Cyberbullies and TrollsRebecca Baldwin Real Media Real ChangeBy Rebecca Baldwin

When I was 19 I was robbed in a public park near my home. It was dark and I never saw the assailant’s face. He yanked the bag forcibly from around my neck, scaled a nearby fence and was gone. The incident was frightening and yet the threat of harm was considerably short-lived – there was some residual shock but it lasted no more than a few days. Friends were surprised that it would happen in our neighbourhood – the quiet, leafy inner-city Melbourne suburb we had grown up in had always felt safe, and for the most part, it was. I went to the police station and reported the crime; the police officers were kind and attentive and I left feeling secure in the knowing that, whether or not the culprit was found, they were there, on the case.

Today, the public spaces I know and frequent are very different. The threat of harm is a constant and it’s pervasive, like white noise that I have become used to. Daily I witness masked individuals menacing and harassing others brazenly and with impunity. Anonymous slander has become a strategic weapon; robbery has taken on multiple and more insidious forms. Today, identities and intimate photos are stolen and disseminated globally, destroying young lives and futures: the damage and the cost to people and communities are greater and longer lasting than anything I knew as a teen. Child porn and children’s exposure to porn is on the rise. Criminal activity is rife and abuse and sexual violence have both become legitimate forms of currency.

I live and work in the public domain that is the Internet.

This is the world’s first public space – a free and truly communal international resource – a Central Park for the entire world.

And there is much I love about this place –

I love its potential to truly break down borders and connect people globally.

But it has to be said it is not a safe space.

In fact, it has become a place where even the most basic human rights and freedoms are ignored, neglected or outright abused.

In effect, it is more than just a Park.

Imagine the most disgusting and vile words being hurled at you in a coffee shop or in a shopping centre?

This is something we would never allow and yet the Internet is much more than even a gigantic coffee shop or shopping centre – it is where your reputation is on the line for all to see, from employers, to family to friends.

Does anyone recall, or have you ever had something said about you that was not true at school – how about the world knowing a lie about you?  The Internet is also the world’s biggest schoolyard.

And it’s a school there is no option of leaving.

Enrolment to the Internet is compulsory, and attendance is 24/7. Because even if you don’t show up, you will show up in the search results if someone wants you to.

It is a portal to a profile of you whether that content was authored by you or not. And in 2014 to say “just log off if you don’t like it” is an argument about as naïve as the childish belief that if we cover over our eyes we will suddenly be invisible to everyone around us. We have never been able to remove ourselves from the Internet simply by shutting the lids of our laptops. Because of this it is a unique public space, an unregulated space we are held hostage by.

A climate where intimidation and harassment is so easily and readily allowed is an environment that we would not dream of accepting in our schools, and we don’t condone it in our streets or in our public parks, and yet we are allowing it in what has become the most frequented public place of all – a place where many of us will now spend 8+ hours per day.

Safety on the InternetIt is true that the digital environment has new and layered characteristics and much for us to consider, yet the basic principles that underpin equality and freedom in a safe and inclusive public space remain the same. Of course, in order to bring these principles to the Internet and in order to enact laws that protect our newest public space we first have to begin to recognize it as such.

If someone were to openly abuse me in the street and threaten violence this would be neither a socially or legally acceptable act, yet this is par for the course online, and not just in the seedy Internet ‘back streets’, but in the established and reputable ‘High Streets’ where the major traffic of Social Media giants and the big ‘dot Coms’ engage large public audiences.

When a 23 year old Sydney woman recently spoke out about the impending ‘all-ages’ concert of a hip hop artist (famous for his extreme promotion of rape and violence against women set to song), she was met with a deluge of online abuse and threats on her life. In the process she discovered that tweets that Twitter has said are within their guidelines included: “I will rape you when I get the chance” and ““f—ing waste of flesh worthless female. its girls like u who make guys want to #rape a helpless pussy like u”.

When she reported it to the police they said there was nothing they could do other than work with Twitter.  Their advice was to delete her account, and not provoke people – essentially granting the abusers unfettered rights to abuse.

But again, let’s imagine a ‘non-digital’ equivalent here.

