Saturday, 9 February 2013

A Moral Theory of Online "Hate" Harassment and Attacks

First of all: most of the links in the beginning of this post are in Swedish - English links are highlighted with bold text. My direct familiarity with the issue is from Sweden, hence the language of most links, but I know that the issue is general and is discussed in many settings around the world.

Second of all: a quick little addendum was made just now (5 minutes after 1st posting) regarding the "internet dickwad" theory, that Fredrik Falk made me aware of. See further below......

In my country, there have been repeated public debates about the completely unacceptable and many times obviously criminal behaviour of some people when they use the anonymity of online resources to react to other people's open and publicly expressed opinions. In particular against women, especially those who express some sort of view on gender, family or sexuality related policy issues. And then we have what happens to all of us who dare to breathe even a syllable about migration or refugee policy that is not perfectly in line with the PC militia of the new wave of European racism - what I in a series of posts a few years ago called "nationism". Other topics which seem to feed these people are, of course, issues about religion and society, and (perhaps a bit more surprising) environmental politics, such as climate change policy. However, in many cases it seems that it suffices that the victim is of female gender, appear to be an immigrant or have dark complexion, or is perceived as something else that a straight heterosexual in his or her sexual orientation.

Recently, these debates have received a renewed momentum, as a large group of Swedish female public figures, journalists, debaters, bloggers, etc. – but also ordinary women engaging themselves in public discussions online – have gone public with what sort of awful filth they are exposed to from a presumably minor but apparently very active group of people. Even our prime minister has publicly identified the problem as serious and said that steps need to be taken. Several of these net haters behave identical to the so-called "internet warriors" of racist/nationist parties and more loosely coordinated anti-muslim or -semit groups, or generally xenophopic or anti-immigration activist movements, although sometimes they in fact belong to the opposite end of the right-left political scale (here). The phenomenon has been the subject of in-depth critical journalist scrutiny, as well as prime time news and debates in national TV and articles in newspapers and media magazines (here, here, here, here, here, here, here to name just a few) – in fact, the comment field of the national TV website had to be closed due to a tsunami of hate-reactions to the exposing of the haters – and also given echo in Norway. A few renderings in English of these recent events are here and here. Currently, the press is continuously publishing stories of more locally or less politically active people who have fallen victims to these sort of attacks and it is apparent that the phenomenon is systematic and much more widespread and serious as a threat to freedom of speech and opinion than previously acknowledged (here, here, here, here, to name just a few).

The behaviour of the "net haters", as the established term has come to be, is often equivalent or very close to criminal harassment, libel, threat or incitement to any of these or even violent crime. However, existing laws are obviously not constructed for a situation where these sort of patterns are the rule and occur in a systematic and coordinated (albeit perhaps not always in a specifically planned) way. Thus, although experts have claimed it to be rather easy to identify who the haters actually are and although sometimes these people seem to think that being on the internet as such provides protection – as in this fantastic display of stupidity and total lack of spine or sense of responsibility, when young female radio host Cissi Wallin on air phones up the guy behind a twitter account that has posted direct death threats – it has proven difficult for the police to investigate or prioritise this probable criminality (see also here, here) due to how existing laws and law enforcement regulation are written. Thus, demands have been made for stricter and tougher legislation and instructions to the police and responsible ministers seem ready to act (here, here, here, here, here).

At the same time, as had it been pre-ordered, we have another sort of reaction – the idea of the haters themselves as either victims or, at least, guiltless due to structural forces that direct their actions. The former type of reasoning is, of course, a well known spineless tactic from the new racist movement – it's your own fault that you're being attacked, you should count on it when saying such things as you do. Not so little resembling the rapist's or molester's so-called defense that "her dress/smile/dance/intoxication made me do it" (surprisingly similar to the orthodox islamist motivation for obligatory veils for women, by the way). I will not link to any of the numerous sites where this type of reaction is displayed, since I don't want to give them the favor of a backlink and extra hits. The latter reaction has been exemplified by self-professed internet activist Oscar Swartz, who launches the familiar thesis that the actions are so to speak not what they appear to be but "really" an understandable and predictable reaction to a hopeless situation in tough time regarding economy an employment. This is a refrain that has been regularly repeated before and also in similar areas, such as attempts to understand growing sympathies for racist/nationist parties, and so on. I realise that this sort of theory is both widespread and tempting. However, this structural theory is blatantly false, and I will close this post by explaining why and put forward an alternative and to my eyes much more plausible hypothesis in terms of individual moral psycho-behavioural qualities.

