Social media has the power to bring people together in ways we could have only dreamt of centuries or even decades ago. It allows users to share intimate moments and milestones with their family and friends. It affords people a way to re-connect with those with whom they’ve lost touch, or simply to connect with loved ones in times of crisis. It permits you to, um, Poke people and send game requests to individuals you met some five years ago in an Eastern Religions course in college. OK, so not all uses of social media are as worthwhile as others, but for everything from breaking news stories to umpteen baby pictures, social media services help foster connections between people across cable lines and potentially across great distances as well as across demographic lines. In the ability of these apps/sites to bring people together, however, we realize this connectivity has the potential to be a blessing and a curse. While we would presume most users use sites like Facebook and Google and Twitter with the intention of spreading goodwill and cheer—or at least seeking sympathy when they are not so full of cheer—there are those who seem to use social media for no other purpose than spreading hate, harassing and intimidating others, and deliberately picking fights. I’m sure you have encountered your fair share of Internet trolls, from the moderately pesky ones to those who challenge you to come find them at their house and see if you still feel like making your same arguments. In this respect, social media tends to feel like a minefield across which you are advised to tread lightly for fear of igniting an explosive situation.
Keeping with the theme of confrontational discourse between individuals of disparate personal stories and viewpoints, another byproduct of the interconnectedness of our world, alongside users’ relative anonymity, is that people will readily advocate and say things online they wouldn’t imagine saying out loud in everyday life given the apparent lack of impunity for their actions. Here is where the epithets, insults, mockery, and threats really start flying. Given the cloak of limited visibility the Internet provides, individual users can set forth all sorts of body-shaming, homo- and trans-phobic, politically bigoted, racist, sexist, vulgar, xenophobic, and otherwise discriminatory or unsavory language. And when they band together to form a unified front of nastiness, the collective hate they spew can be a destructive, alienating force. Numerous high-profile users in recent memory have announced their departure from social media (at least temporarily), citing abuse or threats against them and their family as motivating factors. The likes of Leslie Jones and Ed Sheeran are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, at that. We all know the fabled notion sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt us. These are different times, however, and depending on the mental make-up of the recipient of these proverbial sticks and stones, the brunt may be hard to bear indeed, if not impossible. Suicides among teens and preteens have become all too prevalent outcomes from prolonged, targeted cyberbullying. In some cases, the abuse continues on social media even after the individual has taken his or her own life.
As with the sale and use of guns in mass shootings, the issue of liability for the manufacturer/provider in online interactions via social media is a sticky one. In a society as litigious as ours and otherwise accustomed to scapegoating, the impetus is frequently on assigning culpability on someone or something. With respect to the former, and depending on one’s point of view, it’s the fault of the maker of the gun for creating a dangerous weapon that could be bought and handled by a general public ill-equipped to operate it safely; it’s the fault of the parents of the child for not taking better care to safeguard the firearm; it’s the fault of the gun lobby for preventing sensible gun reform; it’s the fault of the anti-gun activists that we don’t have more guns in schools to prevent such a tragedy. Round and round we go in the Blame Game—where we stop, nobody knows. With social media and cyberbullying, on one hand, there is the idea that today’s young people and celebrities are too pampered and thin-skinned. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Pick yourself up by the bootstraps. Besides, no one forced these kids to keep using social media in the face of the abuse. Shouldn’t their parents have been watching what their kids were doing anyway?
On the other hand, meanwhile, whereas mass shootings may have a rather short preamble in terms of shooters making their intentions known to friends or family, with targeted harassment on social media, the patterns of abuse can take place over a protracted period of time. Granted, when minors are the subject of cyberbullying, from the user perspective, their parent(s) or guardian(s) may not comprehend the scope of the torment their child faces, especially when he or she is less than forthcoming about the nature of the problem. From across the screen, however, the purveyors of various popular social media services can witness what is going on, and this tension between creating an environment where users can feel safe in their online interactions and maximizing traffic to associated apps and sites is at the crux of the matter. Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter find themselves performing a balancing act between safeguarding their audiences and maintaining the appearance of being unbiased and hospitable to all users. This wouldn’t seem like such a tough tug-of-war but for a rejection of diversity, multiculturalism and political correctness on the far right, as well as an apparent growing tendency toward hostility in discussions where personalities and viewpoints clash regardless of political affiliation.
