Marissa Mayer–Hatred Still In Vogue At Yahoo–Part 4

At the end of Part 3 of this series on cyberharassment–focusing especially on Yahoo and subsidiary Tumblr– I mentioned that intellectual discourse and threats of violence are not equivalent (as site owners often claim).

The right to free speech is not absolute. The courts often distinguish between high-value speech such as intellectual discourse, and low-value speech such as vile name-calling and threats. When people engaged in intellectual discourse are subjected to thousands of vile and threatening messages, this doesn’t form an equivalence.

One of the “big lies” encountered when discussing these issues is that threatening and harassing speech is somehow essential to free speech. But see Mary Anne Franks in Huffpo: Free Speech Elitism: Harassment Is Not the Price ‘We’ Pay for Free Speech. Two takeaway points here are that it’s possible to distinguish between different types of speech, and that the cost for threatening and harassing speech is disproportionately borne by women and minorities. Franks writes:

“[H]arassment is not the price that ‘we’ [all] pay for free speech. It is the price that certain groups and not others pay. … Free speech elitism is the pretense that ‘everyone’ shares equally in the costs and benefits of unfettered expression, when in reality the powerful receive the benefits while the marginalized bear the costs. Free speech elitists urge ‘tolerance’ for toxic expression because they know the burden of this tolerance will not fall on them.”

Just because a woman posts online that she thinks video games have a problem with sexist tropes doesn’t mean she should reasonably expect, or tolerate, or be complacent about receiving messages threatening to commit violence against her. That this occurs points to serious problems in our society, some of which need to be addressed by fine-tuning Internet law. See Danielle Citron, Law’s Expressive Value In Combating Cyber Gender Harassment. This is one of Citron’s most important works, since it goes beyond mere analysis and takes a stronger advocacy position on cyber civil rights.

One thing I understood better from Citron about the nonequivalence of intellectual discourse vs. threatening and shaming speech is that intellectual discourse invites participation, while threatening and shaming speech tries to silence the speaker and force him/her offline. Citron writes: “Self-expression should receive little protection if its sole purpose is to extinguish the self-expression of another.” Laura Bates echoes this view at TheGuardian.com: “[I]n all this hand-wringing over free speech, nobody is talking about the free speech of the women and girls who, as long as this [harassment] continues to go unacknowledged and unresolved, are effectively being driven out of online spaces altogether.”

It’s easy to forget in the passion of the moment that it’s not exclusively women and girls, but also other groups who suffer from cyberharassment. This includes ethnic and religious minorities, whose harassment often goes unreported. As hard as this is to believe, some groups have even less power than women do as a bloc, and are more afraid of reporting incidents lest the authorities become mere surrogate harassers.

Our highly diverse society includes many micro minorities living in small communities, and about whom little is known. They’re not the time-tested and approved minorities who, as good liberals, we’ve been taught by rote not to harass. They are “low information groups,” and are therefore especially vulnerable to Internet harassment and rumor panics.

“Low information group” is a term sometimes used in poly sci to describe voters who vote without complete or accurate information about candidates and issues. But here, I’m talking about something different: small groups or communities which comprise micro minorities, and which tend to live below the radar screen of populist media so that little is known about them, providing maximal opportunity for hate material containing misinformation to be circulated about them.

The concept of a low information group is easier to understand if we start from the individual. Suppose you’re a young teen whose family moves to a new town where you enroll in junior high. As the new kid, you’re a question mark: nobody knows anything about you and you get picked on. This might include somebody starting a Facebook page, Tumblr blog, or Yahoo group about you containing false information.

Consider the way certain pathological personalities operate on the Internet: they look for weaknesses and sensitivities to exploit. A support group for at-risk teens finds itself infiltrated by a harasser who keeps urging them to commit suicide. Women struggling with body image issues are hounded by a harasser who defaces their weight loss photos and tells them they’re “worthless pigs.”

When individual teens are harassed online, the harasser typically looks for some weakness, sensitivity, or question mark that can be filled in with hate material. This might include race-baiting, gay-baiting, or pandering to any available cultural stereotypes. Post 9/11, anyone who looks South Asian or Middle Eastern may be subjected to Muslim-bashing and use of the “T” word (terrorist), regardless of whether or not they are Muslim, and even if they are the most pacific of souls.

