Part 2 of this series ended by suggesting that Marissa Mayer’s acquisition of Tumblr for Yahoo in mid-2013 may carry its own ethical baggage, and that like Yahoo itself, Tumblr notoriously brushes off harassment complaints from women and minorities.
According to Business Insider, “a TON of Tumblr’s traffic and usage is thanks to porn hosted on Tumblr blogs. When Yahoo bought Tumblr for $1.1 billion, Mayer addressed the porn issue, saying: ‘I think the richness and breadth of content available on Tumblr — even though it may not be as brand safe as what’s on our site — is what’s really exciting and allows us to reach even more users.’ … Dailymotion is … also full of porn and a company that Yahoo tried to buy.”
At NewYorker.com, Caitlin Kelly satirizes the Yahoo-Tumblr corporate romance with a series of mock love letters between Mayer and Tumblr founder David Karp. Her last letter reads: “You left your iPad here in San Francisco after your last visit. I accidentally turned it on and it just loaded up Tumblr and, well…we need to talk about your porn problem.”
Lots of LULZ — but let’s take a serious look at what happens when people complain to Tumblr. In Tumblr thinks harassment is cool, freelance cartoonist Koriander documents what it felt like to be stalked and threatened, only to receive an apparent form letter from “Danii” at Tumblr Support telling her to simply ignore the (public) shaming because “In order to maintain freedom of expression, we won’t remove that material right now.” On the form letter itself, Koriander wrote: “Ignoring does not mean the rest of the world isn’t watching.” She then wrote on Blogspot:
“No, Danii. This is NOT acceptable. You have failed to do your job. The TOS agreement for Tumblr expressly says that you are not to use the site to harass, belittle or post hate against anybody for any reason. Yet that is just what these people have done. And yet the Tumblr team didn’t think that this was worth their time. That it’s ‘freedom of expression’ for total strangers to name-call and ask people to kill themselves…. This complacent attitude, when suicides are on the rise due to cyber stalking and harassment, is NOT acceptable. What would it take, Danii? A few more suicides from the harassment? A lawsuit against Tumblr? Would you like it if people trolled you like this? How much is too much? At what point as a society did we start to mollycoddle and accept stalking, slander, harassment and threats as ‘innocent bullying’? This is as bad as when a cop ignores a spouse who’s been beaten, and says ‘Meh, domestic dispute’ and refuses to take into custody the criminal. … Enough. I hereby urge people to drop Tumblr like the bad habit it is. If you have tweens/teens order them to do the same. Flood their inbox with your concern over this blind acceptance of hate. We need to make a change.”
Lest you think this a one-off, here’s another: In Information about Tumblr, cyberbullying, and the law, a blogger struggles to make sense of the yawning chasm between Tumblr Terms of Service and Tumblr reality. Like Koriander, she’s concerned about the connection between online harassment and teen suicide. She wrote to Netsafe, a nonprofit organization concerned with cyberbullying:
“I am a New Zealand resident who would like to report cyberbullying and harassment that is taking place on the Tumblr.com website in direct violation of Tumblr’s Terms of Service. I have already contacted them, and they responded by saying that they support ‘freedom of speech,’ as if that is somehow relevant to my complaint.”
“This person told me twice to kill myself. She told another person that she wanted them to get raped with a fish hook. She stated that children who commit suicide due to cyberbullying are just carrying out natural selection. She is a danger to the very people and children who are susceptible to suicide, as she finds victims, stalks, and harasses them. Tumblr is not enforcing its own Terms of Service. I have attached screenshots of the offending comments…”
She went on to itemize contradictory portions of the Tumblr TOS. Netsafe wrote back to her:
“Thank you for your email. This kind of content on any site is distressing and disturbing. Tumblr is a site which is quite transparent about the lack of responsibility it takes regarding content. You have quite correctly copied from their terms and conditions…”
“Tumblr is quite clear that they don’t guarantee that they will do anything about any content. Unfortunately when you accept the terms of Tumblr in signing up you have agreed to this. Most people (myself included) don’t read the terms of a website before they sign up and we do need to get better at doing this. What this means practically is that it would be advisable not to use Tumblr because in doing so you are exposed to harassment or worse with basically no recourse. It is quite awful, however they are clear about their message. I know this doesn’t seem like it is much help, however it is the reality of many sites on the internet and we all need to be aware of this.”
She wrote back to Netsafe:
“Many of the people I associate with on Tumblr are abuse survivors. I was hoping Netsafe could do something since Tumblr is too busy spouting their ‘free speech’ rhetoric to care about at-risk victims. Are you saying that if Tumblr chose to do something completely illegal, there is no outside force that could do anything?”
Netsafe replied with suggestions of making a report to local police, and getting a Court Order so Tumblr would take down some of the offensive material. Netsafe also wrote:
“I looked up some of the laws in the US and found the following: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes website from any liability resulting from the publication of information provided by another. This usually arises in the context of defamation, but several courts have expanded it to cover other sorts of claims as well. Thus, if a user posts defamatory or otherwise illegal content, Section 230 shields the social network provider from any liability arising out of the publication.”