If you want to claim that the behaviour exhibited by the net haters is dependent on or explained by either (i) objectively tough economic circumstances or powerlessness (private or generally in society) or (ii) subjective experience of such things, you need to show: (a) that net haters as a rule are in condition (i) or (ii), and you need to show (b) that anyone in (either of) those conditions will be prone to exhibit the net hate behaviour. I will not speak of part (a) of the necessary argument besides noting that it is far from established, partly because the haters continue to hide behind online anonymity. However, let us for the sake of discussion grant that (a) is true. This brings us to (b) and it is here that the real troubles for the structural theory of net hate begins. Bluntly put: this theory cannot explain the fact that many (in fact, the overwhelming majority of) people who are in circumstances (a) are not exhibiting net hate behaviour, although they have access to the necessary technical resources. So what is the alternative explanation that would take care of that part of the story as well? I suggest that it has to be partly in terms of certain individual psycho-behavioural qualities that most people associate with clear-cut moral values in a pretty straightforward way. My idea is not that these qualities explain net hate by themselves, but rather that they need to complement the sort of suggestions that the structural theory provides, so I will not juxtapose it to that idea and call it "individualist". At the same time, the theory I propose much better than a purely structural theory manages to capture what makes us react to this phenomenon and want something done about it. Therefore I will call it a moral theory of net hate.

To get to this theory, then, let's start with the vague idea behind the structural theory that feelings of powerlessness, insecurity, of being under threat and so on lead to the net hate behaviour. The mechanism assumed in this supposed explanation is a psychology with several parts, but one of them is that conditions like the ones mentioned produce aggression when triggered by things (such as voiced opinions) not in line with one's own perception of things, attitudes or way of life. Let us, once again, for the sake of discussion accept this (although, I am far from convinced of such a simple causal pattern to be true to the facts). This would mean that also all of those people who are not net haters, but are in the condition of having feelings of powerlessness, insecurity, et cetera will have aggression likewise triggered. However, since they are not net haters, obviously, such triggered aggression does not automatically produce the net hating behaviour. Another mechanism typically assumed by the structural argument is that, due to the condition of the hater, the hate act will provide him or her with a benefit – typically feelings of security, control, power, and so on, that align with the initial state in a way that provides an incentive to further similar behavíour, and so on. In short: net hating is a bit like addiction. However, once again, apparently there are a lot of people who are not steered in this direction although they are in the initial condition – either because the (assumed) triggered aggression does not produce the promise of this sort of benefit, or that such a promise does not motivate enough for the net hate behaviour to follow. In effect, there has to be some additional qualities of the net haters that make them behave as they do. What may that be? I have three combined and complementary suggestions:

1. Lack of insight about the fate of the victims. The hater does not "really realise" the damage he or she does, for instance due to distance, active objectification, and so on.
2. Lack of concern for the fate of the victims. The hater at heart understands very well what harm is inflicted, but does not care enough to be motivated, for instance, since the hater is actually gratified by the thought of that harm.
3. Lack of consideration in light of existing concern for the fate of the victim, the hater lets other motives (such as longing for the gratification of feeling powerful or secure through the suffering of others) direct his or her actions.
4. Lack of willingness to take responsibility in light of the prospect of exhibiting the hate behaviour without "getting caught" at it.

If some or all of these features are added to (some of) the ones already mentioned, I suggest that we come close to a model that can explain net hate behaviour. Especially item 4 is, I suggest, an important ingredient together with the technical fact that the internet provides ample opportunities for (at least self-perceived) anonymity. It may be, however, that some haters are not so concerned with "getting away with it", and in those cases 4 will not be essential.

Now, all of these qualities of a person are, I suggest, associated with widely embraced moral opinions. More exactly, they motivate why the behaviour of the net haters is both default morally wrong, and lacks valid special excuses. The framework of the structural factors around the net hater's behaviour does not alter, but rather serves to underscore this.

First, the lack of insight, to the extent that is in place, can be seen in parallel with criminal negligence: we are supposed to understand that what we say or do to other people may affect them in a negative way and we are likewise supposed to take care and think over whether or not our actions may have such effects. Being in a hurry, excited or similar things is not a valid excuse for not taking such care, especially in blatant cases like threatening to kill or maim or assault someone sexually.