By my definition, low information groups are micro minorities about whom little is known by the general public. Scholarly knowledge about them may exist, but has not filtered down to the populist level, or may be eclipsed by stereotypes appearing in populist media. Because little is popularly known about them, low information groups are like the “new kid in town,” especially easy to pick on. And under conditions of Internet pseudo-anonymity, adults frequently act like teenagers, indulging their immature impulse to target vulnerable people with hatred and ridicule.

In America, there are always new low information groups. This is true for a number of reasons, but especially because America is not only a crucible or melting pot where people lose their distinctive cultural identities; it’s also a potter’s wheel and kiln where people forge new cultural identities based on beliefs and affinities.

Alienation seems to be an enduring feature of modern American life. The combination of capitalism, populism, technocracy, and media integration tends to create a uniform mainstream culture which is aimed at the lowest common denominator, but leaves many people feeling unsatisfied, searching for alternatives. Some people break away from the mainstream (if they were ever part of it) to create alternative communities based on different religious, cultural and political assumptions, or differing lifestyle choices.

Perhaps the nature of mainstream media is to primarily report on people seeking to join the mainstream and lose any baggage associated with their ethno-historic identity, to be melted down. But there are also people seeking to distinguish themselves from the mainstream by creating small intentional communities or affinity groups which reflect a more painstaking search for what is true, or what is a livable and sustainable set of values. The freedom of America increasingly looks like freedom to join the melting pot and become average. There is often a great deal of hostility and suspicion directed against people who, rather than melting themselves down, are trying to build themselves up by searching for what is cosmically right and true.

The classical role of the hero or heroine often involves gaining some distance from the mainstream, going on a journey, and returning with some new knowledge or insight which can then be used to solve problems, end injustice, or transform society. But the hero or heroine does not return unchanged. Upon returning from the journey, he or she may no longer be recognized as “one of us,” but instead be seen as “one of them.”

Much of this (currently four-part) series has been couched in terms of feminism, because women are the largest group to suffer from a power imbalance leading to Internet harassment. Those women who have gone in search of knowledge and insight and come back proposing changes to the status quo are those most likely to be harassed and threatened, or (more mildly) misunderstood and mischaracterized. But what most of them are proposing is a society which is more compassionate, more caring, more just, and rooted in the fundamental human dignity of each individual. Such a society would benefit men as well as women.

When resources are scarce, people compete for them. Tolerance, understanding, and freedom from hatred can seem scarce at times; therefore different groups sometimes focus on their own narrowly defined issues. The perceived political solution becomes creating a power bloc which must reckoned with, rather than creating a society in which the powerless are not ill-treated.

The power bloc approach has its value in terms of realpolitik, but tends to create a system of approved and unapproved minorities. One of the distinguishing features of low information groups is that they typically have no power bloc defending them and may therefore be described as “unapproved minorities” — not because they’ve failed any test or background check, but because in a highly politicized society, no one is looking out for their interests. They are beggars at the table, hoping for scraps of tolerance, understanding and human rights, but unable to politically leverage fair treatment. There may be laws on the books theoretically guaranteeing their rights, but those laws are not self-actuating in the absence of a power bloc ready to insist that their rights be upheld. Unapproved minorities may be too poor to wage protracted legal battles which would vouchsafe their rights.

In Part 3 of this series, I wrote that: “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.” Under Section 230, Yahoo/Tumblr is a fiefdom exempt from laws of general applicability that tend to protect minorities elsewhere in society. If Yahoo handles complaints from victims of harassment in a negligent or discriminatory manner, such malfeasance is subsumed under the immunity granted by Section 230.

Moving from the theoretical to the practical: Suppose you’re a Vietnamese Buddhist being harassed for both your ancestry and your peaceful religion. And suppose the person handling your complaint at Yahoo is someone trapped in white male techno reality. Here I must apologize and explain: It’s human nature to be stuck inside one’s own reality, whether that be white male reality, black lesbian reality, Iraq veteran amputee reality, etc. I’m not criticising white male techno reality as such, or suggesting that it’s any more narrow than other realities which people experience and come to embrace. It’s just that white male techno reality tends to rule the Internet, so to the extent it’s oblivious of other realities, and to the extent that Section 230 has the practical effect of enshrining it with kingly power, it poses a danger to people whose lives are defined by other realities and who have lesser power.

