Trolls, Public and Private Space, And the Need to Stop Being Dicks

I have to comment on this passage from a Salon interview with law professor Danielle Citron, discussing the difference between trolling and cyber harassment:

My book truly deals with actionable harassment, not abuse that cannot be regulated (often called “trolling,” a loose term). Consider one of the earliest cases, of game developer and blogger […], where there are repeated credible threats of rape, doctored photographs of her being strangled, and lies about her. Then, a cybermob posted her Social Security number and home address, as well as defamatory lies about her. Whoever was responsible for those actions, even just some of them, would be treading on legal grounds –we can regulate true threats, defamation and certain privacy disclosures such as the disclosure of SSNs (which is like publishing your bank account number). To be sure, some of the folks who doxxed [the tech blogger] and published her SSN were self-proclaimed trolls, but nonetheless they engaged in unprotected activity by spreading defamatory lies and publishing her SSN.

By contrast, there the case of Zelda Williams. The person who repeatedly told her her father was ashamed of her may be called a troll, but that person is engaging in protected speech. So, too, the person who posted pictures of dead bodies. Even if that person did it repeatedly, it might not even amount to regulable intentional infliction of emotional distress, because Robin Williams’ death could be said to constitute a matter of public importance, rather than a purely private matter.


(I can recommend the interview in full.) I have no doubt in her assessment of the legality here. I just finished her book, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, and liked it a lot, I might write a review of it soon. But the situation she describes above is similar to the situations that got me interested in the topic of hateful speech on the Internet. It really irks me.

For once, I personally think it is perverse that the death of a man, husband and father is considered a “matter of public importance” in this context. It is interesting to the public, without a doubt. I, like many others, was deeply affected by it. But not in the way the people who actually shared their lives with him are affected. I fail to understand why this harassment needs to be protected by the U.S. constitution: For Zelda Williams, it is a private matter. What kind of public discourse, what truth is improved by sending a young woman pictures of corpses and telling her her dad was ashamed of her?

Personally I think people who “troll” a grieving person in this manner can go and have their  CPUs overheat. But I think this story shows more than one problem facing us in the digital 21st century. With (social) media technology becoming ubiquitous the the lines between public and private spheres are blurring, and the form/degree of access to individuals for anyone is changing.  While this can be great, the new possibilities challenge our understanding of concepts like “public” and “private.” Years ago, no one would have sought out the postal address of a celebrity’s daughter to send her manipulated photos. Almost no one would’ve yelled such horrendous things at her in bars, schools, streets, .. public places.

Many will easily dismiss what happened to Zelda Williams (and countless others pushed out of social media) as it did not happen “in real life” and she only quit twitter. Honestly: For me, that would feel like not being able to walk through a part of my neighborhood, close to my home, filled with neighbors I like, because of aggressive strangers. For me, this is hypothetical, a mental excercise I can easily engage in.  Add the cyber harassment to the daily (street) harassment women* experience, and the world just got a whole lot narrower.

I’m not against these Internet-mediated changes in interpersonal communication, wonderful things are happening thanks to social media. But I do think that we need to find a way to use the amazing possibilities of teh Interweb and promote free speech while not being such colossal dicks to people. That way might not lead us through the legal or legislative system, but we need to find one. I cannot accept that this vicious form of “trolling” is something “we” can’t regulate. 

%d bloggers like this: