nasty comments. The letter was about a local election issue (deregulation of store hours) and in the comment section people were saying that the letter-writer should move to a different country, that she was a selfish little do gooder and should crawl under the prehistoric rock she came from. People named where the letter writer worked. I that her business doesn’t suffer as a result or that she’s not harassed in public but in some ways, I don’t think it will be. In some ways, I think people are much nastier online than they are in public.
I know that in many ways the comments on that article are mild compared to what lurks in other locations on the web and yet the incivility still horrified me. To write a letter to the editor a person has to state their name publicly; nastiness in the comment section can be done anonymously. Yet part of what horrified me is that some of the nastiness was done by people I know using their real names. Do people not mind being jerks, or do they just not realize they are jerks?
While the internet might seem big and international there are corners of it that are local. I can have twitter conversations with local municipal candidates. I can read discussion of local issues on facebook pages and groups, with the names of people I have met through various local events popping up over and over. There is a local aspect to it and yet the same lack of inhibitions that people feel over the computer still shows up. People say things online they probably wouldn’t say face to face. Yet the networking potential is there, as well as the potential to share ideas that are important to oneself, and I hate the idea that the nastier parts can end up discouraging people from participating. I worry that the bullies are winning.
There doesn’t need to be so much bullying. Newspapers could remove their online comment sections or heavily moderate them. They can tie comment sections in with facebook so that people know their nasty comments are attached to their names and visible to their friends and relatives.
Twitter resisted having a “flag tweet” button as long as they can, but they have one now. The first time I received a random comment from someone threatening violence I clicked through their little reporting system. Two months later I received a message saying that the tweet did not break the twitter code of conduct. Only specific threats are banned. This one was deemed to “general.” Now I realize that the threat was unlikely to be carried out, but when they have a system set up so that a person can tag a threat, and it is reviewed by a human, why not have a system whereby any threat (general or not) gets an automatic three day suspension of the account? What harm would it be to penalize people in that way?
Now I realize there would be issues. Technically it isn’t a threat for a Republican clown to say that people with Ebola should be killed, because he’s not saying he would do it himself only that he thinks it should happen. People would probably just learn to tweet “you should be punched in the p**** ” instead of saying “I’m going to punch you….”. But even making a limited effort to say that threats are not allowed would be a step up from what we have now, where twitter says an employee has read the tweet and it is fine.
I realize another problem is that there are plenty of people who report all sorts of things simply because they disagree with it. Perhaps twitters is worried that reporting a tweet actually had a chance of making a difference people would overwhelm their system with reports. I don’t have a solution for that. I only think it is ridiculous that we have accepted floods of nasty comments as inevitable.
I read a blog post recently that was talking about how people don’t like other people “getting attention.” Anyone with a decent fan base gets seen as open season for trolling in the same way that being a successful actress is used to justify people stalking someone. Why should doing a good job in a movie require a person to give up all sense of privacy? Why should blogging or writing a letter to the editor mean a person deserves to be harassed? I know of bloggers who want to keep their blogs small because they know that once a blog has a certain size following, the blogger is more likely to be harassed not just because it is more likely that nasty people find the blogger but because their success draws people’s ire. Sometimes it is tall poppy syndrome and I suspect is is leveled more often against women than men.
I know there is an argument that people need to grow thick skins and just ignore the stupid stuff said. I disagree. I think by ignoring the problem we’ve allowed it to get worse. Many people say they just don’t read comment sections on articles. That becomes the surrender of one area of public discussion to the trolls. People get used to seeing the nastiness and stop registering it as nasty. It becomes every day life.
There is a difference between disagreeing with a person and being nasty. Anything a person puts publicly can be disagreed with but the disagreement should be with the idea, behavior, etc, rather than as an attack on the person. We try to teach children this type of thing and yet we as adults have just accepted it as inevitable online.
I know it is inevitable. The comment sections draw visitors to newspaper websites increasing their online ad sales. People are nasty and even the mildest attempts to limit nastiness end up getting met with huge outrage about “censorship” and “freedom of speech” as though requiring adults to act civilized or be booted from an online forum are equivalent to locking people in the Bastille without trial. I know that there are bullies everywhere online and offline.
But still… I think as adults we need to do more. We need to insist on civilized conversations somehow. We should be collectively holding responsible those institutions (like newspapers) that play host to the nastiness. We should be… I don’t know. I don’t have answers… just frustration.
I know in this blog post I’ve used different terms: bullying, harassment, threats, etc, that represent different levels of problems. I’m not trying to say that being called a “selfish little do gooder” is the equivalent to being threatened with sexual violence. I am trying to say that none of these have a role in civilized discussion and all of them are about attempting to discredit and silence other people. None of them are necessary.
Other articles about harassment on the internet:
- Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet
- How some men harass women online and what people can do
- Charlie Angus about leaving twitter (he eventually did go back to it)