To further clarify: In Part 2 of this series I suggested that some corporate women are invited to join the “boys’ club” and participate in policies which continue to disproportionately disadvantage women and minorities. As modified and interpolated by Mary Anne Franks’ article about Free Speech Elitism, this means that women like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and former Yahoo Vice President & Associate General Counsel Anne Hoge essentially embrace the white male techno POV that threats and harassment are “the price we pay” for free speech on the Internet (and for corporate profits at Fortune 500 tech companies like Yahoo). So to continue…

Suppose you’re a Vietnamese Buddhist being harassed for both your ancestry and your peaceful religion. And suppose the person handling your complaint at Yahoo is someone trapped in white male techno reality. Suppose he’s been programmed to spout the cliché that threatening and harassing speech is just “the price we pay.” Suppose he’s also had it drilled into him that Yahoo always hangs onto free content because that’s what pays employees’ salaries. Suppose he’s a low-level grunt who’s never been exposed to any sensitivity training or education in comparative religion that would lead him to feel any sympathy for Vietnamese Buddhists. And suppose it’s been explained to him that the company doesn’t have to worry about lawsuits because Section 230 gives them bulletproof immunity. What are your chances of getting the harassing material taken down? Close to zero under current law.

More likely, you’ll end up feeling like you were violated twice: once by the original harassers, and once by the insensitivity of Yahoo Customer Care. But maybe we shouldn’t blame them; after all, the telephone booth they collectively inhabit might have been jostled during the renovations needed to make way for Marissa Mayer’s on-premises nursery. 🙂

Believe it or not, it gets worse. In Part 3, I discussed how Yahoo’s TOS talks out of both sides of its mouth: We have a no-harassment policy, but don’t expect us to actually implement it. Just use our site, click on the ads, and be comforted by our feelgood policy statements. Now suppose you try and fail at getting harassing material taken down. All Yahoo does is send a form e-mail to the permanently established neo-Nazi group telling them they really ought to play nice (but of course, they don’t have to). Now the harassers know you tried and failed at getting harassing material taken down, so how do they use this to their advantage? Of course, they brag about it: This is proof our hate material is really accurate because, after all, Yahoo has a policy against harassment. We couldn’t say these things if they weren’t true. Yahoo didn’t take down this material because they know we’re right! Vietnamese Buddhists really are a bunch of commies and faggots who deserve to be shot on sight!

So not to wax Lionel Ritchie-ish, but you’re “once, twice, three times a victim.” Yahoo’s marketing pretense of having a no-harassment policy ends up hurting victims more, because Yahoo’s inaction is treated as proof that whatever hateful lies are published on their site are really true. The Yahoo-ABC News partnership adds credence to the Yahoo brand, with the distinction between news and user-generated content getting hazier and hazier. The mainstreaming of hate.

Low information groups are unapproved minorities who have even less power than approved minorities to defend themselves. When Section 230 gives companies like Yahoo carte blanche to handle complaints not at all or any way they feel like, low information groups tend to get short shrift. This is because, like lone individuals, they have no power bloc sticking up for their interests. Cecilia Barnes wasn’t able to get Yahoo to take down harassing material until she finally filed suit.

This dovetails with concerns I raised in a post about human rights: We need policies protecting people’s rights to be applied neutrally, not based on whether or not we like them, whether they’re socially popular, or whether they have a large power bloc defending them. Members of low information groups or unapproved minorities often don’t report harassment because they rightly fear (based on real world experience) that the people to whom they would report the incidents may harbor the same prejudices and stereotypes as the harassers.

Are there things feminists can learn from the harassment of religious and ethnic minorities? One (possibly controversial) item would be that it’s not fundamentally about gender, it’s about power imbalances wherever they occur. This includes power imbalances between men and women, whites and nonwhites, rich and poor, etc. On the Internet, it also includes power imbalances between anonymous harassers and highly visible professionals.

Anonymity on the Internet is itself a huge and controversial topic which I won’t presume to tackle here. But see feminist law professor Nancy Leong’s blog post Anonymity and Abuse:

QUOTE:

What is it about the Internet that brings out this ugliness [of harassment]? Some have hypothesized that the lack of face-to-face contact loosens normal social inhibitions. A recent Wall Street Journal article, “Why We Are So Rude Online,” credits MIT Professor Sherry Turkle with the insight that “[b]ecause it’s harder [online] to see and focus on what we have in common, we tend to dehumanize each other.” Or, as Louis CK puts it, the Internet keeps us from building empathy.

