Discussion starter: Reddit, Predditor, and outing bad behaviour

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

So there’s Reddit. For the Reddit abstainers like me (I’m also not on Tumblr or Facebook, I’ll move on and set up neo-Luddite Feminism Blog any day now), a quick intro: discussion forum, encouraging the creation of Reddit subforums (subreddits) around any topic you can think of. Hugely popular: the mainstream press tends to cite Barack Obama’s Ask Me Anything thread as proof.

Reddit is strongly committed to what their users call freedom of speech, but that isn’t a very specific term on the Internet: it can mean anything from “I believe governments should not restrict expression” to “I believe that never deleting comments* from a forum improves the quality of discussion” to “I believe that never deleting comments from a forum is the only ethically correct way to run a forum.” (Or the disingenuous version: “I believe that I personally should be able to say what I want in any forum.”)

In Reddit’s case, freedom of speech basically amounts to “we believe that any user should be able to create a subreddit and moderate it how they and fellow moderators choose.” They host, for example, hate speech subreddits. They also until recently hosted r/CreepShots, a subreddit for sharing non-consensual photos of girls and women (up-skirting and such).

Over the last week, there’s been several eruptions around Reddit. Recently, Samantha** set up Predditors, which posts publicly available information about contributors to r/CreepShots, gathered from other sites linked to their Reddit pseudonym. It’s up and down: right now the first entry lists the full name, date of birth, employer, marital status and several photographs of one Eric Gore, Reddit username “ocbaud”, who submitted covert shots of women taken in his workplace. Jezebel posted about Predditors on October 10: How to Shut Down Reddit’s CreepShots Once and for All: Name Names. Predditors was temporarily closed by Tumblr shortly after, although at time of writing it is back with two profiles of Reddit users.

“Reddit’s defense of [CreepShots] is that it’s ‘technically legal,’ [Samantha**] explained. (The subreddit’s bio mansplains it well: “When you are in public, you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. We kindly ask women to respect our right to admire your bodies and stop complaining.” You can also click here for information on how little Reddit’s administrators seem to care about policing the subreddit.) “So I’m doing something that’s technically legal, but will result in consequences for their actions. These fuckers think they can get away with it scot free, which is one of the reasons why sexual violence is so prevalent around the world.”

In addition, on October 12, Gawker published Adrian Chen’s Unmasking Reddit’s Violentacrez, The Biggest Troll on the Web, identifying Reddit user Violentacrez, a moderator of r/CreepShots and several other subreddits hosting racist, misogynist and/or sexually abusive content, as Michael Brutsch, a computer programmer in Texas. Brutsch apparently moderated most of the subreddits out of a commitment to a “I believe that never deleting forums from Reddit is the only ethically correct way to run Reddit” version of free speech, but was more personally interested in r/CreepShots, regularly contributed content. Chen also describes a reasonably close working relationship between Reddit staff and Brutsch, who was active in training other moderators, and in identifying illegal content so that Reddit could remove it (that they don’t want to host).

It’s not yet clear how things will go from here: will Predditors survive, will Samantha** survive burnout, will creep shots remnants pop up all over the web like zombies? (The last is already happening***.)

Some of Geek Feminism’s authors have had a backchannel discussion over the last year or so about various Database of Harassers proposals. The proposal there is for documentation of in-person harassment incidents, for people who would rather not make their harassment accusations public in a blog entry or etc for the usual reasons We’ve taken a pretty skeptical view of the likely success of such a project. What do you think? Does the success of the wiki’s own incidents listing (which relies on third party public reports) or Predditors change your opinion?

* No one seems to believe this about spam.

** The pseudonym that was used in the Jezebel article.

*** Link is to a Jezebel article, not directly to a creep shots site.

Online harassment as a daily hazard: when trolls feed themselves

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Trigger warning for discussion of and graphic examples of threatening online harassment.

Seen s.e. smith’s post on blogging and harassment yet? You’re about to see it everywhere (on the social justice blogs) because it’s very powerful and true:

by the time I’d clocked around 20 threats, and was up to around 30 readers, I’d learned the art of triage. The quick skim to find out if there was any actually personal threatening information, like identifying details, or if it was just your garden variety threat with no teeth behind it. I kept them all in a little file in case I needed them later, and forwarded the worst to the police department, not in the belief they would actually do anything, but in the hopes that information would be there, somewhere, in case it was needed someday.

