Online Abuse and Harassment: Where are the Rules?

I’m reposting from my WebGuild post about the Ariel Waldman case where she is accusing Twitter of failing to enforce their Terms of Service over a what Ariel says was a case of very bad harassment and abuse on Twitter:

Are there appropriate standards of conduct for social network communication or does anything go in the wild west of social networks, twitter, and blogging?

Ariel Waldman was the target of an online “stalker” who posted abusive comments about her via Twitter. She’s understandably upset about the harrassment and posted a long note about getting no satisfaction from Twitter despite responses including a call with the Twitter CEO, who seemed to feel the case fell outside of Twitter’s responsibility.

I’m trying to get Twitter’s response to Ariel because I have a feeling there actions may hinge on a couple of twists that complicate what at first appears to be a clear cut case of putting free speech – which should be protected at great cost, above threat speech – which is a plague on the online world and should be harshly policed by the online and offline community including law enforcement.

The first issue is that Ariel blogs about some very “emotionally charged” topics with sexually charged language (though I saw no sign of what I would call abusive language in a quick scan of her blogs). However Twitter may be thinking that to censor comments about her or her topics while keeping Ariel’s own stuff online would not be in keeping with some sort of fairness standard (I agree this would be a weak argument based on Ariel’s description of the abuse).

The more relevant twist is that Ariel is the community manager of Pownce, a social microblogging site that is very much in direct competition with Twitter. Unless Ariel is certain that Pownce would handle this situation very differently from how Twitter is handling it she really needs to explain why this is calling out Twitter so powerfully rather than making more general statements about how the very lax online abuse standard are threatening the online social fabric.

This problem very powerfully emerged last year when Kathy Sierra, a prominent and excellent blogger, quit blogging entirely after several death threats against her. Although most of the community expressed outrage an alarming number of prominent bloggers suggested that free speech issues trumped the death threats, and came irresponsibly close to supporting what they seemed to see as the right of harrassers to threaten violence against others.

So it is important to make clear here that my personal view (which is not necessarily that of WebGuild) is that Twitter is wrong as are any social networks that allow harassment of community members. Whatever tiny advantages we might gain in free speech from an “anything goes” policy are washed away as debate is stifled under the threat of the virtual violence turning into real violence.

Update: Twitter Replies to Ariel

In their reply at GetSatisfaction, a customer resolution website, Twitter suggests that this case might be viewed differently by people if the comment stream was available. Presumably both Ariel and Twitter have a copy, so it should be published in the interests of fairness to everybody concerned.

Update 2:  Ariel’s Mom Checks in at her blog:

Mom Says:
May 22nd, 2008 at 10:31 pm

Yes, this is Ariel’s real mother. Those of you who are easily manipulated by media driven celebrity conspiracy theories or actually believe there is no such thing as integrity any longer will ignore this post. Too bad for you.

I am not here to comment on twitter, TOS, freedom of speech, the “sexiness” of ShakeWellBeforeUse or if Ariel is a c—. If I said she wasn’t, you wouldn’t believe me anyway.

I CAN attest to one thing. It IS a fact Ariel’s stalker has been after her for over 3 years beginning in her home town—before she had a high profile on the web. I have seen the physical evidence and know it to be threatening. Ariel did nothing to initiate this situation, the person in question is mentally unbalanced and deeply insecure. The person found out where she lived and made it known to her. Ariel has done everything within her power (talking to the person and friends of the person, police, legal advice, adjustment of lifestyle) to defuse the situation all to no avail. I had thought when she moved to the city, these attacks would end, but they have not. There is more than mere name calling going on. There is a history of vindictive harrassment. Whatever else you think about how she is handling it is your opinion, but she did NOT make this up.

Since I have known Ariel all her life I can tell you one thing. She plays by the rules. She does not manipulate people or situations for her own gain. And she is too smart to screw up her own reputation as a consultant in social media to try and play competing services against each other. All speculation on that account is ridiculous.

And Mom to Ariel: you could have told me you were going to blog this rather than let me randomly find out about it on my own.

41 thoughts on “Online Abuse and Harassment: Where are the Rules?

  1. I think the usual analogy is to a store that maintains a bulletin board on which people post flyers. Only when someone mentions an offensive flyer and to the extent they really have someone available can they go out and tear it down, they are not sitting their reviewing the contents of all those flyers.

    Now in CyberSpace supposedly some woman recently told a troubled teenage girl to “drop dead” or “take a long walk off a short pier” and has been indicted for the resulting suicide. Ever yell at another motorist “Eat $%(#”? If he goes and does it, are you responsible? Only if you ‘yell’ it in Cyberspace!

    I recently saw one blogger type “Get Lost” to someone who kept trolling with irrelevant comments on a topic of no interest to the blogger. Atleast there the blogger has access to the comments and the ability to delete them himself, provided he devotes the time and energy to it.

    Other servers and other servers bring in different views and just might trigger the famed “streisand effect” wherein censorship attempts stimulate viral media festivals.

  2. FoolsGold – so would your draw *any* lines in terms of speech? I would, though I agree it gets subjective very fast – in fact after researching Ariel’s claims I found even she was allowing the word she says is so objectionable.

