Power on the Internet

[TRIGGER WARNING for discussion of sexual assault]

My thoughts on Gawker’s outing (or doxxing) of reddit moderator Violentacrez (VA). (background on this entire thing for those who are new to this story)

First, T. F. Charlton has written about the fact that it was Gawker who did the doxxing of VA:

The reporting on Brutsch’s actions and identity is welcome. But I can’t help but note that Gawker Media profits from the very culture Chen calls out of viewing girls and women’s bodies as public property to be exploited.

Next, Lili Loofbourow on the what it would be like to discover your picture on the creepshot or jailbait subreddit:

For these people, only that which involves your name counts. A bunch of misogynistic, abusive trolls masturbating to 15-year-old you? Doesn’t count as damage, even if you know about it. The point is this: Brutsch admits that women discovered that their images were being used on Reddit. Take a minute to imagine what that discovery was like. Then imagine what it must be like to write to someone named Violentacrez to ask for them to be taken down.

Finally, Deanna Zandt (if I could just cut and paste the entire article into here, I would):

This is ultimately the issue that I have with insisting that Reddit, the service, has a role simply as an agnostic player. We are starting to learn now, 20 years after the Web started hyperconnecting us all together, that there is no such thing as an agnostic, neutral service. I keep thinking of the title of Howard Zinn’s autobiography, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Social services are moving trains, organisms that we’ve created and infused with our own humanity. That means we have to take great responsibility for them. They are, in many ways, our children. When our kids behave badly, we can’t shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, I’ve raised my kid to be neutral, I can’t help it if this is what the kid decides to do.”

Combined, these three quotes (really, the three posts – I highly recommend them all) point to the issue of power as acted out on the internet which is central to this entire episode (and a large part of why I have been enthralled by the entire thing).

As Charlton draws direct attention to, it’s not just that reddit is a problem but so is Gawker. This is because we live in a society (including the internet that our society creates) that views “girls and women’s bodies as public property to be exploited.” As she argues, to stop this discussion with VA and act like we have “won” is to ignore the systemic issues at play in much larger arenas than simply the dirtiness of a single man’s mind.

I’m glad that she addresses this issue in her post because this has been one of the big arguments against outing VA: Isn’t Gawker being hypocritical by positioning itself as the anti-misogynistic, anti-racist, anti-homophobic savior when it will publish inflammatory articles to get page views?

YES. But I’m okay with that (a phrase I’m adopting from Adrian Chen, who wrote the original Gawker piece). Because there is a reality about the internet (which both Loofbourow and Zandt hit directly on) – it has a power structure, it’s hierarchical, and, as Misty Clifton has argued eloquently, it bleeds directly into real life, which, as we all know too well, has a power structure and is hierarchical.

Who has the power to take down a powerful moderator on one of the internet’s most powerful sites? A lady blogger just writing on her own little site? A major feminist site? There are serious risks to doxxing a major internet abuser like VA.

So, yeah, Gawker is a terrible site in lots of ways — I’m not going to debate that. But it’s also big enough and powerful enough to go after reddit. And I’m glad it, at least this once, used its power for good. [note: I’m not saying this excuses all the problems at Gawker in any shape or form. And I’d happily support anyone who goes after Gawker for their disgusting upskirts stuff.]

This gets me to the next quote above. As Loofbourow shows really well in those few sentences that I quoted, the power dynamics at play in a subreddit like jailbait or creepshots inevitably favors those who, out in the real world, already have power. It’s incredibly intimidating.

And yet the slippery slope for a lot of defenders of these subreddits is something like this (courtesy of Freddie deBoer):

Does Bady imagine that new restrictions on free speech are actually going to result in a blow against rape culture, rather than, say, further erosions of the right for protesters to take the streets? Does he imagine that this is the world he lives in? I’ll tell you: I find it far more likely that Bady’s antipathy towards free speech will support more clubs in the face of nonviolent protesters before it supports the end of misogyny and rape culture.

This is in response to Bady arguing this:

What I want to observe, then, is simply this: when people invoke “free speech” to defend a person’s right to take pictures of unwilling women and circulate those pictures on the internet, they are saying that it is okay to do so. They are saying that society has no legitimate interest in protecting a woman’s right not to have pictures of her body circulated without her consent. Her consent is not important.

To clarify: Bady is arguing that sites like reddit (and those who support them) that use the term “free speech” as an ideology to protect blantantly misogynistic content are participating in rape culture. But deBoer, when responding to Bady, says THAT argument is not a convincing enough one because Bady’s slippery slope from creepshots and jailbait to sexual assault is LESS LIKELY than, say, the slippery slope from a website banning 15yos in bikinis to cops banning photography at protests.

VA/reddit are equivalent to the power of the state in deBoer’s formulation. Is a decision by reddit admins over site content REALLY equivalent to the power cops have to ban photography at a protest?

No one is talking about changing any laws. This isn’t about law at all. We are talking about social pressure on a website to alter policies to ban a certain type of forum that traffics in images that reinforce rape culture.

[BREATHES DEEPLY]

I almost don’t know what to do with this.

So, I’ll pass the baton first to Zandt, who argues elsewhere in her post linked above:

One of the studies I cited showed that people in certain cases actually don’t act any better when their true identities are attached to their behavior online. Anecdotally, we assume that people won’t post creepshots if their true identities are used. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, because I also think that the people posting in those forums don’t see anything wrong with their entitlement to women’s bodies.

