I’m A Victim Of Carpet-Bombing Online Harassment
Hi, I'm Rani, and apparently I am some sort of asshole magnet. Usually you see articles about online harassment where the target is famous. These days, terms like "public figure" and "public forum" (which by the way, the mostly privatized internet is not) have been diluted by trolls in order to rationalize jerks' determination to dig up (and if they can't find anything, make up) things about you and your background to instigate others into fucking with you. I have a decently sized social following, but I'm not "famous" -- nobody is walking up to me and saying "Hey, you're that lady that the batshit disbarred lawyer, Todd Kincannon declared lethally unfuckable!"
You'd think there would be context to this tweet, but there isn't.
But here we are... with messages and notifications popping up across the internet everytime I turn around, from some new jerk who wants a piece of me. The worst part is, I don't even have a boogeyman, overarching supervillain crew, or conspiracy against me to point at so folks can understand who the bad guys are. "Targeted Online Harassment" has just become a tactic that has been mainstreamed the past few years and spread to communities all over the internet. And some folks just can't wait to find someone -- anyone -- to use them on. Sadly, it works because...
You Often Have No Idea Why You Are Being Targeted
On election night, I was conversing with a very longtime, now ex-friend who had voted for Trump. It's worth pointing out that said friend was also a moderator on 4chan, although I never held that against him before. The conversation wasn't particularly heated, but by the end he began to make demands about people I was no longer allowed to retweet (in particular, game developer Zoe Quinn) or else he would have to "do something."
Note: Smiley faces don't magically make this okay.
Maybe it was just drunk shit-talking, maybe it wasn't. At this point I don't really play around with this crap anymore. I locked down my social media for a few days and waited for the aftermath. After a while, I realized that I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between any aftermath of this, versus the crap I experience regularly and went back to public with my profiles. Maybe something happened, maybe something didn't. After so long, all of the harassment blends together into one big ball of shit, and it becomes impossible to track down the source of asshole from whence it was squeezed. This particular incident highlights a few things I should spell out.
Sometimes it isn't you at all, you're just caught in the crossfire of some other thing. I was in a year-plus relationship and living with a fairly infamous trans woman game developer at a time when doing so might as well have painted a target on my chest. That brought a completely baffling amount of unwelcome attention, involving characters who clearly harbor some weird continuous boner for me -- well after that relationship ended -- that's lasted for years now.
Pretty sure you're supposed to call a doctor after a few hours for erections like that, but here we are.
I also had a similar experience from a protest campaign, organized to shut down Harlot Media, a website I left a career in tech support to write for. Not only did they get most of our funding and ad revenue shut down, but there were attempts to get us blacklisted from the whole thinkpiece writing scene. That may sound funny to some people, but it's like a band being kicked out of a music festival and then banned from the concept of music.
Even when people are clearly targeting you, their motivations are frequently a mystery shrouded in the anonymity they tend to adopt when doing so. Maybe they're doing it because of a political belief. Maybe that person is a former romantic partner. Maybe it's an ex-friend from drunker, rowdier times upset by "how you've changed" or whatever -- someone punishing you for not maintaining the image they had in their head of you. You can drive yourself completely fucking bonkers trying to figure out what you did to "deserve" this.
Sometimes people are just fucked up.
Even scarier, it could be absolutely nothing at all. Sometimes these people have no investment in you whatsoever but just get off on making people on the internet upset for literally no reason. Think the crazy shooter guy from The Jerk: You're both Nathan and the cans.
They see your reactions as justification to up the abuse, because they want to be acknowledged for the suffering they put you through. Your anguish is their trophy. There are plenty of websites out there dedicated to offering up a buffet of people whom they declare guilty of some sort of wrongthink, and document all of the related profiles and relevant info to facilitate others' abuse. And it's worth noting that...
They Use A Wider Array Of Tactics Than You Think
Last fall I went in for a major surgery, one I knew would put me out of commission for a while. I was in a position where I knew I'd need a ton of help to handle recovery. A lot of folks I knew had been volunteering everything from meals to rides to outpatient recovery medical needs. The offers were there, but they still needed to be coordinated, and oftentimes social media was the best way to make a lot of requests at once. It was during this time that I started seeing a bunch of even innocuous posts disappear off my Facebook page.
