Bigoted Harassment, Alive and Well Online

With the help of law and changing norms, invidious discrimination has become less prevalent in arenas like schools, workplaces, hotels, and public transportation.  Due to our social environments, anti-discrimination law is fairly easy to enforce.  Because leaders usually can figure out those responsible for discriminatory conduct and ignore such behavior at their peril, bigotry raises a real risk of social sanction.  So too hate discourse in the public sphere is more muted.  A hundred years ago, Southern newspapers and leaders explicitly endorsed mob violence against blacks.  As late as 1940, a newspaper editor in Durham, North Carolina could state that: “A Negro is different from other people in that he’s an unfortunate branch of the human family who hasn’t been able to make out of himself all he is capable of” due to his “background of the jungle.”  In the post-Civil Rights era, the public expression of bigoted epithets and slurs occurs infrequently.  One rarely hears racist, sexist, or homophobic speech in mainstream media outlets.  Some interpret this state of affairs optimistically, as a sign that we are moving beyond race, gender, and arguably even sexual orientation.  The election of the first black President provoked proclamations of our entry into a “post-racial” era.  Many contend that we no longer need feminism anymore.  Prime time television is filled with images of female power, from Brenda Leigh Johnson’s chief on The Closer to Dr. Miranda Bailey’s “take no prisoners” surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy.  Who needs feminism anymore as its goals have been achieved?

But a new era is not upon us.  In some arenas, hate’s explicit form has repackaged itself in subtlety.  In public discourse, crude biological views of group inferiority are often replaced with a kinder, gentler “color-blind racism,” as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls it. The face of modern racism is, in journalist Touré’s estimation, “invisible or hard to discern, lurking in the shadows or hidden.”  The media has also better disguised sexism with its anxiety about female achievement, renewed and amplified objectification of young women’s bodies and faces, and the dual exploitation and punishment of female sexuality, as media scholar Susan Douglas explains.

Offline public discourse may now be on more neutral ground but its online counterpart is not.  While virulent bigotry continues behind closed doors, it increasingly appears in online spaces that blend public and private discourse.  Although televised sports commentary rarely features anti-gay rhetoric, online sports message boards are awash in in-your-face homophobic speech.  Racial epithets and slurs are common online, whether in Facebook profiles, Twitter posts, blog comments, or YouTube videos.  College students encounter more sexually inappropriate speech in online interactions than in face-to-face ones.

Matters have not improved since I started talking and writing about it since 2007, when we woke up, for a brief second, and paid attention to sexualized, misogynistic attacks on Kathy Sierra on her blog and two others and the targeting of female law students on AutoAdmit.  Then, technologist Tim O’Reilly and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales called for a Blogger’s Code of Conduct.  That effort failed to gain traction, and ever since the bigoted online abuse continues, silencing victims, ruining their online reputations, costing them jobs, and interfering with their ability to engage with others online and offline.  Newsweek’s always insightful Jessica Bennett has published important new piece on online misogyny and the Guardian’s Vanessa Thorpe and Richard Rogers similarly explore the rape threats and abuse of female bloggers.  I will be blogging about bigoted online harassment, as I am amidst writing a book about it and serving on the Inter-Parliamentary Task Force on Online Hate, which recently held a hearing at the House of Commons.  This all has to stop, and now.

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16 Responses

  1. 1) Regarding the Kathy Sierra incident, please see the column I wrote detailing that the event simply does not match the popular misconception of it:

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

    Note the eventual statement: “Careers and reputations have been seriously injured by a rush to judgment that was often sadly short on evidence of crime or culpability.”

    2) The Blogger’s Code of Conduct made no logical sense. It was a proposal that fell apart the moment it was subjected to serious analysis

    3) The AutoAdmit case turn on “CDA section 230”, which is another matter entirely than blogging.

  2. Also “Wikipedia founder” should be “Wikipedia CO-founder”, as Wales has engaged in a shameful publicity campaign to deny Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger that status, stating e.g. “I am the sole founder of Wikipedia.”. Contrast Larry Sanger’s extensive page of evidence:

    Please don’t further that particular injustice either.

  3. Danielle Citron says:

    Thanks, Steve. First, as the edits to Kathy’s Wikipedia page shows, any suggestion of her making things up lacks credibility and by my lights totally trivializes the problem. I’m not sure I would be brave as Kathy was when she faced comment that an anonymous poster wanted to “gob cum down her throat” and that “Be careful whore, you might find yourself with a machete shoved up your self-righteous cunt.”

    The key sentiment of the Blogger’s Code of Conduct was that bloggers can help change the norms of incivility and hate, they can and should discourage frightening harassment. They should do so, as Facebook often endeavors to, and so can others. At CoOp, we have pretty strict rules about civility and I am really proud of that. But of course online misogyny drives up traffic so those proposals largely failed to gain traction, and importantly this is so on attack sites.

