What does it mean to be harassed? How do you define harassment? These questions have been a center of debate for years in online communities, with the malleability of the root word surely contributing to the frequent disagreements. A Canadian judge recently ruled that a woman was harassed but was not harassed. One can be in a state of harassment while another sees the actions taken against them to not constitute harassment. The emotional feeling described as being harassed may or may not be the result of someone trying to cause harassment.
Part of the debate stems from disagreement over the effects of online harassment. I’ve spoken with people in my small, rural town about online harassment and been told that disconnecting from the internet is an easy solution. They’ll tell you that harassment through social networks is nothing to get worked up over, that it’s a silly thing to care about. Simply turn off your computer or block someone! All of your problems will go away! Show them cases of SWAT forces or multiple police officers being sent to someone’s house due to a false tip and an internet argument, they’ll dismiss these concerns by reminding you that false tips have existed since the first police officer donned a badge. My grandfather disagrees with these sentiments. His view is that anyone misusing law enforcement for an internet argument needs to be tracked down and locked up for life. The person being targeted, in his view, has no reason to be forced off the internet with threats of violence — a surprising opinion from someone who’s never used the internet.
He’s not alone, of course; people have spent years rejecting the disconnection solution as a viable way of handling online harassment for a multitude of reasons. The internet currently provides multiple ways for people to earn a steady income while social media has become the new frontier in gaining visibility for your work. Networking has become a necessity in many industries, resulting in people spending more time connecting with those who share their interests. Applying for a job in-person is a rarity when even a local grocery store may require you to fill out an online application. Meanwhile, news networks are being replaced by RSS feeds, news aggregators, and instant updates that can cover a story before news networks have had time to inform the on-air anchor. In fact, you’ll find anchors on stations local and global checking their phones and tablets just to keep up.
Maintaining an online presence will only become more important as time goes on. Many people recognize this inevitability, but they’re divided on the impact of online harassment. The disconnection solution becomes a recurring point of contention leading to a greater wedge in online communities. What one person views as harmless trolling or reasonable criticism, another views as hateful rhetoric intended to drive someone into silence. Discussing the situation results in accusations of the latter wanting to deprive the former of their free speech.
Two things are worth noting here:
1The absence of the word ‘right’ in the free speech accusations. Free speech and the right to free speech have become two very separate concepts over the course of discussing harassment. When a party feels their speech has been restricted due to a website, or forum’s moderation policies, they cannot justify a claim that their right to free speech has been infringed upon; a company is allowed to choose how their platform is utilized as long as they do not engage in discrimination of protected classes. A person yelling racist slurs is only protected from government intervention. Certain self-appointed free speech advocates have realized they have no chance of winning an argument about their right to free speech in this manner, and have decided their concerns are based on the idea of free speech. Such an idea is often described as an allowance of all speech on all platforms participating in the “marketplace of ideas”. Defending one’s speech as necessary fulfillment of the idea of free speech allows the speaker — in their view — to justify even the most harmful speech by placing all speech on equal footing. The most powerful words spoken as a condemnation of those in power is equated with a man on Twitter declaring that all homosexuals should be murdered in the name of God. Any action taken to restrict this declaration is seen as an affront to the idea of free speech and a ruination of the marketplace of ideas.
2The idea of free speech does not take into account the act of one person’s free speech depriving another of their free speech. The disconnection solution states that any person who feels harassed by another’s free speech should remove themselves from the marketplace of ideas if they no longer want to participate in the discourse. Self-described free speech advocates (not to be confused with advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union) will paradoxically suggest disconnection whenever the harassed exercise their own free speech. They may even force the harassed into disconnection by flooding them with hateful messages, obscene photos, or so-called harmless trolling until the only option left is to make an account private or delete it entirely. For many people, disconnection results in being cut off from necessary means of support, whether emotional or financial.
I would like to make it clear that the flooding of messages is indeed a harmful and effective tactic. We’re not talking about a handful of messages over a spread of a few hours, but a consistent campaign with no end in sight.
For illustration purposes, I’d like you to consider a tweet I made months ago, which went viral. According to the analytics, that tweet was seen by almost 200,000 people. Twitter’s desktop site and the iOS apps on both of my devices were completely unusable for the first three days. Nearly a dozen notifications were coming in every few seconds, causing the site and the apps to freeze up. My only salvation was Tweetdeck’s ability to restrict notifications as much as I wanted. But even six days out, I’m still receiving new notifications occasionally on that single tweet.
Now imagine if those notifications were for quote tweets from people who hated whatever I had said and had followers who would react viciously. Alongside those quote tweets would be retweets from people who knew their followers would hate that tweet and react viciously. All of the likes on that tweet would instead become replies full of threats, slurs, disturbing images — anything to make sure I knew that my existence was unwelcome.
Imagine experiencing that for days at a time while most options of using your account were inaccessible due to the sheer magnitude of responses. Every person you don’t respond to declares that you’re weak for not participating in their discussion. The responses grow in ferocity, more people are tagged into the discussion, the images and language become more obscene and threatening; all of this happens for nearly an entire week. At some point, someone might go the extra mile to find your work address, your home address, maybe even your phone number. They want that response — or they want you to disconnect. And they know nothing accomplishes their goal better than a fully armed SWAT force showing up at your house after a false tip that you’re in possession of explosives, firearms, and hostages.
All because of one tweet that was noticed by one person with the right audience at the right time.
It is within this situation — this constant fear hanging over online discussion — that we find the marketplace of ideas and the idea of free speech to carry an imbalance of power. The person with the better potential to spread information is also the person most capable of forcing someone to give up their free speech. Where the right to free speech is designed with an assurance that those with power may always be criticized by those without, the marketplace of ideas has allowed power to be exacted upon the critics with unrelenting horror. The greatest sin of the marketplace? When marginalized people are driven out by those who view their very existence as a threat to the status quo. One is only allowed to participate if they accept that their speech may result in death by police based on a false tip at any point in time.
Surely, you may say, there are times in which the marketplace was used in a beneficial way. You would not be wrong. Movements such as #BlackLivesMatter have brought racial issues to the forefront of our nation’s politics and allowed people such as DeRay McKesson to run for office. Adult actress Stoya’s allegations of sexual assault from a coworker may have never been heard, nor the countless other survivors who have come forward to expose abuse and the corrupt businesses which protect the abusers. Feminist critics like Anita Sarkeesian and indie video game developers like Zoe Quinn may have faced insurmountable challenges in finding an audience without the ability to tap into communities around the world focused on the topics they approach. The marketplace of ideas has allowed power to be challenged and even changed.
All of these accomplishments, however, could have occurred without our specific marketplace where power can drive marginalized people to silence. The marketplace of ideas could still enable beneficial change without an idea of free speech that has been perverted into enabling harassment and abuse. Does an account with half a million followers — used primarily to force marginalized people out of the marketplace — offer anything beneficial? If Twitter were to remove that account from their platform, would anything of value be lost?
Is all speech valuable simply because someone has spoken?
And if so, can we acknowledge that speech while still putting safeguards in place which protect those who participate in the marketplace?
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