Wednesday, August 14, 2013

How to Crowdsource Assault

Social media platforms live and die in a fiercely attritive Darwinian environment. Platforms gravitate toward their "natural" use, and those that fail to do so quickly disappear. MySpace, in its day, thrived on teen girls who wanted attention and the adult men who wanted to give it to them. Facebook is prized for its ability to passive-aggressively micromanage your interactions with exes, as well as get in fights about political slogans. Also, Candy Crush Saga. (Again, sorry about that, Joey.)

Twitter, surprisingly enough, has shown an impressive aptitude for social activism. 140 characters is short enough that people will actually read most posts all the way through, and the hashtag functionality allows for the building of memes that are more complex than your average bumper sticker, but a hell of a lot more spreadable than a Rachel Maddow monologue. Women Action Media! recently used the #FBrape hashtag to publicly embarrass Facebook (and its advertisers) into revisiting their definitions of "abuse," which is more than anyone else had managed to do. More recently, and more hilariously, right-wing attempts to "expose" Planned Parenthood--by revealing that Planned Parenthood provides health care, including contraception and medical and surgical abortions, to women who want those things and might not otherwise be able to get them or afford them--were hijacked by liberal jackasses like myself. This is how I discovered Jenn "not @jennfrank" Frank, the way all new contacts should be made: drunk, and making puerile jokes. (Frank was not drunk. I'm assuming.) When the dust settled, I had a few more followers, and a few more followees.

The outcome of this episode is that my feed isn't as uniformly gave dev oriented as it had been before, and more of the really real world has been seeping in. Ana Mardoll wrote this helpful editorial over at Shakesville, describing the recent dust-up over Twitter's then-proposed "report abuse" functionality.

The logic of threat is a pretty deep topic, but one should probably start by acknowledging that the threat of violence is inherently coercive, and therefore functions as a form of violence. The harm done to you by an act of violence visited upon a stranger is the dread that grows involuntarily your mind when you hear about it; the same part of your brain that thinks you're having sex when you watch it on TV does that empathic magic for the bad stuff, too. The severity of a threat exerts its dark gravity on a mind regardless of plausibility. Of course, the more plausible a threat, the more seriously it must be taken--even a minor threat demands one's attention if it's particularly likely to be realized.

Of course, there are some places where over-the-top threats are considered entirely normal: sports, general infantry, and, apparently, fighting games. Any place culturally coded as particularly masculine is going to its own flavor of friendly hostility, often with its own specialized vocabulary. It's part of the bonding process, and nobody--the men issuing the threats, or the men receiving them--takes them too seriously. They don't have to. And no matter how many metaphors for rape are employed during a heated round of Halo trash talk, (adult) men generally aren't at a meaningful risk for sexual violence. ("Meaningful" is vague here, but I suspect anyone who isn't trolling gets the denotation.)

Threats directed towards women, in or out of these spaces, are more plausible. Consequently, they provoke a lot more anxiety. Ninety-nine out of a hundred death threats might not be serious, but when you receive two-hundred of them, it's hard to like those odds.

That's the point, of course. The more focused campaigns of abuse on the 'net are launched with the intent of annoying or frightening someone into shutting up, and by definition, we only hear about the campaigns that fail. Because of the acceptance of ritualized hostility in masculine spaces--in this case, the goddamn internet--people can feel perfectly fine saying things they'd be mortified to let loose in person. The anonymity and depersonalization of the medium doesn't just insulate them from criticism, it diffuses responsibility. It's not their fault the target pulled their entire site off the web, because who the fuck takes that kind of thing seriously? It's the internet. And besides, who's to say which particular broadside made the difference? So many to choose from. Every griefer contributes, and when successful, every griefer gets what they want, but none of them are obliged to feel that their particular contribution was meaningful.

When you phone in a fake bomb threat, you're profiting from the terror provoked by people who phone in legitimate bomb threats. When you play psychopath for kicks, you're complicit with the ones who aren't playing.

Because, of course, this phenomenon isn't about masculine spaces or bonding rituals at all. It isn't even about the internet. It's about how anonymity functions in groups of varying sizes, and how the mind buries responsibility where the conscience won't find it. Psychopaths and the people hoping to profit from their actions didn't wait around for the internet to do their thing, and they don't particularly need it now. Case in point, this Pandagon post about a coalition of anti-abortion groups trying to close George Tiller's old clinic on the basis that anti-abortion groups are comprised of violent lunatics who threaten the physical and mental well-being of everyone around them:
What’s happening here is that the anti-choicers spend all their time hanging out with each other and reinforcing the opinion that the clinic doesn’t deserve to exist and that any tactic used to take it down is acceptable, and with that kind of group dynamic, they completely forget how idiotic they sound to come out and say, “This clinic has to go because the temptation to picket it and threaten its workers for violence is more than we can bear.” It’s worth mulling this over, because this attitude—that the harassers are entitled to run someone off the internet for, say, making a series of videos about video games—tends to get blamed on the tech a lot, because forums and and other online gathering spaces create an echo chamber where the idea that you get to force someone out of business (rather than say, simply stop visiting their site/following their Twitter feed if you find them so provocative) stops sounding like the overly entitled idiocy that it is, and starts to seem nearly sensible. But as this example shows, that kind of thinking can kind of sprout up anywhere, and it’s usually less about the “echo chamber” than an outgrowth of their arguments being unable to persuade, forcing them to embrace immoral tactics to win, because they can’t do it fairly. 
I think it's more than a matter of not realizing that people are going to realize that this amounts to an open threat of ongoing violence. I think they sincerely think that their organizations--the ones that they're alleging to be inextricably bound up with acts of domestic terrorism--are fundamentally unconnected to those acts. They couldn't function without the terrorists, of course. It's impossible to deny that the constant threat of violent death doesn't make operating a facility that performs abortions more expensive, dangerous, and generally more difficult. Since 1973, terrorism has served their interests a lot better than lobbying. I think they honestly think that the violence arrives ex nihilio, called into being by the existence of the thing they abhor. After all, Randal Terry's sure as hell not going to spend the rest of his life in prison to kill a handful of his enemies. The fact that the extremists have defined the mainstream discourse to the point that actual threats are indistinguishable from your standard press release has nothing to do with it.

Granted, the internet folk who pledged their honor to defeat Sarkeesian or Jane Austen or whatever aren't nearly as organized as the anti-abortion lobby, and so far they don't have the body count. Still, I wonder if the former might be a more advanced version of the latter. I wonder if we might be seeing another demonstration of emergence, the curious tendency of large groups to spontaneously organize. I wonder if the properties of this medium and this cultural moment have developed a way to delegate not only terror, but guilt.