What Should The Consequences Be For Acting Like A Sexist, Racist, Or Generalized Jerk Online?

Laura Hudson has a typically perceptive piece in this issue of Wired arguing that we’ve gotten too comfortable with the prospect of shaming people who act poorly on the internet. In one instance, she describes the tit-for-tat logic at work here:

When Mike “Gabe” Krahulik, the artist behind the popular webcomic Penny Arcade, heard that an unprofessional PR rep for a game controller had been insulting and taunting one of his readers, he gleefully posted the damning emails to his website, along with the man’s Twitter name, for the express purpose of unleashing the Internet kraken. “I have a real problem with bullies,” Krahulik wrote, after the marketer was deluged with hate mail. “I spent my childhood moving from school to school and I got made fun of every place I landed. I feel like he is a bully and maybe that’s why I have no sympathy here. Someday every bully meets an even bigger bully, and maybe that’s me in this case.” But even if you think your bullying is serving a greater good, the fact remains that you’re still just a bully.

I’m sympathetic to both sides of this argument. I’ve occasionally shamed writers who have wished physical violence or sexual assault on me, publishing their names and comments, and once, linking to a commenter’s Facebook profile — in that case, the person in question had used their Facebook profile to leave the threatening comment in the first place, so I don’t feel like I was making more information about the person available than they had already shared publicly on my own site. I think there is some value to the discourse to making it clear that real people actually say ugly things, and to illustrating what people are willing to say under their own names, and via accounts that link their remarks to personal information. It concretizes those incidents for people who aren’t the subject of them, and makes it clear how socially acceptable certain ideas remain.

Advertisement

But I’ve come around to Laura’s idea that we have to be remarkably careful about setting the internet on people who behave badly. Part of the problem is that shaming is a tactic, not a defined consequence. Adria Richards probably didn’t anticipate that once she tweeted a picture of men who’d made comments that she found obnoxious while they were all at PyCon that one of them might get fired. And I’m sure she didn’t anticipate that she’d get dismissed for shaming them in the first place. Almost everyone I interact with regularly on Twitter seems like a lovely, reasonable human being, but I interact with a relatively small number of my 14,000-plus followers, and I don’t think I could be absolutely sure what would happen if I decided to doxx somebody who’d done me wrong, if such a scenario ever took place. And I don’t think it’s acceptable to use shaming as a tactic but claim that we aren’t responsible for the results.

In courts, when juries or judges find defendants guilty, they have guidelines for the sentences that can result from those judgements, and the people on whom they’re imposed can often appeal those sentences or find ways to reduce them. An internet shaming obviously doesn’t carry the weight of law — having Penny Arcade mad at you doesn’t mean that you’re going to have an enormously difficult time getting hired for many categories of jobs — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have consequences, or that it’s not intended to. Getting someone fired or harassed as retaliation is no joke, it’s not necessarily proportional, and it’s certainly not restorative. I’m all for a serious conversation about what the appropriate social and material consequences should be for harassing or threatening people online should be, and how best to carry them out. But as satisfying as shaming someone can feel in the moment, I’m not sure it gets us any closer to conclusions in that conversation that will make the internet a healthier place.