This Needs to Stop

The recent talk of the internet is a series of reminders that humans are still social primates, a species known for pack behavior and escalating aggression against outsiders. The internet gives you a broader range of outsiders to reach and the digital equivalents of poo and punches to throw.

If you follow the links in some recent collections of stories about incidents, you will find an indie developer driven from the market, death threats for changing reload times in FPSes or advocating cosmetic changes to currency, and add rape threats if the target in question is female. Okay, that last one is slightly unfair: add immediate rape threats if the target in question is female, add rape threats against the men too if it goes on long enough. (“Long enough” can have very short values online.)

Reading the story of Fez II, I was immediately reminded of The Oatmeal‘s reactions to feedback. On the more extreme stories, I assumed that any decent human being would immediately see them as bad, although either the volume of psychopathy is higher than I realized or I have overestimated the baseline level of decency in the species. Some comments on the above stories assert that death threats are okay because they are “obviously idle threats.” I come more from Elie Wiesel’s tradition: “When someone says they want to kill you, believe them.” I may be a bit touchy today because someone threatened to kill one of my staff after she declined to flirt with him; compared to in-person threats, Twitter threats are more likely to be idle but you will have no idea who to watch for if he is that dangerous one-in-a-million.

I would prefer to discuss what is a reasonable level and form of negative feedback to deliver online, but we as a society do not seem to have reached a sane place yet. We have yet to craft an enforceable consensus that death threats are not acceptable. One police agency arrested someone for “terroristic threats” that no reasonable person would interpret as threats, while another suggested that Twitter should address the direct threats to specific victims rather than having police treat them as a criminal matter. I imagine the same approach is taken in asking Verizon to stop people from phoning in bomb threats.

I do not think it is possible to have too many voices condemning violent threats. I do not know how much good it does adding a voice here, given our readership.

: Zubon

“Death threats against you must be idle, because they do not worry me.”

13 thoughts on “This Needs to Stop”

  1. There is absolutely nothing that can be done to force people to stop criticising other people in social media. As a developer if you are going to engage in social media then you must accept a percentage of vile comments.

    What is really sad is seeing Phil Fish have a complete meltdown on Twitter. If it was affecting him so much then he simply should have stopped reading Twitter (and whatever other social media he uses) and carry on and do what he wants to do. But as we all know Fish has a notoriously thin skin.

    This latest Fish supernova – rightly or wrongly – is completely predictable. Don’t forget he also went down a path of hate as evidenced in the indy dev film. Pot, kettle, black.

  2. In the United States, only ‘true threats’ can be successfully prosecuted (see Watts v. United States, 1969), and this doctrine is well enough formed under the First Amendment that police can be liable for damages after an arrest. There’s a lot of fairly complicated underlying rules for the ‘true threat’ doctrine, but either “obviously idle threats” or the “dangerous one-in-a-million” standards you bring up are certain to not hit this trigger.

    Some other criminal statutes can be relevant in specific situations, such as criminal harassment or cyberstalking, but they’re not likely to cover where the statements were made about a person rather than to them (stalking), or where the person did not continually make those statements after being asked to stop (harassment). A few states have tried to implement cyberbullying statutes or otherwise criminalize causing severe emotional distress, but the courts have near-universally found them unenforceable.

    Reason highlights stuff like that terrorist threat case precisely because it is so at odds with current law. ((Although it’s neither that rare for arrests to be made despite the certainty they’ll be thrown out later. See the @Mark12394995 for an even more egregious case.))

    Note that this is the law in the United States : other jurisdictions, such as Canada or the United Kingdom can and do criminalize speech based on mere offense.

    That’s obviously not the same as being “okay” — ‘jokes’ about violence are rather telling even where they don’t cause distress, and damaging where they do — but it’s an important part of understanding the common reactions.

    1. Yes, and then there is the difference between wishing someone ill and actually threatening them. “Die in a fire IRL” is a ways from “I am going to burn your house down.”

      A direct, explicit threat of violence to a specific target should be actionable and certainly is in some jurisdictions. Threats are generally not “obviously idle” unless you have more information than the letter or tweet threatening to kill someone and/or his family.

  3. Its not going to stop short of some sort of draconian governmental response.

    Its an evolution from trashtalking. The difference is that when you talk shit to your opponent on the court, if you step too far over the line, he can bash the feth out of you. These guys have grown up in an environment where that doesn’t happen. They don’t really see the people on the other end as *people* since those players are powerless. Getting your opponent mad at you is a win since it demonstrates your *superiority* over that player.

  4. As Edmund Burke said: “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”

  5. Chessier has a point, and I know that I try to pull people up on things, but where the nastiness is an overwhelming majority or the person in question is obviously not interested in a dialogue, it is far too easy to decide it’s not worth it. Actually one of my favourite things about GW2 (my server anyway) is not that there are no trolls or assholes, but that it’s an environment in which I *always* feel it’s worth speaking up and/or reporting. I never have a sense of “oh well, it’s an MMO, what’re you going to do.”

    Death threats are never ok. Rape threats are never ok. It doesn’t matter to me that the vast majority don’t have any intention of acting on them, I just don’t want to see it considered acceptable in any context! That way lies only an even greater lack of respect for other human beings.

      1. Murder threats are not ok. Suicide bombing threats are not ok. Child pornography is not ok. Being racially prejudiced or homophobic is not ok. Sexual harassment is not ok.

        Not condoning it isn’t going to stop the vast majority of internet trolls though. And the exact boundary of legal regulation vs infringing on freedom of thought and speech is yet to be laid out, especially online where country boundaries criss-cross. So, impasse?

  6. I understand where you’re coming from in how your RL situation has affected your thoughts on this latest (but not last) bit of Internet silliness. But there are two sides to every story, and I doubt if this guy is some totally innocent personality. I feel for teens who are harassed into suicide – tough time in life period without being daily prodded by others in your peer group. But this is a grown ass adult, and there is some point where your goals should be bigger then criticism.

  7. *tips hat at zubon*
    I applaud your attitude sir. And I wish that it was one shared by more people. The “X is not ok… BUT this is the internet what do you expect, etc.” response is getting on my nerves.

  8. Thank you, Zubon. Even though this is the internet, we can make a difference. Threats of violence are wrong, they’re intended (at the least) to scare or distress their target(s). When we condemn them, we make a difference. When we thank others for condemning them, or join them, we swing the bat of social pressure. Few people are truly immune to that.

    Last week, I overheard my 14-year old son condemn one friend’s sexist harassment of another, female, friend, while they were playing Minecraft. It made a difference, and I was so proud of him.

    Every little bit makes a difference.

  9. “Murder threats are not ok. Suicide bombing threats are not ok. Child pornography is not ok. Being racially prejudiced or homophobic is not ok. Sexual harassment is not ok.”

    Second that remark. Just an addition that use of the word “rape” in game context is not okay.

Comments are closed.