CCR Symposium: Risk Perception and Online Speech

I want to join the other participants in this symposium in congratulating Danielle for putting together such a terrific article. As James G. writes, Danielle frames a compelling case for thinking about online harassment as a civil rights problem, an approach both novel and bracing.

Back in March, Danielle put up a post on Trivializing Women’s Harms: The Story of Cyber Gender Harassment. That post attracted commentators, and links, who vigorously disputed both the seriousness of the risk posed by online speech and the (lightness) of the burden that she suggested be placed on anonymous speech. Were we not controlling the comment threads on these posts relatively carefully, we’d see a similar level of skepticism, expressed in vivid, personal, terms. But why would this be? Why aren’t the risks that the online “speech” pose as obvious to our commentators as they are to Daneille and others on this blog?

The reason isn’t because partisans (like the ACLU, whose inconsistency is remarked by Ann Bartow), or free speech advocates, are deliberately conforming their views of risk to their personal interests or ideological positions. Rather, as cultural cognition theory predicts, “individuals are disposed selectively to accept or dismiss risk claims in a manner that expresses their cultural values.” Persons of hierarchical and individualistic orientations will worry more about being rendered defenseless by gun control; egalitarians and communitarians will worry about the legacy of patriarchy and racism associated with guns and thus discount those risks. Similarly hierarchs will be worried about the risks of disorder following flight from the police; egalitarians will be more concerned about the risks of police oppression. And so on.

Applying the group-grid theory to the project of cyber risks suggests that individualists , who value markets and private ordering, might be disposed to discount the risks of online “mobs”, unless those mobs are directed at values of concern, like the right to be anonymous and free from regulation. By contrast, communitarians believe that individuals will interact with one another frequently, depend on one another, and that this mutual inter-dependence is a condition to be celebrated and supported. Thus, people of different cultural views will have distinct views of the risks of conduct & the benefits of regulation, and those views will (significantly) be less likely that you might think to respond to new sets of “facts”. Perversely, arguing from facts my accent, not ameliorate, dissension between individuals holding different values.

What, then, is to be done to convince the individualists that their values aren’t under assault and that the risks of online mobs are severe enough to warrant some form of regulation? Danielle suggests that framing this as a civil rights problem would serve a valuable “normative and expressive role.” The danger, I think, is that many will respond, as does Orin Kerr here, by suggesting that there are competing norms and expressed values in play. It’s a serious problem, and I don’t have the answers. But I do think that being more generous & attentive to those holding different values is an important part of coming to consensus, and thus I’m really pleased with the respect and collegiality demonstrated in this symposium so far.

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12 Responses

  1. What, then, is to be done to convince the individualists that their values aren’t under assault and that the risks of online mobs are severe enough to warrant some form of regulation?

    I can offer a suggestion:

    The discussion is valuable, no matter where we wind up. However, “individualists” hackles rise up when their values are, indeed, under assault. Citron’s article can be seen as nothing else. But, assault away from philosophical grounds.

    However, you say that “arguing from facts may accent, not ameliorate, dissension between individuals holding different values.”

    That may be true, but Citron isn’t arguing “from facts.” Her facts are half-truths and full-lies. Perhaps if Citron had simply done away with the allegedly factual portion of the article and simply argued her thoughts, it could be worthy of a lot more respect. However, when you want to argue to stamp out anonymous speech to cure hurt feelings, you’re running against the grain. When you start with dishonesty, the trust required to open one’s mind to opposing philosophy can’t be established.

    Worse yet, the “symposium” gives itself blisters patting Citron on the back for a piece of work that I wouldn’t sign off on as fitting for an Upper Level Writing Requirement for a law student. I can’t believe that this many smart people read that piece of junk and not one of you bothered to follow the footnotes back to the original sources to see if any of the shocking facts were “facts” at all?

  2. dave hoffman says:


    I’m sorry that you seem to believe it necessary to call differences in interpretation of a study “lies”, “half-truths”, and “dishonesty.” I’ve looked at your interpretation of the word attack on Froomkin’s thread, and I think it tendentious. Of course you believe that “Saying “hey baby, wanna have cybersex with me?” isn’t an “attack.” It is a 14 year old male’s dumb attempt to impress a perceived female in a chat room — where the mere appearance of a female is often a cause for irrational exuberance. It is referred to as a “nerd rush.”” My point – which I think is basically inarguable – is that others will disagree about the risks of the speech and the benefits of regulation. Speech that is merely obnoxious to you is a threat for someone else. I fail to see how you simply jumping up and down, crying censorship, meets that point head on. Frankly, it is your mind that seems closed.

  3. What about the other lies in her study?

    It is not a “difference of interpretation”to claim that, for example, the AutoAdmit community roundly applauded a cyber-smear when the precise opposite is true. It isn’t a “difference of interpretation” to say that the “vast majority” of “attacks” are upon women, when “attack” is defined as nothing more than an unsolicited message, and there was a 2% variation between women and men being “attacked.”

