Sierra takes TechCrunch to task

TechCrunch chose to post a short manifesto for a hacker state by the notorious troll Andrew Auernheimer (i.e., “weev,” “Memphis Two,” etc.). He’s presently imprisoned for taking advantage of a stupidly insecure Web service of AT&T in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. (I think prosecution of the Act is abusive and support Aaron’s Law and other reforms.)

The only interesting – though aggrandizing – bit is that he compares his plight to that of Raoul Auernheimer who was interned in Dachau by the Nazis before emigrating to the U.S. (Sky Croeser has a post questioning the substance of the notion hacker statehood.) Of greater note is that one of Auernheimer’s victims of harassment, Kathy Sierra, took TechCrunch to task for publishing it. She writes:

A self-proclaimed liar, weev boasts one of his top skills is artful blending of fact and fiction to get people to believe the most outrageous things. Yet the tech press (I’m looking at you, TC), for example, ignores the conflict between what weev actually said about the ATT incident pre-getting-caught preferring (and propagating) the charming, 100% fictional “hacktivist hero” narrative concocted only after he was caught and charged.

The whole comment is worth a read, and I thought I’d publish and excerpt from the book I’m working on now entitled Comment: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators in the Age of the Web about Sierra’s experience.

Mean Kids

According to its founders, the group blog Mean Kids was intended to be a forum for satire about technology blogs and writers. However, snark soon turned to hate. In March 2007 Kathy Sierra, author of several Java programming books and the blog Creating Passionate Users, wrote that she had cancelled her workshop and keynote at a conference; instead, she was at home “with the doors locked, terrified.”

It began just over four weeks ago, when something shifted. It started with death threat blog comments left here (which some of you may have seen before I deleted them) including: “Comment: fuck off you boring slut… i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob” We all have trolls – but until four weeks ago, none of mine had threatened death… At first, it was the usual stuff – lots of slamming of people … Nothing new. No big deal. Nothing they hadn’t done on their own blogs many times before. But when it was my turn, somebody crossed a line. They posted a photo of a noose next to my head, and one of their members (posting as “Joey”) commented “the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size” (Sierra2007vsd).

As the story received greater attention the attacks increased upon Sierra and another female blogger, Maryam Scoble. In addition to being a (distressing) milestone of sorts, exposing this facet of online culture to a wide audience through CNN, the BBC and New York Times, the incident shows how trolling had mutated. Trolls had always sought to provoke a response, but the tactic of saying something offensive and hateful had emerged as its own creature. If we understand hate as an intense hostility, haters are those who express extreme hostility so as to upset and belittle others. The popularity of the term likely arises from the expression “haters gonna hate” in hip-hop culture. Much like “don’t feed the trolls,” this implies that some people’s negativity should not be taken seriously. If, on the other hand, such hostility elicits fear or anger this provides more grist for the mill.

Yet, “don’t feed the troll” no longer seems sufficient in face of the hater. In addition to hateful speech, the target is sent disturbing images and videos. The manipulation and use of images (e.g., animated GIFS, mash-ups, and “maros” wherein text is superimposed on an image) is common in Internet lulz culture and can be quite funny. However, in the hater context it can be alarming: Sierra was pictured as muzzled by a pair of panties. (Other targets of trolls have recived much more gruesome images.) Additionally, one can’t ignore the haters when beset by threatening phone calls, including to one’s family, friends, and employer. The Mean Kids incident was more than a flamewar in which teenagers bandy insults about one another’s mothers on a BBS. Also, the fact that the threats were complemented by the hostility of known, notable people made it all the more distressing. Indeed, this is a feature of what I call a trollplex: an attack by people exhibiting a spectrum of behavior, but who together share a target, culture (e.g., “lulz” or hating) and venues. For instance, the well-known bloggers Chris Locke (“rageboy”) and Frank Pynter ran Mean Kids and participated in snark but made no threats. Mean Kids contributor “Rev Ed” posted photo-shopped images of Sierra and Scoble. (When the identity behind “Rev Ed” was exposed, he claimed his computer had been hacked and he had not posted the materials.) Others (whose identities were never publicly revealed) made threats and the offensive pictures.

The attacks upon Sierra ranged from critique, to mean-spirited attacks, to frightening threats, but all of this melded into a single discourse, rooted in the discussion at Mean Kids and other blogs. Some criticized Sierra for painting those who contributed to the site with a broad brush of condemnation, but she maintained that to create an environment for this type of culture and speech entails some responsibility. However, the increasing attention the story was generating was unwelcome to everyone. Others were joining in on the trolling of Sierra, the identifiable Mean Kids contributors were embarrassed by association with the incident, and those who were not yet identified feared exposure. Hence, the sites and other materials were removed, and, in a surreal twist, Sierra and Locke ended up issuing a joint statement so as to hopefully end the incident along with a meeting that was televised on CNN. In a joint statement Sierra wrote that she did not feel the Mean Kids proprietors were responsible for the threats but they still had their differences.

