Online Isn't The "Real World"—And Other Dangerous Lies

Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

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There is a storm brewing online. The gradually thickening tendrils of this tempest are whipping across the entire Internet—a hurricane of our own devising. You've probably stumbled across them at some point. They follow a fairly predictable pattern—a Twitter avatar responds to a tweet with "prepare to get a knife shoved up your cunt you bitch"; a grinning Facebook photo posts "ill rape your family and make you watch if you dont shutup" to someone's wall; or a Tumblr user logs in to find "why dont you go kill yourself you freak" along with a link or image meme detailing how to slit your wrists or overdose on over-the-counter drugs as the top comment. Flame wars are waged in comment boards, hate and bile spewed at those viewed vulnerable and alone. Women in tech, transgender individuals, gay, straight, young, and old alike are victimized.

Then the real violence hits. Personal details—name, address, phone number, family members, job contacts—are all ferreted out and used as weapons. Perhaps some religious missionaries show up at your front door, sent there by an automated online request that someone with your address and a desire to hurt you filled out. Maybe you get some pizzas with every topping imaginable delivered, charged on delivery . . . only you never ordered them. Quite possibly your phone starts ringing at odd hours from blocked or unknown numbers, and the person on the other end asks you to verify your credit card information, or your social security number, or they breathe heavily and whisper threats into your ear until you jab at the end call button in desperation.

You try notifying the police, but they don't care. It's not one of their own or a federal employee being threatened, so they'll advise you to "just stay off the Internet." Doesn't matter that being online is a requirement for a large majority of jobs these days (especially if you're searching for a job), or that there are very capable laws on the books that can shut down the malicious actors intent on your harassment—the local police simply don't want to deal with it, and the feds take months, if they can be bothered with your case at all. "Online" isn't the "real world," and the things that happen there don't have any consequences. It's all just nerds and dorks playing their video games, right?

Until one day, a SWAT team shows up at your front door and kicks it in, screaming at you to put your hands up and get on the floor, weapons trained and fingers on the trigger because someone online, with your address and name and personal details, called in a bomb threat or a hostage situation, and the police take those seriously because those take place in the "real world." You lie there, face down in your carpet, heart racing, hoping that no one's finger slips and you walk away alive. A gunshot sounds, you flinch; but it's not aimed at you, it's the family dog—wary of these intruders and barking up a storm—silenced forever by an adrenaline-infused officer who's been trained to take no chances. You'll tear out the bloodstained carpet later, but you'll never tear out the memories from your mind.

The storm is intensifying. An entire generation of children is growing up with the Internet as their playground, their backyard, their world, and they emulate the behavior they see. For them, the thought of not being online is like if 20 years ago, our parents told us not to use a telephone, or watch TV. It's not a thing that's going to happen, because we live in a globally networked world—our politics, our entertainment, our economy. The Internet is pervasive. You cannot stay away and expect to be a part of modern society. So the kids play in their sandbox, and more and more of them are finding knives buried under the sand, and then they use them, because hey, they're kids. Some grow up and put the knives down; others sharpen them and look for new targets.

Unfortunately, our system of order and consequences has not yet caught up. Judges and peace officers think that "just don't go online" is a viable response to systematic, targeted harassment, and it's not, but most can't be bothered to understand why. By the time they tell you "just don't go online," the damage has already been done. You've already become a target, and you will remain a target for the rest of your life. Ask Kathy Sierra. Ask Zoe Quinn. Ask the victims of Gamergate [full disclosure—many of these events have already happened to me, though fortunately I haven't been SWATed (yet)] or any subject of the Encyclopedia Dramatica if they expected to be harassed for years on end, if they foresaw doxings and SWATings when they first logged on to comment on a message board or promote something offbeat they created; ask them if they can even get away from the storm short of moving to a shack in Montana with no running water or electricity, and the answer will be a resounding "no."

The storm is escalating, and at some point, it will claim a life in such a public way as to force a response (a truly sad part of this story is that numerous trans individuals have already been driven to suicide by targeted online harassment, an unending wave of crushing hostility toward people who are already vulnerable and mistreated by society, but their deaths go ignored). A well-known figure will get SWATed, something will go wrong, someone will die, and the government will step in, driven by a groundswell of fear that this could happen to anyone (and it can). Laws that already exist to deal with these situations will be thrust aside as "ineffective" and "half-measures." The crackdown on anonymity and truly free speech will continue—bills like SOPA and CISPA and the TPA now with new amendments requiring a Social Security Number or government-issued ID in order to participate in online forums. The overreaction will be brutal, it will be thorough, and it will be demanded by the vast majority of the public because they think it will make them safe.

And that brings us to the sordid, horrible, ironic eye of the storm. The SWATers, the Gamergaters, the neo-reactionary troglodytes driving this terrible engine from chan boards and semi-hidden IRC channels and the idiots who enable them, they all blather on and on about how they're allowed to harass other people because it's their "right to free speech." They go after anyone who asks them to stop, who requests that they behave like civilized human beings, because the thought of their actions having consequences, that the Internet is a real place just like the offline world, is foreign to them as well. They think anonymity is a tool to play games with, and not a necessity for whistleblowers and victims of oppressive regimes. They think "free speech" means "freedom to force someone to listen." They're willing to sacrifice everything they claim to hold dear, their oh so precious open Internet, because they can't be bothered to think of the long-term effects of their behavior, and how frightened populaces will always trade freedom for security.

The storm is already here, and it is not a new storm, not by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it is as old as humanity itself. It is the raging tempest of selfishness, the jagged sleet of sociopathy, the all-consuming tornado of solipsism, every dark corner of the human id that demands we subjugate another for our own pleasure, and if we persist in thinking that it does not exist because it is in a new form, a new technology, if we insist that we should not control or contain it, then we will have no one but ourselves to blame when it spirals out of control once more.

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