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In the past several months, cyber blackmail tactics like revenge porn have been widely publicized. These crimes fall disproportionately upon women. The victims of these attacks have conceded that law enforcement has been inexcusably slow to adapt to the changes of the modern age. A variety of activities and tactics meant to shame and humiliate victims have been used by mostly anonymous harassers and cowardly bullies. While it is factual that a younger set is more devoted to the internet, it should be noted that this intimidation is not something that only happens to young adults.

Recently, I've explored the morass that passes for the comment section in a variety of online publications. Ordinarily this is an activity I usually take great pains to avoid, because such places are always are full of harsh criticism and jaded spleen. Even if I enter with the intention to stay calm, it doesn't take long before my blood starts to boil. Though I concede my decision may have been only an exercise in masochism, it wasn't a total loss, either. In any case, I've been able to understand better the motivations and psychology of those who post inflammatory content in an online forum.

For many, the bickering is fun, and not to be taken seriously. It's a way to vent usually repressed hostilities and frustrations. While on the subject, I am reminded of a trip to Boston several years back. The person driving me around town enjoyed riding the bumper of rude drivers, letting them know she was not about to let them get away with it. It made for a terrifying ride, made even more frightening by her frequent loud peals of laughter. This was a kind of competition, somewhat akin to a game of chicken. And as for whether or not this was the best way to seek to even the score, I will say only that there may have been healthier options available.  

My father finds feminism enraging, and if he were to really verbalize his thoughts, he would admit that he is afraid of unsmiling, emasculating feminists making unreasonable, curtly worded demands. When I read the comments of an article written by a woman or a group of women who are feminists, I see echoes of Dad's perspective everywhere.

The movement threatens him and, in his mind, the radical voices of a bygone era symbolize the views of everyone who takes up the mantle. In reality, feminism was hardly any codified movement, even in its watershed days. Eventually it broke apart due to the fissures and disagreements that had been evident for years. Today, it is predicated upon a few prominent issues and intersections, but no set orthodoxy exists and it never has.

Curiously, my father married my mother. She was a devotee to what was then usually called women's liberation. Despite the sometimes massive differences in political opinion, they've been married almost forty years and will likely remain together forever. This only proves that even strongly held political views can take a subordinate role to love and devotion. As for ideology, my mother drifted away from feminism when she started having kids. It's hard to have an evolved and informed consciousness while in the middle of changing diapers and breastfeeding. But it didn't completely ride off into the sunset.

Men are weak. This was my mother's mantra. While she might not have had the stamina, as a young mother, to remain on the cutting edge, it gave her no small amount of pleasure to get a dig in here and there. This remark was usually directed towards male public figures who became ensnared in sex scandals, or those who out of impulsive lust made risky, boneheaded decisions. Everyone has his or her own Achilles's heel, but I happen to know that men and women both have extramarital affairs. The clincher here is that a man's fall from grace may make a more emphatic sound.  

Dad and I recently watched MSNBC for five minutes while Rachel Maddow's show was airing. It completely set him off. He was livid. Can't you see how angry she is? I kept my mouth shut to avoid an argument that would have never headed anywhere productive. I've not once thought of Rachel Maddow in those terms. Her analysis has always appeared to these eyes as even-handed and respectful. My father's response had everything to do with himself and nothing to do with a woman in a studio speaking to a television audience.

Feminism, especially when it is first introduced by a woman, makes many men see red. Once again, it's zero-sum game thinking, where everything a woman achieves will come at the expense of men. This drives the hateful, violent commentary that women with any stature receive with frequency. Amanda Hess's column linked above discusses in depth the risks that women writers take, the ones that inevitably that follow every post or publication.

After I received my most recent round of threats, I asked Jessica Valenti, a prominent feminist writer (and the founder of the blog Feministing), who’s been repeatedly targeted with online threats, for her advice, and then I asked her to share her story. “It’s not really one story. This has happened a number of times over the past seven years,” she told me. When rape and death threats first started pouring into her inbox, she vacated her apartment for a week, changed her bank accounts, and got a new cell number.

