You often hear me repeating phrases that, on the surface, sound very callous. Things like… “Internet harassment is not a real problem.” Or, “actually, victim blaming is a good thing.” That last one will get you kicked out of some supposed free-speech-loving communities just for uttering it. :^)
You might hear this line of rhetoric, and think “wow, Qu Qu, you’re an asshole.” Well, you’re right, I AM an asshole. But sometimes, tough love is needed in order to get the point across.
First of all, let me address the issue of victim blaming. This one’s simple. Whenever it is demonstrated that a form of self-defense is effective, the best way to shut down the conversation is to simply take discussion of self defense off the table. You see this repeatedly: At the very first hint that there exist stats to back up the fact that pulling a firearm out when you’re about to be a victim of violent crime is a common and effective way of stopping said crime, or that putting up token physical resistance is a good way to counter a wannabe sexual assaulter, you have two options: Counter the stats, which is hard, or just develop a new postmodern rhetorical framework that makes any discussion of personal responsibility for one’s own well-being a seem like callous act.
Let’s put this more simply: It’s been shown repeatedly that, an effective way to reduce your chances of being the victim of a crime is to not act like a crime victim. Pay attention to your surroundings, carry knowledge of self-defense and the means to defend yourself against violent crime, and so on. But, this is inconvenient to any group that wants to view society’s problems as only having structural solutions, instead of solutions involving personal agency, so certain political activists designed ways to avoid having this discussion at all by introducing the concept of “victim blaming.”
So, when I say “actually, victim blaming is good,” I’m simply taking back the tools needed to advocate for personal responsibility and self-defense from people who’d prefer to shut down said discussions. When talking about such things brands you as an asshole, you need to be an asshole to be able to talk about such things. And yes, when you bring me specific cases of people who have had something bad happen to them, and I refuse to do the little “poor victim” song and dance, it’s gonna seem mean as all hell. But, I’m not going to overreact to a personal anecdote in order to make myself look good.
So, that brings us to the topic of internet harassment, which I keep boldly asserting is not a real problem. The simplest explanation for me is that internet harassment is really one of the least pressing issues of our time. There’s so many wannabe activists and polemicists all over the political spectrum that want to pretend like it is a massive widespread problem that needs to be solved immediately, and I find that DEEPLY concerning. What’s even more disgusting are the people who want to use the victim narratives around said harassment to gain money or social capital. Or, even worse, see victim narratives as a means of getting an advantage over their ideological opponents. But that alone isn’t enough to fully explain why this is a problem for society. For that, we’ll need to delve a bit into the history of identity on the internet.
Back in the golden days of the internet, the advice that both society and, surprisingly, corporations gave you wa that you should keep a level of separation between your various online identities and your real life identity. Most of your online activity was preferably done in a manner that it wouldn’t come back to bite you; in other words, real-life implications were minimized. Now, we exist in a time where Kim Kardashian wannabes posting selfies with easily visible brand logos in them are the profit drivers for social media companies. One Internet socialite is worth a dozen or more pseudonym-using accounts for datamining/advertising purposes.
Let’s examine the business model of social media companies briefly, because it’s pretty simple. The users aren’t really the customers; they’re a product whose attention is sold to advertisers. The biggest benefit and innovation that internet advertising has over television advertising is that the ads can be laser focused on the people who are most likely to make a purchase. To deliver accurate targeting, they need as much information on their users as possible. The more of your life you put online, the better product you are to package up and sell.
And this has effects beyond what is immediately obvious. Let’s say you post lots of information about how you drink diet coke, pictures of yourself with diet coke products which can be analyzed by logo-finding AI, and so on. That’s interesting to many parties. It’s interesting to soda companies, obviously, but also to pharmaceutical companies, for example. Do you have concerns over your weight? Do you need to control your blood sugar level? Are you at risk for gastroesophageal reflux disease due to your frequent consumption of soda? They can gain all sorts of insights in an automated fashion, bypassing health privacy laws, and put you in a bucket that advertisers can target.
