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

Yes, I curse the laws of the United States that make it a crime to threaten others with violence and death! And a double curse to all the bitches who think these laws apply to them as well! If you weren't so hysterical, ladies, you'd realize the best way to determine whether a threat is credible is a) wait a while and see if you end up hacked to pieces as claimed or b) learn to distinguish the difference between the "I'm an actual psycho who's waiting outside to kill you" emoticon and "I'm simply a harmless deranged lunatic" emoticon, embedded in every email.

"Creating a paper trail may feel satisfying, but might also be seen as overreacting by many."

And what's more important, your personal safety or making a good impression on every ignorant, clueless, subliterate, condescending misogynist fuckwit in the world?

"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."

Yes goddamn it, and I don't want to live in a world where it's not acceptable to threaten to rape and dismember somebody and publish all of her personal information! That is not freedom. If I can't threaten someone legally, it brings that much less color into my life. I don't want to chill the speech of somebody who wants to pick up a phone or write and email to bring threats to my life and children right into my home--once again, damn you US Criminal Code! But there again, if we'd stop using these silly burdensome laws, it would be almost like they didn't exist, so just cut it out already!

"some women will forward enough threats of words only that real threats will be lost in the mass"

Hell yeah, you'll get untold numbers of hysterics forwarding pictures of kitties labeled "threats" to the authorities. And since the FBI has to launch a full scale investigation of every complaint it receives, all of the kitty pictures will be investigated, leaving no time for the real threats. There are threats of words and real yhreats, and they're easily distinguishable by the layperson. The last thing you want to do is forward them to investigators whose job it is to investigate, and who can tell you if your stalker has a criminal record or is a credible threat, because they'll get so annoyed by the whole business they'll just stop reading them altogether, leaving them all in a big to-be-read pile. And then you'll be sorry!

And what's more important, your personal safety or making a good impression on every ignorant, clueless, subliterate, condescending misogynist fuckwit in the world?

Being effective in analyzing true threats.

Sounds like you need a little stress relief responding in such a manner. Maybe talk a walk and get some oxygen? Otherwise I suspect you'll be seeing a threat behind every bush, every insult suddenly will become a life-threatening status.

Then, the real threats get taken less seriously. Screen wisely, so when a woman who does reports words PLUS, she can still be taken seriously and not dismissed like all the other "threats" reported for the satisfaction of gaining a personal paper trail.

um, anonymous? There's something you appear to be missing here. The point of this kind of anonymous intimidation is _less speech_

It's really entirely that simple. Some anonymous asshole (and if you're really lucky it's just an asshole) has decided that your using the internet to communicate annoys them so much that they're going to see if the threat of physical violence will stop you.

I'm fascinated that you think the issue here is the hypothetical chilling effect to the speech of people who might be sending (presumably kindly good-hearted and well-meant) anonymous rape and murder threats rather than the very real chilling effect on the speech of the people who currently receive them.

Luckily, we already have a case study. They decided to adopt your model in Afghanistan.

Jackmormon, I use this page on the FBI's website to report these emails.

Lindsay Beyerenstein, you have a point that people in a direct position are usually in the best position to judge their own predicament. But assuming that means that their decision is "right" kind of prevents us from ever criticizing anyone. I think Kos is just missing the point though, he's thinking in terms of whether he actually feels threatened and not in terms of whether theres a n interest in preventing this sort of behavior.

Anonymous: I don't care if the threats were credible. Currently, disagreement is considered acceptable in politics, but threats are a fringe tactic. Violence may occur, but it is extremely rare even during times of political discord. By ignoring threats, we help to normalize them making threats acceptable and moving violence to the fringe. At that point, the same thugs who send threatening E-mails will start using violence as a tactic.

You seem to think that threats are only important if the individual intends to carry them out. The point of a threat isn't to carry the threat out, it's to intimidate the target away from an action or behavior. Implicit in threatening someone over a behavior is the promise that violence will not come if they stop that behavior. It's an attempt to wage politics through violence. That's why it's important to crack down on it before the notion that it's okay to threaten violence over political disagreement turns into the notion that it's okay to carry out violence because of a political dispute. Like all good law, it's about preserving society and not just about protecting individuals.

I'm not sure I'm in complete agreement with soullite's defintion of "good law", but (s)he otherwise has it right. Its very hard to distinguish credible threats from non-credible ones, but to the extent there's no consequence for these actions you increase the chance that some people will escalate.

