In Numbers Too Big to Ignore

I am woman, hear me roar,” sang Helen Reddy over thirty years ago. Based on two recent developments involving high-profile women, that roaring comes at a price: the risk of public shaming via social media.

Monica Lewinsky and Ashley Judd
Photo of Monica Lewinsky by James Duncan Davidson of TED/Reuters from the TED website. Photo of Ashley Judd by Dave Martin of AP from an article on USA Today.

In a TED talk delivered on Thursday, Monica Lewinsky described herself as one of the earliest victims of cyberbullying. She also called for more compassion from Internet users, joining the large number of those already looking for solutions to online harassment. Four days earlier, actress Ashley Judd received an “avalanche” of sexually abusive tweets for remarks she made on Twitter during a University of Kentucky basketball game.

Monica Lewinsky is a curious name in American history, given the events that made her famous and her resulting legacy as a media figure. Her reemergence as a compassionate spokesperson is unfairly overlooked, however, particularly her efforts to raise awareness of issues relating to digital abuse. “Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop,” she told the TED audience on Thursday, asking that Internet users exercise judgment where the efforts of tech companies to police abuse have proven inadequate.

The case of Ms. Judd is interesting, because she is a respected actress and humanitarian who also happens to be a die-hard University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball fan. While watching her team play on Sunday, she posted a since-deleted tweet suggesting that the Wildcats were being subjected to “dirty play.” The responses she received were violently sexual, often resorting to vulgar name calling and threats. And yesterday, she was ridiculed for bringing a working dog to the game.

Later in the week, Ms. Judd announced on CNN that she would press formal charges against the Internet trolls harassing her on Twitter. “Everyone needs to take personal responsibility for what they write and not allowing this misinterpretation and shaming culture on social media to persist,” she said. In a subsequent article on Identities.Mic, Ms. Judd (herself a survivor of sexual assault and incest) detailed the level of verbal abuse to which she was subjected:

I read in vivid language the various ways, humiliating and violent, in which my genitals, vaginal and anal, should be violated, shamed, exploited and dominated. Either the writer was going to do these things to me, or they were what I deserved. My intellect was insulted: I was called stupid, an idiot. My age, appearance and body were attacked. Even my family was thrown into the mix: Someone wrote that my “grandmother is creepy.”

In a bullying culture that reserves its most vitriolic ammunition for the female gender, misogynistic cyberattacks are rising with alarming velocity. According to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, women between the ages of 18 and 24 experience severe types of online harassment (with a quarter of cases being of a sexual nature), and 26% have been stalked.

Chart demonstrating the disproportionate number of sexually charged online harassment cases against women. The key figure represented here is the 26% of women who claim to have been stalked, versus 7% of men and 8% overall.
Young women are particularly vulnerable to severe forms of online harassment, with 26% having been stalked and 25% sexually harassed. From a Pew Research Center study on online harassment.

While it’s easy to attribute female-directed cyberbullying as another in a long line of masochistic atrocities, there is something deeper and perhaps more sinister in digital harassment. We are living in a time where online interaction is learned at an early age, often before interpersonal skills can be cultivated as a form of common etiquette. As a result, abhorrent behavior can be explored anonymously, free of the consequences we risk when behaving badly during face-to-face contact. Unfortunately, Silicon Valley has done little to improve online decorum on user-generated content sites; even Twitter CEO Dick Costolo acknowledged this week that “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform.”

Possibly the most disconcerting aspect of the Judd case is the demarcation it exposes between male and female sports fans. Consider this hypothetical: if a man had tweeted the exact same remark at the exact same time, would it have been subjected to the same level of vitriol? Or would have been viewed as exactly what Ms. Judd intended: an innocuous comment by a passionate, loyal sports fan in support of his favorite team.

Update 03/22/15: there is a fascinating story in today’s Sunday New York Times on Monica Lewinsky’s reinvention, touching briefly on the digital harassment she received and her historical importance in exposing “humiliation as a commodity.” Recommended.