This is why companies like Twitter have no qualms about killing off even very large accounts, like Mister Metokur, if their fanbase is largely pseudonym-using anime-avatared meme-posters. Who cares? If they’re not going to tweet personally identifiable info, what worth are they to a platform? A single selfie slinging socialite is worth more than a dozen Metokur fans.
This leads social media companies to incentivize people to engage in totally stupid behavior online, and encourage people to link all of their identities to their real one.
When you keep all your identities separate, Internet harassment is impossible. Words on a screen may hurt emotionally, but back then we had trainable filters to take care of repeated unwanted contact (ie. spam.) In other words, your self defense online used to be your own responsibility, and most people were perfectly capable of accepting that responsibility.
Now, we have entered into a time where people WANT to be able to act like idiots online, due to social media giving them cheap dopamine hits through likes and shares. And social media companies encourage this because it makes them money. When this creates real world consequences, they demand a solution to this problem that does not involve any level of personal responsibility. They want big daddy platform, like Twitter, Facebook, and Google, to accept responsibility for them.
This alone wouldn’t be so huge of a problem if these big groups were benevolent. Problem is, they’re not.
Google’s basically scrapped its “don’t be evil” mantra and is now saving costs and making unlikely ideological allies through AI filtering. Facebook outright performed psychological experiments on its users to see if it could change their mood and actions, to make them into better users of the service. And Twitter is introducing ways of curating content that will allow it to perform all sorts of manipulation. And don’t get me started on Reddit, where the admins will shut down your community if they deem you not to be censoring satisfactorily according to their unpublished and ambiguous standards. These companies profit more the less responsible your behavior is, so they encourage recklessness in the systems they create, going so far as to use skinner-box style techniques to encourage you to dump more and more of your life on the internet, and then they use censorship to mask the consequences.
As a result, most talk of “harassment” online is kited away from any discussion of anonymity and personal responsibility and guided instead towards the need for widespread censorship by big daddy platform and big daddy government. And therefore, I tend to treat people who treat internet harassment as a pressing issue as unwitting allies to censorship.
They create an artificial need for solutions to a problem that’s not in the least bit pressing. You’ll naturally see groups rush in with half-baked solutions, like Crash Override Network and Randi Harper’s Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, trying to steal the limelight and make a quick buck. Trying to fight these groups with accusations of hypocrisy and claims that “my friends were harassed too” just gives them MORE of a mandate to operate. As does citing faulty stats as evidence of these groups bias, like the Pew Research’s internet harassment survey which counted name calling and trying to make someone feel embarrassed as forms of harassment.
Simply put, we need to use a different lexicon and different rhetorical tools to discuss people who act like assholes towards others online that is not so heavy in the “victim” and “harassment” rhetoric that is currently a dog whistle for certain far-left groups.
I don’t think the solution is that complicated. Stop trying to fit online interaction into a framework where there’s a villain, a victim, and a hero. The so-called villain or harasser is usually best set up as an object of ridicule instead. Call them asshats or fuckwits. We should craft tools that again allow for anonymity and personalized filtering on par with what we had in the IRC days, and engage in a certain level of victim blaming when someone is clearly irresponsible, or is clearly milking their victim status for social capital.
My general line of rhetoric is “internet harassment isn’t a real problem” and then follow that up when pressed by saying “it’s only a problem when it crosses into real life, which means it’s not ‘internet’ anymore.” Trying to connect the concepts behind things that you find “problematic” offline and activities that happen online rarely results in meaningful insights. Just stop using the same words to describe things in these two different spheres.
If I put on my tinfoil, I think it’s possible that social media companies want to be able to guide society by using persuasive tech to influence everything from purchasing decisions… to public attitude, and even election outcomes. To do this, they MUST be able to curate what EVERYONE sees, algorithmically, all the time. People don’t tolerate that… UNLESS…
Well, unless you convince them that they need it and make them ask for it themselves under the guise of fighting “harassment”
But, that’s the tinfoil extreme, and even if that ended up proven false, the rest stands.