Monthly Archives: November 2012

Should we have an international law for the internet? Trolling, policing and injustice

Matthew Woods, a teen who joked about April Jones on Facebook, has been sentenced to 12 weeks in prison. As a follow-up to the ‘Private and professional spheres’ post, I will now explain why this is ridiculous.

OK, forget the too-obvious arguments that prison will only lead to unemployment or paying thousands of pounds of tuition fees if he has to repeat a year of college, which will lead to Matthew becoming bitter and hating people – not becoming a better person. Forget the arguments that the internet is now being policed far more strictly than real life, or that the punishment doesn’t fit the “crime”. Forget the free speech arguments. They’ve no doubt been argued to death. No, let’s pretend that it is perfectly ethical to criminalise Matthew and that 12 weeks is an appropriate and mature reaction.

Well…even after pretending all of that, we still have a problem. Because the punishments never seem to fit the crimes. There seems to be no scale of internet justice.

Matthew just joked about a dead girl. However Michael Brutsch (as Violentacrez) actually posted either links to news articles or actual photos (depending on whether you believe Gawker.com or Brutsch) of dead girls. So, by that logic, shouldn’t Brutsch be given more than 12 weeks in jail, because his “crime” was worse than Woods’? And Brutsch was much older than Matthew. However, Brutsch didn’t even get arrested because USA law differs from UK law.

Similarly, the paparazzi who took nude shots of Kate Middleton from a mile away will have his career boosted, while posters to the subReddit Creepshots were outed by other individuals, and Brutsch, whose only role in Creepshots was to moderate it by removing any child pornography (something we can all agree with), was outed by Gawker and fired. (Bear in mind that the Creepshots photos were public and clothed in contrast to the photos of Kate who was naked and in private. The photos of Kate were the ultimate Creepshots, going far beyond anything ever posted to the Creepshots subreddit.) Yet no attempt has been made by individuals online to out the paparazzi who took the photos. Again, internet justice seems to be standing upon its head.

Most recently, Gawker reported on a misogynistic blog which (in my personal opinion) was far more disturbing than Matthew Woods’ comments or Brutsch’s pornography. Thois was real hate, and it was far longer than Woods’ one-liners. However, though Gawker outed Brutsch, they did not out the person behind the blog. The only individual who did think he should be outed then changed their mind and refused to do it, claiming that not enough people wanted him outed.

Not to mention the trolls I’ve come across online – one of whom, “Snails” repeatedly made racist comments on AOL about a 6 year old boy killed in a hit and run.  “Snails” commented that it was great that there was “one less Paki” and asked “did he have a big cock?”. Other users were disgusted, yet he/she was not arrested or jailed. Similarly, I experienced – as well as perpertrated- what I would now call cyberbullying – insulting classmates online during arguments. At least Matthew Woods wasn’t cyberbullying; it would be different if he’d made those comments to April’s parents.

As I concluded in the ‘professional vs private spheres’ post, I again am forced to conclude that the law and media punish the least guilty while letting the real haters and misogynists go free.

It may be worth considering whether we should have a single set of laws for the internet, instead of relying on the laws of the country in which the individual posted comments to the internet. This might be more fair, and avoid the Woods/Brutsch problem of less guilty individuals being jailed while worse individuals go free simply because of the country they happen to reside in. Such an Internet Law would obviously be a form of international law and have its own court system. For practicality, perhaps every nations’s court system could hear internet cases, just like all EU member state courts can apply EU law (be EU courts).

Paedomania vs Slut-shaming: There can be only one!

Paedomania is the moral panic over paedophiles. Moral panics were first indentified by Cohen (1971). They are a disproportionate societal reaction to a threat, usually to do with sex. Previous moral panics have included the 17th century witch-hunts, American reactions to 9/11 and the satanic ritual sexual abuse panic of the late ’80s and early ’90s. This panic continues today albeit with the satanic ritual aspect, with tabloid frenzy over paedophiles and ‘stranger danger’ when in reality paedophilia is rare and most victims are molested by their own parents, relatives, teachers and babysitters.