Hidden In Plain Sight

Scene from the Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, which depicts Tom Cruise's character being questioned by the Red Cloak upon discovery that he has invaded the secret gathering

Red Cloak: [pleasantly] Please, step forwards. May I have the password?
Dr. Bill Harford: Fidelio.
Red Cloak: That’s right, sir! That is the password… for admittance. But may I ask, what is the password… for the house?
Dr. Bill Harford: The password for the house?
Red Cloak: Yes?
Dr. Bill Harford: I’m sorry… I seem to… have forgotten it.
Red Cloak: That’s unfortunate! Because here, it makes no difference… whether you have forgotten it… or if you never knew it. Kindly remove your mask.

This famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut portrays Tom Cruise as a self-assured and curious young doctor who, upon stumbling into a bacchanalian orgy attended by costumed aristocrats, very quickly realizes that he is out of his depth. It’s not Kubrick’s best film, but it’s arguably his creepiest.

For 37 million users of the online dating site Ashley Madison, the request to “remove their masks” was neither kind nor open to negotiation. The website, which allows married individuals a way to secretly cheat on their spouses, was recently the target of anonymous hackers who stole sensitive customer data and threatened to post it online. Suddenly, a number of very nervous Ashley Madison customers were at risk for having their data compromised, including 15,000 .mil or .gov email addresses.

Avid Life Media (ALM), the parent company that runs Ashley Madison (along with Cougar Life and Established Men), acknowledged the breach in a public statement. That was not enough to prevent The Impact Team, the group behind the attack, from dumping 9.7 gigabytes of account details to the dark web. Within hours, everything related to a user’s profile was available to the public: credit card transactions, email addresses, phone numbers, even full descriptions of the sexual fantasies users were looking to fulfill with their extramarital affairs.

image

Digital Schadenfreude

It didn’t take long for observers on social media to express their amusement at what appeared to be poetic justice for thousands of cheating spouses. Several media pundits, in fact, mentioned the public shaming that took place at the expense of those whose data was hacked. In any event, Twitter was alive with commentary on the subject:

A number of journalists questioned the accuracy of the data exposed as a result of the breach. Computer security expert Graham Cluley wrote in a blog post that the appearance of an email address did not automatically incriminate the owner of that account as an adulterer — especially since the site administrators never bothered to verify email addresses:

For one thing, being a member of a dating site, even a somewhat seedy one like Ashley Madison, is no evidence that you have cheated on your partner. You might have joined the site years before when you were single and be shocked that they still have your details in their database, or you might have joined the site out of curiosity or for a laugh or even to find out if someone else was on the site … if your email address is in the Ashley Madison database it means nothing.

Another outcome has been the number of research firms who have used data pulled from the breach and created graphical charts depicting the cheating habits of Ashley Madison users. We can find out which cities appear to have the highest ratio of adultery, how many Australian government officials have Ashley Madison accounts, the ratio of male to female users worldwide, and how many Ashley Madison users work at IBM.

Whisper photo with caption: Yes, we all laughed it off. Turns out my gf was also cheating ... with the same girl.More importantly, though, are the effects of the breach on those whose data was exposed. The secret sharing app Whisper, for example, offers users an anonymous platform for posting lessons learned from being caught having an affair. In some ways, the Ashley Madison case study represents a perfect storm of all the ingredients necessary to bring out life ruination: casual sex, random infidelity, wanton bullying, technostress paranoia. Even in these digitally-permeant times, we continue to have an uneasy relationship with technology when it comes to our private lives.

Why We Can’t Trust Computers

Humans operate under the condition of short-term memory, also called working memory, on a daily basis. The brain tries to make sense of the sensations it receives by using what it already understands from experience, forming patterns based on previous behavior. This is the connective tissue that links key functions involving reason and comprehension.

The problem is that our brains have limited capacity. We can only process small packets of data in roughly 20-second bursts, unless the information is repeated on an endless loop. Our brains are also affected by impulses in judgment, which are influenced differently from one person to another, reflecting wide nuances in maturity and social development.