  3. Whatever tiny advantages we might gain in free speech from an “anything goes” policy are washed away as debate is stifled under the threat of the virtual violence turning into real violence.

    Though I am reluctant to support those who want to censor or moderate (or “troll rate” as the KOS comrades say), I understand to some extent TOS which commenters consent to by logging on to a site. It’s a contextual thing really, and moderators should be capable editors (which, unfortunately, many webmeisters aren’t). Obscenities, even racial epithets, might be amusing at times. Other times not. Threats unless done in jest or ironic are generally not cool, and often can get fairly nasty–but usually can be shrugged off (not always–online thugs are becoming more common).

    Moderation and censorship often become a sort of “slippery slope”, however. This happened on KOS and other sites over the last few years. One might agree to not use obscenity or harrass anyone–fine. Moderators all too often mistake dissent for a type of harrassment or even threat (at least threat to ideology), however. Some Kossack reg. insists that Obama has solutions to any and all political problems, and those who object, in some strange leap of logic, are considered threats, troll-rated, and the apparatchiks slowly gain control of a site, and the web.

  4. Really, the “politics of moderation” raises some interesting issues. Were blog discussions primarily fact-based, concerning evidence, verification–de Re, instead of De Dicto–then there would be little need for the ugly mano-a- mano one sees on most blogs. Recall the arguments regarding the Church of Gore, and AGW: one disputes the data, the climatologist’s models, and indeed the science of AGW (as Crichton capably did a few years ago–alas Big Al unlikely knows “Margin of Error” from Marge Simpson ). One tries to eliminate defamation and personal attacks. And pure in terms of De Re it was seen that AGW was making some rather unsupported claims (though that doesn’t mean that one should join the Gore haters. One assesses the evidence, instead of getting in the frat-boy food fight).

    Alas most political blogs do not allow for careful assessment of fact claims, or even for non-ideological writing. Political writing, er, barking is not science: it’s more like Biff and Bunny and pals arguing in the cafeteria: you nazi! you pinko commie! etc. Logic, science, reason itself has little to do with it. When someone starts calling (or even insinuating) Hillary a nazi, the discussion has ended. Even on blogs not specifically concerned with politics, one notes this sort of “FoodFightSpeak.”

    Absent careful data-based writing (even say “persuasive rhetoric” ala some of the Slate hacks) language become a sort of weapon–closer to say what Tony Soprano and pals do. You see this on DailyKOS as well: the regs specialize in a sort of thieves’ jargon, and then decorate the site with the heads of the villains–Hillary/Cheney/Lieberman’s heads mounted on the virtual wall (and then Cheney’s effigy like put in a dress). At least Hunter S. Thompson did his gonzo-satire with some class.

  5. Sorry for rant, Duck. I humbly suggest that the DailyKOS comrades have, to a large extent, effectively destroyed rational online discussion–it’s all gonzo now (sort of bad Ring Lardner-sportswriter slang, not even HS Thompson or Hitchens). (Delete after opening)

  6. “…The word she says is so objectionable.”

    Values vary. Most women object to the “C word” as do men. Its just that men consider “the C-word” to be “committment”.

  7. Horatiox good point about the slippery slope. Although I think the lack of moderation is more of a problem than abuse of moderation, there is plenty o’ trouble from both and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

    KOS’ unapologetic political censorship bugs me, though not as much as FOX news’ pretense of objectivity.

  8. I wonder if the corporate connection to a competing firm is indicative of what is really happening here. Sort of a minor issue blown out of proportion for a competitive advantage.

    I’m unclear just where the so-called cyberstalking is taking place or what the offensive posts are, so I assume the parties involved really just want the headlines stirred up a bit.

  9. I was wondering about that also FG but hard to judge without all the facts. I felt “guilty” about it until I noticed how she was clearly showing great toleration for the very term she seemed to think proved how Twitter was in violation.

  10. Pingback: Tomorrow Museum » Archive » Twitter TOS

  11. I wonder if this is a viral-marketing attempt or some sort of sham protest for corporate gain. If so, perhaps the complainant should focus on the fact that while twitter is the market leader and ponce the up-and-coming ‘me too’ contender, there can yet be a third contender: some firm that sticks to their task of microblogging rather than concocting press releases about how evil a competitor is.

  12. Hi, I too was victim of online stalking, and harassment. I was left in the cold,I reported with proof, nothing happened, I watched as my abusers got mod jobs, I was eventually black balled off a site by the gang ups, they got my IP from mods, site owners protecting them as they lied about it, the site owners believed them over the proof, I was threatened( bodily hard in Private messages in chatrooms), followed to other sites, had a myspace created to recruiting people to stalk me(myspace did nothing to stop it), received calls at home. These stalkers soon over flowed to twitter recently, I reported them twitter, they did nothing to protect me. I also learned there is no help out there, and no one really cares..I tried the online help places to report this, no ever contacted me, or help in anyway. It’s been a year with some reports.
    This is sad, and I agree guild lines/help need to be established. I live a in fear that one day I may get physically hurt by these people, it is just matter of time..

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