Friday, May 20, 2016

No Hiding Place

When I read the headline, "When Will the Internet Be Safe for Women," my first thought was: That kind of presumes that the internet is safe for anyone, doesn't it? According to a Pew study from a couple of years ago, about one-in-twelve people are subject to physical threats on the internet. And when you narrow that down to simply people in the 18 to 24 age range, the numbers jump to about one-in-four. But I don't know that it does us any good to wrangle over who has it worse online or whether or not the internet is just as unsafe for one group as it is for another.

A more interesting question might be "How do we get to a safe internet?" The Pew study identifies six different behaviors: calling someone offensive names, harassing someone for a sustained period of time, physically threatening someone, purposefully embarrassing someone, sexually harassing someone and stalking someone. If we, for the sake of argument, assume that all of the behaviors that prompt people to feel unsafe online fall into one of these six buckets (which is, admittedly, a stretch) then we can presume that if we can manage to expunge these sorts of behaviors from the web, then we'll have a safe internet.

So what stands in the way of us getting rid of these behaviors? The simple answer is that Trolls do their work in secret. But while I think that blaming the anonymous nature of the internet is convenient, it's inaccurate. Calling people offensive names and setting out to purposefully embarrass someone happens fairly regularly on LinkedIn, which is meant as a business networking site where people use their real names - after all, networking is fairly pointless if no-one knows who you are. I'll admit that I haven't seen any of the more serious behaviors there, but presumably people who are attempting to burnish their business image have the sense to stay away from openly illegal (or legally questionable) activity that provides its own evidence.

Given that, I'm going to hazard another guess. It's difficult, I believe to rid ourselves of calling people offensive names, sustained harassment, physically threats, purposeful embarrassment, sexual harassment and stalking because, as a society, we can be okay with them - as long as they happen to the right people. And that leads us back into the quagmire of subjectivity that is "deserving." Because there are times when we find otherwise reprehensible behavior on the part of others useful, even sexual harassment. I know that I've heard my fair share of people noting that, because of the phenomenon of prison rape, that a particular criminal was going to get what was coming to them.

Therefore the crime of the Troll is not that they indulge themselves in behavior that we would rather see exterminated - it's that they direct that behavior towards people we find undeserving of it. And I think that in this, we undermine ourselves, as we attempt to have our cake and eat it, too.

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