    That, dude, is a lie… not a “difference of interpretation.”

  4. Nathaniel Gleicher says:

    But differences of interpretation are exactly what they are – and this, I think, is the whole point. For instance, looking briefly through the full record of the post on Autoadmit reveals some posters who urged against sending the letter(“Good Lord, don’t do this.”), others who urged for it (“let’s keep pushing it!”), and some making clearly sarcastic comments (“This will definitely prove your manhood . . .“). I can easily see you arguing that the comments are not supportive, just as I can see Prof. Citron arguing that they are. Personally, I think the tone of the comments is largely supportive and encouraging, which probably signals where my biases lie.

    This is just what Prof. Hoffman was saying, and it is a very important piece of the problem. We are debating the impact of online harassment, but its doubtful that we could all even agree on what we think online harassment is. Acts that I would perceive as clearly harassing, someone else could easily dismiss. This reveals a pretty significant underlying problem with seeking solutions — we can’t even settle on the meaning of the central terms. Even what we call “facts” in the context of debates (such as this one) that center around speech and conduct are heavily shaded by our own perceptions. This means that these debates are particularly hard to resolve – especially if we roundly declare each other to be liars.

  5. Well, the problem there is that “differences of interpretation” can cover much rhetorical mischief – in the limit, doesn’t this converge to the absurd, that if someone “feels” a certain way, that’s their interpretation, and hence undisputable? Then isn’t it just making ideologues unfalsifiable?

    I too don’t understand why so many people are gushing over warmed-over Mackinnon-Dworkin with “cyber” tacked on to it. And let’s put it this way – inasmuch as someone might grant there is such a thing as objective reality, the paper has disturbing variances from it (if you don’t believe such a thing exists, then it’s kind of pointless to talk about scholarship in the first place).

    For one bad section refuted, see my journalism about the Sierra incident (an example which has also been mentioned by another poster).

    “Accusations of sex and violence were bound to grab the headlines”

    Her paper retells a sensationalized version of the story which is simply wrong (sigh, inasmuch as “wrong” has meaning, I know).

  6. This reveals a pretty significant underlying problem with seeking solutions — we can’t even settle on the meaning of the central terms.

    Well, most of us can agree that the word “attack” means something more than an unsolicited email. Of course, not everyone can so agree when an accurate definition (you know, one you might find in a dictionary) of a term would render their “scholarship” about as valuable as used toilet paper.

    Even what we call “facts” in the context of debates (such as this one) that center around speech and conduct are heavily shaded by our own perceptions.

    Yes, and there is a guy with a shopping cart and some cans who “perceives” satellites boring into his mind. That doesn’t make it so.

    Here is the exchange on AutoAdmit:

    Citron, in an earlier post, cited that as proof that members of the AutoAdmit community said that the sender of the email should be given a medal. R-E-A-D it, and any reasonable reader would not have a “difference of interpretation.” A reasonable reader would think that either a) Citron is brain dead (I reject this notion), b) Citron lied, or c) Citron doesn’t know the meaning of the word “sarcasm” (I reject that too).

    This means that these debates are particularly hard to resolve – especially if we roundly declare each other to be liars.

    If the shoe fits…

    The problem isn’t that I called her out on being a liar. She is. She lied. That’s that.

    The real problem is that Citron lied profusely, the rest of the “symposium” circle jerked each other as if this poorly-written, poorly-researched, poorly-reasoned, and chock-full-o-lies trash is “wonderful”. It is crap, dishonest, and true scholars would see it as such and call it out as such.

    However, the lies fit the prevailing politics of the Academy, so the circle jerk must continue. However, if she had a “difference of opinion” on the data that the world is 6,000 years old or that “intelligent design” is “science,” the liberal academy would be falling over itself to trash it.

    For the record, I would too. I just call out dishonesty whether it comes from my side of the aisle or from the other side.

  7. Sorry, you’re right… Neil Cavuto and Fox News just had a “difference of temporal opinion on this:”

  8. Nathaniel Gleicher says:

    The problems of interpretation certainly can lead to absurdity if carried too far, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth considering before they reach that point.

    How about some statistics. Citron claims that the targets of online harassment are largely women. Working to Halt Abuse Online has been gathering statistics on online harassment since 2000. In 2006, they found that 70% of targets were women (28.5% men, 1.5% unreported). In 2007. they found that 61% of targets were women (21% men, 18% unreported). In 2007, 55% of the reported instances of harassment escalated beyond the context in which they began, and 24% included threats of offline/physical violence.

    Unfortunately, if Prof. Hoffman is right, this should be just as disputable as anything else.

  9. Well, consider my claim:

    “Her paper retells a sensationalized version of the story which is simply wrong”

    A common reaction to this (not saying it is yours, but taking the matter pre-emptively, though trying not to straw-man either), is to argue that this statement cannot be correct, because if Sierra felt a certain way, that is dispositive. I hardly deny there are gray areas, but not everything is in the middle either. I’m objecting to interpretation being used as an automatic truth determination.

