At least twice a year I have to take to the blog to once again discuss the odious bullies roaming the Internet, and in some cases, real life. Every single time I do it I keep hoping that the tech gods and goddesses of Silicon Valley will at last arrive at some sort of solution for the online kind. Sadly I can only report that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Big Bully Fail
Take, for example, the recent situation where an intelligent, thoughtful woman decided to launch a Kickstarter project to address tropes vs. women in video games. Anita Sarkeesian had a modest goal: $6,000 to study how women are represented in video games. Here’s her video:
This offended the Ranking Men in VideoGameLand deeply, who felt no shame or compunction at hurling online epithets at her with no thought to any accountability or how it might appear to other people. I won’t post the image, but she’s collected a fairly large sample here. Note that they’re not only hateful toward women, but also Jews, because well, wherever you find haters you’re also likely to find nasty people who make nasty Jew comments. For the lulz. Or something.
The Anonymous Chorus intones: Ah, but it’s free speech, you say! It’s our right to be as disgusting as we want on the Internet, and damn the first person who says otherwise! In fact, it’s so much our right that we’re not only going to be anonymous hating fools, but we’re also going to make our own videogame. This one will be called “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian!”
This brilliant idea for a game came from people — ostensibly male — who were deeply offended that anyone might want to study how women are represented in videogames, and even more deeply offended that Sarkeesian raised over $160,000 for her project. In their “enlightened state,” they created a game where players could click the screen and as they did, the image of Ms. Sarkeesian would change from this unblemished one:
To this one, with just the magic of clicks:
In one of the lamest justifications I’ve ever seen for wanton, craven, violent bloodlust, the game’s creator said this:
The game’s creator, a 25-year-old Canadian man named Ben Spurr, defended his efforts to gaming news site Gameranx.com, saying, “In a movies [sic], novels, television, and video games, no one is actually being physically harmed. The problem is, you’re seeing this as ‘violence against women’ and not ‘violence against people.’ The game isn’t about ‘punching women.’ It’s about punching a selfish person. There’s a difference.”
Punching women, punching people, violence against people, it all springs from the same hateful well of flawed character and arrogance, Ben. Facts are facts. You created a game where players can pretend they’re inflicting physical injury on someone, in this case a woman, because you’re pissed off that she might question your authoritative judgment on her project and indeed, on her.
That defense is as lame as the “why doesn’t anyone have a sense of humor anymore” defense, which is one I see a lot on Twitter and blog comments. That defense is the “just kidding” defense, where the bully minimizes the negatives by writing it all off to a big joke. To lulz. To freedom, you know. Freedom to be as big of a jerk as possible just because you can! For example, this was Benny’s first defense:
“She has refused to address any form of criticism whatsoever, and hides behind the fact she has a vagina, claiming it’s sexist to criticize her in any way.”
“She claims to want equality: Well, here it is.”
Someone forgot to tell Benny that she is under no obligation to respond to the likes of him.
This time the joke is on Benny boy, because Anita Sarkeesian DID raise over $160,000 and she IS going ahead with her project, and with the excess funds, I hope she can make it into a damn documentary about sexism, verbal violence, and the abuse of freedom in the name of intimidation and bullying.
She wins, Ben. You lose. Your pathetic little effort failed and is now dead, buried, and will live in infamy as one of the most feeble efforts to intimidate someone ever attempted. Evil, yes. Effective, no.
Bullying women isn’t unique to gaming
If you’re a woman and you write or even dare to speak about politics, it will take about ten seconds before bullies hunt you down and tirelessly work to make sure what you say is buried in a maelstrom of hate. This isn’t uniquely right-to-left, either. In fact, my latest encounters with the Anonymous Gang of Online Bully Gangs have not solely been directed at me, but also at women on the right, most notably a blogger named Stevie J West. I’m not a fan of hers. In fact, I blocked her at the first tweet. Nevertheless, I don’t see any excuse for this:
Mind you now, those come from people who claim to have the same political leanings as she.
There appears to be an ongoing contest by conservative male types online, which has escalated in the wake of Andrew Breitbart’s sudden death. Whether they’re motivated by the desire to take over the King Dick designation, or they’re just petty antagonist fratboys looking to step into Breitbart’s shoes matters less than their daily need to emulate Rush Limbaugh’s peculiar taste for belitting women.
Since last week, I’ve kept my Twitter account set to private so that I can see all of the people who actually click that “follow” button next to my name. This is a daily occurrence in one form or another:
That’s been going on for well over a year, possibly two. I’ve lost count. One incredibly obsessive-compulsive male living in fantasyland creates a new porn troll account just about every day, follows liberal women on Twitter like me, Lizz Winstead, GottaLaff, and RudePundit, mixes in a few high-profile men like John Fugelsang, and then layers on a list of television liberal media personalities, manages to squeeze out a couple of obscene tweets before he’s blocked and suspended.