When the next wave of threats came, she got in touch with law enforcement officials, who warned her that though the men emailing her were unlikely to follow through on their threats, the level of vitriol indicated that she should be vigilant for a far less identifiable threat: silent “hunters” who lurk behind the tweeting “hollerers.” The FBI advised Valenti to leave her home until the threats blew over, to never walk outside of her apartment alone, and to keep aware of any cars or men who might show up repeatedly outside her door. “It was totally impossible advice,” she says. “You have to be paranoid about everything. You can’t just not be in a public place.”

Since reading the above article, I've sought to understand the psychology of online blackmailers and trolls. Some of them, in my experience, are provocative only to needle and to get a desired response. But even then, I know that there is a vast amount of difference between an insulting, injurious comment and a death threat.

Death threats, rape threats, and those threatening imminent physical harm should always be taken seriously, but the vast majority of the childish games featured here are mostly designed to produce indignation, anger, frustration, and fear. I've ignored my own detractors as best I can. While I may think they've gone away for good, some always resurface months later. Their behavior is nothing I can control. All they really want is attention in the worst way possible.

I have not received death threats, but I have dealt with one particularly persistent troll. He insults me on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, then is nowhere to be found. When I least expect it, he's back, this time with a new username. In contrast, when I post to Daily Kos, I receive usually respectful comments from readers.

Even so, I run into a few people here and there who isolate and misinterpret a specific passage of my latest diary, deliberately confusing it with the theme of the entire post. Hairsplitters look for ways to be contrary, and I do lose my patience with them before long. They hone in on particular phrases and then take the entire main idea out of context, intending only to be right, not to be enlightened or informed.

Internet-based discussions can be rewarding but they can also be a little traumatizing. It makes me wonder why we just can't be honest with ourselves. Instead, we disguise who we are and let loose with avalanches of negativity and insults. Each of these thoughts comes from within us, somewhere. Mean-spirited comments have been percolating in the minds of many for a long while before they are voiced in a public forum.

It's difficult for me to see that of God in everyone on a website or a listserve. Even among people of faith, the false sense of anonymity makes our discussions vituperative. We lash out at the people who we ought to love the most. I wonder if we can lessen and diminish this problem with greater innovation. Until then, the Internet is still the Wild West, a mostly unregulated universe evolving and growing, even if we don't know where we'll be next.

Originally posted to cabaretic on Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 07:55 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  It is so nice to see (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Risen Tree, vcmvo2, chimene, linkage

    an intelligent and serious exploration of a complex problem rather just an exercise in button pushing.

    It seems to me that you are dealing with two different issues. It doesn't seem likely that your father, for all of his disagreements with feminists is the sort of person who would engage in a campaign of online abuse. There is also a difference between people who like to get in arguments on the internet and really serious and likely pathological bullies.

    There have been some efforts to track down bullies in real time and find out something about the personal realities that are behind the comments. This is not limited to sexually loaded attacks against women. Men are also the targets.

    Of course no sweeping generalizations about bullies are going to hold up in all cases. However, one pattern that emerges is that of rather pathetically inadequate people who have very little in the way of power to threaten and intimidate people in person.    

  •  One big problem is that (5+ / 0-)

    a mob mentality has broken out, whereby these trolls unconsciously enable each other to feel as if it's okay to be complete jerks to others.

    •  Trolling Is A Sport (5+ / 0-)

      It comes in many forms and for many different purposes. Maybe it's anger that triggers it. Maybe it's just a desire to say something so off-color and so outrageous that it gets both laughs and disgusted reactions. Maybe it's just because the troll knows he can get under someone's skin easily and is amused by doing it. Maybe it's revenge. Whatever the reason, trolls have one even if it has become almost automatic.

      Another thing I've discovered over the years, and this relates to the anonymity that comes with online posting, is that people often have multiple personalities to go with the multiple accounts. A persona named Mister A can be the politest, nicest guy in the world. Mister Z can be the nastiest, most cutting person online. The thing is that both of these personas are controlled by one person. The odd thing is that when he's Mister A, he genuinely emotes the nice guy. When Mister Z, he emotes the opposite, also quite genuinely. It's an interesting phenomenon and one I've seen directly.

