Abuse directed at women on the Internet

Derogatory and scary comments directed at women, in large part women who are for one reason or another known by a real name to an online community, is a hot topic these days. The Internet is definitely a sewer, go to just about any active youTube video and check out the comment section for easy-to-find examples of pointless vitriol.

As someone who has waded through interminable chat logs for online communities of all kinds, I have seen some bizarre and at time unintentionally funny shit. Men posing as women and cybering with other men posing as women. Classic. I’ve seen men cybering with other men and then contacting that man and trying to scare them or even blackmail them by threatening to out them. But the worst thing I’ve ever seen was … Some one contacted me about threats directed at her online. She was worried it might be her ex husband or boyfriend, I’m not sure. When you’re a moderator or otherwise have the power to actually peer behind the curtain, in some cases see account info including real names and other online identities, and at times confront that online persona with what’s being alleged to have happened on their account, reactions vary. Most people never cop to it. They’re “confused” as to how someone could have possibly signed on to their account under that name and said what I’m telling them.

Of those that denied it, oddly enough, the most common fall guy was their little brother. As in “My little brother must have gotten on again and caused more trouble, that rat, I apologize, I’ll take care of it.” Uh-huh, well, be sure your “little brother” and you both understand that whatever happens on this account, it is your responsibility, and stuff like this is grounds for being invited to leave the community if it were to happen again. I’ve even had adults blame their children. They would nod and agree virtually and promise to change their password and talk to the their parents and siblings, put up a pretty good act.

Some would cop to it. My anecdotal analysis is that a huge amount of this stuff is done by adolescent males who would have been making prank phone calls a generation or two ago. Another big chunk is done by males who were adolescents just a few years ago and are still struggling to shed that awkward social cocoon. I have seen one girl or a gang of girls gang up on another girl who are likewise young and still enjoying the fleeting vestiges or irresponsibility. But some of it, a small portion to be sure, looks like it might be done by really scary people. Maybe they’re mentally ill and need help, maybe they’re just assholes.

On time a lady was telling me someone came into a chat room and started threatening her. She said it was probably her ex, I went searching to see if I could find any logs and, on this particular community, they were fresh enough to still exist. It was weird stuff, this clown had cooked up a twisted fantasy plot out of some role-playing game, it sounded like, where he would somehow kidnap the lady and some other people and had imagined rather fanciful ways they would die. I remember one of them involved a scene from The Mummy and giant scorpions. That doesn’t really capture how chilling this was. In a hair-raising matter of fact way, the creep described in casual detail in a chat room full of other community members, how he would abduct, imprison, and murder the lady and other members of her friends and family.

This was years ago, maybe the laws have changed since, but my first impulse was to ask her if she had notified any local authorities. Her reason for freaking out was she had, the guy had a TRO against him, he wasn’t supposed to be within some certain distance of her. But the local police had told her that online harassment was a gray area and without proof it was that person there was nothing they could do. She was calling to get that proof.

And the only thing I could do was tell her we would absolutely cooperate with the authorities and hand the entire mess off to my equally underpaid manager as company policy dictated. My guess is, the company wasn’t about to hand over account info on another person without a subpoena. Probably because that would be against the law too. So there you have it, an example of the dilemma faced by people who get harassed online, real scary harassment, not the garden-variety trolling we from time to time even here. I’m not sure what the solution is, I’m not sure there is a solution, but it seems like it should be easier to stop.


  1. Holms says

    I have done similar things through the League of Legends volunteer run ‘tribunal’ system. It’s just amazing how transparent the excuses are, as if somehow the idiot just has to provide a story of some sort – no matter how ridiculous – and we have to accept it.

  2. lanir says

    About the only thing I can think of that one could do in that sort of situation is ask the police to subpoena your company (see below for caveats). You have to be absolutely certain you are NOT giving out information about a person when you do this but I think suggesting timeframes and mentioning a particular complaint and possibly a section of your site or server would be okay. Don’t share anything about a user without a subpoena. No account names, IP’s, specific content or log information, etc, not even a redacted version. It is then up to the police to do take it from there and you can’t help them. If they choose not to go forward with it, assume there is information you’re not aware of and drop it. If they do subpoena you, just provide what they’re entitled to by the subpoena. You’ve told them there’s evidence and they’ve acquired it. Doing something with it is up to them.

    Obviously this is not something you should do except in cases where it’s blatantly obvious something very bad is going on. Wasting the time of a prosecutor, a judge and the police just to get a warrant for a frivolous bit of internet trolling is not in anyone’s best interests. Also a good idea to run it past your boss so they have your back. If you’re the boss, run this idea past your lawyer and form a very clear, explicit policy for these things. I am NOT a lawyer and this is not legal advice. It’s just what I’ve seen other companies do.

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