It’s disheartening to realize that some people believe that online speech which isn’t legally actionable is automatically socially benign. In other words, if it’s not illegal, so their thinking goes, it must be ok. But while law and ethics overlap, they are not synonymous. There are plenty of laws that are antiquated or downright idiotic. And there is plenty of online speech that is legal yet unquestionably unfairly harmful to targets and victims. One of the biggest problems that attacking and hateful speech causes is the resulting silencing of others.
While there may not be physical or legal halting of targets’ or victims’ ability to continue to engage online, the psychological effects of the threats or attacks nevertheless place shackles on them. There may not be any outward signs, but the deleterious effects are as strong as if they were physically bound.
Recognition of this fact was an important force in the creation of CiviliNation’s mission “to foster an online culture where every person can freely participate in a democratic, open, rational and truth-based exchange of ideas and information, without fear or threat of being the target of unwarranted abuse, harassment or lies.”
The silencing effect is fortunately now starting to be addressed by the media. The recent Salon article Women’s free speech is under attack* by Kelly Diels states that “the threats and trolling women receive online silence them just as effectively as any censorship.”
Diels goes on to explain that the “coordinated campaigns of trolling, doxing and Ddos attacks are explicitly designed not only to silence you, but also to embarrass you, scare you, harass you, get government agencies to investigate you, vandalize your property, make you move, get you fired, ruin your life.”
Suggestions for addressing the problem vary. On Twitter, for example, one of the most abuse-prone platforms currently online, it ranges from creating a Twitter button that would make the reporting of threats and abuse easier (something we previously discussed here) to actively blocking attackers via the Block Bot, which describes itself as “Helping you ignore people from annoyance to bigot on Twitter.” (Block Bot features three different blocking levels, from Level 1 which deals with the worst trolls, as well as impersonators and stalkers, to Level 3 which deals with individuals who might not be actual haters but are nevertheless obnoxious.) Meanwhile, journalist Quinn Norton argues that having conversations about the root causes of the hatred* behind the online attacks is critical: “It’s not always a pleasant conversation, but we need to have it. Just shutting down the voices we don’t like doesn’t make the sentiments go away.”
We agree that in addition to technological tools that can help people protect themselves against vicious online attacks, education is vital. We need to teach people how to create a strong online reputation, how to monitor their online footprint, how to safeguard their privacy and personal information, how to effectively engage with others (and how to effectively disengage), and teach people what their legal rights are.
* NOTE: While the sources mentioned here focus on online attacks against women, a group that continues to bear much of the brunt of online hatred, attacks are unfortunately not limited to this group. Attacks are also aimed at other vulnerable individuals or groups, or those otherwise perceived as particularly socially threatening.
(Photo source: “Rage” by SignorDeFazio http://www.flickr.com/photos/37912579@N08/3650954991