    AutoAdmit by no means turned on website operator immunity. The students sued 39 posters of defamatory and otherwise damaging content. The only reason its educational director was included because it seemed he wrote abusive posts. He was dropped from the suit once the plaintiffs thought otherwise.

  4. Kathy Sierra says:

    Seth Finkelstein was friends with some of the people I named. This put him in a difficult and extremely biased position. Also, he expressed a strong dislike for me, publicly, prior to the 2007 events. When he chose to write about it (without knowing the facts) for The Guardian, and then use his own piece in order to (repeatedly) edit my Wikipedia entry against their neutral POV policy, well, that is all part of the penalty for speaking out. In hindsight, I now feel that it is the abuse-defenders who are in large part responsible for contributing to an environment where this continues, and they share much blame for making it so painful to speak out. I am quite certain that Seth had no part in any of the original attack on me, but he has been the single biggest reason I have stayed mostly offline.

  5. Kathy Sierra says:

    Also, as to “short on evidence…”, please refer to the Boulder CO county sheriff for details. The D.A. agreed a crime had been committed, but was unable to determine who, exactly, to bring charges against. The case was re-opened again when one of the people I named stated publicly that he knew who was behind some of the worst of it, but despite calling in favors to the out-of-state law enforcement where this person lived, the sheriff’s working my case could not even get a return phone call. Though this was 2007, local law enforcement was, for me, deeply concerned (they were the ones who first told me to take this very seriously and stay home), but completely incapable of doing anything. They barely understood email, let alone the cyber-sleuthing needed to unravel international IP addresses and anonymous comments.
    One of the most common patterns to silence those who speak out is to say that if it really happened, it is a matter for law enforcement. Sadly, there is almost no chance that local law enforcement will be able to do anything even when they take it as seriously as Boulder county did with my case. But I would strongly urge anyone experiencing this to of course bring it to their local law enforcement because you just do not know what the threat level really is. That’s a big part of the problem. And when you have two daughters, as I did, you really don’t want to be guessing.

    Once someone has reached the stage of spending that much time and energy targeting you specifically — going way past drive-by comments and into finding and photoshopping your images, tracking down personal data, etc., they are not simply comment trolls but much closer to stalker behavior. What most people fail to realize is that the idea that one or more people have become obsessed enough to stay focused on you, personally, is far more intimidating than “just trolls”. A thick skin can protect against nasty comments, but begins to crack when those comments coalesce into am escalating series of attacks. And I cannot believe that here I am, STILL defending myself for having said anything.

  6. In case it wasn’t clear, the sentence “Careers and reputations have been seriously injured by a rush to judgment that was often sadly short on evidence of crime or culpability” came from a joint statement:

    The incident didn’t become so prominent because of run-of-the-mill comment trolls. Several well-known people were personally accused of various things. If *any* accusation against *anyone* must be taken as true because otherwise it “totally trivializes the problem”, well, that’s a problem itself.

    The Conduct proposal didn’t gain traction because it failed critical analysis. Who is going to enforce it? The very same people involved in a “rush to judgment”? And how were they going to enforce it, for *everyone*? Stating all blogs must follow some particular standards is a non-starter, and I suspect this was known. The bogosphere is filled with outright liars. Islam-hatred is a cottage industry. No ill-considered proposal should be uncritically praised simply because it would be nice it if worked as intended. Bluntly, CoOP gets a handful of comments, from a pretty polite audience overall. It is not a template for every blog in existence.

    For AutoAdmit, I meant the key legal aspect of the case. Standard lawsuits against posters aren’t very controversial. It’s the third-party lack of obligation which is the hard fought topic, and what the implications are for libel/defamation.

  7. Danielle Citron says:

    Dear Kathy, Thank you so much for sharing with our audience how you felt and continue to feel, silenced, by stalking both before the original attack and after you blogged about it. You have our support at CoOp. Serious thanks, Danielle

  8. My own defense against various accusations:

    > Seth Finkelstein was friends with some of the people I named.

    True, though not the most harshly accused, e.g. “Rageboy”, and the main commenter who thoroughly denied the accusations (which is not often reported). It is the case that my knowledge of some of the people involved gave me an independent basis to evaluate the likely accuracy of the charges, rather than simply having to take allegations on faith. That’s a feature.

    > Also, he expressed a strong dislike for me, publicly, …

    Just in case this ever winds up in some proceedings, let’s distinguish between “posts” and “person”. There’s people I like personally where I don’t like what they write (and also vice-versa). Also, I have defended people I don’t like personally if the facts show them to be treated unjustly.

    > to write about it (without knowing the facts)

    FALSE. This is completely untrue. I did extensive investigation and interviews.

    Again, making such a false statement should matter.

