Two high-profile examples of racism directed at President Obama online in the past week are shining a spotlight on the broader issue of online harassment.
But it’s a problem even the biggest companies in the tech world are struggling to find the right response to — one that would mute hateful trolling and threats while respecting the freedom of speech.
Early this week, it was revealed that if users searched Google Maps for “n—– house,” it showed them the White House. And when Obama launched a personal Twitter account, it attracted attacks virulent enough to warrant an article from The New York Times and, reportedly, a visit from the Secret Service to at least one user.
The president has faced racist attacks since long before he got to the White House. More generally, online environments have been hotbeds of harassment since the inception of the Web. But this week underscored how technology can amplify deeply personal slurs, even against the leader of the free world.
Social networks have been urged to help stop harassment that occurs when users single out someone on a platform for hate or abuse.
“The kind of harassment we are worried about happens when Internet users attract the attention of the wrong group or individual, and find themselves enduring extreme levels of targeted hostility, often accompanied by the exposure of their private lives,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a major privacy group, said in a statement. “And such online harassment can escalate to offline stalking, physical assault, and more.”
Whereas Obama has the protection of the Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies, a member of the general public is more reliant on the people who run social networks to deal with threatening messages. But that hasn’t always delivered results, as some leading executives acknowledge.
“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said this year in an internal memo obtained by The Verge.
But the social network has clearly been making an effort to deal with harassment, and threats in particular.
“Like all of our technology industry peers, we do not proactively monitor content. Individual users and law enforcement authorities — including the U.S. Secret Service — report content to us and we review their reports against our rules, which prohibit violent threats and targeted abuse,” said a spokesman. “In cases involving immediate physical danger, law enforcement can submit emergency information requests to us 24/7 via a form available on our site.”
The platform said it received 1,622 requests for information from the U.S. government in the second half of 2014 and that 220 of those were emergency requests.
Twitter also worked with the nonprofit group Women, Action, and the Media to collect data last year about how women were being harassed on the site and help the women take action.
In three weeks, the group said it received close to 700 reports, more than 100 of which received “action from Twitter along the way.”
Condensed Twitter version:
Let’s talk about Obama first. The President of the United States has the finest bodyguards in the world. They’re not perfect, but it’s been over thirty years since someone managed to injure a POTUS. He also has military guards and local law enforcement assisting the Secret Service everywhere he goes.
He lives in a fort and travels around in an armored vehicle designed to withstand an anti-tank round. When he stays in a hotel the entire place is rented for him, his entourage and his security detail. They block roads and shut down air traffic around him. There are special laws against threatening a POTUS that are investigated by the FBI.
So why does he need to worry about some idiot posting mean words on Twitter from his mother’s basement?
Private individuals are somewhat more problematic.
On one hand, trolls can be vicious. Most are too cowardly to constitute a real life physical threat, but being stalked and harassed online by some deranged venom-spewing weirdo can scare the bejeebus out of someone.
There is a thing called “doxxing” where trolls uncover your private information and publish it online. Even worse is mobbing, which is when an online lynch mob goes after someone. Those things can have real life consequences, like costing you your job.
On the other hand, some people have abused the social media anti-harassment policies to shut down opposing voices. I got suspended by Twitter several times for alleged violations of their terms of service, and finally they told me I was permanently banned. When I appealed and kept asking them to tell me what specific violations I had allegedly committed they hemmed and hawed and ultimately reinstated my account.
There is even a term for it: “Twitter Gulag.”
There are things you can do to protect yourself. If you post racist crap under your own name (or an easily traced alias) and it comes back to bite you on the ass, whose fault it that? If you put all your personal information online all it takes is Google and a keyboard to find it. If your Facebook account lists your whole life for anyone to see, then ANYONE can see it.
Or you can follow the Klown Method and always wear an online disguise. Greasepaint, a big rubber nose and a fright wig are not required. I don’t use the name my mom gave me on social media. You cannot find a picture of me anywhere. I don’t give out my number to anyone. I don’t have a tip jar or Amazon doohickey on the blog because that would have to be connected to an account in my real name. Some (or maybe all) of the information I share about myself isn’t true.
I didn’t go off the grid because I was never on it. I started doing this stuff 20 years ago. The feds and maybe a few leet hackers could penetrate my defenses, but it would take a lot more than Google to do it. If need be I could easily dump Myiq2xu in the garbage and disappear forever. I have already established alternate personas I can switch to on a moment’s notice.
But not everyone is as paranoid as me. You can still defend yourself without going to my extremes. It’s like the phone book. You can have a listed number with your address. You can have just your name listed. You can use just your first initial. Or you can be unlisted.
What I am saying is you can be on the grid without sharing too much. Some people say that their life is an open book, then turn around and complain that the wrong people are reading it.
As far as the run-of-the-mill trolls, toughen up, buttercup. This is the internet, not a hothouse for delicate flowers.