Online anonymity worsens the empathy deficit. Unsurprisingly, evidence suggests that people behave in antisocial ways when granted anonymity. Research such as this classic study has long implicated anonymity in group antisocial behavior, thus explaining the way that anonymous posters often seem to encourage one another. And Saul Levmore and Martha Nussbaum’s excellent anthology The Offensive Internet explores the role of anonymity from a range of perspectives. (Of course, anonymity is far less ironclad than some posters seem to think — indeed, I was easily able to discover the identities of a few of my harassers using google, one in less than ten minutes.)

UNQUOTE

Elsewhere, Prof. Leong confirms that within the realm of anonymity, we can still make a distinction between high value speech (such as intellectual discourse) and low value speech (such as crude name-calling and threats). Anonymity is a blessing to people who are powerless but hope to speak truth to power, and a curse when used to harass innocents who have placed their professional reputations on the line in support of noble ideals. Prof. Leong puts it this way:

“[A]nonymity might empower some marginalized speakers to engage in discourse who would otherwise remain silent. But when anonymity facilitates harassing and abusive speech directed at marginalized identity groups, society has a strong First Amendment interest in regulating anonymity. Harassing and abusive speech results in a net loss to the marketplace of ideas. Online racial and gender harassment silences the speech of many women and people of color, diminishing the diversity of perspectives represented in online discourse and impoverishing the ‘free trade in ideas’ within ‘the competition of the market’ that Justice Holmes first discussed in his famous dissent in Abrams v. United States. If we really care about the marketplace of ideas, we should care about eliminating online racial and gender harassment.”

This implicitly states a paradox: Free speech is only maximized when speakers from marginalized groups are not silenced by threatening and harassing speech. Thus, the white male lawyer working for Internet media company truism that “the answer to bad speech is more speech and never less speech” turns out not to be true! To maximize free speech, we need to do a better job of protecting women and religious/ethnic minorities from threatening and harassing speech which aims to silence them. That (inherently) means creating, approving, publishing, and distributing less of such threatening and harassing speech.

However, the vested economic interest of many Internet media companies (and the lawyers who shill for them) is in using threatening and harassing speech as free content to draw eyeballs and run ads. Thus, to create a more compassionate society where hate speech is not tolerated one has to go up against well-trenched economic (and political) interests. Who drafted Section 230 so that it gives bulletproof immunity to site owners and requires them to do absolutely nothing in response to complaints of serious harassment? My guess is: politicians who were in the pocket of the telecommunications industry.

And while this gets a bit legal-geeky, if you look around the Net you’ll see that every time some poor consumer (like Cecilia Barnes) who was harasssed on Yahoo or elsewhere loses a Section 230 case, there are a bunch of entertainment lawyers whooping it up, crying Yippee! Section 230 still stands! We don’t even have to go to trial on most of these harassment cases, just quote Section 230 as an affirmative defense! Life is good! Our clients love us! They never have to pay out to the people they screw! Sad, truly sad.

That’s why — although I think the work that Danielle Citron, Mary Anne Franks and others are doing to get revenge pr0n laws passed is amazing — I wish more people would drum up support for pressuring Congress to amend Section 230 so that it no longer reflects regulatory capture and contempt for consumer rights.

Serious problems of harassment on Yahoo and Tumblr, but CEO Marissa Mayer continues to blow smoke. Do we really need a "biggr" Yahoo? Photoshopped image by doctorPS.

Serious problems of harassment on Yahoo and Tumblr, but CEO Marissa Mayer continues to blow smoke. Do we really need a “biggr” Yahoo? Photoshopped image by doctorPS.

Note: I didn’t discuss everything I planned to here in Part 4. Might need to do a follow-up.

Marissa Mayer–Hatred Still In Vogue At Yahoo–Part 3

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.

The blindfold -- a high fashion accoutrement evidently worn by Marissa Mayer but not itemized in the Vogue spread. Does she also own them in hot pink, teal, red, and royal blue? I'm picturing something akin to the Imelda Marcos shoe collection... Product image courtesy DHGate.com

The blindfold — a high fashion accoutrement evidently worn by Marissa Mayer but not itemized in the Vogue spread. Does she also own them in hot pink, teal, red, and royal blue? I’m picturing something akin to the Imelda Marcos shoe collection… Product image courtesy DHGate.com

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:

QUOTE:

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.

UNQUOTE

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.

Marissa Mayer strikes her now famous "Blue Narcissus" pose. But is vanity really fair? What we remember most about Narcissus is that his own reflection had a paralyzing effect, making him unable to hear the cries of Echo.

Marissa Mayer strikes her now famous “Blue Narcissus” pose. But is vanity really fair? What we remember most about Narcissus is that his own reflection had a paralyzing effect, making him unable to hear the cries of Echo.