In talking about the tightrope that social media companies walk with respect to fair play vs. revenue—a dilemma that quite generally seems to be faced by corporate entities, of which the primary goal is profit/expansion, and of which social responsibility is a more recent derivation (and hopefully not an afterthought)—this implies that the big names in the industry are capable and willing enough to err on the side of caution for the sake of their most vulnerable users. But are they really? This is where there is room for debate in online circles, for many would allege these content providers are not doing enough to thwart cyberbullying and the dissemination of questionable content. Brianna Provenzano, staff writer at Mic, would tend to agree, a subject of angry, hate-filled messages herself. Recently, Provenzano had dared to ask Milo Yiannopoulos, conservative provocateur and all-around dickhead, if he got an invite to the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards—because MTV says they sure as hell didn’t ask for him to be there. Whereupon Yiannopoulos kindly told Provenzano to “F**k off,” posted their E-mail exchange on his Facebook page, and let his followers do the work for him. Provenzano describes the situation thusly:
Milo hadn’t called for blood outright, but the angry mob showed up anyway. The sound you hear when you kick the hornet’s nest in Milo-land is an angry crescendo of bees in Fred Perry polos, crawling out of their social media honeycombs to sling insults about how your full name sounds like two cheeses alongside more venomous darts about your intellect, your body and your career.
Yiannopoulos has 2.3 million followers on Facebook, and after he posted my email, the swarm infiltrated my Twitter and my Facebook inbox too. A few stragglers found their way into my Instagram comments. A phone call with Facebook representatives yielded no action. They told me they’re aware Yiannopoulos has figured out a way to game the system, pulling certain levers to summon his goons without running afoul of their harassment policies. But Facebook’s guidelines, as they currently exist, are cut-and-dry: Milo might be indirectly inciting harassment, but as long as he doesn’t call for it explicitly, his speech is protected. The post is still up.
The bad news, though, is that his followers seem to be taking his lead. Beneath the screengrab of our email exchange, one commenter wrote, “His minions are emailing her at this very moment, detailing how they’re going to rape her.” Is alluding to my rape the same thing as calling for it outright? Free-speech guidelines are tricky like that. The bottom line: Though internet trolls are evolving, Facebook’s harassment protections are not.
Talk about walking a fine line. Whereas sites like Facebook are concerned with walking on eggshells so as not to alienate potential drivers of traffic, someone like Milo Yiannopoulos is walking the line on Facebook’s harassment policy by not telling his supporters to avenge him for some perceived slight, but nonetheless achieving the desire effect by letting them know how he was so aggrieved, posting Brianna Provenzano’s contact information in doing so, and letting the chips fall where they may. This hearkens back to our central discussion of accountability, and the ensuing dialog is a tricky one, indeed. True, Milo isn’t pulling the trigger. All the same, he’s effectively giving his followers the loaded gun and telling them where to shoot. As for Facebook, if it’s supposed to be the police, it’s hiding behind a rationale of insufficient evidence of a crime. Very clearly, though, the intent to cause ill will is there. What’s more, Facebook itself seems to indicate that it understands that’s what Yiannopoulous is doing, but that its hands are tied. Where the analogy ends, however, is in the notion that Facebook not only enforces the rules, but writes them too. As such, it is within its power to either adopt stricter policies against harassment and abuse within its platform, or to interpret their guidelines more broadly and consider that inaction under the guise of neutrality carries risk in its own right.
The unfortunate pattern for social media apps/sites given evidence of abuse seems to be this: 1) individual becomes target for verbal attacks and threats of bodily harm; 2) social media providers stand idly by while “evidence” accumulates; 3) public outcry forces attention to the harassment; 4) by drawing attention to the issue, abuse increases; 5) content provider is forced to intervene by suspending accounts or some other method of remediation. What makes this cycle especially unfortunate is that aspects of it are by no means guaranteed. For one, public outcry is obviously more likely for public figures and people of relative renown. As for social media sites swooping in and coming to the rescue, so to speak, this decision may come too late—if it comes at all. In Brianna Provenzano’s case, without writing about her situation, it is unlikely anyone beyond close friends and family and loyal Mic readers would know she has been met with all kinds of invectives at the hands of rabid alt-righters. In addition, as of this writing and her writing, it appears she will see no meaningful resolution from Facebook. Indeed, to have that happen would the best-case scenario, and even then, it necessitates some sort of wrongdoing on the part of another party—potentially over a considerable span and from many quasi-anonymous sources.
