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April 12, 2007

Trusting women, trusting bloggers

Why do so many people think they know how tech blogger Kathy Sierra should have responded to online death threats?

In every discussion of the Kathy Sierra death threats, someone will confidently opine that Kathy shouldn't take graphic threats and ghoulish pictures seriously because they were published on the internet.

The fact is, most threats are idle. The whole point of a threat is scare the victim into compliance. On the other hand, there's no reason to assume that a threat is benign just because it was issued online.

The appropriate response to a threat depends on the specifics of the exchange: Is it just one person writing one angry email, or is it a prolonged campaign? Are we talking vague insinuations of ill-will, or detailed threats of violence? Are the hostile communications escalating in frequency or severity? Is there any evidence that those who are doing the threatening know where the target lives, or live nearby?

As Markos notes, the internet makes it easy for cranks to dash off idle threats to public figures. On the other hand, the same technology lets the same cranks pinpoint a stranger's home address in minutes. For example, Kathy Sierra's home address was published online.

Markos notes that a lot of bloggers get abusive email. I know I do. Several times a year, I emails from people who say they hope I die, or express other similarly vague pro-attitudes towards my demise.

Legally, those are threats. I forward those to the FBI and the ISP of the sender. I'm not the least bit scared, but man, do those threats make me angry. These shmucks are trying to intimidate me! Of course, it doesn't work and I take great satisfaction in creating a paper trail.

It's just as illegal to threaten someone by email or online as it is to call them or send them hateful snail mail. If we chide victims for taking email and website threats seriously, we're coddling their abusers. Threats should have consequences, regardless of the medium.

I've only gotten one specific threat of deadly violence in the years I've been blogging. Just before the 2006 mid-term election someone anonymous creep emailed me to say that they were going to be watching me through the sight of a high-powered rifle, blah, blah...

I wasn't scared. I was furious. So, I did a little digging and found out that the sender lived in San Antonio. After forwarding copies of the email to the FBI and the sender's internet service provider, I wrote back to the sender informing them that it was a crime to utter a death threat, and that if I ever got another threat from them, I'd call the San Antonio Police Department. I never had a problem with them again.

I'm so tired of hearing the "every blogger gets threats" canard. Empirically, it's all too true. But that logic cuts both ways. Kathy Sierra is a veteran blogger. As a high-profile female tech blogger, it's safe to assume that she's gotten her share of low-grade abusive email over the years.

If Sierra says that she finds this latest round of threats especially credible, chances are that she perceives a qualitative difference between run-of-the-mill angry letters and the sexual humiliation campaign being waged against her by a handful of highly committed sickos.

In general the person who is best-situated to appraise the threat is the target, in consultation with police and other authorities. That's what Kathy Sierra did, and she got vilified for her trouble.

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Comments

Exactly right.
The other thing that I think is interesting is that, while people are condemning her and telling her what she should have done (which is "get over it, it's not that big a deal!"), it's only because she didn't decided that enough was enough that the issue is starting to get serious attention. Online harassment is a serious problem- it goes back to the post you made about the Edwards thing on Second Life, and the ways that people see the online world. Threats made online aren't different just because it's easier to make them.

Sierra took a stand, and now the issue is getting some attention, and I'm not about to criticize her feel feeling threatened when people were making threats.

Er... I mean "it's only because she didn't and decided that enough was enough that the issue is starting to get serious attention."

What do you want to bet that some of the people now blasting her for having taken the threats seriously would turn around and blame her if she did get attacked?

I think a small correction is in order. Only those bloggers who a significant number of people actually read probably get death threats. I have a blog. I wonder if on any given day anyone besides me even reads it. And I've not gotten any death threats yet. Though I am a man, so maybe people figure it is more fun to send death threats to random women.