Like many feminists, I just want to smack people who are telling Kathy Sierra to, in effect, "quit being such a hysterical woman." I loved your post and Socko's comments. The oh-so-brave and condescending "anonymous" of 4-13-07, 7:44 a.m., talked of how women should be analyzing "true" threats. Is Kathy trained to do this? That's the job of law enforcement. If she feels threatened, she should pass the info along; it's a sensible choice, and I trust that the FBI has enough sense to judge the threat level.

I don't know Kathy Sierra, but I suspect she isn't reacting this strongly to the first bit of hate mail she's ever received; I doubt she would respond this way to just any old bit of online sniping. Re the criticism of Kathy's decision to ask for help: This is another case of "damned if you do and damned if you don't."

Anonymouse [<- not a typo] also criticized Kathy's reporting of this offense, characterizing Kathy's actions as being just "for the satisfaction of gaining a personal paper trail." Puh-leeze, fool. I doubt that Kathy feels any kind of satisfaction at doing what little she can do to put the brakes on what is, at best an online bully and, at worst, a real threat.

FYI, on a quasi-related issue: Did anyone notice that Google has a new feature helpful to online stalkers -- a reverse phone directory (like many others already available but with the added convenience and accessibility of Google)? Just type in a phone number (land line only) and it will attempt to list the address associated with it, including a map. Lovely. Hope Kathy hasn't published her phone number anywhere! (FYI, Google lets you click on the results to request your info be removed.)

It would be an interesting study to see how many death threats high profile bloggers receive across the blogging spectrum (ie- left wing bloggers, right wing bloggers, tech bloggers, video game bloggers, literary bloggers, video game bloggers) and then divide it by gender. Does Maud Newton get death threats? Does Terry Teachout? I suspect, without any proof, mind you, that female bloggers receive more of that shit than their males writing about the same thing. I'd also suspect that there's more violent threats being sent out than most of us suspect.

In addition, I agree completely with Lindsay's approach to receiving death threats. It's important that people know that sending death threats is not just a way of blowing off steam, but it is a genuinely illegal and threatening act. If more people got that through their skulls, we'd have less of it. The only thing I'd recommend caution on is making sure that the email actually comes from who they say it comes from, since forging that stuff is far too easy these days. That's not directed at Lindsay, who seems techno-savvy enough to know that already. (As a former IT administrator whose dealt with a lot of people finding spam sent out under their name due to Outlook viruses, I'm kind of surprised no one has programmed one to send violent threats out to everyone in your address book.)

Finally, I received only one violent threat, from posting in the same Salon forum Lindsay did, Tabletalk. I posted in the politics thread, and being more centrist than I am now (I actually defended David Horowitz and got a thank you note from him, to what is now my eternal shame), I got into heated arguments with people on both sides. But the threat I received was- "I just read what you wrote about Tarantino! Next time, I see you on the streets of New York, I'm going to kick your ass." It kinda chilled me for a bit, because I had been fairly liberal with my location, real identity, and photograph, but I was more amused than anything else, particularly because I didn't remember any post about Tarantino that would send anyone into a violent rage.

Which is I think, half the problem. Too many people view sending violent threats to others as the equivalent of a stress ball, or a video game- something to blow off steam on, without any real world consequences. It's important to send to those people the message that that's not the case.

The other half is genuinely violent loonies out there who are egged on by the rhetoric of others and might well snap at any minute. I'm perfectly willing to Kathy Sierra's word that what she received was of the latter variety.

um, anonymous? there's something you appear to be missing here. the point of this kind of anonymous intimidation is _less speech_

i think that the fact that anonymous uses the name "anonymous" proves that he's very much aware of the point.

over at echidne's blog, feminazi mentioned she has emailed kos' advertisers, asking them why they financially support someone so obviously indifferent to female safety issues. i suggest we all do the same.

also, feminazi aks echidne why she still links to dailykos in her blogroll. i'd ask the same of all feminist bloggers, be they boy or girl.

Great post and great comments. I think "anonymous" more than proves the point that anonymous assholes abound and that they can choose any method, from death threats to gum-the-thread-to-death threats to get their point accross which is that the ladies, they should shut up and leave the thinking and writing and doing to the anonymous cowards of the world.

