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.