    Advocacy statistics are notorious for using expansive, well, interpretations, of inflammatory terms – “harassment” is a notorious example. If one says it’s inappropriate to use the expansive meanings, then one may be accused of trivializing and dismissing more serious meanings, which is a tedious rhetorical position to be in.

  10. Lets accept that data as accurate though. I am fully willing to believe that this is the data that WHAO has in its files.

    But, lets also ask about the organization. The Univ. study using bots seemed scientifically and statistically unbiased. And lo and behold, it found virtually no statistical difference between how real men and real women are treated online.

    WHAO is complaint-driven. Accordingly, it depends on self-selection of its data subjects.

    Right or wrong, men are socialized to “suck it up,” or engage in self help before running off to report “harassment” to some obscure organization or even the police. I’m not mocking the fact that women are more likely to complain, but I am saying that cultural socialization places a stigma on men who do, and does not place a similar stigma on women who do.

    Also, men and women are going to perceive communication differenly. If a man enters a chatroom and “sexygal” sends him an instant message that says “click here to see me in my panties”, he isn’t going to perceive that as a “threat” or an “attack.” Even if it is merely a link to malware (which 99.99% of such messages are), it still isn’t going to be perceived as an “attack.” The guy is going to say “well, that was dumb of me,” and move on.

    On the other hand, if a woman enters a chatroom and gets an IM that says “wanna see me in my tighty whiteies”, she might perceive it as so. I might even agree that it is properly characterized as “malicious”. I would certainly agree that it is pretty friggin’ dumb. Nevertheless, I can’t say that anyone would look down on her for reporting it as a TOS violation.

    Accordingly, I actually find it staggering that 28.5% of those who self-reported to WHAO were male. I’d like to know what percentage of men blow off communication that women would actually report. My guess (pulling it out of my ass again) is 50%. Perhaps someone has better stats than that before we start doing math to turn WHAO’s data into actual reliable adjusted statistics?

  11. Dave Shulman says:

    As usual, the problem here is that women must suffer for men’s obnoxious, harassing and threatening actions. Marc Randazza, demonstrating once again what an insufferable jack*ss he is, conflates disputes over a few facts in Danielle’s article with a general disdain towards any attempt to equalize the cyber-playing field and recognize that women suffer disproportionate harm from these cyber-attacks.

  12. Danielle Citron says:

    I want to respond to the erroneous and reputation harming suggestion that I have misrepresented the University of Maryland study (and the broader issue as to the gendered nature of online harassment) and an AutoAdmit comment.

    First, cyber harassment is indeed a gendered phenomenon. The non-profit organization Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA) has compiled statistics about individuals harassed online. In 2007, 61 percent of the individuals reporting online abuse were female while 21 percent were male. Similarly, in 2006, 70 percent of its online harassment complainants identified themselves as women. Overall, from 2000 to 2007, 72.5 percent of the 2,285 individuals reporting cyber harassment were female and 22 percent were male. Half of the victims were between the ages of 18 and 40 and reportedly had no relationship with their attackers. Similarly, the Stalking Resource Center, a branch of the National Center for Victims of Crimes, reports that approximately 60 percent of online harassment cases involve male attackers and female targets.

    Academic research supports this statistical evidence. The University of Maryland’s Electrical and Computer Department recently studied the threat of attacks associated with the chat medium IRC. Researchers found that users with female names received on average 100 “malicious private messages,” which the study explicitly defined as “sexually explicit or threatening language,” whereas users with male names received only 3.7. Indeed, contrary to what has been misstated, the study explicitly explained that the “experiment show[ed] that the user gender has a significant impact on one component of the attack thread (i.e., the number of malicious private messages received for which the female bots received more than 25 times more private messages than the male bots)” and “no significant impact on the other kinds of attacks, such as attempts to send files to users and links sent to users.” The study explained that attacks came from human chat-users who selected their targets, not automated scripts programmed to send attacks to everyone on the channel, and that “male human users specifically targeted female users.”

    I am extensively quoting the study to make clear that my analysis is not my interpretation of the study but instead that of its authors.

    Second, however one line of my BU article may be construed by others (i.e., the comment he deserves a Congressional medal), my editors, myself, Nathaniel Gleicher and others have read it as I have. But no matter, the work does not include lies (the suggestion that I am deceiving others is indeed defamatory as is the suggestion that the explanation of the Maryland study is) but instead includes exact quotes of the countless postings on AutoAdmit. And the various stories of the attacks on women are exact quotes as well and cannot be disputed.

    I hesistated speaking to this issue as I fear cyber harassment, which I have clearly experienced personally and indeed as Dave notes in a prior comment on Prawfs has included menacing physical harm.

    Danielle Citron