    > for The Guardian, and then use his own piece in order to (repeatedly) edit my Wikipedia entry against their neutral POV policy,

    I claim this is false, and I was enforcing Wikipedia’s policies, both on NPOV, and most importantly, against libel and defamation. (ref – “I think her response, as it pertains to anything I personally wrote, was unjustified — but highly effective — character assassination. As a result, I’m sure I’ll be explaining for years to come that I’m not really an ax murderer and child molester. Nice work.”)

    > In hindsight, I now feel that it is the abuse-defenders who are in large part responsible for contributing to an environment where this continues, and they share much blame for making it so painful to speak out.

    And this is where the politics gets very, very, dangerous, because if one disputes an accusation, then that’s a charge of “share much blame”.

    > I am quite certain that Seth had no part in any of the original attack on me,

    Thank you for this.

    > but he has been the single biggest reason I have stayed mostly offline.

    WHOA! That’s quite a serious statement. I can’t disprove it as an opinion, but again, it’s a catch-22.

  9. Kaimi says:

    Seth Finkelstein has repeatedly stated on Wikipedia and elsewhere that in his view, the whole thing was a big joke that got out of hand, and did not involve any real threats. (See, e.g., , where Seth writes among other things that “the reality was extremely rude and horribly mean, but nowhere near a true death threat”).

    This is consistent with what some other participants in the event have said publicly. It’s a coherent back story. And it’s completely irrelevant.

    It doesn’t matter that they thought that their threats were just a joke in really bad taste. They were still threats.

    If I have a very crass sense of humor, I may decide that it would be lots of fun (hi-lar-ious!) to send e-mails to my neighbor that read, “I have a gun and I know your address and I am going to kill you.” And in doing this I may have no subjective intent whatsoever to carry out that action, and I may see it all as a big barrel of laughs.

    It doesn’t matter. If I send that e-mail, then I just made a threat, and my neighbor is absolutely within his rights to label it as such, and to seek any sanctions against me for it.

    Threats of violence aren’t funny, and “it was all just a joke” is not a defense.

  10. Of course context is relevant. How many times has someone said in anger something along the lines of “The next time that sleazeball does that again, I’m going to kill him!”. Is that a true threat? Should it treated as a criminal matter?
    Real case – “If they ever make me carry a rifle, the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.”

    Here’s part the public denial by one of the accused, again, not typically reported (which should rebut the claim of me not knowing the facts). And it bothers me intensely that in terms of the politics, this *doesn’t* *matter*.

    Again, let me repeat: My reply was to Jane or Kat, not you. The posting you are referring to was in no way a threat of any sort. There was no language in it which hinted at or intended or remotely suggested a threat to your life — or anyone’s.

    I did not create nor post any of the graphics you are referring to. But even so, you are taking them out of context because we criticized your books and a crayon drawing. While I’m not entirely condoning it, they are still just pictures and were not labeled with words that
    could possibly be extracted to imply a death threat.”
    No rational person could possibly be “scared” from my one line sentence which wasn’t even directed at you. Further, it wasn’t even *sent* to you. It was on a board *you* visited and took out of context.”
    “I don’t deny I have my own faults; but I would never, ever hurt or call for the hurting of anyone. No matter what I now think of you, I still and always will wish you only good will and nothing but good will.”

  11. Kathy Sierra says:

    Good god. This never ends. Seth, I am going to say this again: you do not know what actually happened. You cannot possibly *know* that it was *not real* unless you know exactly who did each part, and if you do, then you are withholding that from the law enforcement officials who investigated. You are aware, Seth, that one of the people I named eventually said, publicly, that his account was hacked and someone impersonating him made some of the worst posts and the final image of me. The ONLY way you could know for certain that it was “not real” is if you actually know the identity of that hacker. And that would be big news for me, that I would be thrilled to relay to the sheriff’s dept.

    If you do NOT know the identity of each person including the “hacker” then you cannot possibly know what they were thinking so please, stop. As I said, the knowledge that someone is obsessively focused on YOU, personally, is far more disturbing than troll comments.

    It is not lost on me that the third Google hit for your name, Seth, is a person accusing you of stalker behavior. Have you counted the number of times you have tried to edit my wikipedia bio? Or the number of comment threads like this one that you just keep finding? Are you doing Google searches on my name, still? Because you just keep showing up wherever I am mentioned in this context, and often dropping subtle references to libel and defamation, also perfect ways to keep victims from going public. It has been nearly five years, Seth, and I have not returned to my blog. Please STOP. You are being irrational and creepy about this and what the hell else do you want?

  12. Kathy Sierra says:

    Ok, last time Seth: the Boulder county sheriff’s department was convinced there was enough to take seriously, enough, in fact, to take to the DA. The claim of “no rational person could be scared…” well, I guess that makes the law enforcement in Colorado irrational. That’s what you’re going with?

