October 20, 2014

Doxxing and the Power of Anonymity

Doxxing is all the rage these days, it seems. It feels like the word just got invented yesterday, referring to releasing someone’s personal contact information online in an attempt to attack them, but it’s become a rampant trend.

Game developer Brianna Wu, frequent target of GamerGate, was recently doxxed, and driven out of her home under threat of home invasion and assault; RequiresHate, an SFF blog I wasn’t even aware of until a few weeks ago, operated under anonymity that was recently punctured, resulting in this apology; and author Kathleen Hale didn’t traditionally dox one of her biggest trolls, but she did penetrate her troll’s privacy and personally tracked them down.

The issue at heart here is the power of the individual and the power of the masses and the public, and how the internet has muddied the line between the two.

Online anonymity grants enormous power to the individual: because no one can track you down and hold you accountable, you can pursue your causes and passions however you like. In addition, you can create numerous fictional accounts, creating fleets of straw men.

For example, if I wanted to prove that gun rights advocates are morally compromised degenerates, all I’d have to do is create several twitter accounts that look like gun rights advocates, run them for a few weeks (pretty easy to do, using Hootsuite’s scheduled tweets – I can write all their tweets in advance), then tweet something gun control oriented under my own account, and use my “puppet” accounts to attack myself. I’d then point to this exchange – wholly fabricated by me – as being indicative of the problems with gun rights advocates.

So not only does anonymity give you a veil that allows you to do and say things you’d never do in real life, it allows you to literally inflate your individual power. Some sites have checks on this, but these can easily be bypassed by someone with enough devotion. (And on the internet, crazed devotion is not something we lack.)

Worse, the internet tends toward an echo chamber: people dogpile on one another. Outrage has a gravity to it that attracts people, creating mobs. These mobs, once they’ve picked their target, create an impression of the voicing the entirety of the internet: if you’re being attacked by seventeen people online, it feels like it’s actually the entirety of the internet.

And if you’re a public person, with your real name attached to what you’re saying, then suddenly you’re helpless to defend yourself. You know nothing about them, but next thing you know your attackers might show up in your twitter feed or on your facebook page, and suddenly they’re inescapable, friending your real life friends and family, free to invade your life as they choose. And it feels as if you’ll never be able to live it down. You can’t ever know if they’ve truly forgotten you, or if they’re still monitoring your every move.

This is how one person on the internet can transform, overnight, into an army, all focusing on one target: the power of one person transmuted into the power of the masses. This also falls under the category of abuse or bullying, a word that’s become popular recently – though not without reason. The internet seems like a sea of thousands of people talking at once, but one person can have an outsized effect on one or many people – and much of this power comes from anonymity.

But is anonymity itself bad? No, I don’t think so. We say things like, “Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in person,” but what about whistleblowers or people leaking important information? What about people whose lives or beliefs are in direct contradiction with their employers, superiors, or family? What about people voicing unpopular opinions? What about oppressed persons, like homosexuals in places where homosexuality is shunned and even attacked – should they be forced to use their real names when trying to connect with sympathizers online?

Anonymity is the only way these people can do what they feel they must do. It has value here. It’s just that this value, when granted to others, becomes a power that can be abused.

Many feel outrage when another’s privacy is violated. In the Kathleen Hale piece, there are many commentators who feel that what she did was wrong, and there is the case that using the book club’s access to “Blythe Harris’s” home address was an abuse of power – that information was never intended to be used that way. (Also, what the hell was this book club doing just handing that information out?)

But one could make the case that Blythe Harris should have remembered that she had taken some pretty provocative stances in the online world, and handing her address over to an internet circulation, no matter what kind, brings with it all manner of possibilities. I think Hale went far above and beyond the norm, but for anyone who wants to work anonymously – and especially to work anonymously in an aggressively negative fashion, IE, trolling – don’t share your contact information with anyone. If one person has it, anyone can get it. If this book club was willing to give Katherine Hale the address, then it meant others could get it too. And it is stupefyingly easy to look someone up. It’s a matter of a handful of clicks and keystrokes. If you’ve been railing on someone online and trying to make their life a hell, do you not expect for them to Google you?