“I hope you get raped to death with a gorsebush,” one email memorably began. I gave the letter writer some style points for creativity, but quickly deducted them when I noted he’d sent it from his work email, at a progressive organisation. I helpfully forwarded it to his supervisor, since I thought she might be interested to know what he was doing on company time. “Thanks,” she wrote back, and I didn’t hear anything more about it. Several months later I attended a gala event the organisation was participating in and watched him sitting there on stage, confident and smug”¦

I was careful in all the ways they tell you to be, to make it difficult to find my house, for example, and most of the rape threats, and the death threats, the casual verbal abuse from people who disagreed with my stances on subjects like rape being bad and abortion being a personal matter, weren’t really that threatening in that they didn’t pose a personal danger to me, and I was rarely concerned for my safety. That wasn’t the point, though, which is what I told a friend when she got her first rape threat and called me, sobbing. I wished she’d been spared that particular blogging rite of passage, but unfortunately she hadn’t been.

“They want you to shut up,” I explained. “That’s the point of a rape threat. They want to silence you. They want you to shrink down very small inside a box where you think they can’t find you.”

And it works. I see it happening all the time; blogs go dark, or disappear entirely, or stop covering certain subjects. People hop pseudonyms and addresses, trusting that regular readers can find and follow them, trying to stay one step ahead. Very few people openly discuss it because they feel like it’s feeding the trolls, giving them the attention they want. Some prominent bloggers and members of the tech community have been bold enough; Kathy Sierra, for example, spoke out about the threats that made her afraid to leave her own home. She’s not the only blogger who’s been presented not just with vicious, hateful verbal abuse, but very real evidence that people want to physically hurt her, a double-edged silencing tactic, a sustained campaign of terrorism that is, often, highly effective.

[That is a relatively short excerpt, read the whole thing.]

I think it’s time to take a look at the reflexive “don’t feed the trolls” advice, frankly.

It was developed, I think, for Usenet (at least, the earliest known usage of the term ‘troll’ in this sense is from alt.folklore.urban in 1992, which suggests that that formulation probably originates similarly), and was adopted by email lists and blogs in due course. I’ve always been suspicious of it in the case of forums like email lists where messages can’t be recalled: some people implement it as just leaving the troll to continue sending messages into the void – except that it’s not a void. Experienced people may have blocked the troll, inexperienced people are there to be frightened either specifically by the troll or by the apparent unremarkableness of the troll’s behaviour. (This is one of the reasons I am less and less on-board with the free software community’s continued preference for public mailing lists. I like my email client a lot too, but I like spaces where harassment can be removed quickly from all reader’s view more.)

There’s certainly some wisdom in “don’t feed the trolls”. Consider for example Gavin de Becker’s advice in The Gift of Fear: if you, say, return harassing phone calls on the 50th time, you’ve only taught your harasser that they need to call 50 times to get a response. They need to learn that they cannot reach you, that there is nothing they can do to make you reply to them.

So far it seems sensible, but what it doesn’t account for is having multiple harassers, who either may not be aware of each other or who may be actively encouraging each other and coordinating attacks (via hate blogs or forums or the more wildcard ‘lulz’ variants thereof). It’s not so clear there that en masse silence is a useful strategy, it varies by case, and the off-hand use of the “everyone knows that you don’t feed the trolls!” wisdom that was (arguably) effective in the case of lone trolls is in effect a message to people being targeted for harassment by a coordinated group, or who have a number of individual harassers, that no one gives a shit. Don’t talk about it, we don’t care about your problems.

It also means that we are continually surprised by the size and scope of the problem. Death threats? With your address attached? Weekly? This is a problem not only because of the continuing coziness of the “yeah right, never happens to me” crowd, but because we often aren’t sharing information among targets.

It’s not just you.

It’s not just you.

Every single time, there is someone who has been hurt by thinking it’s just them.

I by no means advocate compulsory reporting of harassment, in fact I am very strongly committed to empowering survivors by allowing them a coercion-free space to do whatever the hell they please in terms of reporting or not. But “don’t feed the trolls” isn’t any more coercion-free than “stop hir hurting someone else! report now!” The coercion is this: thirty years of Internet are saying keep this to yourself, damn you (stop hir hurting someone else)!

Thirty years of Internet, per above, don’t have the whole story.