Computers, on the other hand, are the masters of long-term memory. Server farms for websites like Ashley Madison stay in business precisely because they are able to store large amounts of information for extended periods of time. Computers have no moral compass when it comes to data, whether it’s to protect a social security number or a clandestine encounter; however, we expect the same degree of discretion from our digital services as we do from humans. The efforts we take to conceal our identities in the course of scandalous behavior must be shared by everyone who participates, especially the system designed to shield us from being discovered.

The Ashley Madison hacking is more than a case study about infidelity. It’s about the inherent suspicion that no one can be trusted, either man or machine. Our fear of being unmasked is buffered solely by our faith in a reliable and discrete service provider. We expect technology to be neutral, much like a therapist who understands our reasons for having an affair and yet refuses to judge us. When a breach happens, it’s horrific because we’ve essentially enabled a computer to demonstrate the moral compass of a human, and both have let us down.

Frank Zappa

In the end, it comes down to whether we are ever truly able to be comfortable with ourselves. We play right into the hands of those who know they hold all the leverage, because what we’ve really done is come face-to-face with our own guilt. It’s not the sort of thing that can be protected with a password named after an opera. When Frank Zappa asked What’s the ugliest part of your body? in 1968, he had the right idea when he answered his own question with, “I think it’s your mind.”

Murder in Soft Words

Participating in a spelling bee is an academic rite of passage that just about every child undergoes at some point. Those who are able to master the gentle art of spelling such words as necessary, occasion and hemorrhoid have the opportunity to advance their skills against more rigorous competition.

Children compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor, Maryland, on Wednesday. Top left: Sophia Han of Tiajian, China. Top right: Marcus Behling of Chandler, Arizona. Bottom left: Sean Fogerty of Misawa, Aomori Prefecture. Bottom right: Olivia Hajicek of Goshen, Indiana. | REUTERS
Children compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor, Maryland, on Wednesday. Top left: Sophia Han of Tiajian, China. Top right: Marcus Behling of Chandler, Arizona. Bottom left: Sean Fogerty of Misawa, Aomori Prefecture. Bottom right: Olivia Hajicek of Goshen, Indiana. Reuters photo for The Japan Times.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship took place last week at National Harbor, MD just outside of Washington DC. For 11 of the past 15 years, the $30,000 prize has been won by American youngsters of Indian heritage, who make up one out of five competitors from all 50 states.

In 2014, the Spelling Bee ended in a tie between Sriran Hathwar of upstate New York and Ansun Sujoe, who lives in Texas. Hathwar correctly spelled stichomythia, while Sujoe’s word was feuilleton. Stichomythia is a form of dramatic dialog in Greek theatre, characterized by brief exchanges during a scene of strong emotional intensity. A feuilleton is the part of a European newspaper containing material intended to entertain the general reader. In the US, we might refer to a feuilleton as a “fluff piece.”

The term online troll once referred to users who disrupted Internet chat rooms, often with the deliberate intent of provoking an emotional response. An example might be someone who makes an inflammatory comment about religion or politics, solely to minimize another person’s viewpoint and garner a reaction.

More recently, trolling has been closely associated with other aspects of online harassment, such as cyberbullying and public shaming. A troll might deface an online tribute site commemorating a loved one who passed away, for example, with no purpose other than to cause unnecessary stress to the grieving families. Or in the case of trolls’ response to last week’s National Spelling Bee, it’s to spread xenophobic commentary about the ethnic backgrounds of a group of kids aged 9 to 15:

“One year I wish an American kid could win.”

“Not to be offensive .. but how do kids from India dominate the American spelling bee?!?”

“The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN.”