I can’t tell from Hale’s article how legitimate her grievances against Blythe were – but anonymous online trolls shouldn’t expect to be able to treat people poorly online and be able to conduct business like a respectable adult. That’s having your cake and eating it too. (This is also why I use a PO Box.)

[EDIT: I’ve since been directed to this history by twitter user yayeahyeah which makes Hale sound crazier than a bag of cats. There is also a previous incident as recovered here by Gawker. This suggests that Hale’s piece is not an example of clear cut online harassment, or the story of a victim confronting her troll in real life. This colored a lot of my initial reading, for reasons you’ll read below.]

Regardless, some people feel there is this unspoken constitution of the internet, and one of its rights is that a critic’s voice should never be hampered by their own personal reality. A critic should be free to say what they please, because critics keep us honest. They’re the canary in the coal mine. We need to give them more power, not less. Because the critics are the ones with the least power: they’re the common masses online. Companies, authors, artists, and anyone else looking to expose themselves to the internet have made their choice to expose themselves, and they are the ones with power.

Or are they? Hale writes:

Writing for a living means working in an industry where one’s success or failure hinges on the subjective reactions of an audience. But, as Patricia implied, caring too much looks narcissistic. A standup comic can deal with a heckler in a crowded theatre, but online etiquette prohibits writers from responding to negativity in any way.

I would generally agree with this. In my experience, artists aren’t the powerful ones in this situation. We’re vulnerable, powerless, and desperately exposed, and it’s assumed that we’ll stay that way. What possible power could a writer effectively exert after their book’s been published? Granted, we chose to be in this situation – we’ve put ourselves out there before the world – but the increased anonymity of the internet means we catch a lot more tomatoes in the face than we used to, and it’s assumed we’ll grin and bear it.

People like to imagine authors as some kind of literary aristocrats, dictating how people react to their work. But that’s not true: writers are supposed to stay silent. They aren’t supposed to do what Hale did, or anything like it. They aren’t supposed to react to reviews at all. I don’t, and I don’t believe other writers should either. Nothing good ever comes from it. This is an example of writers having less options, not more. There are more things that we can’t do online once we get published: that’s a side-effect of having your work out there. The only time I think a writer should respond to a critic is if that critic is actively harassing them, going out of the way to make their online lives difficult, becoming more of a troll than a critic.

And no matter what sort of attacks we might experience online, the expectation is that it will stay online. If someone is endlessly harassing me, getting into my Facebook and Twitter feeds and disparaging me on every review of every one of my books, the assumption is that I will only react online. The idea that I would google this person, find their address, and mail them a physical letter saying, “Hey buddy – fuck you,” is a violation of the constitutional rights of the internet. Obviously, there are limits – showing up on their doorstep is something writers might fantasize about, but shouldn’t do – but the idea of puncturing the narrow penumbra of real life and the online world, and forwarding someone’s own vitriol to their church group or family members or employers, is generally considered to be dirty pool. All citizens of the world of the internet are guaranteed anonymity, with complete compartmentalization of internet life and real life, unless they themselves opt out of it.

But that may be changing.

I’ll tell you a story now, and I’ll keep it vague simply because, as I wrote above, I don’t know if I’m still being monitored, and I’d prefer not to bring down any more wrath than I already have.

My first book, Mr. Shivers, was the target of a pretty prolonged online hate campaign. Compared to others, I got off easy, probably because I wasn’t interesting enough to really hang anything on, nor did I have enough stature to really puncture.

The reason behind it was that for a long time I wrote short pieces for an internet forum, and some were good and some were bad (actually, probably most of them were bad), but then when I got a book deal, and tried to get them to buy the book, that changed. Suddenly I went from being tolerated or liked to being outright hated.

Part of this was my own fault. I probably didn’t pitch myself well: I was super excited and didn’t know how to sell my own work, so I probably came off as asinine. Part of it was that they outright hated the work itself, and some of their criticisms were valid – I don’t think Mr. Shivers is my best work as a writer anymore, by a long shot. I look at that book like I look at photos of myself at 23 (which is how old I was when I wrote it): who the hell is this awkward kid?