Second, the lack of concern is an attitude that may be compared to that of a sadist – someone who understands that he or she harms other people, but who doesn't care because he or she likes it. But ideally we are supposed to be motivated and thus concerned. In fact, in most cases this features would be considered an aggravating circumstance rather than an excuse.

Third, the sadist, just as the net hater who lacks the appropriate concern for the well-being of the victim, may escape serious moral criticism if he or she restrains him- or herself. That is, just as any of us who may at times be motivated to do nasty things to other people out of aggression, fear, coldheartedness or pure egoism, may control ourselves by activating other parts of our motivational system – such as moral rules about not seriously harming other people unnecessarily, being considerate and civil, and so on. Pretty simple and straightforward norms that we can assume net haters to know perfectly well and therefore judge their behaviour harshly when they so blatantly overstep them. And if they should claim that they don't know about these norms, we can move back to item number one and argue a negligence defect for which they are in fact culpable.

Fourth, I do think that many instances of net hate are crimes of opportunity, so to speak, very dependent on the fact that the hater believes that he or she can do it without being identified or confronted. As I said, there may be situations where this is not the case, but when it is, it adds two further layers of moral deficiency. One is that of lack of willingness to take responsibility. The other, of course, is that of culpable cowardice. Of course, both of these reasons for degrading their behaviour morally even more, is what they have in common with most other petty criminals.

It is important to note, that factor no. 4 is, so to speak, parasiting on one or several of the others. That is, I am not here subscribing to this suggestion:


After all, most of us succeed in behaving pretty ok on the internet, if nothing else because we take the effort of restraining ourselves.

It is of extra importance to note that the institutions of free speech, opinion and expression in liberal democratic societies in fact rest on the presumption that people keep within the sort of moral limits just set out. It may of course, be debated exactly how harmful a behaviour needs to be for the limits to the just mentioned freedoms to be approached. But what in any other circumstance would be considered as unlawful threat, libel or harassment is clearly residing in this territory. This will leave plenty of room for all the nastiness and edge we need in public debates – if, in fact, we actually need that at all. The importance of this type of limit is, of course, that without it the mentioned institutions lose their ability to do their job in a good society. If they are regularly limited due to the fear of people to speak their mind because of the reactions they may receive from haters, this is equivalent to a situation where the state itself acts to instill such fear. And then, we are no longer living in a bona fide liberal democracy. The only reason to tread cautiously is the very same concern, not to overstep the boundaries of defensible public debating within the framework of free speech. In light of the rather clear moral boundaries being overstepped by the net haters, this to my eyes presents no serious problem.

13 comments:

  1. I believe that two additional aspects of "nethate" need to be accounted for: (1) the fact that most haters are men and that most of the hated are women and (2) the violently sexual nature of much of the hate.

    My unreflected thought on these aspects is that much of the most vitriolic "nethate" departs from a typical male frustration of feeling inferior to women. By being powerful and eloquent, these women make men with low socio-economic status feel emasculated. By creating a fantasy where they violently impose their masculinity on these women, they can feel that they can regain some of the power that a patriarchal society grants men and that these men feel entitled to. Just as rape is that fantasy come true, so is nethate.

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  2. There's probably some truth to the claim that haters generally are people who responds to what they experience as a threat, not necessarily to themselves but to their world-view, or to a loss of what they hold to be a deserved or proper privilege. But, as you so rightly point out, having such a view on the role of women (and other groups) is a characteristic of an asshole, and posting hateful comments or sending hate mail is an asshole's response to the situation.
    When it comes to the structural or economic theory, an interesting comparison can be drawn to hate crime studies. Economic deprivation theory was long held to be a major influence on the incidence of hate crime, but did not hold up to scrutiny. See Green, Glaser, Rich "From lynching to gay bashing: the elusive connection between economic conditions and hate crime." (1998)

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  3. Usually, I enjoy using the internet as an awesome sarcasm machine, to which I take nothing seriously and speak my mind. It's fun to see how uproarious people will become over any issue, especially now with the gun-control debate, though I know I shouldn't be pissing off people with guns. The important thing is to remember to never allow a nutjob to take away your sense of humor. You're gonna die some day, don't do such as a coward.