Somehow this is fun for this guy. I would call it bizarre, obsessive, and borderline psycho, none of which are fun. But for our anonymous porn-tweeter, it’s sport.
Anonymity and Sock Puppetry: Cowards’ and Bullies’ Tools of the Trade
Before one of you commenters jumps in and asks me why I’m giving them any attention, read this section.
The common thread running through all of this (with one notable exception) is the lack of identity attached to the bullies and trolls. Twitter, originally a mobile phone text application, is now a place where anyone with a fake email address can jump right into the fray with as many sock puppets as they can create. When it was linked to a mobile phone number, it was linked to a unique identity — the person holding that device. Most people don’t have nine or ten different mobile numbers at their disposal, so it was fairly simple to establish an identity that one kept if one wanted to actually, you know, participate.
N.B. Identity Isn’t Always A Real Name
Everyone always thinks I’m obsessed with real names when I discuss identity, but I’m not. I don’t care about whether someone calls themself PinkKitty or Bob Jones. If they’ve got something to say that isn’t simply ridiculous troll food, I’m likely to listen. Had I not been outed way back when, you’d be reading this post written by “drumsnwhistles”. I would have written the same things, and they would carry the same weight (or lack of weight if you disagree with me) as they do under this name.
The elements of identity that matter most are longevity and accountability. It’s unlikely that anyone — pseudononymous or not — who has built up a following and body of work will one day decide to blow that all off to bully people, male or female, unless they’ve built their identity around that of a bully at the outset.
Andrew Breitbart was a bombastic jerk and bully to those he disliked, but at least he owned it. He didn’t care what other people thought of him. It is interesting however, to also observe that Breitbart had a cadre of sock puppets waiting to amplify whatever he sent out into the Twitterverse that day, particularly when it concerned someone he didn’t like or someone attacking his cause. Still, the sock puppets were nameless, faceless accounts with no identity attached only to Breitbart’s, who merely served the purpose of echoing Breitbart’s particular meme of the day. You understood that they were simply footsoldiers in the Breitbart online army and so were simple extensions of the man himself. They didn’t act independently or really even think independently. They were just the Echo Brigade.
Until someone actually wrestles this concept of identity online to the ground, the Internet will continue to be the playground of bullies and creeps. Go back and look at Sarkeesian’s capture of some of the anonymous comments generated by threatened men again and ask yourself whether or not they would have said such things if they were held accountable for them.
Identity is a verified presence. Verify, then trust.
That means it has an organic social profile on social networks rather than one created by buying fake followers (yes, this can be done) or creating zillions of fake accounts on those networks. Whatever identity one adopts can be trusted or not trusted by two factors: How they behave (what they say and do); and whether they have identified themselves privately as an actual person. No one need know their “Clark Kent” identity in order to know their Superman identity as a real one.
Twitter does this already, but only for celebrity and corporate accounts, or some others who pay upwards of $15,000 for the privilege of the icon saying they’re a verified account. That’s absurd and elitist. But that small icon grants that Twitter user a trust baseline no one else gets. Black hat SEO organizations recognize the value of those verified accounts, which is why they’re selling them to anyone with the money to pay, even though all those people are getting is a fake avatar with the icon on it.
While Twitter “claims” to have terms of service barring sock puppets, spammers, and harassment, the fact is that they rarely enforce those claims. As an example, there is a psycho out there right now spamming twitter with my full name, and linking to a post that claims to have my home phone number on it. This person also likes to spam Twitter six or seven times per day with his account and linked sock puppet accounts, sending tweets containing my full name and insinuations about me and my “associations.” Despite numerous efforts to actually get Twitter to enforce their terms of service, new sock puppets appear daily spamming tweets with the same exact language this nutbag uses. He is a James O’Keefe acolyte who actually has self-outed his real identity but continues to play the O’Keefe reindeer games, nevertheless.
Twitter has terms of service, but they don’t enforce them. That’s their choice, but they ought to open up their identity verification program in a way that allows those of us who aren’t media darlings or reporters to actually have a verified identity.
There is no reason that anyone who has an established identity should have that harmed by anonymous spammers online. None. Zero.
This is doable. There are technology solutions out there. Had Twitter chosen to leave their service as one using an actual physical mobile device as an identifier, they would have been a pioneer. As it is, they opened the door to multiple accounts owned for the sheer purpose of amplifying whatever message their masters deign, and left the idea of verified identities to the elite.
Moya Watson at SAP is calling for collaborative brainstorming around the idea of a solution to these identity issues. It’s time for this particular problem to be solved, particularly if social data is used as any kind of marketing or predictive indicator for business. Right now social networking is too easily gamed, and far too easily abused.
If only it were a game. If only abuse weren’t the outcome. In my case, it’s an aggravating nuisance. In others’ cases, it’s led to suicide. People do matter more than frat boy troll games. Let’s fix this.