“The difficulty is that Tumblr have put in place a lot of disclaimers so unless the Tumblr users complain sufficiently to convince them to take action, it is very difficult. For example Facebook has certainly become more conscious of providing a better service to its users as a result of dissatisfaction expressed to them. On the internet it is often the community of users that drive change.”
That saga doesn’t quite make the economic connections and seems to end in puzzlement for the end user. In truth, companies like Yahoo and (now subsidiary) Tumblr have their TOS written by lawyers and marketing/PR people. Yes, there are huge inconsistencies and the disclaimers typically take away any rights you might think you have. But meditate well on the actual purpose: To make the service look safe (by announcing a no-harassment policy) when it is in fact not safe (because the policy is not implemented). It’s like trying to play poker with someone who holds all the cards while you have none. As noted above, Section 230 gives all the rights to the site owner, who can make the site sound really safe without expending any resources to help people who are being horribly harassed. You don’t like it? As feminist law professor Ann Bartow characterizes Yahoo’s response to victim Cecilia Barnes: Go pound sand!
Again, it’s helpful to keep refocusing on the economic underpinnings: Spectacle draws eyeballs leading to increased ad revenues, so don’t be surprised if your complaint to Yahoo about serious harassment receives a polite brush-off couched as a paean to Free Speech. Oh, what crocodile tears they do shed! We’d love to help you, but Section 230 says we don’t have to, and anyway we believe in Free Speech. Now genuflect three times and disappear! They’re crying all the way to the bank (or the Vogue photo shoot).
Sadly, in some cases this is corporate women (e.g. Marissa Mayer, Anne Hoge) screwing over women affected by corporate policies. I sometimes wonder if class is not thicker than gender, and dollar signs are the only emoticons certain isolated women understand. Marissa Mayer’s net worth is estimated to be about 300 million dollars. That’s no reason to hate her, but it is reason to wonder whether she considers the end users that Yahoo royally screws to be faceless proles, possibly lacking cashmere boleros.
Over at Jezebel.com, Dances With Squalor writes:
“I co-mod a fairly popular blog on Tumblr about male privilege, and have received countless rape and death threats as a result. The founder of the blog was driven off Tumblr completely when a group of detractors doxxed her, posting not only her full name, address, and other details, but pictures of the outside of her house. These pictures were accompanied by threats of firebombing. It’s actually not as bad now as it used to be, but there was a point when there were dozens of hate blogs devoted to mocking our blog/ specific moderators. Another of our mods was repeatedly doxxed, and has also left Tumblr as a result. It’s frightening how effectively they were silenced. Both of them left genuinely fearing for their lives, which is horrifying. Even talking about this is frightening, because I do worry that the detractors will come for me one day.”
On the same page, Michelle H writes of her cyber-harasser:
“I stopped geotagging photos and locked down all of my other social media accounts. I became paranoid & anxious. I had difficulties sleeping, because I lived on the first floor in a garden condo, and I was worried he would try to break in at night. At one point I went to Tumblr with screenshots of his messages despite my repeated requests for him to ‘Please stop contacting me.’ They actually refused to do anything. I remember feeling stunned — This was a community that I had loved and trusted for years, and they just didn’t give a sh*t that someone was harassing me there. I hope they’ve improved their policies, because when this happened about 2 years ago they didn’t take it seriously at all, and there were very few controls to stop someone from harassing you.”
There’s a petition directed at Tumblr which highlights in stark terms the difference between having a (non-binding) policy and actually doing something. (Suppose our murder laws were merely aspirational?) The petitioner writes:
“The site is rather nice, as are the functions. But the staff and their utter carelessness and lack of empathy/protection for their userbase is deplorable and unprofessional. They are letting illegal activity happen on their site, and no one is getting helped. Little is being done about it. Even if tumblr has a large userbase, the staff should be able to handle cases like this. It is happening more frequently because support is allowing harassers and stalkers to get away with it. … I have frequently emailed tumblr support for help only to be told that being encouraged to self harm and KILL MYSELF is ‘freedom of speech.’ Having my posts reblogged by a user and having them say ‘go harass this person’ is apparently ‘freedom of speech’ according to support. Freedom of Speech is NOT meant to harm others. TUMBLR ENCOURAGES THE USE OF ITS SITE TO CYBERBULLY WITH THESE POLICIES. THIS CANNOT CONTINUE.”
See also Racial Abuse on Tumblr Goes Ignored by Support Staff, where Dion Beary writes:
“Rape threats. Violent death threats. Racial slurs. It’s all just become a part of the experience of using Tumblr, particularly for people of color, and especially for women of color and queer people of color. I’ve encountered users who have received relentless violent messages for days on end. [examples of hate messages] Of course people who think and speak like this exist, but what’s worse than the messages is Tumblr support staff’s flippant reaction to the abuse. … It looks like everyone on Tumblr’s support staff failed basic Civics and Economics, so let me tell you how freedom of speech works. Your freedoms end where mine begin. You may have the right to blog all you want about Neo-Nazism and Culturalism, but the moment you enter someone else’s space and threaten them, you have violated their freedom. Tumblr explicitly places the rights of white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and violent racists over the rights of black and brown people who’ve committed no other crime than talking about their daily lives.”