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  4. I find it mind-boggling that you would post this article and then write the twitter about me - completely false and utterly mean - without a shred of apology. I just cannot believe it.
    -Glenn McGee

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  5. Not sure this is really you, Glenn. That link you provide via your name leads to a mere Google search on your name, nothing else. Anyone, including people who bear you ill will, could have done that. If this posting in your name is a fraud, let me know in a secure way, and I'll take it away immediately as I'm informed about it.

    For those of you who wonder who Glenn McGee is, he is a former bioethics scholar with (in his own words) multiple appointments, who is now CEO of the private adult stem cell company RNL Europe, a sub-business to the Korean RNL Bio: http://investing.businessweek.com/research/stocks/private/snapshot.asp?privcapId=53608813.

    What Glenn - if it is him - refers to here is a sarcastic comment that I made on twitter when posting a link to some contributions of Glenn to a heated discussion on the possible promises and perils of adult stem cell (alleged) therapies without declaring clearly and saliently either his own function or who he represents; that is the vested interests above mentioned company. The comment is here: https://twitter.com/christianmunthe/status/302426605064712192 (follow the link in the post and you see what inspired my comment).

    To this, Glenn posted a complaint on Twitter, as here making claims about falsehood and meanness. IF it is you commenting here, Glenn, you have perhaps seen that I have replied on twitter: http://twitter.com/christianmunthe, in spite of the fact that you don't allow me the courtesy of direct response, since you blocked me already when I tweeted Bloomberg Business News's outing of you in your new role as businessman (linked to above).

    After these responses from me, Glenn's original twitter complaint was deleted. Perhaps you want me to do same with this complaint here? You cannot scrub yourself here, but I'll be happy to oblige your wish - if only it arrives in a form where I can certify identity a bit better than here.

    So, in short, I hold that my claim was and is neither false and, in fact, not mean at all. You draw this sort of reaction upon yourself when you debate stem cell technology, especially of the sort where the company you are employed by, without clearly and saliently open by declaring who you are and what you represent. Do that, and I will find no reason to react, except against actual arguments if I find them faulty and relevant to my own fields of interest, of course. I have nothing against business interests voicing their views, unless they pretend to be something else or attempt to sneak in under the radar. Exposing such dirty tricks has nothing to do with what this blog post that you are commenting on is about. And I know that you know it.

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  6. I wrote the comment. Thank you for voicing your opinion. I respectfully disagree but you certainly have every right to write anything you like, and to call me out if you think I am being dishonest, "scrubbing," or hawking things to the desperate & trying to drive up stock value.

    You're probably right that an argument of some kind could be made, albeit (in my view) as strained as one can get, that someday someone might profit from my profligate attempts to return the conversation to Paul's blog post after being slammed right and left in what can only be called hate tweets. I rather doubt it, not only because the mob that ensued certainly wouldn't pump up stock prices, but also because the article you read -- and I can't fault you for counting it as a good source -- is false. RNL Europe does not act as a subsidiary of RNL Bio. Its stock, as public record reveals plainly, is owned in the vast majority by others, and no stock is available to trade, and I own no equity, nor will I earn any under my contract, nor is my salary in any way tied to earnings, of which there are at present none. I also pointed out that RNL Europe GmbH is a research organization. What I didn't propound (but is true) is that no one receives any cells or banks any cells with RNL Europe GmbH, i.e., nobody to "hawk" to. Or that our research facility is 100% GMP certified, a much more difficult proposition in Germany than the US (because it is tied to the actual work you are doing, not just to the facility and equipment), and that just as I was 100% committed at Celltex to converting to clinical trials from the previous business model - and had no other responsibility - I am a CEO here with a clear research agenda that is in fact governed by so many layers of academic and governmental regulation that it dwarfs the FDA's rules.

    I apologize if you feel that I am naive to believe that any of this matters, and I recognize that in business (as in academic medical centers) the publicity and advances made and described (which I didn't) have a direct effect on potential income. At Penn, the rank of the school shot from 19 to 5 within 2 years after hiring Art Caplan. The promise of gene therapy, where I held my appointment as Asst Prof of Cellular and Molecular Engineering, attracted attention and funds. But really, check my record. Do you think ACT or Penn or Albany Med benefitted in $ from me? Did Celltex?
    I have acknowledged COI right and left. I'm not posting false or bad data.
    I asked and ask again that you pull those numerous Twitter posts and consider your own dialog about online hate. Surely you see the cascade of attacks on my wife, me, and so forth that followed from people to whom you linked.