I've never received a death threat but I have had three letters to the editor published in my local newspaper and *every single time* some weirdo has gone to the trouble of locating my address (which is not published in the paper with the letter) to send me information about how the jews were behind 9/11. I've had someone leave scrawled hand written notes on my car, in my driveway, attacking unions and democrats *just for having* a pro-democratic sticker on my bumper. These weren't intimidating to me but it just goes to show that lots of anonymous people out there think they are having a conversation/relationship with you when you put your ideas out there in the world. And given the amount of bottled up rage that is expressed at women who open their mouths in personal interactions its not surprising that that rage spills over in the anonymity of the internt. But the fact remains that violence against women, and sexualized violence against women, is an enormous factor in women's lives. Most of Kos's angry little emailers, at least as far as one can tell from the email he considered a death threat, are simply threatening him with the results of what they feel are liberal actions ("you'll all die of AIDS") that's a pretty passive attack. Kathy Sierra is being threatened with active harm. There's a real difference.

But I wanted to say that I fully support Lindsay's anlysis of this which puts the word "trust" out there, I'd include also the word "respect." Sierra is an adult women, a professional woman, a woman about whom quite a bit is known socially and professionally. If such a person isn't trusted to make the right decisions for themself on a matter such as personal safety exactly who do we trust. I sure don't turn my safety over to a committee of anonymous frat boy techies anymore than I turn my decisions about whether to order a glass of wine with dinner to them.

The whole thing reminds me very much of the woman blogger who phoned up the South Dakota legislator who was pushing restrictive abortion and contraception laws--she called him up and asked him what kind of salad dressing she should choose that night. He was kind of floored but really, what is the difference between the two stances. No one should take to themselves the right to substitute for any woman's decision in the matter of her own safety. You are not walking in her shoes. You don't have her information. Respect for autonomy and her judgement takes precedent over demanding that she respect some hypothetical free speech issues for the entire bloggosphere.


Skippy, how about we don't eat our own, eh? I'm not particularly fond of Amanda Marcotte, Jill at Feministe or Abyss2Hope, I'm never going to suggest we try smite them off the face of the internet simply because they view things from a different perspective. Kos isn't a feminist blogger. Trying to smite him for not being a feminist blogger is a waste of time. I'm not a big Kos fan. I don't agree with half the things he says and he comes off as a dick in much the same way Amanda Marcotte does. Neither one seems to care what anyone but themselves thinks and seem to believe they have some ability to pronounce the way everyone should think on an issue. But that's not how it works for them, and that's not how it works for you. We're a coalition, and I understand that your first loyalty is to your faction. But if we start eating our own, we won't have a coalition and your faction will get nothing because nobodies faction will get anything. I'm sorry if it sucks and it's messy, but that's politics.

This is escalating to full interblog wars inside the progressive circles. It's at the beginning of the cycle. Observe "technorati" linking pattern and follow the link. Within 2-5 days if somebody doesn't do anything, there will be major consequences.

my prediction:

1. increasing front page material
2. more name calling, harsher comments, ultimate escalating to threats
3. people start harrashing each other's readers
4. people start attacking financial base of each blogs
5. even more call for strick regulation on blog behaviors

essentially, the exact pattern that ignite and escalate out of control between vs KS is being played out in progressive blogs.

The main theme tension is a demand for each side to accept others blog standard of political view. (you insensitive clot vs. tough it up)

Interesting to note, KS and rageboys themselves have apparently stop and shutting up.

the possible big fall out:
- major split, any story that will create and re-open this rift between feminists blog and main political blogs will be avoided

- Media will use this as a proof that there is need to regulate blog content

- political effectiveness of progressive blog scene is affected. (ie. a player can keep posting a problematic posts that will re-ignite the civil war.)

Reconstructing early detail.

It could be interesting comparing similarities between currently unfolding war on progressive blogs and the original clash. It is pure technical taunting.

This is apparently the very first message that cascades into ever increasing war.


Kathy Sierra // Feb 8, 2007 at 11:54

“Who will the Mean Kids pick on next? Kathy Sierra? ”

It’s about f’n time. It’s always Tara Tara Tara.

also apparently from somebody who saw it early.

Hate machine? Are you new to the lefty blogosphere? This isn't an inexorable march towards anything particular. These tiffs happen every couple of months between Kos and the feminist blogosphere.

Periodically, Kos says something incredibly insensitive. We feminist bloggers chastise him for it, he claims not to give a damn what we think anyway, and we all carry on.

It's more of a stalemate than anything else. I'd like to think that feminist bloggers are making progress, or at least holding our own in the progressive blogosphere. I think it's worthwhile for the same reason that other periodic intra-movement tiffs are important. They're a way to remind out associations/leaders/neighbors that our support is not unconditional, that our cooperation is conditional upon mutual respect.

Don't fret. that's title song from Thievery Corporation Album. Cosmic Game. It perfectly captures the escalation dance that happened. I'll change moniker if you are worry about the title.

