Monday, May 11, 2015

#Microblog Monday: On the Yak, and the Price of Free Speech

On April 17th, a young college student and member of a group called Feminists United was murdered in her apartment after attending a day of silence event raising awareness about bullying of sexual minorities on campus.  This is horrific enough.  But perhaps even worse: Grace Rebecca Mann and her friends had already voiced concern with university administrators during months of harassment on Yik Yak, claiming that a "rape culture" persisted on campus (to date, more than 700 sexist Yik Yak postings targeting feminists and members of Feminists United have been published).  And the university told the students to take it up with Yik Yak.

The students are filing a Title IX complaint.  I hope that they get support, and I hope that some justice will be done, much as I know that there will never be peace for Grace Rebecca Mann's family.  But I wonder what happens in situations where there is no campus authority, no one to appeal to for safety.

The other day Dooce was featured in a New Yorker article on mommyblogging, explaining her decision to stop blogging as partially motivated by the "personal and emotional" toll it was taking.  Writes Rebecca Mead: "The phenomenon of Internet misogyny—often anonymous, usually vitriolic, and sometimes scarily violent—has, of necessity, become a pressing preoccupation for contemporary feminists, just as the issue of unpaid labor was for activists of the early seventies. Women are afflicted disproportionately by online abuse, with trolls apparently lying in wait for those whose online speech is perceived as being too outspoken."  We've seen this again and again, not just with mommybloggers but during GamerGate, with the Henry Gee/Isis the Scientist doxxing situation.  And while the harassment of women online itself is not new, its hyper-locality--and in the case of Yik Yak, real anonymity--makes it even scarier.

What the Grace Rebecca Mann case demonstrates, and what I've seen my own students experience, is that the freedom of expression that anonymity promotes online can lead to a culture that considers personal violence--especially against women, who are (according to the most recent Pew Research data), by a small margin, more likely to be using social media--acceptable.  Yik Yak does have standards, and will cooperate with authorities in the face of a specific actionable threat, but otherwise it relies on self-policing.  Which, unfortunately, seems not to be enough.  Social media seems to offer a proving ground for real-life hate.  And if the community happens not to do something about it, then what?

Over the years I've tended more towards Rousseau than towards Hobbes in the "depravity of human nature" debate, but given the evidence, I can't help but rethink my position.  Why, when we're given the opportunity to be anonymous, do we choose to do harm?

We will not know for some time, if ever, what happened the night that Grace Rebecca Mann was murdered.  But I wonder: will we decide at some point that anonymity and free speech online isn't worth the price we have to pay for it?

What do you think?  Is Yik Yak responsible for not doing something about the harassment of the young women at Mary Washington?  Is the community responsible?  The university?

Do you know people who have been the targets of anonymous abuse online, in social media?


Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is?Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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  1. That's horrible, and I think the university should have taken them more seriously. The whole culture has become more polarized and vitriolic - online and offline. There are definitely underlying attitudes that need to change. But I don't know how.

  2. PS I meant to sign in to my other account - my microblog post is here:

  3. My heart is heavy from reading this. Heavy for the community at Mary Washington, but heavy for my students and my community too. How sad that in the veil of anonymity, people chose to promote hatred that ultimately resulted in a young woman losing her life. How preventable and unnecessary. My hope is that Title IX complaint sparks change. But it's also a call to start addressing this hatred because it is a disease that needs to be ended.

  4. So sorry to hear of Grace Mann's murder; that's horrible. I agree with you that anonymity appears more likely to lead to abuse and personal attacks. I don't know the solution except to take away anonymity, which at this point would be difficult from a practical point of view. Also hypocritical for me to even propose since I blog anonymously LOL. Still, maybe one positive of the "loss of privacy" everyone talks about will be that it's harder to make online attacks.

  5. For me, the point of anonymity on the web is to be able to state a truth and protect privacy. For instance, talking about infertility online (stating a truth) but not having your infertility be Googleable for eternity (protecting privacy). And that's about it. I can't really think of another good reason to not stand by your words. Or to ever speak online in a way that you wouldn't speak to a person's face in front of a crowd of people.

  6. "Why, when we're given the opportunity to be anonymous, do we choose to do harm?"

    You've got me rethinking the Rousseau/Hobbes continuum, too. Why are people so disconnected from others/the whole (even at a time of such interconnection) that they can do such harm?

    I hadn't heard of the Grace Rebecca Mann murder. I am so sorry for her and for those who love her.

  7. As for responsibility on the part of YY, the community the university? I have no answers. But I am pondering.


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