Perhaps the most volatile example of troll behavior is in the social crucible of online dating, where women risk inadvertently provoking dismissive and hostile remarks made by rejected males. Except in many cases, the behavior instigating the trolling might be something as innocuous as failing to respond to a text message. Alexandra Tweten created an Instagram account called Bye Felipe to catalog the creepy (and often scary) results that happen when women deign to say “no thanks” to a male suitor.

screenshot of online chat where male calls female a bitch for telling him she's not interested in dating

screenshot of online chat where female says "no means no," and male responds with "to me, no means yes"

screenshot of online chat where male calls female a "stuck up cunt" and advises her to "learn to take a compliment" before recommending she kill herself

It’s not difficult to detect the social influences that compel this sort of behavior. The relative anonymity of online postings often precipitate an increased disinhibition among Internet users. Tom Postmes, professor of organizational psychology and author of the book Individuality and the Group, suggests that trolls are inspired by “the level of trouble they can cause in an environment. They want to promote antipathetic emotions of disgust and outrage, which morbidly gives them a sense of pleasure.”

However, this doesn’t completely explain the level of psychopathic narcissism exhibited in the Bye Felipe examples above. While most forms of trolling can be categorized within an uneasy miasma where free speech and personal accountability overlap, there is something more darkly sadistic in telling someone to commit suicide because she won’t respond to puerile vulgarity. The Machiavellianism at display here is arguably more alarming, implying that the perpetrators might actually feel entitled to the motives behind their actions. The more beautiful and self-assured their target, the more deserving it is of corruption.

Whenever Orson Welles was interviewed about his epic radio broadcast War of the Worlds, he often dismissed suggestions that perhaps he should have toned down his approach in order to spare the widespread panic that ensued: “No, you don’t play murder in soft words.”

In some ways, trolling is really about the power of language. It’s an experiment to verify the schoolyard comparison between “sticks & stones” and “names that never hurt.” It’s a game of identity deception played without the consent of its players, a public exhibition of antisocial tendencies, a form of bullying in which the villains never actually show up to demand their lunch money.

Rex Morgan MD comic on Facebook trolls

Researchers who study the effects of video games often cite the interdependence of experience, in which feelings of arousal can apply beyond a single activity. Playing a game transfers excitement from the digital space to real life, though not always consciously, which generates a level of emotional coactivation. Learned concepts are retained more effectively into the part of the brain known as the effective domain, where long-term memory takes place, and the body produces endorphins accordingly. It is here where we form the basis of our activities involving judgment, consequences, actions and ethics.

It could be that there is a cognitive bias taking place in the minds of today’s trolls. In order to accentuate a moment in their lives in which they derived pleasure, it’s necessary for them to recreate the circumstances in which that moment took place. During childhood, we’re taught that kids pick on other kids in order to bolster their sense of self-worth. We’re expected to mature past that point, ideally, but evidence demonstrates the assumptive path to enlightenment is turbulent at best.

What we do know is that there is an inherent unity to the online body, comprised of many “selves” in which the depiction of information is a commodity. We set standards for what we deem to be acceptable, then adjust our level of resentment or appreciate accordingly. It could be that trolls simply have no filters that prevent unwanted behaviors from intensifying, their physical relevance marked solely by how effectively they’re able to denigrate those who fall below their standards.

 

Inevitable Accidents

Lisa McElroy, Drexel Law Professor

“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”

So says Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. England has developed a mathematical formula that he believes explains the fundamental components of how life begins and evolves. Put simply, when an external source of energy is applied to a grouping of matter, under certain conditions the matter will gradually restructure itself in order to disperse more energy.

Which bring us to the story of a Drexel University law professor, her careless job of copying & pasting a simple URL, and the crucible of public judgment. Lisa McElroy, teacher and professor at Drexel’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law, used the University’s network earlier this month to share a link with her students about writing legal briefs. Unfortunately, the link took students to a Pornhub video, which (as one can detect from the name) streams explicit sexual content for free.