This scale of harassment of bloggers also brings us into a realm where people without the financial resources of celebrities to, eg, pay Gavin de Becker’s people to read their mail for them and alert them only to genuine immediate threats, have to deal with the same scale of harassment. This isn’t totally new to the Internet (being, eg, the family member of someone who has either committed or been the victim of a well-publicised unusual crime, has long attracted the same kind of attacks) but it is hard enough for rich powerful people to protect themselves mentally and physically from this level of hostile attention, let alone people with the typical resources of a social justice blogger (generally relatively privileged yes, able to afford state-of-the-art personal security, no).

On that, I’m honestly not sure what to do except that it scares me. There appears to be no known effective defence against sufficiently many motivated harassers. There doesn’t even appear to be a lot of giving a toss about it.

Update: Hey folks, on reflection I realise that my last paragraph kind of invites advice, but it’s probably safe to assume that if you’ve thought of doing X in response to trolls that so have people like s.e. smith, and either X is in their arsenal, it doesn’t work, or it isn’t reasonably possible for them (that is the cost-benefit trade-offs don’t favour it).

Responses from people with unusual expertise on personal security or on community management and similar areas giving facts advice or facts might be useful, but if your expertise is “average experienced netizen” please step back and give people affected a chance to talk.

Sexual harassment discussion in the atheist and skeptical communities

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Warning for quoted misogyny, Islamophobia and descriptions of violence against women and harassment, not to mention Oppression Olympics.

On June 20, Rebecca Watson of Skepchick posted a video discussing a panel she spoke on at the World Atheist Convention in early June. Here’s an excerpt of the relevant segment:

And I was on a panel with AronRa and Richard Dawkins [which] was on ‘communicating atheism.’ They sort of left it open for us to talk about whatever we wanted, really, within that realm. I was going to talk about blogging and podcasting, but, um, a few hours prior to that panel, there was another panel on women atheist activists… I don’t assume that every woman will have the same experience that I’ve had, but I think it’s worthwhile to publicize the fact that some women will go through this, and, um, that way we can warn women, ahead of time, as to what they might expect, give them the tools they need to fight back, and also give them the support structure they need to, uh, to keep going in the face of blatant misogyny…

So, thank you to everyone who was at that conference who, uh, engaged in those discussions outside of that panel, um, you were all fantastic; I loved talking to you guys—um, all of you except for the one man who, um, didn’t really grasp, I think, what I was saying on the panel…? Because, um, at the bar later that night—actually, at four in the morning—um, we were at the hotel bar, 4am, I said, you know, “I’ve had enough, guys, I’m exhausted, going to bed,” uh, so I walked to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me, and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more; would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?”…

I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4am, in a hotel elevator with you, just you, and—don’t invite me back to your hotel room, right after I’ve finished talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.

This excerpt is from Melissa McEwan’s full transcript of the relevant section of the audio, which is available at Shakesville. There’s more interesting stuff in the full transcript, including an example of the kind of dynamic where an individual woman who hasn’t experienced sexism denies it exists at all. But Watson’s criticism of the man who sexually approached her in the elevator has let to the Internet exploding, predictably enough. Especially when Richard Dawkins commented, most unsympathetically.

Here’s the setup:

  • PZ Myers, Always name names! [beware comments]: It’s not enough. Maybe we should also recognize that applying unwanted pressure, no matter how politely phrased, is inappropriate behavior.
  • Richard Dawkins, comment on “Always name names!”: Dear Muslima… Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with… Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee… And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
  • Richard Dawkins, comment on “Always name names!”: Rebecca’s feeling that the man’s proposition was ‘creepy’ was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.
  • PZ Myers, Twitter: For those curious, confirmed: those comments were from Richard.

Commentary (warning: some of these links contain extensive discussion of rape, including news coverage): Continue reading “Sexual harassment discussion in the atheist and skeptical communities”

Powerful people: Mark Pesce’s linux.conf.au keynote

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Warning: this entry discusses a sexualised presentation, and links to slides from that presentation. Images linked include stylised sexual violence.

Note to LCA2011 attendees and other members of the technical community: discussion at Geek Feminism is restricted by our comments policy. If you want to make commentary that does not adhere to that policy, you need to do it somewhere else. Discussion of Pesce’s technical content or the importance of his main subject matter is also off-topic for this post and will not be published.

On Friday at linux.conf.au 2011, Mark Pesce gave a morning keynote that resulted in complaints citing their harassment policy. I made one such complaint, here is an excerpt:

Dear lca2011 organisers,

Your anti-harassment policy at http://lca2011.linux.org.au/about/harassment
states that:

Harassment includes sexual images in public space.

