What we need is a filter

Cath Elliott writes about What it’s like to be a victim of Don’t Start Me Off’s internet hate mob.

Note from Helen Lewis, who republished the post on her New Statesman blog:

Note from Helen: Cath Elliott’s Blog, An Occupational Hazard, was one of the pieces which inspired me to collect together the experiences of female bloggers about online abuse. I thought Cath was incredibly brave to write about the hatred she was subjected to – particularly since it was deliberately as humiliating and obscene as possible.

Funnily enough, her internet tormentors were from a site called Don’t Start Me Off! – which was taken offline last week by its owner after the unwelcome glare of publicity fell on it when Mary Beard spoke out about the thread about her posted there. As Richard White, the site’s owner, is now claiming that he has been badly misrepresented, I thought it was important to hear what it was really like to be harassed by DSMO. Here’s Cath, in a post originally published on her blog yesterday.

Yes Richard White who said “we never try to hurt people’s feelings.” He actually said that.

In his sniveling non-apology to Professor Mary Beard, who has recently been the victim of the DSMO hate mongers, White also stated: “We do not go out to be offensive”. He then implied that the only reason Beard had seen the vile comments about her was because she’d obviously gone on to the Internet specifically to look for them.

According to White, the trolls at DSMO were never actually trolls in the true Internety sense of the word because they never went after anyone off the site. They didn’t for instance harass anyone on Twitter or Facebook; they all stayed safely within the confines of the DSMO comment threads.

Well, as I’m sure you’ll understand when you see the nearly two years worth of abuse and harassment I’m about to detail here, I read that Guardian interview with White with a mounting sense of disbelief.

So did I, though at the same time I read it also with a sense of weary, disgusted familiarity. Yes of course he bullshits, yes of course he denies it, yes of course he’s dishonest and self-serving.

In the piece I posted back in April 2011 – An Occupational Hazard? – in which I detailed the abuse I’d received on that site, I said: “Of course I realise that by posting this piece I’m no doubt giving them enough ammunition to start the whole sick cycle off again, but so be it.” And I was right: that’s exactly what they did.

In the comment thread under the original piece someone claiming to head the moderating team at DSMO posted what looked very much like an apology: “Firstly I wish to apologise to Cath if some of the comments did offend her” he said, “I, for one, will try to watch out for the comments that upset Cath so much, but such is the nature of some people on the internet I feel we can only do our small part to stop the maliciously intent.”

And yet two months later, in June 2011, just when I thought things were starting to die down over DSMOgate, here’s the comment that Richard ‘Ricardo’ White, the site owner remember, tried to post to this blog:

“Hi Cath I just thought that I’d clarify that the semi-apology on this page didn’t come from me. I think maybe you thought it did. For the avoidance of doubt, I wouldn’t apologise to you if I were tied to a chair and about to be beaten to death by a gaggle of your acolytes, armed to the teeth with heavy duty dildos.

You see, you’re in the criticism business and we all know you just love to dish it out. I’m in that business too and as any primary school child knows, if you dish it out, you have to be prepared to take it too. You seem to be unfamiliar with this concept. I’ve been on the receiving end more times than you could imagine. Rightly so, too.

Unlike you, I don’t expect never to be challenged. Does this bother me? I can honestly say, not one iota. Your brand of hilarious left-wing nincompoopery is absolutely ripe for ridicule. You love to portray yourself as the victim, but you’re nothing of the sort. You and your fellow arch ‘Liberals’ are in truth the least liberal people on earth. You ruthlessly defend your own opinions and will not accept any criticism or suggestion that you may be wrong. Is this the free society you long for? Is freedom in Cathland purely selective? It would seem so. I imagine that, to you, Joseph Stalin was just a cuddly, misunderstood champion of the poor. So here it is, Cath. I don’t give a shit if you’re offended. As long as you’re dishing it out, you’re going to be taking it too, whether you like it, or not. Now, polish those shoes, straighten that blazer and tie and get ready for assembly.”

Uh huh. It’s all there. The “you write in public so you deserve anything we feel like dishing out” bit. The confusion of “challenging” with trashing, insulting, degrading, and similar bullying tactics. The unabashed announcement that “you’re going to be taking it.”

And then there are the comments. There’s a guy there persistently interpreting Elliott’s claim that rapists aren’t somehow radically and obviously different from the normal guy in the street as a claim that all guys in the street are rapists. Oy.