  13. Ms Sierra, I have been reading and commenting at this blog for YEARS. I even considered being part of one book discussion series it ran. There is nothing untoward about my participation in this thread. It should go to your credibility when you make these nasty personal accusations at people who are in disputes with you, when you smear with mudslinging charges while playing the victim. Which, note, is exactly what was claimed you did previously (and in fact, I left out from politeness in what I quoted above). Bluntly, you are the one “being irrational and creepy about this”.

    What you are trying to do is to silence *me*, through outright libel and defamation. And I say to you, “Please STOP”.

  14. Danielle Citron says:

    Dear readers,

    First, let me say how sorry I am to Kathy Sierra that my post led to her being confronted by someone whose efforts to discredit her and deny her experience has silenced her. And despite the fact that Kathy told him so, in our comments yesterday, how he still continues in this comment thread is astounding.

    All of this, sadly, proves my larger concern. Whenever people speak out about online harassment, they are dismissed as making it up–as Seth and Daily Kos founder suggested of Kathy. They are told it just a joke and that they ought to get over themselves, that it’s the blogosphere, stupid, so ignore it or turn off your computer. As we are seeing, one cannot write about the experience of online harassment victims without people trying to discredit the victim and somehow claim that those involved in the victimization are victims themselves.

    So let me reaffirm what Kaimi said and explain what Kathy experienced herself and obviously from the comment section continues to face.

    Kaimi explained that “Seth Finkelstein has repeatedly stated on Wikipedia and elsewhere that in his view, the whole thing was a big joke that got out of hand, and did not involve any real threats. (See, e.g., , where Seth writes among other things that “the reality was extremely rude and horribly mean, but nowhere near a true death threat”). This is consistent with what some other participants in the event have said publicly. It’s a coherent back story. And it’s completely irrelevant.”

    Now, for what Kathy faced.

    In 2004, Kathy started a blog called Creating Passionate Users. She wrote about what she knew best: software programming and game development. Ms. Sierra’s blog caught the technical community’s attention and generated a strong following. By 2006, Technorati regularly included her blog in its Top 100 most popular blog ranking.

    That changed in 2007 when anonymous posters targeted her on three blogs including her own. A commentator wrote: “I hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.” Another wrote about wanting to have “open season” on her with “flex memory foam allowing you to beat this bitch with a bat, raise really big welts that go away after an hour, so you can start again.” Someone posting under the name Hitler wrote, “Better watch your back on the streets whore . . . Be a pity if you turned up in the gutter where you belong, with a machete shoved in that self-righteous little cunt of yours.” Others said she deserved to be raped and strangled.

    On another blog run by a prominent technologist and author, posters uploaded doctored photographs of Ms. Sierra. One picture featured her with a noose beside her neck. A poster wrote: “The only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size.” Another photograph depicted her screaming while being suffocated by lingerie. After she blogged about her experience, anonymous posters retaliated, posting her Social Security number and home address all over the web. Others posted a fabricated, damaging narrative of her career and family life.

    People suggested and continue to suggest that what Kathy faced was no big deal. At the time, the prominent technologist who owned the blog where the doctored pictures appeared said: “Evidently, there are some people who don’t much like her. The same could be said of myself or indeed anyone who blogs much. It comes with the territory.” He also said that that the postings were just in bad taste. As we have seen, those who allowed the pictures to stay up (before taking them down after the press got a hold of the story) are defended as victims. The posters are defended for having joked around. And the person targeted is attacked again for being too sensitive.

    Kathy’s experience is just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of thousands of people face online stalking, and the majority are women. I regularly speak to victims whose stories I will tell in my book but under pseudonyms. Even talking in public is terribly problematic for them. First, they rightly fear retaliation, as so many people have already experienced after speaking out as Kathy did. Second, writing about them in their own names draws further attention to the abuse, which appear prominently in Google searches. We have seen that offsetting the attacks is nearly impossible. It’s hard to present a counter narrative to the suggestion that someone is a liar, financially irresponsible, a whore, has sexually transmitted diseases, has rape fantasies, and should be raped. And the more that posters say these things, the more employers want not part of it. It’s not that they believe the posts but they don’t want their reputations sullied via association.

    I will be writing about all of this and more, but I hope (in vain, no doubt) that we don’t devolve into attacks on victims, who obviously I have to write about under pseudonyms or risk blow back on them.

    Much thanks,

    Danielle Citron

  15. Lawrence Cunningham says:


    Thanks for cleaning and clearing up all this invective. Your post is, characteristically, interesting and important, a contribution to civil discourse on the problem of cyber vituperation. The thread, though unfortunately polluted compared to this blog’s standards of civility, reaffirmed the urgency of the post, and of your book project.

    I hope that further comments on the thread respect the mutual requests of the antagonists by hurling no further scorn over the merits of one of the several incidents you reference. The broader problem is real and requires civil discussion, not vitriol.