Marissa Mayer–Hatred Still In Vogue At Yahoo–Part 2

In the prelude to this series, Twitter is Bad–Yahoo May Be Worse, I analyzed the problem of cyberharassment — especially of women and minorities — and offered some solutions, including rewriting the law that gives site owners bulletproof immunity. I also mentioned that Yahoo burns me more than Twitter because the presence of organized hate groups at static locations on Yahoo over a period of years requires the explicit cooperation of Yahoo management.

Then, in Marissa Mayer–Hatred Still In Vogue At Yahoo–Part 1, I suggested that Yahoo wants to use the spectacle of people trying to destroy each other’s lives as a circus attraction to draw eyeballs and sell ads. Flaming, doxxing, creepshots, and all kinds of misogyny and racial or religious hatred are not merely tolerated by some site owners, but welcomed as essential elements of their business plan. Online spectacle as cash cow.

Part 1 ended by pointing out that you can’t appeal to Yahoo’s sense of ethics because it’s missing in action. This remains true whether Yahoo’s CEO du jour is male or female. Their current CEO is Marissa Mayer, who came over from Google. Continuing on…

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright once said that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” I personally have no problem with Marissa Mayer posing in Vogue or “having the time of [her] life,” (as the Vogue piece quotes her); but these things distract attention from what she hasn’t done: change Yahoo’s policy of coddling hate groups who harass women and minorities, change Yahoo’s policy of leeching off such free content and using it to draw eyeballs and run ads. Sure, we all want to see women break the glass ceiling, but not if it entails climbing aboard the Yahoo pimpmobile and strapping themselves into the driver’s seat.

There’s an old joke about a blind piano player in a house of ill-repute who claims he has no idea what goes on upstairs. The piano player is neither pimp nor madam, so perhaps his role is minimal. But Yahoo CEOs (and Yahoo lawyers like Anne Hoge, now with WhatsApp Inc.) have always known what’s going on, how Yahoo defends its right to use hate speech as free content, and defends its right to take no meaningful action when consumers claim to be victims of harassment on its service. Yahoo CEOs and lawyers are not like the blind piano player, but more like the pimps and madams who keep Yahoo’s garishly decorated house of ill-repute running day-to-day, determined to extract maximum per-click value from every bigot or misogynyist who sends out diseased messages of hate — or reads them.

The glass ceiling can be broken in two fundamentally different ways: Some women are invited to join the “boys’ club” and embrace policies which undergird the continued harassment of women and minorities. If they have feminine instincts of compassion and empathy, they’ve learned to stuff them in their back pockets while climbing the corporate ladder. Their arrival at the top therefore fails to signal any significant shift toward more woman-friendly policies for consumers. So it seems with Marissa Mayer at Yahoo.

By contrast, consider Ariel Zwang, the CEO of Safe Horizon, a successful nonprofit which is renowned for helping women who are victims of domestic violence. Without attempting to artificially impose gender roles, I would say that she’s a strong woman and role model who cares about the plight of women and minorities, and who didn’t have to sacrifice empathy and compassion in order to succeed. Rather, she’s turned those qualities into strengths and virtues at both a personal and corporate level.

Ironically, while Marissa Mayer was featured in Vogue, Ariel Zwang was one of four women who signed a letter of protest to Condé Nast over a Vogue cover showing model Stephanie Seymour being choked by model Marlon Teixeira. Choking chic, how fashionable! (They mercifully omitted the centerfold of Robert Chambers.)

The controversial Vogue cover cashing in on choking chic

The controversial Vogue cover cashing in on choking chic

A kittenish Marissa Mayer poses in Vogue. But are her ethics also upside-down?

A waxworks Marissa Mayer poses in Vogue. But are her ethics also upside-down?

All women deserve to live lives free from harassment and violence, but we have more natural admiration for women who won’t accept a top position with an ethically challenged firm like Yahoo unless they’re sure they can do something to change its unethical behavior.

This line of thought dovetails with something I posted a couple of months ago: Hina Shamsi on Now with Alex Wagner. Shamsi’s a lawyer with the ACLU who also teaches a course in international human rights at Columbia Law School. I’m impressed with her for many reasons, not least because she used her law degree in the service of human rights, rather than becoming a snaggletoothed enforcer for some sh*tty company like Yahoo a la Anne Hoge.

The world needs women of courage and integrity like Ariel Zwang and Hina Shamsi who care more about touching the world with hearts of compassion than whether or not they’re ever fêted by Vogue.