Slut-shaming is the more familiar concept of bullying and harassing women for their sex lives while allowing men to do the same thing. Slut-shaming is connected to victim-blaming and sexual bullying.

The recent stories of Megan Stammers and Amanda Todd have led me to conclude that both of these phenpmena cancel each other out. In the case of Megan Stammers, the divide was a clear split between those who saw Jeremy Forrest as a paedophile and Megan as a victim with no agency, and those who saw Jeremy as a dupe and Megan as a slut who would eventually enter the sexwork industry. (These comments were posted on a ParentDish article I can no longer find the link to. Of course, these comments exhibit whorephobia as well as slutshaming.) Megan was slutshamed and bullied so much on Twitter, just 2 days after returning home and posting a thank-you message on Twitter to everyone who had tried to help find her, that she had to delete her Twitter account. Possibly years of tweets that she’s never going to get back because some adults thought it would be fun to slut-shame a 15 year old upon her return from being abducted abroad by her teacher. They called her irresponsible for skipping school and making her parents worry – as if 15 year olds never skip school and are always responsible – or that given their age they should even be expected to be responsible when adults aren’t always responsible…particularly those adults shaming Megan on Twitter. Preventing a teen from returning to normal life as quickly and smoothly as possible is pretty irresponsible in anyone’s book.

Both of these extremes are of course untrue, though I’m leaning more towards the former – not because I believe that an almost-sixteen-year-old could have no agency, but because Jeremy was a teacher and he knew what he was doing was wrong. Schoolgirl crushes are natural; the onus is always on the teacher not to respond to any advances. And let’s face it, it’s unlikely a pupil would make overtly sexual advances to teaching staff, nor have the money to elope abroad; it is very clear who was the driving force here. Because of the hierarchical nature of teacher-pupil interactions, even pupils over 16 may not be as equal in such relationships as they would be in relationships with other older adults who are not their teachers. Jeremy was very clearly wrong and he knew that what he was doing was wrong. When you’re in love – as Jeremy was – it’s hard not to act on it, but we all have to obey the law, not just Jeremy.

When there is paedomania, which leads people to believe that being attracted to anyone under an arbitrary legal age is paedophilia (actually paedophilia is attraction to prepubescent children, which is why it is so serious/dangerous) there can be no slutshaming. If Jeremy is a paedophile, then Megan is the helpless victim devoid of agency and stripped of her own love story. Yet if she is a “slut”, it’s all her fault (because men cannot be blamed for their sexual behaviour) and she should not be sympathised. Some commenters even blamed her for “messing with a married man” – never mind that Jeremy was the one who was having an affair while Megan was single. (And never mind that he was an adult and her teacher, who had been previously investigated for being too close to Megan months before when she was much further from 16). Similarly, 15 year old Canadian Amanda Todd was slut-shamed and bullied by girls because they saw her as a “slut” solely responsible for having sex and sending a topless photo. Yet the label of ‘paedophile’ once applied negates any thought of slut-shaming and instead makes her into a victim (which, of course, she was. And so, ultimately, was Megan Stammers, though she may not think so.)

The decline of paedomania is usually perceived as a good thing, but I wonder if it will come at the expense of an increase in slut-shaming. If there is less stigma attached to fancying anyone below the age of 16, will girls like Megan who are targeted by teachers – whether for lust (in most cases) or love (in her case)- be slutshamed? If Amanda’s classmates had thought of her main bully as a paedophile they might not have bullied her and driven her to suicide.

Paedomania and slut-shaming are also used slightly differently: paedomania is used by the media in cases like Megan’s and Amanda’s, whereas slutshaming is used by the public. Media slutshaming usually targets young female parents or lone female parents; the Megans of the world have their stories buried under paedomania, creating a real virgin/whore dichotomy of media discourse: if you’re over 16 and make the headlines for your sex life, you’re a benefit-scrounging whore. If you’re under 16, you’re a virgin victim of a paedophile. Of course Megan and Amanda were victims, but they may not necessarily agree with such a designation, especially as Megan went willingly to France (it was abduction only because taking a child without their parents’ knowledge is abduction. If they’d waited until she was 16 it wouldn’t be abduction). But the nuances of her lived experience are lost in tabloid demonization of Jeremy which paint her rather unfavourably as a foolish, helpless victim.