"Um, that is entirely too many 'o's in that post ma'am. Lewd."
I was getting mass-reported to shut my profile down. I was frantically imagining having to deal with their support team while saturated in the painkillers I was on at the time. And I've had to deal with their support team plenty. My name has been reported as "fake" so many times that Facebook just locked it down. I'll no longer be susceptible to the reports, but I can't change my name even if I get married or have it legally changed to "Dickbiter."
These sorts of coordinated page attacks have become an art form. Shared posts can be mass-reported as spam. And counter-intuitive to the purpose of Facebook's advertising service, sharing a sponsored post has a way better chance of getting nuked. They'll go down your page, reporting every photo as "nudity." The automatic content filter can't tell the difference between a statement like "This person on the bus is such a (slur)" and "Some jerk on the bus just called me a (slur)," so even talking about the abuse and mistreatment you receive can be weaponized against you. And they will dig and dig to find things like this that they can use against you.
"And with people you'd give anything to get out of your life too."
At one point, someone dug through my online photos far back enough to find a pic of my high school letter jacket and used the information on that to screw with me (the school's name, graduation year, patches of school events and achievements, instrument I played in band). You wouldn't think that's possible, but they were able to use that information to impersonate a high school friend of mine on a forum, pretending he "had dirt" on me. I only know this because the person dropped the act when he decided it was more humiliating to me to explain how he tricked me. That, or he was Narcissistic Villain 24-51B who just had to spell out his evil, genius plot.
And if they can't find anything they will just make things up. There are callout posts all over the internet about me making the most absurd claims about my sexual orientation, mental health and related diagnoses, background, and political views -- often with the intention of further riling up other folks against me. I was added to a shared blocklist advertised to the online tech community as an "MRA blocklist," which 1) is hilarious if not outright awful, and 2) shuts me out of the progressive side of tech community conversations. Ya know, the kind of people my techie engineer boyfriend interacts with. I once even had a Twitter user with three times the followers I have, publicly accuse me of confessing murder. You can't make this shit up:
Yeah, I wish I was kidding about this too.
They Follow You From Account To Account
There are web forums and private social media groups where this sort of harassment is coordinated. They start threads to gather up all the online accounts and websites you have, as well as any news clippings, videos you appear in, blogs you abandoned years ago, any and all online presence you ever had, gathered into one place. And not just stuff you put out there yourself, they also peruse all those creepy stalker "background check" websites to gather up all your unpaid parking tickets and previous addresses. All there for scrutiny or engagement on their part. I've had strangers talk shit to me about a warrant I got for a years-old unpaid jaywalking ticket that I had literally no idea about until internet shitheads started treating me like I was on America's Most Wanted for it.
These forums also employ various SEO tricks so their threads appear at higher positions in Google searches for your name and projects. Sometimes they can overshadow your own work. There's also the concern that some of these threads can be stumbled upon by potential employers. Though, honestly, if a potential employer is reading up on me on a site where half the language is racial, ethnic, and homophobic slurs, maybe I'm better off just wiping my ass with their application.
Admittedly a much harder course of action in the age of digital job posts, but still...
I've encountered threads like this where it's clear a handful of people have nothing better to do with their lives than peruse through all my public social media and create regular newsletter-like posts cultivated specifically to make me sound unhinged... and they've been doing it weekly since 2014, whether anyone engages with them or not. It's like a funhouse mirror reflection of my online existence; jokes I made are treated as serious implications of my personal philosophy and ethics. They'll obsess over a three-year-old YouTube video where I made a poor choice of outfit, or a 10-year-old unflattering photo that my brain had long since buried behind a wall of denial. It's hella creepy, but it's also ridiculous and sad.
I'm not unaware of how this all sounds to people who have never been through it. Their gut reaction is often, "It's the internet. Just stop using it. Or set your account to private. Or change your name, start a brand new account, and only give that information to close friends."