I'm not sure I get the title, I don't think this is an issue of trust. It's a matter of judgment, and you don't have to agree with the judgment of others. Still, I have to agree with the sentiments in the post. Lindsay Beyerstein is right, these letters aren't people who are just blowing off steam. They are meant to shut people up, to intimidate them. I wouldn't take many of them seriously, but the police should be contacted anyway. People have to learn that you have no right to talk over other people. Nobody has any right to try and prevent others from being heard. They certainly don't have a right to bring violence into politics, even rhetorically.

other similarly vague pro-attitudes towards my demise.

I love it when you use philosophical jargon.

Maybe we mean different things by "trust."

It bothers me that distant third parties assume they know better than Kathy Sierra regarding the credibility of the threats. Some of these distant third parties are so confident in their assessment that they are willing to attack Sierra for not reaching the same conclusion as they did. They have the nerve to jump to the conclusion that she must therefore be cowardly or neurotic.

It's a matter of trusting our colleague's judgment. If another adult with extensive blogging experience tells me that they feel threatened by a particular exchange, I'm going to assume that they've got their reasons.

I have made this comment directly to Amanda and to Kathy because the attacks had the same effect in both cases.

A person who makes a living by being in public is deprived of livelihood or has it reduced when intimidation drives them from public view. Whether the threats were serious or not, real financial harm was done.

There's probably no way to quantify this, but I'd bet my last nickel that progressive/liberal bloggers get 10 times the number of death wishes that right wingnut bloggers do.

Well, Markos is an insensitive, self-centered jerk. I don't know about the others.

"It bothers me that distant third parties assume they know better than Kathy Sierra regarding the credibility of the threats."
Exactamundo! clearly Kathy has been a target; there's really no excuse for second guessing whether the threats are "credible". She's been terrorized and making light of that is defacto joining the people who have been attacking her.

How many thought of her as the villain? I read a few comments that said Kathy Sierra over reacted and I didn't think so. I've great sympathy for any financial harm or emotional distress that Kathy may have suffered but I don't know how she was vilified.

Just remember, friends:
Over-reacting to words alone -- with no accompanying credible actions to validate those words -- becomes old hat quickly.

Better to use "judgment", which often comes from wisdom and experience, to distinguish the two? Creating a paper trail may feel satisfying, but might also be seen as overreacting by many.

Not judging either woman's judgment here, just warning that overreacting to threats that are only words, can have that chilling effect on speech that genericizes and blands the dialogue. Also, it can be selectively applied to some words, but not others.

Anonymous, how is it overreacting to quietly forward threats to the FBI and the sender's ISP?

Threatening someone is a crime, no matter how lame the threat is. The question is not whether the target is scared, but whether it's legal to attempt to terrify the target by sending them threats in writing. It isn't.

It only takes two seconds to forward a letter to the authorities, and it creates a paper trail to protect me in case a letter turns out to be more than a one-off.

anonymous at 3:14: "overreacting to threats that are only words, can have that chilling effect on speech that genericizes and blands the dialogue"

Yes indeed, feeling hesitant about threatening others with rape and violent death just really puts a big chill on the community's freedom of expression. Without rape and murder threats decorating our discourse we would all be so bland.

"Yes indeed, feeling hesitant about threatening others with rape and violent death just really puts a big chill on the community's freedom of expression."

Hear, hear.

I agree it's up to the recipient. I document and let the rest go. Other than that they are getting what they want which is your TIME. They can't have my time. If they're serious then I have the trail that everyone knows what they've been up to. In fact, I think that makes people safer. It behooves the person who threatened you to back off and watch out OR get blamed that they did anything that happens to you. I like the way that works. I have never contacted the FBI but someone told me once that someone did something similar. I felt it asinine (on his part because he was the one who started all the trouble and because he couldn't hold a good argument he reported people to the FBI)
If I felt I needed a paper trail I would forward it too. I am creating documentation of a different sort. I'm more angry/apathetic/knowledgeable than scared but that doesn't mean the people are sane who are perping it. You have to live your life while this goes on.. I hope no one villified Kathy, but admittedly I'm not around all the time. Thanks for sticking up for her.
I've had my life threatened. Just for living in my home. Amazing. This is a new facet of living under Bush. It can't be a coincidence that all this goes on NOW ...