These slights seem pretty minor in comparison to what wound up happening: people went on Amazon and found bad reviews of my work and upvoted them. They compiled all the bad reviews into one giant column for each other to pour over, receiving probably tens of thousands of views. They scoured the internet for photos of me and compiled them and photoshopped them. (Boy, that was creepy.) They made my book into a meme. They composed lengthy parodies of my book and sent them to me. They made videos mocking the book and posted it in the comments of reviews.

I remember doing a twitter search for my book’s title once back then, and finding one of my attackers had glimpsed my book on a friend’s bookshelf in a Facebook photo. They wrote, “Naturally, I defriended that dumb cunt immediately and screamed until my teeth bled.” This was not the reaction I was expecting when I first started writing.

And for pretty much every book I’ve written since, I always get an email from one of them reminding me that they’ve noticed, they haven’t forgotten me, and they’re still ridiculing what I’m doing. The parody video of Mr. Shivers still shows up in reviews of my newer books, including City of Stairs. They haven’t gone after any of my books like they did Mr. Shivers, but they’re letting me know that they could.

And I’ve dealt with it. It took me a while, but eventually I realized that this group of people is actually pretty small, and they don’t have a huge effect on the overall market. Average book buyers aren’t aware of online beefs. (Voting up bad reviews is another thing, though.) And even though they made it into a meme, it’s pretty forgettable, as far as memes go. There are way better memes out there.

Was I angry for a while, though? Sure. I was angry, and I was frightened. I was frightened that this group of anonymous people were going to sabotage my career, just because they could. They knew everything about me, but I didn’t know anything about them. I remember frantically deleting my facebook profile, terrified they’d get photos of my family or my house. What if they found out where I lived?

And they wanted to provoke me: they wanted me to have a meltdown. They wanted me to be fun sport for them. When I told them that their parody of my work was pretty funny (“haha, good one guys”), they reacted with disappointment: but that didn’t mean they didn’t stop, it just meant they didn’t escalate.

I think about them once in a while. Maybe once every couple of months. I know who they are, in the vague way that you know anyone online, and I even follow some on twitter, because I find them funny and they have a good schtick and I agree with what they say. I guess I’m a gracious loser, in that regard. I don’t know.

But today, I found out that one of them brought these same campaign tactics against the Gamergate movement, and got doxxed. Suddenly Gamergaters were looking at this person’s personal photos, tracking down all of their fake accounts, releasing their personal address. The Gamergaters knew where this person lived and who all their friends were. This person had to delete numerous online accounts as a result.

It made me think of when I’d first joined twitter. This particular person had found me immediately, and told me Mr. Shivers was great and asked me to comment on it. I could tell they were mocking me, that they wanted to lure me into saying something stupid, so I blocked them.

I feel conflicted about them getting doxxed. I don’t like Gamergate, and I don’t appreciate any of them getting a victory like this, using this ugly, nasty tactic. On the other hand, this person used their anonymity to try to sabotage my career. I found them funny online sometimes, but I can’t ever forget that. They probably thought it was a practical joke, one of many they perpetrate online, and they didn’t take it seriously because they thought I, myself, and my novels, were all a joke. But they invested time and effort into doing it, and maybe it had an impact on my career – I can’t tell. It definitely changed the way I thought about working online. I barely promoted my second book at all.

And I know I wasn’t the only one. They brought this up against Gamergate, and they probably brought it to the doorstep of many others. Maybe some of their targets deserved it. At the same time, I’m sure everyone involved thought I deserved it. I obviously disagree.

I don’t like doxxing. I value anonymity. Yet I can see the value of making people stand by what they’re saying. And as we increasingly move to an online world, where every politician and public figure is meant to maintain an online brand, I sometimes wonder if we’re going to see a world where anonymity is increasingly reduced. More business and more interactions are moving online, where so many nameless vigilantes hold sway. That can’t last. If this is where we’re going to live, we’re going to want to know who’s next door, and hold them accountable for what they do.

I expect it will be like the Old West: slowly civilized and depowered, but perhaps we’ll be losing a valuable freedom in the process. Just one that tends to get abused.