As someone who has been writing on the Internet a long time and has the e-mail inbox and Twitter mentions to show for it, the first thing I felt when I heard of Alanah Pearce was sympathy and a bit of admiration for her chutzpah. Pearce, an Australian journalist who writes about video games, had decided to handle the young men who sent her rape threats online in a novel way: she started getting in touch with their mothers and let the women know what their sons had been getting up to in their spare time. With just a few text messages, Pearce shrunk her harassers down from unaccountable monsters to boys who were still subject to scoldings from their parents.
But after a while I started to feel guilty about my enjoyment of the story. I have never called anyone’s mother to get them into trouble, but I have used the Retweet button or blog posts to point readers to people who were saying ugly things about me online. Pearce and I may have used different methods, but we were trying to do the same thing: make the people who hassled us feel like they couldn’t troll with impunity.
The Internet is a combative place with feisty, creative participants on both sides of every major debate. And while I generally agree that freedom to speak does not mean freedom to speak free of consequences, lately I have been wondering about some big questions that lurk behind these kinds of headlines: What kind of speech should trigger consequences? What should those consequences be if the government is staying out of it? And who gets to administer them and how?
Pearce got in touch with these women on her own, rather than drawing in support from across the Internet. But not everyone behaves the same way. Thanks to social media, it’s very easy to set large numbers of people on an individual who has erred. But it is much harder to determine what consequences that person ought to experience and who ought to mete them out.
For Justine Sacco, a public relations executive who violated the tenets of her own profession by posting a stupid, racially charged joke and then failing to apologize for it quickly enough because she was on a long plane flight, the penalty the Internet exacted was the loss of her job. When author Daniel Handler used his presenting spot at the National Book Awards to talk about African Americans’ supposed affinity for watermelon, the price of his penance was a $10,000 donation and a pledge to match an additional $100,000 in gifts to We Need Diverse Books. Not every author would have been able to offer so much.
These kerfuffles have tended to proceed on a case-by-case basis, with critics declaring that Paula Deen should lose endorsements because of a wage theft and discrimination case, or calling for Bob Costas to be fired after discussing gun control and the murder-suicide of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher during halftime on “Sunday Night Football” in 2012. And we have yet to set workable precedents for what the social consequences should be for people who have little in the way of influence or power, but who team up to harass others, or who say foolish or ugly things online.
And it’s not just determining the social consequences that fit the offense that gives us such fits. Who gets to pass judgement? And who gets to carry it out? Being an activist consumer or calling attention to a troubling online conversation can feel like an opportunity for busy people to chip away at larger issues. And standing up to the offender of the day can be a satisfying way to reaffirm membership in an online community. But if everyone has deputized themselves to punish dangerous speech, it’s awfully hard to build a consensus about when a point has been made or a target has been sufficiently called out and educated. And without that consensus, it’s difficult to call off a hunt once it has begun.
We also have to figure out what the consequences ought to be when someone becomes a target in error. Recently, a woman named Brianna Rivera became a target after a vengeful ex-boyfriend changed his Facebook profile to resemble hers and wrote racist statements under her name. As Sam Biddle writes at Gawker, the man was not just trying to be personally unpleasant: he was counting on Rivera becoming a target of a site like Racists Getting Fired and losing her job and privacy.
“Before the site realized the trick and issued something resembling a correction, the Brianna smear racked up tens of thousands of reblogs and notes and prompted readers to bombard the real Brianna’s workplace with phone calls and tweets,” Biddle explains. “Probably because RGF provided instructions on doing this exactly. AMC Theaters provided a statement defending Brianna, but how many rabid Tumblr detectives read this?”
Rivera’s ex certainly deserves social sanction for making her life miserable. But the Racists Getting Fired Web site and the folks who piled on Rivera just as her ex wanted them to also bear responsibility for the incident. The prospect of holding any of them accountable in any way seems remarkably slim.
Knowing that you want someone to hurt or to be embarrassed for his or her bad behavior is not the same thing as having a clear sense of justice and proportionate consequences. In between our outrages of the day and articles mocking people for saying stupid things on social media, we ought to make time to figure out our actual standards of discourse, rather than pausing only to select our next target. Until we get a better handle on these precedents, I’ll be sticking to my Mute button rather than reaching for Retweet to expose angry people to a wider audience which might feel moved to chastise them. Knowing that the people who want to say ugly things about me online are shouting into the void feels like punishment enough.