This morning’s keynote by Mark Pesce included slides with the following
illustrations among others:

1. a pig and a duck apparently having sex
2. a black and white sexualised strangulation
3. a fetish scene with a woman in a mask spanking a man in a mask

Several of these were accompanied by a verbal metaphor to “being fucked” in
case the visuals weren’t explicit enough.

Continue reading “Powerful people: Mark Pesce’s linux.conf.au keynote”

Quick hit: getting too close to power

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Trigger warning: this post describes and discusses harassment and threats.

Sady Doyle writes on Tiger Beatdown:

When feminist women reach a certain critical mass of readership or influence, then mass negative exposure and harassment invariably comes their way. Sooner or later, there are just too many people who know about you, and the threats become credible: Blacklisting, hacking, smear campaigns, invasion of private property, maybe even straight-up bodily harm. At a certain point it goes beyond grudges or trolling or sarcastic comments or even just isolated scary dudes; it becomes a large-scale Thing, and it attracts its fair share of people who operate without anything even vaguely resembling a conscience.

I mean, let’s review just a few of the more famous cases. They often have something to do with women approaching positions of power: As we all know, when Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan were hired for the John Edwards campaign, there was a national and frequently televised campaign aimed not only at getting them fired, but at making them functionally unemployable. It went on for a long while, it was vicious, and it involved Bill O’Reilly, which is never fun. Furthermore, Jessica Valenti was accused of slutting it up with Bill Clinton because she was in a room with him along with some other people… In each case, this happened because the women were getting too close to power: A President, a presidential candidate. The idea that these women might be doing politics, not “just” gender politics. That was enough to set it off.

If it’s not power, it’s geek stuff. Because we are on the Internet, and the geeks are powerful. Kathy Sierra was subject to one of the most vicious, frightening campaigns of harassment and death threats that anyone has ever seen, because she spoke about software development. And being a lady, but mostly: Being a lady as it related to software development. “I am afraid to leave my yard, I will never feel the same. I will never be the same,” she wrote, to explain why she had to quit working and earning money as a speaker for a while… Then there was Harriet J and her criticism of Google Buzz — no, not Google Buzz!!!! — or McEwan, again, who got one of the biggest pile-ups of her career on a post about a video game called “Fat Princess.” Video games, tech, Google, basic Internet geek stuff: These are the things you’re not allowed to approach, for fear of harassment…

Other people are allowed to seek popularity. Other people are allowed to think it is a good thing. And yet, over here, we know that popularity is not good, but BAD. Feminists often RUN THE HELL AWAY FROM POPULARITY. At least, we do if we’ve got any darn sense in our heads or have seen this happen often enough. (I have a little sense. Not a lot, or enough.) Or if we don’t run away from it, our first instinct is to disavow basic things to which all writers should be entitled, like pride in our work, or a hope that our work might be read and respected. And the reason is this:

Because you cannot so much as mention “not deserving to be raped,” in a blog post about freaking GOOGLE PRIVACY SETTINGS, without getting hundreds of comments about how you should go get raped immediately, because you deserve to be raped so very much.

It is, as I hope is obvious from the quote, worth reading the whole thing.

But I wanted to highlight the relevance of this for this blog and the people who write for it or are in its community. None of this is news, and it is fairly obvious what I mean: we are critiquing geekdom, and geekdom is powerful here on the Internet.

And consequences like these have in fact of course already happened to us and near us. This blog itself doesn’t right at this moment undergo persistent trolling in moderation, it has in the past and undoubtedly will in the future. To give the best known example, MikeeUSA has been reappearing periodically since 2005, and that’s just in communities that I personally follow, and making threats of violence or death all that time, including explicitly invoking and praising the actions of murderer Hans Reiser and mass murderer Marc Lépine.

People who describe themselves as geek feminists and geek feminist activists regularly burn out or take planned breaks in various ways: they go back to technical blogging and technical work, they stop giving unicorn talks, they move their commentary partially or entirely to locked networks rather than public spaces. They may or may not come back to public activity.

I myself have not been a target of sustained personalised harassment campaigns—and even saying that is indicative of the problem, that someone who has “merely” experienced one-off incidents, or harassment aimed at women geeks in general rather than her in particular doesn’t feel like she’s experienced the “real” problem—but I have seen the weapons that are being used against my friends.

I want to, here, acknowledge these people and the work that they did, are doing, and will do. As firecat wrote a long time ago now:

Let’s say that fighting sexism is like a chorus of people singing a continuous tone. If enough people sing, the tone will be continuous even though each of the singers will be stopping singing to take a breath every now and then. The way to change things is for more people to sing rather than for the same small group of people to try to sing louder and never breathe.