If a large gang of men were to approach a 23 year old woman in a public park and each threaten her with various vile acts, (including rape and mutilation) how would we as a community address such an event? Would we tell the woman to walk away and ignore the pack of people actively harassing her? What if this type of threat then continued when this lady went home or to work?

Ray Karam, a former Police officer with 13 years experience explains, “To be accurate, for this to be a factual ‘physical public space’ equivalent we would need also to look at the fact that the Internet can be accessed nearly anywhere. So in this example not only would this lady be threatened in a public park but it would continue with people stalking her at her home, at her office, indeed whenever and wherever she accessed the Internet. But then billions of people have access to and use the Internet so how could we truly gauge the witnesses to this? Many of the people who harass in this fashion also ensure they are anonymous, a further cowardly act that leaves the ‘victim’ with little or no recourse or right of reply. Add further to this the added menace that the men stalking her could live right next door to her and she wouldn’t even know it.

As you can see, it is far more serious when we put the Internet to the ‘physical world’ test. Imagine the response to such a scenario, the headlines from the media, the outrage from community groups etc. If we took this simple example that is very frequent and accepted on the internet and applied it to ‘physical world space’, it is shocking and possibly horrific to see the effect. Why aren’t we seeing this?”

There are countries in the world where packs and mobs frequently harass and pillage with relative impunity in public spaces. Australia is not that place, but this isn’t through luck. Australian streets are safe because the police enforce our laws, and generally speaking our laws work. It only takes a few people to be arrested as a public menace for a strong message to be sent to the irresponsible and criminal element among us – abusive and indecent behavior has no place in daily life in society.

But if that same quality of presence is not apparent in what is arguably now our foremost public space, how does that impact the social fabric? If our legal and police presence is curbed or considered a ‘budgetary extra’; or if our Police are not given the support and guidelines that enable them to act for the public interest in this new public space, does that mean we are living a large portion of our lives without the usual protections of the law?

a troll in a balaclava

There is a corrosive effect to harmful communications that is hard to quantify: in many cases there is no finite beginning and end to the crime. In a snatch-and-grab your bag gets stolen and likely you never see your attacker again – on the Internet your likeness can be stolen and your name used by others to destroy your future employment for years to come. The digital environment amplifies the effects of crime and yet often the law, and we as a community, fall short of responding to the severity and scope of the crime… or even seeing it for its criminal characteristics at all.

Karam notes, “The internet is the new home for a very different but equally destructive highly organised crime, it is a breeding ground for exploitative and criminal communication harms the extent of which we have not yet fully fathomed, and yet more and more we are seeing the very real effects on people and businesses who are presenting with issues of criminality being perpetrated through the internet. So why are we standing back from ‘policing’ this very public space? And why have we been so slow to wake up to the state of affairs here?”

The Case of ViolentAcrez

There are a number of formative myths on the Internet that have shaped the way we see (or fail to see) the extreme effects of harmful online communications. Freedom of Speech and the right to Anonymity are of particular interest.

  1. It cannot be stated strongly enough that Freedom of Speech is an important tenet underpinning a diverse and democratic society and it is a freedom that must be championed and protected, especially where political speech is concerned. When we consider there are places in the world where you can be jailed for writing a blog that contains political views contrary to the regime in power there is no doubt of the importance of Freedom of Speech to a democratic society, but in recent years it is also a term that has been been hijacked and appropriated in ways that betray varied and calculated vested interests.
  2. Added to this, the Right to Anonymity has been given an almost mythical status online as if it is an inalienable and unquestionable right. Anonymity is an important asset of the persecuted and oppressed, it affords them the ability to speak out where otherwise they may not, but anonymity online is being damagingly misused to the point of the absurd.

The interplay and misuse of both of these terms is glaringly apparent in the story of social news site Reddit and its most popular user Michael Brutsch. Brutsch, otherwise known as ViolentAcrez, is described as one of the biggest Trolls on the Internet. (It should be noted that the term ‘Troll’ is in itself a problematic ‘mythological term of the Web’, indicative of how we have collectively trivialized the harm of malicious online communications to position it as something fictitious – the stuff of fairy stories – and it is used here for lack of a better descriptor.)