I’m not suggesting that we as a society prop up paedomania to avert slut-shaming; that is ridiculous, and slut-shaming is already being challenged by the SlutWalks and also in many other unlikely places: from Pop culture news site Jezebel to the blogosphere to lone mother NGOs like Gingerbread, down to individuals on social media, we are all doing our bit – or we all could do our bit – to stop slut-shaming. It is just that, in this quirky little while before anti-slut-shaming is taught more in sex education and talks on bullying in schools, paedomania inadvertently subverts it, just as slut-shaming tragically and unreasonably stigmatises victims of real paedophiles.

No more safe spaces: The Private and the Professional collide

The divide between our private life (who we really are) and the professional persona we don in the workplace is more blurry than ever before. Facebook and Twitter, once non-official, social spaces of trivia and rebellion, have become corporatized hunting grounds for PR, marketing and advertising. People have been arrested, prosecuted and fired or jailed for jokes on Facebook or for criticizing colleagues on Facebook. They have been arrested over tweets to celebrities. We are no longer safe. It is now unwise to use your Facebook account to engage in any conversation you wouldn’t want your boss to see. It is now a criminal offence to make jokes on Facebook about missing people – even though making such a joke to someone’s face in real life might not be a crime. Not only does this affect our privacy, peace of mind and freedom of expression, it also makes people more likely to use pseudonyms on social media – and by extension that pseudonymity bolsters confidence and creates more trolls and cyberbullies.

But perhaps I’m being a little too hard on social media. Perhaps what’s going on with social media is just the same thing that’s happening to everything else online and to real life.

Most readers of this blog will remember the Bill Clinton scandal. Similar scandals rock the tabloids every year; and they need not be about sex. For Danielle Lloyd a decade later, posing for Playboy was enough. And while we have made progress since 1997 or 2007 in other areas, this prudery and scandal-mongering about sex and the body is as bad – if not actually worse – than it was twenty or thirty years ago. In the last couple of months, the lives and careers that have been attacked and sometimes ruined include Kate Middleton, Prince Harry, Kristen Stewart and Michael Brutsch. And that’s off the top of my head. No doubt I’ve missed out other people whose stories did not glare out from the headlines and blogs for weeks.

You know slutshaming is a big social problem when the mainstream media is slutshaming constantly for profit and this is bolstered by society. And you know slutshaming is a problem when you don’t actually have to have sex to get shamed. Apparently, topless modelling, naturism-as-a-game, kissing and posting photos of girls you think are hot are enough now.

And I’m pretty sure most of us were doing more than being naked (with private parts covered) the night Prince Harry played strip billiards…where do you think the babies keep coming from, folks?? I know one thing – the stork isn’t bringing them.)

And it was all for nothing. The first three did nothing wrong and harmed nobody. The last did nothing illegal; he posted clothed Facebook photos of girls without their permission to a subreddit which was closed over a year ago, and moderated a similar subreddit which was closed before he was outed. All that the journalists achieved was creating controversy and hatred over things as trivial, private and innocent as posing topless, playing ‘strip billiards’ and kissing a colleague. And in the fourth case, the photos, the posters of “pornography” and the other moderators are still at large – nothing has changed except that a new porn king, Scopolamina, has been set up in Violentacrez’s place. So all of these people suffered for absolutely nothing. It was a waste of national discourse, trees, blog posts and conversations as well.

However, gone are the days when the newspapers are all you have to fear. A newspaper will eventually be binned, and the unfortunate teenage Facebook/Twitter users will be forgotten soon enough. But Google never forgets. After a while has passed, you don’t have to disclose your spent convictions to employers (unless they want an enhanced disclosure). So hopefully by the time these young people go out looking for work their convictions will be considered ‘spent’ under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. But if their potential employers Google them, the Act may as well be so much paper. The news articles will tell employers far more than merely disclosing the crime would. And malicious bloggers and commenters will skew the story into a catalogue of crimes much worse than the reality. Google is a search engine; how can it possibly tell the truth from lies, informed commentary from ignorant reaction, the analysis from the vitriol?