BTW, it’s funny how those trapped in the fashion bubble have no clue about Net life. Vogue heralds the changes Mayer made to Yahoo Mail as drawing positive reviews, when the truth is that Yahoo Mail users were furious. See Slate.com, Yahoo Mail Users Hate “Gorgeous” Redesign, Can’t Find the Print Button. It’s the same with Yahoo Groups. See TheRegister.co.uk, Ghastly! Yahoo! Groups! gripes! grip! grumpy! gremlin grumblers!

If you’ve followed my series on cyberharassment, you may have clicked on this piece by Lisa Guernsey: Mainstream Sites Serve As Portals To Hate. Ironically, Marissa Mayer has given Yahoo Groups a makeover she dubs “Neo,” without kicking out the neo-Nazis and other hate groups who’ve been routinely harassing women and minorities on Yahoo for years. Fortunately, Vogue got the really important stuff right:

“The day we had that conversation in her white, glossy, minimally appointed office in Sunnyvale, California, she was wearing a red Michael Kors dress with a gold belt and a brown Oscar de la Renta cardigan. This cashmere bolero is her work uniform–she has the same one in ivory, navy, black, hot pink, teal, red, and royal blue, and adds new colors every season.”

Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if even her phone is pimped out! (See The IT Crowd, S02E02.)

Vogue also boosts Mayer for getting props from Henry Blodget — but is the memory of fashion folk so short as to forget that Blodget was permanenently banned from the securities industry for pimping Internet stocks which he allegedly knew were dubious investments? See Securities and Exchange Commission v. Henry Blodget here.

The evidence mounts that Mayer’s an empty matador suit slinging the bull, not an agent for positive change. Though the Vogue piece joins her thematically with Bolero, her theme song should really be the Monty Python ditty about Sir Robin. From the longtime ethical challenges faced by Yahoo (and now Tumblr), Ms. Mayer has bravely, bravely run away. She’s yet another dubious investment touted by Wall Street bigs, who always manage to find a way of maintaining the status quo.

In Part 3 we’ll look more at Tumblr (which Marissa Mayer bought for Yahoo in mid-2013), and at the tortured euphemisms Mayer employs to avoid directly using the word “porn” when describing much of the traffic on Tumblr. We’ll also see some classic examples of the Tumblr brush-off response to women’s complaints of serious harassment.

Marissa Mayer–Hatred Still In Vogue At Yahoo–Part 1

After seeing Amanda Hess talk about cyber-harassment on The Cycle, I posted Twitter is Bad–Yahoo May Be Worse. Today I’d like to continue that discussion.

Based on my experiences with Yahoo, I’m convinced they want to hang onto hateful content as a form of spectacle, like an online version of the Jerry Springer Show (where people throw chairs at each other), but more extreme. We often see this softcore/hardcore dichotomy between TV and the Internet. Cable TV provides softcore pr0n and softcore hate, while the Internet provides hardcore versions of these same commodities. (Again, see Lisa Guernsey, New York Times, Mainstream Sites Serve As Portals To Hate.)

At Jezebel.com, the call for horror stories has led to many being told — stories which resonate with me and corroborate my view that some site owners use the spectacle of people trying to destroy each other’s lives as a circus attraction to draw eyeballs and sell ads.

Flaming, doxxing, creepshots, and all kinds of misogyny and racial or religious hatred are not merely tolerated by some site owners, but welcomed as essential elements of their business plan. These are the “fight promoters” who provide the means and venue for the fight to take place, but are currently shielded from any legal liability for what happens in the ring. Such indemnity flies in the face of common law and common sense, since it fails to examine who profits from the deed and to assign blame proportionally. Internet fights are often many-against-one, with the one ending up psychologically maimed and sometimes even committing suicide.

The next time you see an example of online hatred or harassment, examine the page carefully with ad blocking off. Chances are you’ll see some type of company logo and/or advertising. I always think to myself, “This hate message brought to you by Yahoo…” Until such time as the laws can be changed, organizing economic boycotts of sites and advertisers who sponsor online hatred may be helpful.

The familiar paper-bag-over-head model means that some advertisers may be unaware they’re sponsoring hate speech, misogyny, doxxing, etc. One approach would be to screenshot hateful content that’s ad sponsored, then contact the advertiser and show them what their ad dollars are buying, what type of content their company is being associated with. Also cc the site owner. Changing the law will take time. Educating (or shaming) site owners and advertisers is an important interim startegy. We should ultimately try and remove the economic incentive to treat hate speech as desirable content, and instead create an economic disincentive.