I wish somebody would invent a filter. A really good, effective filter.



  1. says

    The confusion of “challenging” with trashing, insulting, degrading, and similar bullying tactics.

    And of course we know it’s not “confusion” at all. It’s trashing and bullying because they lack an actual challenging argument.

  2. Aratina Cage says

    It’s trashing and bullying because they lack an actual challenging argument.

    Bingo! If you can’t win intellectually, beat them down verbally and graphically.

  3. grumpyoldfart says

    her internet tormentors were from a site called Don’t Start Me Off! – which was taken offline last week by its owner after the unwelcome glare of publicity fell on it

    I don’t believe that. I think the owner welcomed the publicity — until somebody made an offer he couldn’t refuse.

  4. stewart says

    “Of course I realise that by posting this piece I’m no doubt giving them enough ammunition to start the whole sick cycle off again, but so be it.” And I was right: that’s exactly what they did.

    This is key. Unpleasant as it is and predictable as the initial consequences are, one has to shine a light on it.

  5. Maureen Brian says

    What Richard White clearly lacks – apart from everything else – is an adequate political education. He managed to call Cath Elliott a lefty, (a capital-L) liberal and a Stalinist all in one paragraph.

    Or does he want a prize for knowing about paragraphs?

  6. Shplane, Spess Alium says

    Honestly, any filter program with sufficiently complex ability to interpret language that it could filter out ALL the dreck would probably count as sentient, and it would be pretty cruel to force a sentient being to do nothing but read unfiltered internet comments.

  7. sawells says

    @6 : Ooh, you should definitely read “Rule 34″ by Charles Stross, it’s a black comedy involving exactly what happens when a spam filter becomes sentient and realises that it can cut down the spam by assassinating the spammers.

  8. Bill Openthalt says

    A Bayesian filter, proprely primed with the stuff you want to filter out, would probably do the trick. I’m running bogofilter on my mail servers, and it is remarkably effective. You need to combine it with a whitelist, so that trusted people can discuss the topics without getting caught, as it cannot handle the distinction between good guys discussing internet filth, and actual internet filth.

  9. ildi says

    Laurie Penny also has a post up on New Stateman (Take Back The Net: it’s time to end the culture of online misogyny). The part that stood out for me:

    Right now, the beginning of a backlash against online misogyny is underway. Some people claim that this backlash is an act of ‘censorship’. Some website owners claim that promoting and publicising sadistic misogyny is merely respecting the ‘freedom of speech’ of anyone with a lonely hard-on for sick rape fantasies. That sort of whinging isn’t just disingenuous, it’s terrifically offensive to anyone with any idea of what online censorship actually looks like.

    As I write, there is a real fight going on to keep the internet as free as possible from government interference, a fight to free speech and information from the tyranny of state and corporate control. Without going into it too much here, the internet is full of people who have spent their lives, risked their lives and even lost their lives in that fight. To claim that there’s some sort of equivalence between the coordinated attack on net neutrality and digital freedom going on across the world and the uninterrupted misogyny of comment-thread mouth-breathers doesn’t just take the biscuit, it pinches the whole packet and dribbles ugly bile-flecked crumbs into the keyboard.

    The hypocrisy is breathtaking, brain-aching. These people talk unironically of their right to free expression whilst doing everything in their power to hurt, humiliate and silence any woman with a voice or a platform, screeching abuse at us until we back down or shut up. They speak of censorship but say nothing of the silencing in which they are engaged. I have even been told, with apparent sincerity, that using the ‘block’ button on Twitter to prevent anybody who has posted threats of violence against me is actually an attack on the troll’s freedom of speech – no apparent distinction being made between the right to express your views and the right to have your ugliest half-thoughts paid attention to.

  10. latsot says

    Uh huh. It’s all there.

    One of the claims I’m getting a lot at the moment is that any name-calling is bullying and therefore my calling someone who stupidly and anonymously pops up on my blog being stupid all over the place stupid is exactly equivalent to the systematic and unprovoked obsessive stalking of individuals; posting distortions and lies about them; issuing threats; encouraging others to do the same; and generally being vile. Calling someone stupid once in response to stupid comments on my own blog or Twitter feed might be rude, but it’s hardly the same thing.

    There is no arguing with this position, however, they just repeat it more or less verbatim for as long as you can be bothered to argue with them. I don’t think they even believe it. I think it’s a justification.

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