Good afternoon, everyone. We cannot end online harassment unless we understand what it is that actually causes it. There are a number of myths that percolate in our societies about online harassment. Every single one of us in this room, I would wager, has heard that anonymity is one of the primary causes of harassment, or that people harass because they’re anonymous. That anonymity plus a computer equals anti-social behavior.
It’s a commonplace that I’ve observed across the political spectrum, whether the person is left, right, center, libertarian, socialist, whatever their ethnic background or religious background, whether they are expert computer users and technologists, or complete Luddites. People believe in the idea that anonymity is central to what motivates harassment, that it is the distinctive feature of the online world that makes it such a toxic place.
My work has led me to the conclusion that if we do continue down this path of simply blaming anonymity, then we will never actually address the problems that underlie online harassment. And in the process, we might also be denying a number of people what should constitute a civil right in terms of their ability to use the Internet, that in other words you have the right to be anonymous, and that anonymity is not merely a negative absence of a legal identity, but that it is also a positive site of identity reconstruction.
So with all of that in mind, we need to understand that core principle, and this is the idea that I feel that my sociological research has brought into the discussion here. Simply put, anonymity does not cause harassment. It does play a role, but it’s much much more complicated than most people have made it out to be. The reason that this is important to understand is because it’s having a practical impact on the world right now.
A number of web sites, in their efforts to reform their noxious comment cultures, have moved in the direction of saying that commenters can no longer be anonymous and that this will resolve the harassment problems that we’ve been experiencing; this will make comments nicer; this will make them more constructive. The reality that has emerged is that this sort of isn’t true. And I say sort of because what’s happened is that it has changed the toxicity of those web sites. It’s changed them, but it’s moved the nature of that toxicity around.
So on web sites where comments are not anonymous, what often ends up happening is that you’ll have super-toxic users posting things that they know will get deleted, but instead they target the moderators, the actual human beings that they know will have to read these comments as part of their jobs. So they will send in these really long, nasty, absolutely unpleasant, bigoted screeds because they know the moderators have to read it, and so the toxic commenter still manages to get one off at somebody, even though their legal name is attached.
Most of us are connected to Facebook. We know from personal experience, time and time again, that people say awful things to each other and to large groups of people on Facebook. Because they feel that they can get away with it. Because they feel that there is no accountability for their behavior.
And accountability is a key word here, because that’s why most people think anonymity is the problem. They understand intuitively that there is no accountability for bad behavior on the Internet, but they assume that that’s because you’re anonymous. If you’re anonymous, then there is no person, no legal identity to which accountability can accrue. You are faceless, you are formless.
But that’s not strictly accurate. This lovely topographical object is called a Möbius strip. It underlies the theory that I have articulated about the causes of online harassment in our society. A Möbius strip is a single-sided mathematical object with one side and one edge that gives the illusion of having two. It’s a useful tool that has come up again and again in psychoanalytics and philosophy and so on to explain how something that is contradictory can nevertheless exist in harmony; that something that is seemingly opposed, with two sides, can nevertheless exist in a perfectly harmonious unity.
So to explain how a Möbius strip works we can enlist the aid of Mario here. The nature of a Möbius strip is such that you can trace whatever edge from any point that you choose and trace it in its entirety without ever lifting your finger or your pencil from the surface of the object. It has one side, even though it gives the illusion of having two. This particular piece of artwork is by Spiritgreen; credit always where it is due.
So why do I talk about the Möbius strip? Because the reality of online harassment emerges from the fact that we believe it is unreal, that we are socialized to approach the Internet as a space of unreality. We are socialized by our media, we are socialized by our friends, our family members, our parents. I grew up with parents that were telling me that the people I talked to on the Internet were not real. And these were parents that wanted to take care of me, that loved me, and they were also not terribly interested in technology. They were not the hyper-clued-in, plugged-in, millennials, or whatever the latest scapegoat is of the press these days. They were of the baby boomer generation, and they just thought that the Internet wasn’t real. And they and millions of other parents have raised their children with exactly the same idea.
And we transmit that notion in our everyday conversation. “IRL” is what we say when we’re talking about anything that is not on the Internet. IRL, In Real Life, with the implicit assumption being that what happens on the Internet is not real, is somehow less material. This assumption undergirds a lot of online harassment, because people believe that their targets are not necessarily real people or are not whole people. We apprehend avatars on the Internet as being akin to non-player characters in a video game, as being unreal.
