Changing My Mind About Online Harassment

English: Infographic on how Social Media are b...
English: Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Online harassment (i.e., cyber-harassment) has been a hot topic both in the atheist community and in the mainstream news media for some time now. Many of our attempts to discuss the subject have been impeded by the use of vastly different definitions of harassment (i.e., should we use existing legal definitions or those that have been promoted by some atheist feminists?) I certainly recognize that this can be problematic, but if online harassment is truly a problem in our community and elsewhere, it seems that we need to find ways of discussing it even if such discussions end up being somewhat unpleasant.

In this post, I want to tell you about a conversation I recently had with a woman on the subject of online harassment. This was an actual face-to-face conversation offline. We initially disagreed quite sharply and I was even mocked a bit. But in the end, I was persuaded that I've been mistaken in some of my beliefs about online harassment. I think that I've underestimated its potential to do real and lasting harm.

My Skepticism About Online Harassment

There are a few things relevant to online harassment of which I have been skeptical:

  1. Claims that being quoted accurately is harassment,
  2. Claims that disagreeing with someone or criticizing their ideas are forms of harassment,
  3. Claims that merely attempting to communicate with someone on social media is a form of harassment, and
  4. Claims that publicly defending due process via social media is harassment.

I remain skeptical that these things - labeled harassment by some atheist feminists - are forms of harassment. I do not think they warrant labels like "abuse" or "harassment" at all.

So what has changed? I have realized that when I've asked whether being called names on social media really causes the sort of harm some adults have been claiming that my focus has been far too narrow. I have been so focused on how nonsensical it is that an adult would care about what one complete stranger thinks of him or her and the ease with which this one stranger can be blocked/unfriended that I've missed the boat on the "social" aspect of social media. The harm is not confined to person-to-person exchanges like I had imagined but from the damage this sort of thing can do to someone's reputation over time as others see the initial communication and share it. It is this wider cumulative effect that I have failed to consider.

How Was I Persuaded I Was Wrong?

It is important to emphasize three things about the conversation I had with the woman I mentioned previously. First, the conversation was in no way about the atheist community. She's Christian, and we did not discuss online atheism at all. Rather, we were talking about the broader issue of why the subject of online harassment seems to be such a hot topic in the news lately. I said something early in the conversation about how I thought it could be a real problem among young children but that it had been overblown among older adolescents and adults. By the end, she had convinced me I was wrong.

Second, we did not talk at all about abstract definitions of what was and was not harassment. She persuaded me by providing several real examples of the damage caused by online harassment, none of which involved her as the victim. Her examples showed me how online harassment can harm both women and men. The examples focused on the rapid spread of information over social media and how it made sure that everyone knew of the stupid thing one had done within seconds. Imagine the naive 16 year-old boy who gets drunk at a party, gets naked, and has someone send the photos out on social media for the entire school and community to see without him even knowing about it. Imagine the shy and socially awkward college student who turns down a date with the wrong guy who then has his friends set up a website about how ugly and awful she is, a website which ends up being shared and talked about everywhere. And then there are the countless examples of LGBTQ individuals being publicly outed against their will.

Third and almost as important as the thought-provoking examples which made me rethink my beliefs, this woman did not use any gender feminist jargon or call me any names. It was almost as if she realized that this has nothing whatsoever to do with feminism; she was equally interested in the welfare of all victims and had such compelling and vivid examples that there was no need to talk about patriarchy or "rape culture." We did disagree initially and she used mockery to highlight the sillier implications of some of what I said; however, she never once called me a "rape apologist," "MRA," or "misogynist." I mention this not because it was surprising to me but because I think that skipping the name calling forced me to focus on her argument, an argument that was much more compelling than my own.

What Did I Learn?

For children, adolescents, and even adults, online harassment can be a far more serious problem than I realized with important consequences to the victim's mental health, status, and reputation. I still believe that many of the people I see on Twitter - especially those who spend much of their time calling people names - ought to expect pushback because people are going to object to their name-calling. However, this should in no way should detract from the importance of actual online harassment. I have underestimated the sort of impact online harassment can have by not fully considering the broad social aspects and the amount of damage one's reputation can sustain.

As noted above, I still do not recognize much of what I see the social justice warriors calling "harassment" as warranting the label, but I do see some that fits and I'll be far more cautious about promoting it and those who do. Through something as simple as a retweet, I may be spreading something that does not deserve to be spread, and I plan to be more selective in this regard.

I'm also beginning to realize that using social media to accuse others of crimes, label others as "abusers" or "misogynists," organize campaigns of intimidation against one's critics, dox people, and the like are forms of online harassment that our community should not be tolerating.