A Mother Jones article on harassment vs. free speech includes a potent quote from Jaclyn Friedman, executive director for Women, Action and the Media, a nonprofit that advocates for gender equality: “The idea that a social-media network should be entirely neutral is a myth… Neutral platforms are only neutral for straight white dudes. These companies need to make a decision: Do I want to be making money off of a platform where abusers and harassers feel more comfortable than the abused and harassed?”
At Jezebel.com, catsarethebest10 recounts this story:
Oh, I have a good one. Remember Yahoo! games? Where you could play checkers and ask people a/s/l [age/sex/location] all day long?
I was an avid checkers player and naturally began chatting with people. I was probably 13 at the time, a kid, and thought it was harmless. Turns out it wasn’t. The guy I began chatting with regularly eventually asked for my phone number. We had plans to meet up (although I have no idea how it would happen because I was 13. But oh wait, he’s older and has a car–should have been a red flag).
Then all of a sudden he went quiet. He wasn’t playing games anymore. Wasn’t on MSN Messenger anymore. No longer texted. Just gone.
Turns out, he was convicted of 3 counts of sexually assaulting a child and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
To me, this underscores the fact that Yahoo’s TOS has always been incredibly deceptive with its combination of marketing language and legalese. It basically takes away with the left hand what it gives with the right. As a result, kids and parents are hornswoggled into thinking Yahoo is a safe place to play when it certainly is not!
People who aren’t sophisticated about media see the Yahoo brand and all sorts of straight news stories popping up in close proximity to user-generated content. Some hate groups have even begun to capitalize on this by making vile claims about women and minorities, while prefacing them with “As reported on Yahoo…” The Yahoo-ABC News partnership only increases the danger that anything branded with the Yahoo logo will seem like news to kids, non-college grads, or anybody who hasn’t learned to clearly distinguish between the different types of content that Yahoo aggregates. On Yahoo, hate speech ends up looking like just another form of infotainment. This is what I’ve referred to elsewhere as “the mainstreaming of hate.”
The blogger at The Rogue Feminist lists steps for Defending Yourself Against Harassers on Tumblr, but many of the measures involve making your Tumblr blog increasingly invisible or even deleting it. This final measure presumably dovetails with the intent of the harassers, who want to drive women and minorities offline — especially those active in bringing problems to light. See The Feminist Fangirl on Sexism, Cyber Harassment and Gaming Culture: The Kickstarter Incident.
The fact that some of these posts about cyberharassment are published on Tumblr itself raises an issue worth disposing of: Many site owners/lawyers/lobbyists complacent about online harassment have four automatic responses:
1. The problem is really not that bad.
2. Ignore the trolls.
3. Cure bad speech with good speech.
4. Don’t change existing laws giving total immunity to site owners, or the Internet as we know it will cease to exist.
Without getting too didactic or legal-geeky, I think many readers can spot how self-serving these responses are. Most of these companies make their money by running paid ads over free content supplied by users. Hate speech is free content; complaints about hate speech are more free content; and the furor raised by the controversy draws more eyeballs, justifying higher ad rates — all good if you’re a site owner. What victims of online harassment (and their advocates) are increasingly saying is:
1. The problem is that bad.
2. Women and minorities shouldn’t accept death threats etc. with complacency. (Neither should men, for that matter.)
3. Not all bad speech can be cured with good speech.
4. The Internet as we know it won’t cease to exist if the laws are tweaked so that site owners are required to take complaints from victims more seriously.
Ergo, the fact that some feminists blog on Tumblr doesn’t mean that Tumblr doesn’t have ongoing problems with harassment. The presence of some civil discourse doesn’t negate the problem of threats to rape or kill.
In Part 4, we’ll talk more about how intellectual discourse and threats of violence are not equivalent (as site owners often claim). We’ll tackle cyberspace idealism vs. cyberspace reality, fueled by law professor Mary Anne Franks’ excellent Idealism And Discrimination In Cyberspace. We’ll also discuss how Section 230 has the effect of giving companies like Yahoo carte blanche to practice blatant discrimination during the complaint resolution process (if any), turning victims of online harassment into abject supplicants who can only hope or beg that the company might be willing to lift a finger to help them. We’ll look more closely at the harassment of micro minorities and “low information groups.”
On a conciliatory note, we’ll also consider that people like Marissa Mayer who opt for personal success that comes equipped with blinders and tunnelvision might one day become great humanitarians — but only after the bubble bursts. Thus, to realize what a sh*tty company Yahoo is might ultimately have a salutary effect. 🙂
History provides us with certain irresistible focal points, like Nero fiddling while Rome burns, or Mayer voguing while Yahoo festers.