A brief background of Reddit and Michael Brutsch, aka Violentacrez:

Reddit: a social news site with over 3.4 million page views per month. Users can sign up for a free account (anonymously if they wish) and create their own ‘pages’ called subreddits where users are invited to vote on and share content. Note: Reddit’s parent company is Conde Nast, the same company who publishes Vogue and a large number of prestigious print titles.

Violentacrez: Reddits most famous user (besides President Obama who used the popular social news site in 2012 to host an Ask Me Anything Q and A session, thereby propelling the social news site to even greater legitimacy and popularity).

ViolentAcrez is known as the ‘creepy Uncle of Reddit’ and in the name of ‘pushing the envelope of the ‘Free Speech culture’ has had a hand in creating or moderating pages such as

  • Jailbait
  • Chokeabitch
  • Niggerjailbait
  • Rapebait
  • Hitler
  • Jewmerica
  • Misogyny
  • Incest

The titles are self-explanatory and should be taken as sufficiently illustrative of the content.

More recently he was the moderator of the page Creepshots, dedicated to the distribution of images taken of people against their consent and usually consisting of women’s breasts or ‘upskirt’ shots. Creepshots was recently closed down amidst the controversy that erupted after a teacher illegally posted compromising pictures of his teenaged students to the site. The reason it was closed down was never officially stated and Reddit maintained that the page did not contravene its terms of service. Similar pages quickly sprung up and were hosted in its wake.

Last year ViolentAcrez was ‘doxed’ by a journalist. Doxing refers to the act of publicly identifying an internet user who wishes to remain anonymous. Across the Reddit community there was an outpouring of support for ViolentAcrez and the journalist who outed him came under heavy criticism that he had violated Brutsch’s ‘right to anonymity’ on the web. His smutty and inflammatory pages were defended as necessary features of the advancement of Free Speech, his stripping of anonymity seen as the ultimate online betrayal.

But here we surely have to question the mythology around the privileged status afforded anonymity online? Again a real world example puts this into perspective. There is a reason that we do not let people walk into banks with helmets on. There is a reason that it is not acceptable to walk into a convenience store with a balaclava on. This is not oppressive, and nor is it a threat to the Freedom of the Expression of the would-be bank robber. It is common sense. When the intent is to harm, anonymity becomes a weapon. But what constitutes harm? And what should and should not be protected in the name of Freedom of Speech? These are conversations we have to start having with a full view of the harm possible in the Internet age. Sometimes the line may seem blurry, but are we at times neglecting to take definitive action and living in that blurred zone at our own expense?

Really, can there really be any doubt that pages such as beatingwomen and jailbait are corrosive and harming to communities? Why are the ills that are obvious to us in real world terms something we agonise over when transplanted to a digital environment?

In order to get a deeper view of the absurdity of this it is worth contextualising the case of ViolentAcrez into a real world scenario.

Busy Street SceneWhat would ViolentAcrez and his pages look like in a non-digital world?

Picture a busy city scene. Pitt Street Mall in Sydney. A balaclava-clad man is approaching people on the street and pushing pictures on them, the images are of underage girls. He is also passing out pamphlets that overtly encourage the passerby to commit rape and acts of domestic violence. How many pamphlets would he pass out I wonder, before the police were notified and took decisive action?

Ray Karam expands, “But really, how can we get our heads around truly putting this type of scenario in the public spaces we are accustomed to. There is a social justice system in our current public space that doesn’t exist in our digital world. In a busy city scene like this a man in a balaclava would attract immediate attention, people could ‘see’ him and avoid him, turn away, say no and not accept the pamphlets. They could destroy the pamphlet in an instant and throw it away. If this man was arrested the pamphlets would be seized as an exhibit and held by police securely. How can we then allow this same thing to happen in the digital world and call it ‘freedom of speech or expression’?”