      Remember, the road to victory is paved with big words and professorial arrogance. Passion need not apply.

      by The Lone Apple on Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 10:18:50 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Nothing makes me root for (9+ / 0-)

    the near earth orbit asteroids quite as much as reading Washington Post comment sections.

    I live under the bridge to the 21st Century.

    by Crashing Vor on Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 10:11:40 AM PST

  •  I'm a little confused by this ... (4+ / 0-)
    [...] it should be noted that this intimidation is something that only happens to young adults.
    Is there a "not" missing in this sentence?  Because otherwise, depending on where you set the bar for "young," I'm fairly sure I can throw a couple of counterexamples your way.

    (That aside, this is a very well-written diary about what is a very serious problem.)

  •  It's not even done anonymously any more (6+ / 0-)

    I've seen people make insulting and vitriolic comments through the Facebook API that's integrated into so many webpages.  When they do, I can see their real name, and often their employer.  I can click on the name and go look at their public profile, which is usually not very locked down.  

    With a little homework I could easily write to their employer and say, "Did you know that so and so just made a death threat against someone and your company's name was right next to it?"

    A small business might let the person get away with it, but any company bigger than a dozen people might have some serious qualms.

    I haven't done it yet.  Most of the comments are, as you said, someone playing a game of chicken.  

    But I removed my own employer's name from Facebook because people really don't need to know where I work, and my opinions don't reflect the company and shouldn't be tied to them.

    The Cake is a lie. In Pie there is Truth. ~ Fordmandalay

    by catwho on Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 11:04:20 AM PST

  •  I don't understand this sentence: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    chimene, linkage, Kingsmeg

    "The broader concepts have been percolating in our minds for a long while. It's difficult for me to see that of God in everyone on a website or a listserve. "

    I do appreciate the thoughtfulness of the author on a continually frustrating issue of comments sections. So often they make me angry! I avoid most comment sections most places.

  •  Glad to see this covered here (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    More info I saw was part of a study, here.

    Everybody here comes from somewhere / That they would just as soon forget and disguise.

    by CayceP on Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 11:28:40 AM PST

  •  Different social models for Men and Women (5+ / 0-)

    This is a theory my bother has that men and women slightly deviated in social behavior development in the centuries of hunter/gatherer stage....not scientific in any way.

    Women formed a horizontal circle structure and men formed a vertical hierarchical structure.  Back at the village, the women had each other's back.  If one Mom was sick, her friend would take care of her children...very communal and supportive.  They tended to steer and even have backlash towards one women acting like they were each charge or wanting a higher power status than the other women....that b**!

    On the other hand, the men went on the hunt and had a big binary win or lose goal of bringing home the big animal meat.  They developed a more competitive mindset within the group.  Also they had a strong need to rank everyone....who's the best spear-thrower, who's the next best....who's the best leader...who's in charge...and so their mindset became more a pecking order of individual strongest of the fittest thinking.

    When Hillary Clinton writes a book entitled, "It Takes a Village"...just the title itself gets under the skin of the Alpha Male vertical winners and losers mindset.  

    Just an interesting thought experiment...with possible elements of the differences between women and men...Democrats and formula of government success (women's model) and best formula for business competition (men's model)....maybe their are places for both philosophies.

    There's room at the top, they're telling you still, but first you must learn how to smile as you kill. -J Lennon

    by noelcor on Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 11:56:58 AM PST

    •  I don't know why you would go back so far (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cville townie, linkage

      for that. I think forming a protective horizontal circle structure is a common response to any sort of oppression. In my experience this isn't restricted to women, it also happens with any with other oppressed groups.

      But, the binary you're setting up of men going out and hunting and women being very different is based on a very outdated understanding of hunter gatherers. It is based on us projecting our own gender roles back in time.

      If knowledge is power and power corrupts, does that mean that knowledge corrupts?

      by AoT on Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 12:50:41 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  i think gender roles were even more important (0+ / 0-)

        back then.

        humans are a weak species. to travel through a wilderness with a crudely tanned skin on your back and spear of questionable quality to take down big game is an activity i doubt the women engaged in much. Every woman back then was inherently valuable for reproduction. These small families or tribes probably couldn't have survived the deaths of more than a couple child bearing aged women.

        neolcor's thoughts are pretty reasonable.