Since Kathy cancelled a conference appearance, I strongly suspect that threats were coming from people she expected to see there. Online threats get a new dimension when issued by men who you hvae reason to believe you'll be seeing in person. That seems obvious to me.

Anonymous, how is it overreacting to quietly forward threats to the FBI and the sender's ISP?

Threatening someone is a crime, no matter how lame the threat is. The question is not whether the target is scared, but whether it's legal to attempt to terrify the target by sending them threats in writing. It isn't.

It only takes two seconds to forward a letter to the authorities

Respectfully answering:
you're not thinking far enough; it doesn't end when you take two seconds to forward the "threat". Without using judgment described above, some women will forward enough threats of words only that real threats will be lost in the mass. You need judgment, not just the satisfaction of creating a paper trail.

Again, no opinion on the particular cases here, just arguing against the generality of not applying judgment to words only.

Anonymous, I exercise judgement. Good judgment says, "Protect yourself from criminals who threaten you."

The best way to protect yourself is to work with the authorities from the outset to establish a paper trail and document a pattern of harassment. It makes their job easier in the long run.

What part of that don't you understand?

And of course if Lindsay had been attacked, she would have been vilified for not notifying the authorities.

Great post, but I do think the internet is different though in terms of perception. I think the relative ease and anonymity of the internet brings out idle threats that might not have been made otherwise. Serious threats (such as those which have one's address) and frequent threats hint at a higher level of effort. I mean recieving a threat in person feels so much different, making a threat in person does as well. Same deal for going through the trouble of mailing a letter. That being said, a threat is a threat regardless.

I honestly believe Kos was reacting to some particular journalist/bloggers who have used the idea of actual threats as a bogeyman to justify censorship. I'm hoping I am right, and he will clarify himself in a future post. (As well as apologizing for clearly implying anyone who complains about threats is hysterically pointing under their bed and shivering under the covers).

Good points. I think Kos is mixing up Sierra with Richard Cohen. I really don't see why anyone's quick to dismiss Sierra's concerns and her experience. How is the violent, hateful, threatening rhetoric she's received possibly acceptable? It's one thing to say it happens, but I don't understand not condemning the treatment she received. Sure, bloggers need tough skins, but hasn't the main point of the Imus incident been that that people can act/speak more responsibly? With Sierra, it's a whole other level, because issuing threats is illegal and not just dumb and offensive.

(And I'm all in favor of the FBI paper trail. Awesome.)

Without using judgment described above, some women will forward enough threats of words only that real threats will be lost in the mass.

I love how you've got a really clear method in mind of how to distinguish empty threats from real ones. Do go on and share such wisdom.

This may be a tangential question, or perhaps an intrusive one, but does anyone know what happens to those forwarded FBI emails?

I'm assuming you send them to a case officer you've identified somehow, who creates a folder labeled "Jackmormon--electronic communication harrassment incident evidence 0001" (or whatever), and ignores it until something happens. Close?

Over-reacting to words alone -- with no accompanying credible actions to validate those words -- becomes old hat quickly.

Remember, Sierra wasn't just reacting to words; she was reacting to pictures, photoshopped images of a noose by her head in one case and of a pair of panties over her face, choking her, in another.

And it wasn't just death threats; it was death and rape threats.

The ball that keeps getting dropped here -- heaven knows Kos dropped it spectactularly in his post this morning -- is that women on the Web get a greater level of threats and harassment, in general, than men do, and that the threats and harassment they are qualitatively different than men get.

Don Imus' fuckability isn't up for discussion right now; but when Ann Coulter called John Edwards a faggot, it was open season on her cunt. Read the comments on Eschaton, and you'll find out plenty about Timothy Griffin's character, but nobody suggests he got his job as US Attorney by sucking Alberto Gonzales' cock the way they say that Rachel Paulose did, with not the slightest shred of evidence.

But when someone speaks up and says, Hey, knock off the misogynistic crap, they get slammed for "concern trolling."

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