Noirin’s hell of a time

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Warning: this post discusses sexual assault and links to both a survivor account and to hostile comments.

Noirin Shirley’s post A hell of a time in which she describes her sexual assault at ApacheCon on the 4th November and names her attacker is starting to show up in our Linkspam suggestions and so on.

We’ve seen it.

This post has been widely linked by tech news sites, including (trigger warnings for comments at all of these places) Reddit, Hacker News and Gawker and while some respondents have been sympathetic to or angry for Noirin, there’s a lot of victim blaming in the usual ways: “don’t ruin his life over one mistake”, “don’t go to bars”, “asking for it”.

I think this is hard for us to write about, as several of us (including me) know Noirin either online or in person. We want to acknowledge what happened to her and how she responded (go Noirin!) but the ferociousness of the don’t-speak-out wasn’t-that-bad this-is-how-human-sexuality-works get-over-it this-isn’t-news deserved-it has hit us all hard. It feels like we’ve been working our teaspoons super hard for ages, and someone built another dam and filled it up.

And we are just onlookers.

Noirin: sorry about what happened to you, both the assault and the response.

Surely I don’t really need to say this: comments will be moderated. Leaving anti-speaking-out or compulsory-police-reporting or pro-sexual-assault or I’m-not-necessarily-talking-about-this-situation-but-here’s-a-hypothetical-where-the-alleged-attacker-gets-hurt comment here is a waste of your time.

Update: if you have links to share, please place a warning if that link, or any comments it is allowing, are victim-blaming.

Conference recordings and harassment

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

The problem

At technical and other geek conferences and events it’s becoming increasingly common to either video talks by default, or in some cases to refuse to allow any speaker to opt out of being recorded while still being allowed to give their talk. I have been told a couple of stories of harassment related to conference videos, as follows (all individuals are women, some have been anonymised, none are me):

S gave a talk at a professional conference and related the following experience in chat:

S: linkedin pm I just got: “wow- you’re alot more younger and attractive than I imagined!.Thanks for showing your picture!”
S: I don’t like photographs and don’t let my likeness out much online. But a professional talk I gave a couple weeks ago was videoed (with my knowledge and consent). This was the result.

C gave a talk at a technical conference and a recorded version was also published with her consent. She subsequently received an anonymous email with a list of time offsets for the video and sexual commentary on her appearance at those time offsets.

Geekfeminism contributors also shared stories:

  • Leigh, in reply to S’s story:

    I got one of those on Facebook a few weeks back, from someone I know in the local Linux community, saying I was “so hot” and asking if I was giving any more talks this summer. This is someone I know only professionally, and not even well at that.

    I replied with a link to Juliet’s ‘and she’s cute too!’ blog post…

  • Skud has received several messages with offensive commentary on her appearance based on videos and photographs of her talks. A couple of events have recorded her without first obtaining her consent; in one case, she spoke to the photographer afterwards and asked for the video not to be published.

See also the Wiscon troll incident.

What to do about it

Based on these stories, there are several concerns about recording conference talks that conference organisers should be thinking about when planning to record talks:

  1. Consent to recordings must be obtained from all speakers, in advance.
  2. Have an optional, opt-in, recording scheme for talks. As these stories demonstrate, people have had harassment experiences, some very creepy and cruel, related to being recorded, or have reason to fear them. People may well decide that they’d prefer not to be recorded for this, or other, reasons. If your conference has a “if you don’t want to be recorded, withdraw your talk” policy, you will exclude those people from speaking.
  3. It’s not feasible to get attendee consent, but in your conference handouts, warn attendees that their questions and possibly other conversation may be recorded during talks.

Possible alternatives to making recordings of speakers include publishing slides only, or making a slidecast of their slides and the audio of the talk. (Note that the latter can also be considerably more useful than visuals of the speaker.)

Separately, some women (in particular) intensely dislike the paparazzi atmosphere that some geek events have, in which everyone can be photographed at any time. In your event’s code of conduct, consider addressing the question of whether photographers should seek consent from individual subjects to either photography or to publication of photographs.

What’s your experience with event recording, especially video and photography? Can you think of any other ways in which recording is problematic, or other guidelines for event organisers to help with these problems?

Note to commenters: the “you should be flattered” discussion will not take place in this post. Thank you.