        •  This is exactly the bias I was talking about (0+ / 0-)

          Taking things that we see in society now and extending it back. The gender roles then most likely bore little if any resemblance to gender roles now. There were practical reason to keep everyone safe, not just women.

          If knowledge is power and power corrupts, does that mean that knowledge corrupts?

          by AoT on Thu Jan 09, 2014 at 09:46:28 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  see i just don't see it that way (0+ / 0-)

            I see it as men being expendable because one man can do the work of many when it comes to reproduction.. But then again I see gender roles as more a function of survival than social pressures. The way I see it is that now that the pressure to survive is down so is our reliance on gender roles

            •  You assume that people would organize (0+ / 0-)

              social groups based on things that you know now, that's a mistake.

              But then again I see gender roles as more a function of survival than social pressures.
              Again with projecting assumptions. And separating social functions from survival seems just wrong.

              If knowledge is power and power corrupts, does that mean that knowledge corrupts?

              by AoT on Thu Jan 09, 2014 at 01:10:05 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  but your assumption that things were different (0+ / 0-)

                Are just as invalid. I'm trying to put myself in the shoes of someone whose life was constantly in danger and what those peoples life might look like. I'm getting the vibe from you that thousands of years ago people lived in near perfect gender equality until one day the men decided that they were going to invent the patriarchy and women have been oppressed ever since.

                I see a much more biological version of events that led to todays world based around average life spans in the 20s or low 30s and exposure to the wilderness

                •  I'm not making assumptions (0+ / 0-)

                  I saying that we can't make assumptions. You're the one making assumptions. Although we do know that things were different, we just don't know how they were different.

                  I'm getting the vibe from you that thousands of years ago people lived in near perfect gender equality until one day the men decided that they were going to invent the patriarchy and women have been oppressed ever since.
                  That would be absurd and counter to what we know about early humans and the development of civilization. We got to where we are through a combination of systemic reasons, which include the biological imperatives that you talk about, and social imperatives as well. Either way, assuming that the gender norms of prehistory are similar to ours is based on nothing except projections. Given the variance of gender norms across current cultures I expect to see a very different sort of gender norm in prehistory.

                  And of course, there was never one set of gender norms in the past, it's always been a multiplicity of norms that are different across cultures. When humans were in smaller more isolated groups they probably had more variance among norms, gender or otherwise.

                  If knowledge is power and power corrupts, does that mean that knowledge corrupts?

                  by AoT on Thu Jan 09, 2014 at 07:58:57 PM PST

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  which culture can you (0+ / 0-)

                    Think of is it normal for women to be in combat? What culture doesn't have the norm of women staying with kids and doing housework. I'm coming up blank.

                    •  Seriously? (0+ / 0-)

                      What culture doesn't have the norm of women staying with kids and doing housework.If you think this is a universal gender norm then you haven't really read much on the issue. Ditto for women fighting.

                      And again, we're talking about prehistory, not now. You're making assumptions based on what we have now when there's no reason to jump to those conclusions.

                      If knowledge is power and power corrupts, does that mean that knowledge corrupts?

                      by AoT on Thu Jan 09, 2014 at 09:54:52 PM PST

                      [ Parent ]

                      •  educate me (0+ / 0-)

                        which culture uses women for fighting as the norm? which culture has men doing house work while women work as the norm?

                        there's nothing to base the idea that gender roles were significantly different or didn't exist in prehistory.

                        You're argument is a common  one that religious people use which is we can't know what the truth is therefore you can't prove me wrong.

                        chimps exhibit gender roles



                        •  I'm not making any claims to be proven wrong (0+ / 0-)

                          I'm saying you're making assumptions with no evidence. Citing a different animal has nothing to do with human history. You are saying that things have always been like they are now. I'm saying you don't have proof of that and are projecting. And as a response you offer no proof. You made a claim about the biological basis of gender roles and offered no evidence of it. Humans are not chimpanzees, we're human.

                          there's nothing to base the idea that gender roles were significantly different or didn't exist in prehistory.
                          And there's nothing to base the idea that they were the same either. Unless you've got some evidence that scientists don't.

                          If knowledge is power and power corrupts, does that mean that knowledge corrupts?