There is a point to all this silliness.


There are two aspect of this.

1. what happens in the hacking crews. KS vs meankids.

2. how the story gets picked up and spread in progressive blogs.


If you notice, there is very little information of early conflict" what happen exactly? how is it KS, a veteran bloggers, pick a fight this size. She knows all the trick.

.as you see above. It's the usual hacking taunt gone wrong. It is exactly like the media pictures it.

description of mean kids stuff

Essentially, it's a free for all hacking prank. Kathy Sierra was picked, as you see above blog post. After she taunts with "Tara Tara Tara".

If one's ever been in it. Escalation to farking and hacking are the usual and expected. hyper violent imagery is to be expected. (it's why called mean kids/free for all brawl. It's anarchic activity.)

It always gets fairly tasteless. It's how the game is played, getting to each other throat. Female rarely participates in this sort of game. It is rough.

Here is an example, how it goes:

The problem with this. It's a game with no rule. It ends rather vaguely, there is no "out". A little like I dare you game you play when you are a kid. There are some remnant of recorded result to this game.

Kathy Sierra however pushed it to different level, after she lost the hacking battle. She uses mass media (SF Gate, Salon, wired) Notice how all is Sanfrancisco and connected to publication business. She is pulling string via O'reilly publishing.

During this escalation media week, the story gets picked up by Feminism blog and spill over to various site.

The part that those media didn't tell. There is a game being played, this is not random hate mail. The game started with consent of some sort. (see link) So KS is not entirely innocent by victim. (A little like a girl entering BDSM club knowing what it is) It's gotten out of control

But are they still playing the game? (I think everybody stops already, since there are 2 relatively big blogs closed already)

But this game is without rule, it ends when it ends. And since KS breaks one of the basic rule of hacking worlds, everything stays with us, you don't tell the world, there are grumbling voices. (She knows, that's why she doesn't want to go to her conference. Because one would presume the ultimate prank will take place there.)


Now, I've only dig surface. it is an underground story involving fairly illegal activities (hacking machines) So details are sketchy.

Knowing this, it might also be possible to difuse the currently raging escalation in progressive blogs.

tho' I doubt it. But at least the exercise of recording what happen, might help everybody recognize escalation. Instead of blindly playing the simplistic "stereotype and ideological game"

You don't have to change your handle if you don't want.

So, you're saying that Kathy Sierra and the Mean Kids were all breaking the law? Who were they allegedly hacking? Each other? Third parties?

Those are really serious charges involving named individuals. Do you have any evidence to support these allegations?

no no, you make it sounds like it's online mafia or something. As far as I know, it's closer to school yeard prank one pulls on each other. Bunch of people with too much idle time.

I would presume they break the law because hacking into somebody's machine is illegal, regardless how silly the reason is. (the fact personal information is involved, plus blog post above. One would need to gain control a machine somehow right?)

I got this info largely from surfing and second hand info. so you know as much as I do. The rest is my speculation. I am not into calling people around and ask, not that curious yet.

We're a coalition, and I understand that your first loyalty is to your faction. But if we start eating our own, we won't have a coalition and your faction will get nothing because nobodies faction will get anything.

Well, I'd argue that that's a good thing, that it's better for bloggers to get embroiled in pointless feuds than to seep into professional politics, where they can do real damage. This, incidentally, also holds for the commenters on Atrios and FDL: would you rather have them call Ellen Tauscher a whore on the pages of some third-rate blog, or say the same things in the media and at party meetings?

Alon, are you saying that bloggers should leave politics to the professionals?

Obviously, I don't approve of anyone calling Tauscher a whore. It's reprehensible to throw around those sexualized labels. On the other hand, it's not like bloggers brought those ugly epithets to politics. I've heard "respectable" politicians and media people use very ugly language about national political figures.

Most progressive bloggers don't talk like that. The few who do, even in jest, get called on it by their fellow bloggers.

Alon, are you saying that bloggers should leave politics to the professionals?

No, I'm only saying the bloggers who can muster the influence to get into professional politics will be a disaster. If Kos ran the DNC in 2006, the Republicans would still be in control of both houses of Congress. And he's hardly the worst of the bunch; there are a lot of people around the blogosphere with similar ambitions under whose leadership the Democrats would have registered a net loss of seats.

Where bloggers can succeed fairly well is in the media. A lot of them are just hacks who like to play media critics, but a couple do real investigative reporting.