"Get off the grid and move to a tropical island; I hear Tahiti is nice..."
Unfortunately, that's the problem: I can't just disappear. I've been producing music under the same name for nearly a decade and a half. I've been working on a comic since the 1990s. I write on the internet full-time for a living now, and both networking and promoting that work is what pays my rent. Hell, this very article was offered through a social media post. I've had people try to shut down personal crowdfunding efforts and even try to dox people who attend my live music shows to scare them off from continued attendance. They won't be happy until they've completely torn my life apart... for god even knows what reasons.
The most frightening part is that since these people are very adept at smelling weakness, I frequently get targeted the hardest at times when I need visibility the most, such as when I was recovering from surgery. Getting cut off from community support at that time would have been absolutely devastating. Even getting cut off now wouldn't exactly be pleasant and would make my career about as easy as hugging a greased pig. I've invested a lot into my social media presence for that reason, and to them that is a weakness they intent to exploit because...
They Expect To Be Reported
Once you have the attention of folks like this, it is hard to get out of it. They either have a small army of anonymous sockpuppet accounts or a handful of straight-up fake ones that they know not to start shit with. Or both. They use the latter to weasel their way into private groups to get access to info you wouldn't share in public, and the former to barrage abuse and threats at you knowing that it's a burner account they invested nothing in. If it gets reported or they get blocked, who cares? They just "Breaking Bad" that shit and start a new one.
And the accounts they intend to hold onto for a while? Well they have all sorts of stupid codes and dogwhistles they use specifically to skirt any auto-reporting. They're the kind of emotionally stunted weirdos so starved for the endorphins they get from dropping slurs, they are willing to substitute it for another completely random word.
"--EXACTLY WHAT I'D EXPECT FROM AN SJW ZORBLAT *FART NOISE*!"
Any boundary set, any line drawn, they will cross over and over again until you are exhausted. Maybe they'll get bored and go away... maybe they'll be doing this to you every day for years. Because you are not really a person to them; getting under your skin is just a side-quest in the demented sandbox video game world that lives inside their heads.
You just push on and try to see humor in it all. Maybe you make jokes about it or not respond at all, but eventually, this sucks the fucking life out of you. Some days it would be nice to just admit I'm having a hard time or that I woke up sad because of a bad dream, without expecting a bunch of "naziboner1488"s and "cuckslayer420"s to be celebrating "THE DAY RANI HAD A COMPLETE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN" for months. It would be nice to admit that I am scared of some of the fucked-up shit out there, like the political climate, without having to be hyper-aware of whole online communities, sniffing for blood in the water.
It's just honestly so exhausting sometimes.
It's Virtually Impossible To Stop
Right now Facebook has around two billion active users. Twitter has about 320 million. Moderating a userbase of that size is practically Sisyphean. A proper moderation team would require hundreds of thousands of people, working around the clock. And that's assuming they could all agree on how to properly enforce the rules and didn't have their own biases that could lead to reports either getting ignored or improperly handled.
Even then, the more organized harassment campaigns are decentralized out to web fora or other websites scattered throughout the internet, some running off of personal servers of the admins. What then? This isn't a conspiracy theory I'm pulling out of my ass. A Pew research survey of scholars and technologists showed that 81 percent of them subscribe to this or similar ideas. Just driving the trolls off of social media will at best create a "Potemkin Effect" making everything appear to be fine while the trolls mobilize, radicalize each other, and develop sneakier tactics to torment their targets. And create frog avatars.
You can't forget the frog avatars.
If someone gets a wild hair up their ass about you and can concoct an intriguing enough backstory about it to overcome online communities' "not your personal army" concerns, then you'll wind up with emotionally stunted sociopaths who are obsessed with you for increasingly nonsensical reasons for what will seem like the rest of your life. They will devote their lives to dismantling yours.
Someone should tell their moms.
Rather than try to go over everything Rani is up to lately in a paragraph-long after-article blurb, she made a recent post on her Patreon to catch everyone up. You don't have to donate if you don't want to (although that would be awesome), but maybe check out her stuff and for fuck's sake, be nice.
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