I am utterly confident that mone of my employers Googled me, either before or after the interview (or they would not have made the assumptions they did or asked the questions they did). It may be paranoia to believe that employers Google applicants – or that they believe what they read online. Or that employers have discrimination on the basis of Googling your name any more than they discriminate on the basis of sex, age or ethnicity. But still, I worry about Matthew Woods and the other teens who landed in similar situations.

And perhaps more worrying than their futures and career prospectsis the emotional damage that such public hatred and notoriety has had on them. The internet – especially social media and blogging – is a great asset to democracy and social justice. Outing people is not always wrong. Sometimes a story is too small or lacks evidence for journalists to pick it up. Blogs and social media can step in – to ‘name and shame’ priveleged individuals who would otherwise get away with it, or to call out unfair government policies. Shaming people because of naturism/nudity or their sex life is also not always wrong. For example, if  such shaming was used against Nadine Dorries or Rush Limbaugh it would be entirely justified – because their entire careers are built on repressing our sexuality, and if they were not repressed themselves they would be hypocrites.

There is nothing to stop private individuals emailing your boss a link to what you said on Facebook, and this has in fact happened to one man because he made a joke. He was fired. And I don’t believe we should stop private individuals from doing this. (When tabloids or other news corporations become involved, that’s a different matter. News sites and papers have their own agendas – either advertising or site hits – and will ruin lives and exaggerate stories to get them. So that is different from private individuals.)

Work was once a way of earning money, a way of sustaining your private and social life. Now, it’s the other way around – your private life and social life must fit in with your work life. What you do online musn’t look bad for your company. Your sexual history must please your prudish boss. Your Google record must be clean to continue working for this corporation.

Get offered a job, and you must tailor your life to fit it. It’s not just a job. It’s a lifestyle, an image. A job isn’t just to pay the bills anymore, it’s a two-way contract: your freedom for their wages.

Ironically it is the educated and middle-class who are the most affected by all this. McDonald’s doesn’t care if your Google trail says you’re a troll, hater or pornographer. Likewise, a degree job doesn’t care that your Google trail is so vastly exaggerated and one-sided that it’s basically a lie.

One day, your Google record will be more important than your criminal record.

If we don’t stop soon, where will it all end? People have been fired for blogging about sex or being escorts on the side. A teacher was even fired for being a call girl in her past as a student. So even your past can affect your present, no matter how long ago it was and how you’ve grown and changed since then. The line between private and professional grows fainter with each passing day. Bosses follow you on Twitter; your corporation has friended you on Facebook. LinkedIn neatly muddles the private and the professional. The faintest, most innocent whisper of nudity is so dire that hobbyist photographers, artists and models do their hobby under a fake name to beat Google at its own game.  Students de-tag photos of themselves drunk out of fear of future employers seeing the pics and thinking that they’re drunk 24/7 instead of just in the picture. More and more social media profiles are going private or friends-only. Articles on how to be an anonymous blogger and how not to get doxed or hacked proliferate.

So what I’m advocating is that we use our slutshaming and outing abilities responsibly and only as a last resort to deal with cyberbullies or in the political sphere. We should refrain from ruining lives just because we personally disagree with what someone said, find their joking or trolling annoying or tasteless, etc. We should focus on harm – cyberbullying or hate speech. REAL hate speech, not trolling or joking. When I think of the number of white supremacists, anti-semites, misogynists, rape culture enablers and homophobes that nobody has managed to out yet, I’m staggered. We seem to go for the harmless young people having fun in hotel suites or kissing in cars. The best we can do is get people jailed for Facebook jokes or fired for Reddit trolling.

All this does is limit freedom of expression and force people into anonymity and pseudonymity just to feel safe – a great breeding ground for trolling. It creates a feeling of shame about activities which shouldn’t be shameful – modelling, fun, the nude human body.

It’s time to use our powers for good, not evil. To really make a difference not only to the internet, but to our society and ultimately to our own communities. To out cyberbullies and makers of hate speech while preserving our own freedom of expression.

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