How Bad Is Online Harassment? AND HOW DANGEROUS IS IT FOR THE FUTURE OF FREE SPEECH?

Author:Young, Cathy
 
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IN SEPTEMBER, THE Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an American organization that monitors attacks on freedom of the press worldwide, issued a report on what it called a major threat to journalists--particularly female journalists--in the United States and Canada: online harassment. The report opened with an anecdote meant to illustrate the problem. A Texas-based freelancer suddenly found her inbox flooded with spam, from sale promotions to fake job offers, and realized that someone had subscribed her to dozens of email lists; she suspected that the culprit was a bigoted commenter previously banned from a website for which she wrote. It was, the report quoted her as saying, "kind of scary."

Given that CPJ deals with issues that range from censorship to beatings, kidnappings, and even murders of journalists, junk-mail bombing seems like the epitome of a First World Problem. (I say that as someone targeted by a similar prank a couple of years ago.) Yet such trivial annoyances show up quite frequently in accounts that treat online abuse as an extremely grave social problem.

CPJ is far from the only organization to address the issue. A 2018 report from Amnesty International, a globally revered human rights advocacy group, was titled Toxic Twitter and examined "violence and abuse against women online." The same year, PEN America, the nearly 100-year-old nonprofit that promotes freedom of speech, issued a statement describing online harassment as a "clear threat to free expression." The United Nations has also weighed in, holding its first hearing on the subject in 2015.

Some of the behavior that falls under the general umbrella of "online harassment" is not only noxious but genuinely frightening and even criminal. The article by journalist Amanda Hess that set off the current panic--"Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet," published by Pacific Standard in January 2014--discussed Hess' own experience of being cyberstalked by a man who progressed from tweets to emails to threatening phone calls. In other cases, harassment in cyberspace crosses over into real life via "swatting": prank emergency calls that dispatch law enforcement to handle a supposed dangerous situation. In 2017, police in Wichita, Kansas, shot and killed an unarmed 28-year-old man after one such fraudulent 911 call.

The rapid evolution of the internet has often outpaced the law's ability to deal with cybercrime, including stalking and threats. Unfortunately, as with many other issues, the discussion of online harassment easily lends itself to catastrophizing. Every "go jump off a cliff" tweet becomes virtual terrorism, grounds for social media banishment if not criminal investigation. The sense of urgency is amplified by shoddy analysis, politically driven double standards, and "do something!" calls to action--action that often involves speech suppression.

THE GREAT THING about the internet is that you can reach just about anyone, anywhere, in an instant. The awful thing about the internet is that just about anyone, from anywhere, can reach you in an instant. As a journalist, you can reach vast numbers of new readers, connect with fans, and find information that would once have been out of reach; you can also get nasty messages from hundreds of haters who no longer have to take the effort to mail a letter.

Online harassment is far from the first internet-related panic--remember sex fiends lurking in chat rooms? But while earlier alarmism about online horrors usually came from the right and was not overtly political, the panic about internet harassment has come primarily from the left and is transparently politicized in its selection of "deserving" victims.

Hess' Pacific Standard article came just two weeks after a woman named Justine Sacco watched her life fall apart because of an internet mob. On her way from London to Cape Town, Sacco tweeted a joke meant to mock the privileged "bubble" of affluent Americans: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" The tweet went viral, and by the time Sacco landed she was not only jobless but so infamous some hotels canceled her bookings.

This was a textbook example of online harassment. Yet neither Hess' article nor the ensuing conversation mentioned Sacco's ordeal. When British journalist Jon Ronson wrote about it a year later in So You've Been Publicly Shamed (Riverhead Books), many faulted him for being too sympathetic. A Washington Post essay...

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