    I appreciate your asking me (in yet another twitter unfortunately) whether I actually wrote this tweet. But I'm disheartened at your view of me in the roles I took.

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  7. My point is very simple: Just because you have made the journey you have it is of the utmost importance to make crystal clear your role and what you represent when debating stem cell science or policy. In the debate over at the Lab Stem Cell Blog, this was the first thing I looked for, but in fact it is the blogmaster who provides the initial info re. your connection to RNL-E and the nature of its business in response to your comments, and then when a patient steps in to debate, you finally make it clear yourself at the end of a very long comment aimed at responding to her. This is very far from ok, and you know it.

    Otherwise, just one thing: if what you claim here about the relationship between RNL Europe and RNL Bio is true, I advise as CEO of the former to have Bloomberg's as well as a number of other business information services on the web providing information about RNL-E to correct their records. E.g. Bloomberg writes: "As of January 25, 2011, RNL Europe GmbH operates as a subsidiary of RNL Bio Co., Ltd." (see: http://investing.businessweek.com/research/stocks/private/snapshot.asp?privcapId=53608813). These are currently the only sources of info on RNL Europe in absence of a bona fide company webpage.

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  8. One further little thing: I never denied that RNL-E is "a research organisation", as you put it. It is, I'm sure. But it is also a limited company, whose executive officers are required by law (as is the default construction in every jurisdiction I know of) to promote the economic interests of its owners. In other words, legally and institutionally, RNL-E is for making money, just as any other business. It is, of course, for this very reason why it is of importance for people to know if anyone debating the sort of research in which this company is involved is atteched to this or any other business interest, representing national interests, acting from an academic platform, as a patient activist, and so on.

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  9. "After all, most of us succeed in behaving pretty ok on the internet, if nothing else because we take the effort of restraining ourselves."

    This assumes that without this effort, most of us will degenerate into the same non-ok behavior, which,I hope, is overly pessimistic view of human nature.

    In my opinion, the cause of the hateful comments on Intranet is in its dual nature of the written media, which traditionally implies certain ethical standards, and de facto level of a shouting match, on some (make it many) sites.

    Personally, I do not think that any thought that is not expressed in polite, non-abusive language, deserves to be noticed.

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  10. Actually the real problem is the ability to hide. There is a bullshit article about me at sciam.com called "The Unethical Ethicist." The article was completely - I mean almost 100% - false and it nearly destroyed my career. But what made it so powerful was that 2 or 3 sockpuppets, easily distinguishable now but in the moment quite successful, piled one on top of another these vicious comments and of course explained why they had to be anonymous but provided no evidence of anything. Then when I tried to fight back I got crushed. Alice Dreger points to the real life consequences of sock puppetry. As much as I hate to point anybody to the garbage at SciAm.com, if you read the comments, then read this: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/nyregion/online-battle-over-ancient-scrolls-spawns-real-world-consequences.html?pagewanted=all I think you will come to the conclusion that there is something basically screwed up about the way that people conduct Internet bioethics, something basically obnoxious and hurtful that could never happen in peer reviewed journals or at least not so easily...and I'm not asking anybody to cry for me but you might notice that the minute I challenge someone's data - DATA - on the twittersphere regarding genetics or stem cells, I get (guess what) a long series of retweets to that same article and then a whole new set of sockpuppet comments and fake clicks to boost its Google rank. If you really dislike somebody, become a sock puppet. That seems to be the lesson. To be honest, the rest of the claims Christian is making go right over my head, though I respect his right to make them, and if you agree with him then God bless you...

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  11. It's obviously not a simple pattern, if that's even an accurate definition of the phenomena.
    I'd like to propose an additional factor that may influence the "haters", and maybe someone could provide me with feedback?

    If I'm not mistaken, the target of the hate is perceived as an inanimate object aswell. The assumption is false, but empathy towards the target is disconnected to some degree, if the brain of the hater is not triggered to feel empathy by the 'avatar' of the target?

    The behaviour is rampant in online-gaming, maybe there's some correlation?`

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  12. I'm very glad that you touched on this subject, and I think that more people need to. It is true that the majority of these online attacks appear to be perpetrated by men, against women. And even some by groups against other groups. Perhaps somebody should do more research into the topic so that soon we can all have a better understanding and better ideas on what to do about this issue.

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  13. What's up with the changing of jobs every 5 minutes McGee?

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