And still this analogy doesn’t go far enough. To understand just how out of step the online environment has become with reasonable public standards of safety and decency we actually have to look at the analogy in full. Because the fact is that Violentacrez is not the lone man in the street passing out pamphlets. If this were the case, the online equivalent would be his operating an independent little website; he would be a single drop in the massive Internet ocean, with huge odds against him of getting any attention at all. With a dodgy little site he would in many ways be relegated to the status of creepy-man-in-the street who others avoid… we all know the sites that look like you are going to get a virus if you go anywhere near them. No, if we are to understand this fully in our Pitt Street Mall example, we have to imagine that he is not passing out pamphlets at all.

In ‘the analogue world’ he would be handing out free underage porn samples on the Ground Level of a Myer department store… right beside the designer perfumes and the ladies doing makeovers on the Boxing Day sales mid-morning. Because the fact is, that as soon as he opened an account with a site of the size and reputation of Reddit he had essentially gotten himself entry to a reputable franchise with a vast infrastructure to distribute his wares. And this is what we see the Net over. Powerful social media sites allowing undiscerned entry and the right to trade in their dot Com shops. WordPress.com, Twitter and Facebook all have similarly non-existent barriers to entry and similarly token terms of service. But when you get floor space to sell your product in MYER or Harrods, this comes with an implicit and powerful endorsement of your brand that is no different to when you open an account at WordPress.com, Twitter, Facebook or Google Blogger. This is an implicit and powerful endorsement. The big .coms often argue that they do such a volume on their sites that it would be impossible for them to keep track of all the activity of all the accounts being opened in their shops, but this is an interesting argument that must be carefully considered because both the numbers and the lack of customer scrutiny serve a commercial interest that cannot be underestimated.

Turning a profit and turning a blind eye.

To continue the Myer/Reddit analogy, when Michael Brusch first wandered in off the Pitt Street Mall and started handing out samples on the Myer (Reddit) Ground Floor, the small security department did spot him on their security cameras. At first they were appalled; they considered how they would promptly kick him off the premises and protect their patrons from the filth with which he was fast filling their store. But then they looked a little longer and noticed a curious thing: he drew a large crowd.                                                                                   

Over time, management and ViolentAcrez became allies. They made sure he felt at home, they took him in off the street and under their wing. They gave him free reign of their shop. And their shop continued to rapidly fill up with people. The creepy-guy-peddling-porn became one of their biggest drawcards, and it is hard to imagine that this didn’t figure in their decision to let him stay.

So how did a man that would have been ignored, ridiculed, abused, publically disgraced and ultimately interviewed and charged for his behavior offline were he to distribute his content on the street, become protected, celebrated and endorsed by a multi-national company online?

In 2011, the Daily Dot named Violentacrez the most important Redditor of the year: in 2008 Jailbait was voted the most popular Subreddit on the website and Violentacrez became the most influential user of one of the most influential websites on the Internet.

It is well known that there is a deliberate lack of discernment to entry at the big dot coms. When Violentacrez came to prominence there were four paid staff at Reddit – clearly an insufficient work force to supply any kind of effective in-house security measures; but where is the motivation for a security task force anyway, when the numbers attracted by shock and smut are valued and deliberately leveraged? And is understaffing at any rate a valid excuse? In the offline space isn’t this logic akin to a company putting on a large concert without providing any bouncers or security?

Another ‘physical space’ analogy will help set the scene here. What would a concert look like if it was staged by Facebook? If the current online characteristics were to apply, anyone would be allowed free entry. The massive crowd would be met with billions of little ads strategically placed on seats and by the side of the main stage. But while the money is being made and the crowds are engaged there is a distinct lack of security or police presence. And when a fight breaks out on the dance floor, or when a stampede breaks out and people get crushed, it becomes glaringly obvious that no one has invested in the safety of the space. This is not a far-fetched analogy. We know that when deliberate bullying and harassment breaks out on Facebook it has more than once culminated in the suicide of a young person. There is something distinctly disingenuous about a vendor who cites participant numbers as the reason for the failure of security while at the same time deliberately overcrowding the premises with more people than can be responsibly served, in order to increase the revenue of advertising dollars. Is this an acceptable business model in offline public spaces?

