Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Freedom Of Speech: Who Gets To Be Free?

Learning of the existence of this program made me think again about my last post. As the EFF correctly said, the operators and the community bear responsibility for moderating the conduct of people using their platforms. But what happens when neither the operators nor the community is willing to act upon their obligations?

How trolls gain control of the narrative

That said, in a vanilla "bad guys jumped me for no reason" situation it's easier to make a case for being a victim deserving of protection than if you give what you get, as I still tend to do. I'm also quite critical and can be pretty mean at times — I'm no angel and never pretended to be one. That said, why should persistent, abusive trolls who convince other people to believe bad things about you be given free rein to lash out at will in the name of free speech? Would my own rights be impaired if they were called to account for what they did because I sometimes get a bit snarky?

The trouble is, trolling is in the eye of the beholder. I have found myself pre-emptively banned from a community forum either because someone had maliciously reported me as a bully or because the mods had seen a comment I made elsewhere and decided I wasn't welcome there.

Here are some of the tactics my trolls used against me:

  • Repeating negative statements about me on a number of different platforms
  • Getting other people, particularly people I associated with, to repeat those statements
  • Befriending people I was friendly with, then pressurising them to say negative things about me
  • Complaining about  me to my friends, which presented them with a choice; stay with me and be targeted, join in and betray me, or leave. This intimidation drove many of them away altogether, leaving me isolated 
  • Joining websites I was active on, then friending, fanning, and favouriting me and commenting on my comments, etc. in a friendly way. That really gave me the creeps, as they were slagging me off elsewhere at the time. The idea was to present themselves as the good guys and myself as an unreasonable nutbag
  • Occasionally saying nice things about me, again, to present themselves as the good guys
  • Exaggerating every negative and ill-advised thing I ever did or said
  • Getting spammers involved to flood my online spaces with filth to put others off of associating with me in case that mess came their way
  • Insinuating themselves into the top tier membership of the most prominent websites in my online community, where (had I but known!) they had considerable influence. Result: as long as they kept their nonsense off of those particular platforms, the mods didn't give a damn what their members did to other members elsewhere
  • Persuading the spammers to attempt to hack my email account. I was locked out for three days because they'd kept trying to guess my password. They never did.
  • Signing me up to receive spam. My inbox was flooded, making genuine emails hard to spot. Oh, the backs of my poor hands! I couldn't just put a filter on, the search terms weren't common enough for that to work.
  • Dismissing every complaint I made about their behaviour as gross exaggeration

Their success in presenting me in a negative light while being welcome and accepted as contributing members of the community was too hard to stomach. I could not continue as a member, not even incognito, because I was sickened at seeing them lauded to the skies there while everybody knew they were behaving so badly elsewhere. And believe me, everybody knew. So, mostly because these people had their own personal hellhound pack of trolls and spammers to assist them as and when required, there was little in the way of counter-speech on my behalf. Since they were also prominent in the community I was a member of, the moderators and leading lights wouldn't do anything about it. They actually told me to just send their comments to spam. That is why I always say that to be a target is to be alone. Isolation is their most effective tactic and damn, it works. In the end, your only real choice is to leave the community. What have you to stay for, except for more slander and back-stabbing — and being dismissed as exaggerating or attention-seeking if you complain about it?

You could, of course, just start up again with a different penname but everything you did before gets left behind, along with all your friends and associates, and you have to start again, maybe taking a few of them with you and hoping none of them turn on you. Depending on your involvement in community activities, that can be a lot. When I did that and moved to a platform of my own, the trolls found it via one of my moderators and the rest is history.

Lesson learned: get out of there, stay out of there, and leave everyone and everything behind. It's not worth fighting for since you will ultimately end up on your own.

The role of the community

Until recently I was afraid to look up my former penname. I haven't used it for a very long time and haven't gone near my former community, where the rule is always, "Act like it never happened, no matter what happened." Today, for the purposes of this blog post, I did.

Have you ever walked through the ruins of a burned-down house? YOUR burned-down house? That is how it felt to just do a search on my old nom de plume. Feelings of nostalgia and longing clashed with anger and resentment as the results filled the page. I had been on many platforms associated with that community, some of which were entirely dedicated to it and I had invested a lot of time and effort in my activities there. I can never go back. Not ever. Not while the people responsible for driving me out continue to behave the way they do with impunity. And I'm not the only one they've done this to.