Email sent by Lisa McElroy to her students

A number of McElroy’s students allegedly complained about the email, which McElroy insists was delivered in error. Some of McElroy’s supporters suggested that her system was hacked. Still, Drexel administrators felt compelled by the incident to conduct an investigation to determine if McElroy’s actions should result in sexual harassment and misconduct procedures. As of this writing, according to a Drexel spokesperson, McElroy has been “cleared to continue her academic and research responsibilities” and still holds her teaching position at the University.

Lisa McElroy on MillionaireLisa McElroy is no stranger to the public spotlight; you might recognize the name from her appearance as a contestant on the television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? She is also well regarded in her profession, having earned a doctorate from Harvard Law School and authoring several children’s books about Supreme Court justices. And she knows how to use the media. In an op-ed piece appearing in the Washington Post last week, the professor says she was “mortified” upon discovering what she had sent to her students, yet called the incident “pretty trivial” compared to the public shaming she received when the story went viral:

“I was sure I had lost my dignity forever. Unsurprisingly, some students spread word of the incident through social media and anonymous e-mails to the media. Everyone was talking about me … still, no one questioned the dignity of those who forwarded the unintended post. No one asked why, if they found it so offensive, students opened the link, with its unmistakable Web address, and watched the video long enough to know what it contained. No one publicly questioned the dignity of the so-called journalists who wrote salacious stories [and] called my unpublished cellphone number.”

Beyond a desire to cause ridicule or suffering, there is nothing ideological about the way digital mobs organize themselves at the first hint of a public figure’s downfall. The digital mob’s most distinctive attribute is the speed at which thousands of participants can be spontaneously whipped up into an irrational frenzy. Once released, the ensuing tidal wave of damage is nearly impossible to contain. In the days before social media, such activities would take place within the geographic constraints of a street corner, city park or town square. Today it takes only a single, well-timed tweet or an anonymous blog comment to publicly eviscerate someone’s reputation.

SocratesLisa McElroy’s piece in the Washington Post resembles a latter-day version of Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates declares that the wisdom of all philosophy begins with a sincere admission of ignorance. Her most poignant statement is one she never makes: how or why she had access to that link in the first place. Perhaps that’s not the point, as some journalists have suggested, if we choose to believe that what happens in the privacy of one’s own home or IP address is nobody else’s business. Still, we can always expect conjecture to play a strong role in identifying why and how these things happen. David Lat of Above the Law offers an interesting hypothetical: perhaps McElroy’s gender and personality contributed to the story becoming a bigger spectacle than originally warranted:

“One can’t help wondering whether the schadenfreude surrounding ‘Beadgate’ reflects student antipathy towards a less-than-popular professor, whether ‘tough’ women professors get a bad rap, and whether students would have tattled to the administration about a more well-liked member of the faculty … we all have our private vices and we all make mistakes.”

At worst, one could argue that McElroy’s “mistake” was to reveal herself as a sexual human being with poor proofreading skills. One could also argue that McElroy’s piece in the Post smacks of self-righteous opportunism. (Comparing the recovery periods of public humiliation and cancer, while well-intentioned, may not solicit favorable empathy from all members of her audience.) That said, these supposed transgressions certainly don’t position her accusers on a higher plane of moral immunity. Wrong behavior should be punished; however, the consequences of wrong choices worsen inexorably under heightened examination and scrutiny. The fairness of that social dynamic is as questionable as the acts that inspire it.

entropyLike all forms of energy, the attention surrounding Lisa McElroy’s email will disperse in time. Physicists tell us that energy is more likely to diffuse into the atmosphere than be concentrated into one location; they call it “the arrow of time.” They also tell us that entropy occurs naturally, allowing for a degree of randomness in terms of how and where thermal energy will next be collected. This is an overly scientific way of saying that what happened to Lisa McElroy could potentially happen to anyone. At least she had the benefit of being part of an academic community, limiting the field of propagators to an identifiable group. This was an opportunity that Socrates did not enjoy:

The main body of these slanderers who from envy and malice have wrought … all these, I say, are most difficult to deal with; for I cannot have them up here, and examine them, and therefore I must simply fight with shadows in my own defence, and examine when there is no one who answers.