As Provenzano is keen to observe, female reporters are frequent targets of abuse merely for reporting on the kind of misogynistic abuse faced by other women, thereby creating an awful circle by which the writer becomes the subject. As she also observes, women of color and members of the LGBT community tend to be hit particularly hard by harassment over social media, and in some cases, it is the content providers themselves who discriminate against members of minority groups or fail to properly moderate content in a way that projects fairness for all users. In an illustration of how seemingly broken Facebook’s system of content moderation is, black activist Ijeoma Oluo posted a tongue-in-cheek comment about going to a Cracker Barrel for the first time, seeing a bunch of white people in cowboy hats, and wondering if they’d “let [her] black ass walk out of there.”
Apparently, a number of people who read her entry didn’t take kindly to her commentary on race relations, for before long, she began to receive a torrent of hate-filled messages. Days’ worth of abuse ensued, with Oluo taking screenshots of the kinds of epithets hurled her way and reporting the harassment to Facebook. At long last, though, the company and its content moderators intervened. There was only one small problem: it was Oluo who had her account suspended for posting the evidence of her abuse. Facebook representatives later apologized for what they characterized as a mistake, but by then, the damage was done. Besides, Ijeoma Oluo’s experience is not an isolated incident, and is evocative of a running theme: that of social media companies being slow or otherwise inadequate to respond to reports of abuse at the hands of other users. It would appear, at least in this instance, that Facebook was unable to handle the magnitude and truth of what was happening any more than Oluo’s tormentors could accept the reality and scope of racism in America.
In the closing of her piece, Brianna Provenzano notes that sites like Facebook have acted when members of the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and their ilk have led campaigns encouraging targeted abuse against specific users or otherwise have promoted a racist agenda. Twitter, for example, suspended Milo Yiannopoulos’ account after he directed his followers to attack Leslie Jones with racist images and words. Both GoDaddy and Google Domains dropped The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi online publication, after the violence at Charlottesville. These actions took place only after days or longer of offenders spewing their hate, however, and only with the requisite amount of public backlash demanding these service providers do something. From the companies’ perspective, what truly warranted intervention were the negative reputation they stood to receive from all the bad publicity and the consequential loss of revenue associated with their loss of standing. As Provenzano puts it re Facebook:
As long as capitalism is in charge, the historically marginalized groups hurt most by Facebook’s slipshod harassment protections should expect to continue to bear the burden of a failing system.
In other words, the bottom is line is just that: about the companies’ bottom lines. Concerning another recent iteration of the social commentary vs. corporate interests at the intersection of race relations, ESPN personality Jemele Hill made news for a series of Tweets she authored related to President Donald Trump, in which she unequivocally labeled Trump a white supremacist who has surrounded himself with other white supremacists and whose rise can be attributed to white supremacy. Predictably, a backlash occurred from Trump supporters and from the man himself, with many calling for her suspension or outright firing, and with POTUS desiring an apology from the network in addition to whatever Hill might have offered. In the end, it was Hill alone who issued an apology for “crossing the line” with her political opinions.
For many of us discerning individuals, however, Hill’s statements weren’t particularly controversial. This is to say that calling Donald Trump a white supremacist surrounded by white supremacists and supported by them isn’t really that much of a stretch. Lord knows what Trump feels and believes deep down, but after a point, it doesn’t matter when he’s ginning up racists and white nationalists. Jemele Hill is ostensibly right on these points, and thus it would appear her most grievous sin is working for a corporation—recall ESPN exists under the Disney Corp. banner—that squelches opinions when they fear they could alienate a certain segment of their viewership/readership. And just imagine what kind of abuse Hill will be subject to now that she is in the spotlight and in the crosshairs of Internet trolls. When the angry mob threatens to pull its dollars away, corporate America has signaled, by and large, that it will kowtow to its wishes.
With advances in computer and mobile phone technology, use of social media platforms has exploded over the last half-decade, and for the most part, the benefits of these media in terms of professional networking and socialization are to be celebrated. For many companies who provide social media interfaces, however, their ability and willingness to curb cyberbullying and online harassment has lagged behind the industry’s apparent growth, and this reality detracts from the user experience for the general public, regardless of gender, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, or other identifying factor(s). To ask potential targets for abuse to “grin and bear it” or to “just log off” is as impractical as it is an abdication of duty for the companies who are supposed to provide a safe space for their subscribers as a function of their conduct policies. Simply put, if social media giants like Facebook and Twitter wish to show they truly care about cracking down against hate speech and other forms of abuse, they need to do better—or risk losing more than just individual celebrities from their ranks.