And so why the Möbius strip? Well, because there has to be a way to explain a fundamental contradiction with online harassment. Online harassment is a profoundly motivated phenomenon. People really want to do it, and partially because they believe that they’re accomplishing something. It’s not just something that is done for the sake of having a quick laugh. When you look at the online harassment of women and minorities and minoritized peoples, people of color, LGBT people, it’s often profoundly politically motivated. These people are seen as existential threats to a given community.
To take gaming as a cardinal example, the world that I happen to be involved in, in the world of gaming women are seen as the censorious mommies that are going to take the boys’ toys away, ultimately. That we are going to have a very ugly material effect on the world of these mostly young, mostly white, mostly male gamers.
So you might then ask if that’s true, then were does the unreality come in? The harassers clearly see a threat, they see an existential threat to their way of life, to a material space that they exist in. Where does the unreality come in? That’s where the Möbius strip comes in. This is the Möbius strip of reality and unreality, a sociological form that describes the approach that people take to interaction online, where things are real when it is convenient, and unreal when it’s not convenient for them.
What ends up happening is that on the one hand women can be perceived as real enough to constitute and existential threat, but because they are apprehended through the interfacing medium of the Internet, we are seen as sort of akin to celebrities, in a way. Think about celebrity gossip culture. You don’t think of the people staring out from those magazines necessarily as full real people. You think of them as sort of simulacra of themselves, as someone whose life you can pick apart because the media allows you to do so. Their lives are invaded, their lives are splashed all over the front pages of magazines and newspapers, and so forth.
That culture of celebrity, that dissociation between the actual human being and the public persona that is created of them, that’s as old as mass media. What’s different about the present is that the Internet allows for that celebritization to occur for almost anyone. But without the benefits of celebrity, so no limousines, no security detail, no people to open your mail, and so forth.
That’s the interface through which much online harassment occurs. People see the target of online harassment as existing in a reality sufficient enough to constitute perhaps a threat, or someone who is having a material impact on the world and needs to be stopped. Think about all the conspiracy theories surrounding feminists, all the nasty things that we’re supposed to be doing to the world, to the criminal justice system, to education, to the Internet, etc. They believe we’re having a real impact. But we’re not apprehended as real on the Internet.
That’s not necessarily because these harassers are inherently awful people in and of [themselves], it’s something that we’re all trained to do. When we look at someone on the Internet, their avatar, the little picture that comprises their Twitter avatar, they come to us as words on a screen. If we play an online video game, they come to us as a 3D avatar with mystical connotations and affections and so forth. It’s hard to look at say, a World of Warcraft avatar of a troll with blue skin and tusks and think, “That’s a real person behind that, a real human being like myself.” You instead approach them as a game, an NPC in a video game. They are seen as existing in this strange liminal space between reality and unreality.
So that’s where anonymity then comes in. It can occasionally inflect the resulting harassment. Sometimes anonymous harassers may be more explicit, may be more brutal, but if you look at what’s actually occurring in terms of ginning up online hate mobs, who’s responsible for it, and so on, what you find again and again is that the harassers, for instance people who make online hate videos that target people like Anita Sarkeesian for instance, whom many of you have just heard speak now. They’re not anonymous. They’re well-known. They have legal identities, they have jobs that are known to the public, and yet they get away with what they do.
The reason for this, very simply, is because there is a lack of accountability that emerges from the fundamental belief that the actions they take on the Internet are “just words” and not real. And there are a welter of moral and ethical justifications that enter into the frame as well.
So on that note, it is I think appropriate to leave you to understand that anonymity is not really the driving force here. Anonymity is one of many things that can inflect online harassment, but much more important is what psychologist John Suler called the dissociative imagination, where we distance ourselves and our sense of moral and personal and physical responsibility for our actions every time we sit behind a keyboard. There’s a distancing effect that occurs when we use the Internet that has nothing to do with anonymity. If we get rid of anonymity from the Internet, just waved a magic want tomorrow, the toxicity problems that we are all concerned about would remain. And we have to think of smarter solutions. Our virtual future depends upon it.
“ ‘It’s Just a Game’—The Discursive Construction of the Virtual”, a 2012 blog post where Katherine previously discussed the Möbius strip concept.
Description at The Conference’s site of the session this talk was part of.
The original video for this presentation can be found at The Conference’s site.