Over at PandoDaily, Carmel DeAmicis implies that we should preserve full immunity for site owners, but merely appeal to their sense of ethics. I take a different view. Since 1996, we’ve experimented with giving site owners bulletproof immunity from lawsuits by victims of online harassment. What did that get us? Revenge pr0n sites where people (mostly men) upload embarrassing photos and videos of exes they now hate! If you’re analyzing the problem, you should draw a big red arrow between the so-called Communications Decency Act of 1996 and revenge pr0n. Read the case law and you’ll find that some judges regret having to let site owners off the hook for unbelievably negligent and hurtful actions (or failures to act), but their hands are tied by the law.

Read feminist law professor Ann Bartow’s scathing analysis of Cecilia Barnes v. Yahoo here. You can’t appeal to Yahoo’s sense of ethics because it’s apparently missing in action. This remains true whether Yahoo’s CEO du jour is male or female. Their current CEO is Marissa Mayer, who came over from Google.

In Part 2 of this series I’ll discuss Mayer’s successes (as a fashion plate) and failures (as an ethical model) in greater detail. The initial takeaway is that under Marissa Mayer, hatred is still “in vogue” at Yahoo. (Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we have title!)

Twitter is Bad–Yahoo May Be Worse

Today I saw Amanda Hess on MSNBC’s The Cycle talking about cyber-harassment. I decided to YouTube her short segment and blog about it here.

Many good people have written about the problem of cyber-harassment, including legal genius Danielle Citron. Her best-known magnum opus might be the impressive article Cyber Civil Rights. Her similarly themed “Civil Rights in Our Information Age” is included in the book The Offensive Internet. I add my voice below:

Follow the money and change the law. Section 230 of the so-called Communications Decency Act of 1996 is at the heart of the problem. It gives telecom companies bulletproof immunity from lawsuits by victims of online harassment, and requires the companies to do absolutely nothing! This is a case of regulatory capture. It would be possible to rewrite the law, finessing the language so that companies who profit by drawing eyeballs to hateful content may bear some liability under some circumstances (such as when they ignore repeated complaints from victims!). Once companies like Twitter and Yahoo face potential liability for online harassment, they’ll miraculously discover the resources and means to minimize such harassment. Free speech will not disappear from the Internet, but discussions will be more civil, which is sorely needed.

Today the Internet is (in practice) a public accommodation, but is not treated as such by law. Change the law so that virtual spaces where people congregate are subject to public accommodation law. Amend civil rights laws to explicitly outlaw harassment on the basis of gender, sexual preference, and religion. This is a women’s issue, but not exclusively so. Many minorities are routinely harassed on the Internet. Minority victims often don’t report incidents for fear that police may harbor the same prejudices as the harassers.

While law enforcement may have limited resources and can’t deal with every single harassing tweet, the Justice Dept. could make a few high profile sweeps of serial harassers, and draw media attention to arrests and convictions. It could send a clear message that if you violently threaten people online, you may be caught and punished.

Law enforcement needs to educate rank-and-file officers about cyber-harassment, and to send female officers to assist female victims whenever possible, as is often done with rape complaints. Likewise, where the victim is a member of a minority, the responding officer should ideally have received some sensitivity training in minority issues.

Early education is way behind the curve. In an increasingly diverse society where people also spend much of their time online, we need early education curricula which teach children good people skills, like how and why to value each person and treat them with respect and kindness, and the do’s and don’t’s of Internet behavior, including specific prohibitions against online stalking and harassment.

As Netizens, we also need to stop perpetuating the myth that the least smitch of regulation will cause free speech on the Internet to come to a screeching halt. The truth is that the Net consists of many neighborhoods — some more mainstream and respectable, others more marginal and reflecting a higher degree of illicit activity. All types of speech can be found somewhere on the Internet. This would continue to be true even if those U.S. companies now blaring explicit hate speech enjoyed less lavish legal immunity. It’s helpful to recognize that the CDA is itself a type of artificial regulation of the Internet which is corporation-friendly, consumer-hostile, and counterintuitive. In real life, people are responsible for acts of negligence, and for knowingly facilitating threats of violence, e.g. by holding the megaphone for the person making the threats.