                          by AoT on Thu Jan 09, 2014 at 10:59:24 PM PST

                          [ Parent ]

                          •  i think (0+ / 0-)

                            i think that you just REALLY want, as a matter of ideology, for gender roles to be a fluid thing that can either be changed dramatically or was suddenly invented out of thin air when the evil men invented patriarchy.

                          •  You have no clue what you're talking about (0+ / 0-)

                            And you can't be bothered to respond to what I actually said. I think you desperately want gender roles to be biological based on the fact that you keep arguing for that. I've made my position clear. We can't know what prehistoric gender roles were. You can pretend otherwise all you want. I explicitly said that I didn't agree with what you claim I think. I can only assume you're an idiot or a liar.

                            If knowledge is power and power corrupts, does that mean that knowledge corrupts?

                            by AoT on Thu Jan 09, 2014 at 11:46:56 PM PST

                            [ Parent ]

                          •  i've got the proof (0+ / 0-)

                            that gender roles are similar across the whole globe with only SLIGHT deviations. Men are almost universally expected to fight and do dangerous thing and women are almost universally not expected to do dangerous things or fight.

                            Chimps express the same behavior.

                            There's at least circumstantial evidence to back up my claim. There's zero evidence of any sort to back up yours.

                          •  You're making exactly the mistake (0+ / 0-)

                            I was pointing out initially. "Everyone does X now therefore they must have always done X."

                            It doesn't work that way.

                            And we aren't chimps and never have been.

                            If knowledge is power and power corrupts, does that mean that knowledge corrupts?

                            by AoT on Fri Jan 10, 2014 at 07:22:02 AM PST

                            [ Parent ]

                          •  when you combine the two it suggests (0+ / 0-)

                            Biological origin. I never said that it confirms it

    •  Whoever thinks women aren't competitive (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      not a lamb

      and that men aren't cooperative is buying into old time stereotypes, and coming up with speculative stone-age explanations just piles on the dishonesty.

      Doubtless this guy is just extrapolating from his personal experience (either doesn't know a lot of women, or doesn't know them well) to all of humanity, which is the way most of people's worst misunderstandings start.

      "All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out." --I.F. Stone

      by Alice in Florida on Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 01:59:05 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank You - N/T (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    i saw an old tree today

    "Upward, not Northward" - Flatland, by EA Abbott

    by linkage on Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 06:55:57 PM PST

  •  Separating the Real From the Imaginary (0+ / 0-)

    Public discussion on the Internet is challenging, and there are no "magic bullets". I think the first step is to distinguish real threats and act on them.

    To do that, it would help if ISPs were more willing to track down people who send physically threatening messages and make it known to those people that their comments had been tracked back to them. This would act as a deterrent and would also serve to help police if a physical crime followed.

    One reason I don't specifically link my Daily Kos account back to my RW presence is because I don't want to have to worry about someone showing up with a gun. I don't think it's that likely and I don't take too great pains to hide my identity, but it's a level of protection.

    But where the public can find you, then you're obviously more at risk and I think you need to take steps to counter that. When Jessica Valenti got rape threats, I think an appropriate response would have been to take those in and get a conceal carry permit, then use it. I hate to say that because it makes me sound like a gun-toting idiot, but there are times when it is appropriate to have a gun for personal safety. To me, a rape threat is one of those cases.

    Also, it might pay to take one of the people making the threat and do everything necessary to track them down. That should start with the ISP. Where did their traffic come from? It should include the police. Will they open an investigation? Can they subpoena the ISP for information and track this back? If the person can reasonably get to you, then you should know who they are and make sure someone can take reasonable action to protect you.

    It would be prohibitively expensive to react to all of these, but if everyone who was threatened took some action, no matter how meagre, the results would be a certain cooling off of the rhetoric, and probably it would result in shaking out many of the real threats and stopping them.

    As for the troll, I suggest not replying directly to them, but rather putting the response in a more general area. If I think someone is trolling, then I avoid replying to them directly and just put a general comment in the thread with an apt response. They will probably never notice it (trolls are obsessively narcissistic), but other readers will.  Perhaps you could give us a diary here where you go over that person's inadequacies in public. They'll probably never know, but you'll at least get your online revenge.

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