At what point do we insist that if a business is going to make billions in the digital public domain, security and guidelines for participant behavior must figure (and be upheld) as part of the plan? And should these security measures be expected to fall solely to the police or do we need more robust laws in place for the online publishers and social networks to take more responsibility in the way they manage their shops? Why isn’t there more responsibility asked of these businesses? Why do they get to write their own ‘terms and conditions’ on these sites? Why do we treat a public event or business so dramatically differently to an online event or business?

In many ways Facebook occupies our public spaces in no different terms than Myer occupies public land in our major cities, and yet we haven’t asked for the same standards as any other retail outlet on the High Street. In the Internet’s formative years we have allowed the dotcoms and the ‘hate speak is free speech’ brigade to set the tone and the culture of our online public spaces. Under misused definitions and false freedoms we have all contributed to the mess and it is only by working together with all the relevant stakeholders that we can begin to re-imagine the Internet to reflect the aspirations we have for ourselves as a community, as a country, and as citizens of the world.

Ray Karam adds that the internet as a whole appears at this point to be self-regulated. “How can we sit back and leave the ‘largest public place’ in the world like this? To be fair there is no company, public park or otherwise in the ‘offline world’ that can compare to the sheer size of the internet and its ability to touch people, worldwide, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Internet needs to be redefined and seen as the ultimate ‘public place’, and regulated as such.”

The terrain has changed dramatically but the principles remain the same. All people deserve equality, respect and true freedom from harm. In many aspects of Australian life we have achieved this. We live in a remarkable country with an extremely hard working Police Force and Legal system. We live in a free country where we enjoy public spaces that are predominantly free from crime. And while there are criminal elements, as there are in all societies, for the most part these elements do not encroach on the freedoms enjoyed by the law-abiding.

So if we are world leaders in creating communities and public spaces that serve and support people, why aren’t we leading the way to bring these same qualities to the public domain that is the Internet? Perhaps it is no longer enough to keep what we have learned in our physical spaces confined to these; in fact we are and have always been part of an international community that can benefit from the principles that we live and embody.

In America the oft-cited constitutional ‘Right to Bear Arms’ has become the belligerent catch-cry of a nation imprisoned by its widespread gun-related crime. In Australia we were fortunate to see the writing on the wall after the massacre of Port Arthur and we became global leaders in the creation of gun policy that has saved many lives. As a result we have the country we enjoy today, free from mass shootings, disproportionate gun-violence and high rates of murder – and yet gun rights continue to be vigorously defended and championed in America. We are facing another defining moment here. We can again be leaders in enacting robust policy that sets an International benchmark. This is not a time to follow the lead of the USA or the UK, it is a time to take Australia’s aspirations and lived understanding of harmonious public spaces to the global table. It is time to set another world standard.

After all, it is not enough for us to keep the most livable cities in the world to ourselves on Australian shores – we now have an opportunity to expand this livability to the world through the window and connectivity of the web. In truth, this is a necessary evolution in our understanding of communication, our deep responsibility to expression and its global power to unite us. The world no longer has borders we can define and which separate us. But does this mean we shrink at the scale of the international culture that we find in our homes and in our offices? It is time we play bigger and take the qualities we have established with integrity in Australian public life to the world at large, while continuing to aspire to ever greater standards of mutual respect and equality in all aspects of daily life.

The way forward is to jump in, in full, and create the Internet-as-public-space as we want it to be. We have a right to set the parameters that inform the quality of our daily lives and our digital citizenship, and with the support of quality guidelines the Police will have a clear framework to enact the laws that form an essential aspect of making our common vision a reality….. A vision that holds all people with respect, equality and the true freedom to express in this most expansive public space.

About the author:

Rebecca Baldwin is a freelance writer, web developer and filmmaker. She is co-Director of Real Media Real Change, an organisation dedicated to making ‘media that connects’ while bringing awareness to real world effects of both new and traditional forms of media in daily life.

References:

http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/us-rapper-tyler-the-creator-unleashes-a-torrent-of-hate-on-sydney-activist-20130806-2rbbf.html

http://gawker.com/5950981/unmasking-reddits-violentacrez-the-biggest-troll-on-the-web

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cond%C3%A9_Nast_Publications

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