What burns me is the “mainstreaming” of hate on Yahoo and Facebook. Yahoo in particular has been openly coddling hate groups and giving them a happy home for at least 15 years. See Lisa Guernsey, New York Times, Mainstream Sites Serve As Portals To Hate. See also feminist law professor Ann Bartow’s analysis of Barnes v. Yahoo here. (Why does Yahoo burn me more than Twitter? Because the presence of organized hate groups at static locations on Yahoo over a period of years requires the explicit cooperation of Yahoo management.)

As a fan of bad 50’s sci-fi, I’ve always loved the line in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space that goes: “One thing’s for sure: Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody’s responsible!” On the Internet, people get “virtually murdered” every day, yet nobody’s responsible. Everybody’s wearing a paper bag over their head. Companies like Yahoo aggregate hate messages along with weather reports, stock quotes, celebrity gossip, cute pics of kittens with yarnballs, comic strips, and ads from Fortune 500 companies. The hateful and threatening content is delivered in an integrated format where it sits alongside mainstream content, sending the message that hate is something mainstream, something to be passively accepted, even embraced as a new form of entertainment. Is that who we are as a people? Is hate speech targeting women and minorities the latest fun entertainment craze, and is Yahoo cashing in with no sense of moral compunction? I would not hesitate to call Yahoo a bad corporate citizen.

One of the many problems with the so-called Communications Decency Act of 1996 is that it makes a naïve and simplistic distinction between ISPs and content providers. Despite delivering what certainly looks like content to the end user, Yahoo is not generally treated as a content provider, and therefore enjoys immunity for the complete, published pages it serves up from aggregated sources. With its recognized brand, Yahoo draws eyeballs to the content, and profits by selling ads. Yahoo knowingly provides a huge megaphone to hate groups, and is responsible for mainstreaming hateful content by aggregating it with familiar types of news and entertainment. Yahoo reaps the profits from this enterprise, but under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Yahoo enjoys iron-clad immunity from lawsuits by the victims of hatred and harassment on its service. This injustice will only end when people care enough to make it end.

The money in politics is part of the problem, since the big telecom companies can afford to pay the politicians to write the law the way they want it written. As Netizens, we also bear some responsibility for stubbornly clinging to the position that any regulation whatsoever is bad. The Internet may once have been a weak child, but has grown into an incredibly strong, robust (if emotionally stunted) adult. Hateful and threatening content will always be available on the Internet; but with carefully crafted regulation, it will no longer be welcome on Yahoo and other mainstream services, and will no longer fit neatly into those companies’ business plans. It will no longer be desirable to Yahoo as free content to draw eyeballs and run ads, because of the potential liabilities.

Instead, people who want to publish (or read) hateful and threatening content will increasingly have to go to sites which specialize in such content. Just as pr0n is largely relegated to the pr0n ghettoes of the Internet, hateful and threatening content would be largely relegated to the hate ghettoes. Though not perfect, that’s a compromise which would represent a distinct improvement over the present situation, a “de-mainstreaming” of hate. What do you think?

Apart from revising Section 230 of the CDA, another type of action involves getting state and federal laws passed which criminalize revenge pr0n. Law professors Danielle Citron and Mary Anne Franks having been active and successful in this area. This is extremely helpful, but still leaves most types of harassment unaddressed. A strategic question is whether the piecemeal criminalization of known types of Internet harassment stands the best chance of protecting victims and achieving social change. This might be true if one sees little chance that Congress will ever revisit the problematic language of Section 230.

Still, it seems that no matter what form of Internet harassment people are subjected to (and there are many variations), Section 230 typically provides site owners with bulletproof immunity. Despite the progress in criminalizing revenge pr0n, I still think we need a long-term movement to rewrite Section 230 so that it no longer reflects naïve idealism and regulatory capture. I wonder which acts as a greater deterrent to shareholders of a company like Yahoo: the concern (perhaps minimal) that an employee might be found guilty of a misdemeanor, or the concern that the company might be held liable for civil damages. Am I wrong to think that the greater fear is payouts to consumers who were harmed by the company’s action, inaction, willful negligence, or deceptive terms of service? If so, revising Section 230 may provide a stronger deterrent than enacting revenge pr0n laws.

The other problem with a piecemeal approach is that even among oppressed groups, some are more powerful than others and more able to rally political support for legislation crafted to protect their interests. The danger, then, with piecemeal legislation is that we could end up with a collection of sacred cows, while the sheep are still left to the wolves. Revising Section 230 is, in theory, a more equalitarian solution which would help a wider range of victims, including religious and ethnic minorities.