The New York Times Room for Debate raised the question, again, of whether online anonymity, what it called “The War on Trolls,” must be stopped:
The Internet may be losing the war against trolls, a broad term for destructive agitators who torment and heckle others online.
Robin William’s daughter, attacked by Twitter followers, quit the service, and the writers and editors of the feminist website Jezebel published an open letter, pleading for a technical solution to graphic images that were anonymously posted in droves in the comments section.
Does anonymity on the web give people too much license to heckle and torment others?
There is no doubt that people can be complete assholes on the internet, protected by anonymity (or pseudonymity, if you need to nitpick), more so than they tend to be IRL. It can be unpleasant, and can devolve into conduct that’s criminal. So what’s worse than these awful anonymous trolls?
How about intellectually dishonest law professors who pander to the butthurt and ignorant? Danielle Citron, of Cyber Civil Rights ignominy, is tapped by the Times to protect the internet’s delicate flowers from mean words.
To make her case, Citron begins with an anecdote. As a leading advocate of criminalizing revenge porn, the efficacy of using anecdotes is well proven, notwithstanding that it’s a logical fallacy. Giving Citron credit for being knowledgeable enough to know that she’s pandering to the foolish, one can only believe she does so intentionally. That makes her intellectually dishonest.
Trolling — like the kind of exploitative abuse spewed against Zelda Williams on Twitter after her father’s death last week — is often nasty and hurtful. But it is routinely protected expression.
Trolling is a curious thing. While Citron was handed an excellent example on a silver platter when it came to Zelda Williams, it remains in the eyes of beholder. People regularly complain of “trolling” because they publish an assertion with which others disagree. Sometimes the assertion is stupid; sometimes others just think it’s stupid. Either way, they express their disagreement with the assertion, and, boom!, someone’s a troll. Of course, that wasn’t the example Citron used.
Hateful, offensive and distasteful ideas enjoy constitutional protection, so debate on public issues can be “uninhibited, robust and wide open” under the First Amendment.
This is a trick, though the sentence sounds agreeable at first blush. The First Amendment is the mechanism by which the ability of the government to silence ideas it frowns upon is forbidden.
But that doesn’t address the reason why the First Amendment was stuck into the Bill of Rights in the first place. It’s to keep those nannies among us, those prune-like school marms who would shush us for using words, ideas, images, thoughts that make the nannies shake their bony fingers, from deciding that someone has exceeded their notion of polite society. It’s not just the debate of issues of great public importance, but all issues. Even the ones the school marms don’t think suitable or worthy.
This too is a matter of intellectual dishonesty, suggesting that the need for free speech is only valid when it’s addressed to issues of public importance. Yes, of course we need free speech for big issues, but we need it for small issues, for all issues, as well. All ideas matter, even those that displease the self-appointed censors like Citron.
Online perpetrators can be criminally prosecuted for criminal threats, cyberstalking, cyberharassment, sexual invasions of privacy and bias intimidation. They can be sued for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In a few states, they can also be held to account for bias-motivated stalking that interferes with victims’ important life opportunities, such as employment and education.
So is Citron saying that when anonymous trolling leaves the realm of speech and enters the realm of conduct, there are plenty of laws available to address the conduct? Well, no. This litany of wrongs is offered to give rise to the inference that low value speech, meaning the speech that nannies like Citron despise, are already deemed unworthy of protection.
This, yet again, is intellectually dishonest. These crimes are not to reflect that hurtful speech is less worthy, but that conduct, not speech per se, that crosses the line into criminality is addressed. It’s a nuanced distinction, but one that a law professor should be capable of making.
Intermediaries — usually the websites where trolls post comments — can step in to revoke the privilege of anonymity, or even remove abusive speech that violates their community guidelines but when trolling turns into cyberharassment or cyberstalking, the law can and should intervene.
This is the obligatory Section 230 attack, where school marms would require websites, SJ for example, to be the mean and hurtful police, revoking the privilege (?) of anonymity. Of course, a law professor must know that anonymity is not a privilege, but a right, and so her insertion of a word that deliberately misstates the nature of anonymity is, you guessed it, intellectually dishonest.
But it gets a bit worse when she says “when trolling turns into cyberharassment or cyberstalking.” The problem here is lack of definition, or more precisely, that cyberharassment is anything that hurts a person’s (usually a woman’s) feelings. Citron’s voluminous Cyber Civil Rights writing on the issue makes that abundantly clear. But calling it cyberharassment gives it a more legalish sounding name, thus deflecting attention from the substance of what she seeks to criminalize.
Law enforcement should be able to use forensic expertise and warrants to track down individuals who engage in this conduct anonymously.
And there it is, the crux of the matter. What good are guys with guns if not to hunt down and capture those whose ideas are anathema to Citron, whose mean words hurt feminine feelings?
It’s not that I’m a fan of anonymity, which is usually needless and often impairs the point a commenter seeks to make because no one knows whether he’s a federal judge or a 12-year-old, and no one cares whether some anon jerk on the internet prefers chocolate to vanilla ice cream.
But resort to the bludgeon of law enforcement to enforce rainbows and unicorns on the internet is the end game under the phony guise of “respectful” and “civil.” Yes, I enforce it here (for you, anyway), but that’s my choice. You won’t have a SWAT team breaking down your door because you called me a mean name.
So what’s worse that anonymous trolls being terribly hurtful on the internet? Intellectually dishonest law professors pandering to the fears and feelings of the internet in the New York Times. We expect trolls to behave like trolls. We do not expect law professors to be intellectually dishonest.