I forced myself to click on the link of my profile on the platform I first used to join the community. I'd given up the login and password to one of my turncoat moderators so he could take over the forum. It's all gone. I'm not sure where he is now and can't be bothered to look but the profile and content have been wiped clean and an image representing my former interest is the avatar, shaking its head at me as if I was a naughty little scamp. It is at once patronising and dismissive, and does more to illustrate what these people did to me than this blog post ever could. I won't upload it or link to it; I want the freedom to speak about this without bringing a torrent of abuse down on myself.

And there's the rub. I can't speak too openly about this at all to tell you about it while they can do whatever they like. Where is MY freedom? You will have to take my word for it, I can't link to anything because I know how prone they are to searching the internet to see what is being said about them so they can use it as ammunition. The community is on their side to preserve the status quo, i.e. the continuity of the community with as little disruption to its everyday activities as possible, and because they are intimidated by them. I know this because I challenged the community leaders to do something about them and that's pretty much what they said. Apparently we're all expendable, or something, except the top tier, who are not.

Lesson learned: if you leave it to the community to deal with the trolls, they probably won't, even if they say they will. What they mean is, their definition of "troll" is arbitrary and refers to anyone who doesn't personally bother them.

So what can we do?

You're not going to like it, not one bit. Sorry, but in a world where people ought to do something but ultimately don't give a damn and your only option is to either tolerate being abused as best you can or leave the internet altogether (three months or so should be enough), then start up again elsewhere, leaving everyone and everything you did online behind to keep your trolls out of your life, I'm not sure we really have a choice if we are all to have freedom of speech without resorting to tools that can be used to go after people making political speech against the status quo. Here's an extract of a letter I wrote as part of a public consultation on freedom of speech online:

I propose an escalation system where each step must be followed before the authorities are notified and involved:

1. Mute, block, or ban the offender(s) from contacting you via the tools available. If that doesn't work,
2. Contact the site moderators, then the owners, and ask them to ban the offender(s) from the site, providing screenshots of their activities. Most websites and forums have community rules or TOS which, if broken, can result in the offender being banned. If that doesn't work,
3. Leave the site and go to another. If they follow you there and start up again, go to step 1. If it continues, go to step 2. If you get to step 3, they're still coming after you and the site moderators and owners won't do anything,
4. Report them to their email account provider, providing evidence of their abusive behaviour and of your efforts to follow steps 1-3. If their behaviour contravenes the email account provider's TOS, which should include sanctions for abusive behaviour that include the suspension or deletion of their email account(s), their email account(s) should be suspended or deleted. However, they have only to move to another location and use a different computer to create a new email account. Still, it should slow them down a bit and give them pause for thought. If that doesn't work,
5. Report them, with evidence of their abusive behaviour and that you have followed steps 1-4, to their ISP. The ISP should have a TOS in which those who have been proven to have engaged in abusive behaviour will lose their internet connection. Please note, a determined abuser can simply move to another location and start again. If he (or she) persists,
6. Report them to the authorities for harassment, with evidence of the abuse and of the steps you have taken.

I don't think it's okay to stalk and harass people until they are driven offline, but what I don't want is to continue sending people to jail for making off-colour jokes online, then see our leaders marching in Paris in support of Charlie Hebdo, which does exactly the same thing. There is a difference between being a prat online and being a persistent, disruptive nuisance

Yes, I have actually proposed kicking them offline if they won't behave. The thing is, all this would do to a determined abuser is move them elsewhere. It would be a minor inconvenience at worst until they did something worthy of being arrested. The bar in this country is a lot lower than Stateside, so if you're in America, enjoy being hassled. Bear in mind that they will whine in the community that you're getting them kicked off the internet for spurious reasons, etc.

Think twice before considering implementing this: as one of the trolls once said,

"I see nothing wrong with stirring up a little drama to get some attention."

It's nothing personal, only their little joke and really, you need to get over it. That's the message, and it's not just for me. So using the force of the law to push back may ultimately backfire and of course there's the risk that this mechanism could be abused. It almost certainly will be.

Which pretty much puts us right back where we started unless the wider internet community is willing to take on the responsibility for policing itself instead of leaving it to legislators.

One thing is certain: when the number of hacked-off people who have been forced off the internet by troll activity has reached critical mass, Somebody is going to Do Something. Do we really want to wait for that to happen, or shall we work towards dealing with this situation ourselves? It's everyone's responsibility. We are all members of the community, after all.

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