These forums are borne out of the muck and mire of rape culture and are run by advocates of that culture. I’ll say it one more time: creepshots and jailbait and their ilk are run by advocates of rape culture. If you want to instead see these men as fighters for free speech (even if you HATE the tools with which they fight that fight), well… It never hurts to remember while you are making arguments about free speech, we live in a society where someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes. Does deBoer imagine that this is the world he lives in?

If you extrapolate out from creepshots and jailbait subreddits into a discussion of privacy issues and cops blocking the photography of protesters and NOT to rape culture, it’s because you wield a certain amount of privilege in this world, the privilege to not have your very own right to bodily autonomy and consent questioned at every turn (from the dredges of subreddits to the highest political offices).

As Heidi (@hswindell) said on Twitter:

Your slippery slope is not my slippery slope. Your privacy protection is my fear of being in public. COOL FOR YOU.

Finally, the quote from Zandt’s post. reddit is a part of our culture. As I said above, the outrage and demands that reddit do something about VA and people like him who start these subreddits is not a legal issue. It is a societal one. It is entirely convenient that reddit and the people defending the existence of creepshots have created an ideology for a website (CAN I KEEP REPEATING THAT WE ARE TALKING ABOUT A WEBSITE?) that favors misogyny, homophobia, and racism over being a decent human being. Plenty of websites that are information movers have decided to attempt the latter (Gawker not among them). You can actually do the latter and continue to create and disseminate knowledge. The blogospheres that are run by people who aren’t cis hetero white men can show you how if you need a tutorial.

I love this line by Zandt: “Social services are moving trains, organisms that we’ve created and infused with our own humanity.” We can make and hold to guidelines that we think reflect back our humanity. reddit can do that. It can send these people – the VAs of the internet – somewhere elset to fight for free speech.

Fighting back against the power structures on the internet feels endless in the same way it does when you do activism on the ground. The internet, though, plays on a trope of neutrality (an idea Zandt has masterfully fought many times) and makes it appear that somehow in this space, we are equals.

No, we’re not.

And this is my final point.

Lindsay Beyerstein wrote this about anonymity on the internet:

When someone is abusing pseudonymity to materially hurt other people, and there’s no other way to make them stop, “outing” may be an appropriate last resort. In extreme circumstances, we rescind the usual social courtesy of ignoring the person’s identity. Virtual communities are real communities, too. On the internet, we need a network of social checks and balances akin to the one we enjoy in the real world.

A lot of people are uncomfortable with this idea because they fear that the principle will be abused to out innocent people. No doubt that’s true. But unless you want to argue that nobody should ever be outed for any reason, you’re faced with the difficult task of articulating when it’s appropriate to lift the veil. That’s the nature of informal social controls, they get applied by regular people, with varying degrees of fairness and accuracy. People need to understand the nature of online pseudonymity and decide whether they want to put themselves out there.

This is where power structures both online and offline come into play. Anyone on the internet – even if NOT anonymous – who is not a cis white hetero man who attempts to speak up against the current power structures has a potential to be under threat, not just on the internet from the people who power 4Chan but from people who suss out their home addresses and threaten them where they live. The fear of doxxing is not one that is shared equally and people who are targets of it are much more likely to be people who are part of the groups that are already targeted offline.

Innocent people on the internet are often the targets of campaigns to “out” them, either their identity or personal information which, if released, could be used to physically threaten them (seriously – just go ask a single person on the internet who is not a cis white hetero man and who has a big enough voice and they’ll tell you all about it). Whether or not someone uses doxxing to go after people like VA, that principle is ALREADY BEING ABUSED to out innocent people. Outing VA doesn’t MAKE that happen. Outing VA and others like him is simply using a tool that already exists to shut down someone who is peddling in rape culture. [To be clear: I don’t think Beyerstein is saying it isn’t – my anger here is not directed at her at all, just piggybacking off her explanation of the discussion surrounding doxxing].

Power is not equal on the internet and people like VA depend on it.

People like VA depend on others to buy that his subreddits are about free speech and not rape culture. CHECK.

People like VA depend on others to argue that doxxing will hurt everyone equally. CHECK.

People like VA depend on others to believe that the internet is some separate space from “real” life and that the two have no real connection. CHECK.

[BREATHES DEEPLY]

Oh, I can’t wait for comments on this one.

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3 thoughts on “Power on the Internet

  1. I won’t pretend that I understand the majority of this post, I do not, I imagine it’s an age thing. I do understand Public Shaming. It is an unfortunate but necessary part of civil society. We see a parallel to this story playing out today in small town Maine. A woman was arrested for prostitution in the town, the prosecutor on the case plans to release the names of her clients. In a small town, this is a very big deal. Most of the townspeople are in favor of this, though they realize they will probably see their husbands, brother or fathers name on the list. Public shaming works as an alternative to violence that some societies resort to when a “community punishment” is called for. So we won’t stone these men. But out them, absofuckinlutely.

  2. Pingback: Weekend Reading « Backslash Scott Thoughts

  3. Pingback: Reddit: The Front Page of the Internet, Boys Only | J-Thinker

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