I don't know about the quality of *most* widely-read bloggers, but there's no newspaper with an opinion section as good as Hullabaloo. Moreover, the role of media critic is crucial now; with respect to his chosen topics, I don't think there's any around who's better than Bob Somerby. I think I. F. Stone said that what he did was to find the headlines on page 17. We now have a half dozen I. F. Stones running around, poking holes in the beltway bubble. This is a good thing, and in particular a good thing for Democrats.

I don't follow Kos's writing very much, though I see he has a huge blind spot regarding some issues relating to women. He seems to have the election of Democrats as the highest priority, and maybe is even more pragmatic than he should be. With my limited knowledge, it's hard to see that he would've been a *disaster* running the DNC, and would he really have been worse than those consultants who keep advising obsolete "third way" triangulation? That said, most people seem to recognize (as Lindsay did, of course) that their role is in commentary or journalism, not a formal one in a campaign or in the party.

If anyone can summarize what the heck "March of the hate machine"/"Cosmic game" is saying, exactly, I'd appreciate it. It seems interesting.


That the entire KS flap is not a case of innocent blogger getting a death threat randomly. But it begins at "", a misanthropic site, a tech site for bad mouthing people. Think of it as "roasting" but on steroid and populated by people who knows how to code.

KS initiated the beginning in Feb.
(record this thread)

The entire thing soured and escalated into series of farking, nasty interblog comments and ultimately the death threat, hackings, posting personal info, etc. Large section of these blogs conversation have been erased, so it's very hard to reconstruct details.

Interestingly this involved a lot of rather prominent west coast tech-evangelicals. These blogs are real players. KS blog for eg. is top 50 at technorati ranking right now.

also: I was wrong. The public spat happens in the open. The people are not underground hackers running darknet. But prominent tech bloggers.

examples: (with some note on turning points where the game turn ugly)

Moreover, the role of media critic is crucial now

Yeah, it is, which is why it should be left to real media critics, as opposed to shrill bloggers who think they have a God-given right for the entire media to parrot their views. The media's doing a good job when LGF screams that it's liberal at the same intensity MMFA screams that it's conservative.

He seems to have the election of Democrats as the highest priority, and maybe is even more pragmatic than he should be. With my limited knowledge, it's hard to see that he would've been a *disaster* running the DNC, and would he really have been worse than those consultants who keep advising obsolete "third way" triangulation?

He's not too pragmatic; he's insufficiently pragmatic. He backed Ned Lamont for a lot longer than he should have. As soon as there were polls saying Lieberman would be far ahead as an Independent, the correct course of action was to ignore the race and concentrate on closer races, such as those in Arizona and Tennessee. If Lieberman made a macaca-style gaffe, then Kos could've returned to reap the benefits. Not only did he get that race wrong, but also he failed to learn from it. His current project is to back a primary challenge to Ellen Tauscher from the left. Those things cost money, don't generally yield positive result, and only serve to show that he's more concerned about policing his party than about having any degree of political effectiveness.

"Moreover, the role of media critic is crucial now

Yeah, it is, which is why it should be left to real media critics, as opposed to shrill bloggers who think they have a God-given right for the entire media to parrot their views."

This is an interesting idea. But I don't think there is such distinction. Every statement has emotional dimension and no statement is complete. So even the most sensible idea can appear shrill when put in certain way as a statement. Nobody is perfectly logical and anybody can be made into a mob brigade. So everybody online is not a hack nor a journalist, but a contextualizer. Creating context for others to consume.

This is why I am interested in figuring out how exactly an escalation comes, the dynamic, the chronology.

one way to look at it, if politics is about idea, perception of idea, how it spread, how idea collides and the people's dynamic in all these, then by studying escalation pattern we will have a better understanding about the nature of media and politics.

It is truely amazing how once one capture the basic group dynamic, expression and lingo, anything can be inserted. Including ideas that is contrary to group interests. Turn the group into mob and the escalation begins. (A little like watching virus infection.)

Some practical application: how to spread idea more effectively crossing blogs neighborhood boundries. How to prevent escalation, how to generate escalation, etc.

for eg. a political party can certainly create escalation to destroy opponent group cohesion on the net.

I hope the big progressive blogs create behind the scene mechanism to prevent this sort of things to happen tho' or else we will keep having escalation and online mob clashes.

"The media's doing a good job when LGF screams its liberal at the same intensity MMFA screams its liberal."

I'm sure there are more scientific methods for examining the question than this. And the best media critics I read (Somersby, Greenwald) offer arguments that are far more nuanced than claiming that everyone in the media is a conservative.

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