However, Chris and I (and others) still strongly disagree about whether people who are respected and trusted in our industry … are giving tacit approval when they support (though ownership, authoring, and promoting) sites like meankids and unclebob. This is about trust and leadership in our community, and whether those who are looked up to have a (non-legal) responsibility to the community whose trust they’ve earned for the things they promote (LockeSierra2007ksc).

Beyond the history of animosity that the mean kids felt towards Sierra and others, she suspected that the trigger was her support of bloggers deleting inappropriate comments on their own blogs (Tweney2007ksc). While this seems commonsensical today, and can still prompt anger by some, it was a more controversial position then. However, I believe the conflagration was likely related to her style of writing and admission of fear. Fishing metaphors abound: reacting to trolls and threats is said to be like “chum in the water.” Hence, the trolling soon exceeded the confines of the original sites. The infamous Internet troll “weev” joined in on the harassment by fabricating a biography of Sierra and revealing her social security number and home address, inviting others to “send them gifts that properly express your sentiments.” Sierra later noted that “People did. We moved” (Sierra2013sms). Weev explained the harassment by writing “Kathy hollers like a stuck pig as she wonders why the trolls escalated to magnitudes which she could no longer control. The answer is obvious: she fought the LOL. The LOL won” (weev2007ks). There is also the obvious issue of gender.

Susan Herring’s study of trolling was actually preceded by work on the gender dimensions of flaming. In 1993 she reported that on the lists she studied a minority of participants, roughly five percent, most all of whom were male, were responsible for the majority of adversarial rhetoric (Herring1993gdc, p. 13). (They also tended to dominate in the amount of words spent overall.) This led her, in the following year, to ask why do “women thank and men flame?” Given that flaming is usually the behavior of a minority of (mostly) men, she discounted simple disinhibition. Her original hypothesis was that perhaps men and women felt differently about politeness; however, both groups reported valuing politeness and disliking rudeness. What she concluded, in its stead, was that men had an overlapping but dominate value system: men assigned “greater importance to freedom of expression and firmness of verbal action than to possible consequences to the addressee’s face needs.” Hence, these men flamed so as to “regulate the social order” in accordance with these values “as self-appointed vigilantes on the ‘virtual frontier.’” (Herring1994pcc, p. 291-292)

For instance, Locke’s handle of “rageboy” certainly evokes the persona of an angry (juvenile) man. Additionally, in the joint statement, while he clearly condemned the “offensive words and images” his main concern was seemingly that of free expression. In the U.S. the First Amendment prohibits Congress from abridging that freedom. (It says nothing about what we as individuals, members of organizations, or as a community can condone or condemn.) During the incident many objected to the mean kids behavior, but I never saw even a semi-substantive proposal that Congress get involved. None-the-less he concluded his statement with a warning that the First Amendment protects speech “that many find noxious” and we must be wary of forces in the world “that would leap at any opportunity to limit speech or even abolish certain forms of it. Crucial as is the current debate about hate speech directed at women, it would be tragic if this incident were used as a weapon by those who would limit free and open exchange” (LockeSierra2007ksc). Additionally, one Mean Kid contributor maintained that Sierra invited the abuse and then overreacted. He wrote she “mixes a type of new-age rhetorical spirituality with computer science.” Her aphorisms of “code like a girl” and “beauty drives the computer industry” deserved ridicule. Sierra’s pretense of technical chops was belied by her ignorance of Internet meme culture, as seen in her overreaction to the comment “IMMA KILL YOU” which was “borne of Japanese anime and for those who know, it is also hilarious.” He wrote that in the context of Sierra’s supposed overreaction, it was even moreso. (This meme was even featured in a 2010 Judd Apatow film in which the character played by Jonah Hill receives a threatening text message: “Where the fuck are you? Imma kill you. Smiley Face.”) The whole incident “was a strange collection of odd synergies mixed up with childishness and, frankly, fun between people I was enjoying interacting with.” And, finally, “I must add this: authors who write with less childlike magical thinking might also find they receive less childish criticism of their works” (Joey2007sti).

Such sentiments exemplify Herring’s findings. Also, justifications for trolling often show what psychologist Albert Bandura identifies as “moral disengagement.” So as to ameliorate the cognitive dissonance of seeing ourselves as decent people who do indecent things we use justification (“she deserved it”), euphemistic language (just “trolling” or “having fun”), and advantageous comparisons (“I’ve never physically harmed anyone.”) We displace or diffuse responsibility by saying we were only a small part of the conduct. And we dehumanize and disregard or misrepresent the injurious consequences (“toughening them up”). However, as Bandura noted, “People suffer from the wrongs done to them, regardless of how perpetrators might justify their inhumane actions” (BanduraEtal1996mmd, p. 364).

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