On Wednesday. Leslie Jones, a woman of color and star of the new Ghostbusters film, had her personal accounts hacked with intimate photos posted to her website, along with confidential details of her passport and driver’s license. Jones had only recently taken time off from social media after being bombarded by a mob of racist, sexist, hate-fueled trolls. They were apparently offended by the audacity of the women who dared to walk in the footsteps of the comedians who starred in the original Ghostbusters classic.
Since the surviving members of the classic Ghostbusters all made cameos and public endorsements of the film, the online bullies were not defending their favorite comedians. It’s impossible to escape the notion that these online bullies had no other goal than defending and perpetrating racist misogyny.
The abuse towards Jones culminated in the high-profile banning of Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative writer well known for his alt-right rhetoric and extremist opinions. Yiannopoulos was a central antagonist who gathered the mob to stone Jones. Supporters of Yiannopoulos claimed his ban was a violation of his right to free speech, with Americans citing the 2nd Amendment.
Yiannopoulos is from the United Kingdom, and the UK’s idea of freedom of speech and its limitations are different from the Constitution.
In the United Kingdom, there can be legal repercussions for hate speech and harassment online. In 2014, Caroline Criado-Perez a feminist activist was subjected to extreme online harassment on Twitter. Dozens of individual accounts sent her lewd and violent messages including death threats. Two of those people happened to live in England and were arrested by British police. They were both sentenced to several months in prison for their participation.
High-profile trolling cases continue to be widely publicized in the news, but there are countless untold stories of people who are relentlessly harassed every day on social media. Sarah Harvard, a prolific writer and vocal activist, was besieged by a torrent of vicious racism on Twitter. The abuse began after an article she wrote about Muhammad Ali made the rounds on the internet. Trolls tweeted death threats and videos of beheadings. Friends and supporters tried to intervene, but the hate was so thick it was impossible to cut down. The argument that won’t die, that silencing the racists would be taking away their freedom of speech, was a go-to comeback for more than a few of the trolls.
Noam Chomsky is famously quoted as saying, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” Free speech is one of the basic tenets of US democracy. It is established in the United States Constitution and has been reaffirmed for hundreds of years through additional laws and court judgments. Chomsky wrote in 1985 that he was shocked when someone asked him to explain why we should defend freedom of speech, because it should go without saying that freedom of speech is a basic human right.
In the same 1985 article Chomsky, the outspoken critic of censorship mentioned three incidences where he was not allowed to speak at events. He goes on to state “there is no issue of freedom of speech in these cases.” There was no issue because the government had nothing to do with it. Freedom of speech, in the most basic terms, means the government cannot persecute someone for what they say nor is the government permitted to silence people who are expressing themselves.
Just because you won’t be arrested for being a jerk doesn’t mean you won’t face consequences. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean private organizations, like Twitter, must allow the hurling of racial slurs and death threats.
The US Department of Justice reports that 850,000 people are subjected to cyberstalking every year. Online sexual violence has been experienced by an estimated 40 percent of women. There are few legal recourses in the US.
In civil court, victims can sue based on tort law. Tort law is commonly referred to as civil wrongs and can include things like harassment and defamation. Criminally, there are even fewer avenues for getting justice. Although it varies by state, there are few cases where a harasser has been found guilty of internet harassment. Proposed laws hope to update the penal code to reflect the reality of today’s internet.
Arguments online have gotten so absolutely volatile that feminist writers are quitting and turning to other work, just to avoid being abused on a daily basis. Many prominent feminist writers have vocalized that they wish they had used pseudonyms instead of their real names to prevent the relentless abuse directed at them. In the United States, victims have only the platform to turn to for support.
Some victims of harassment have turned to alternative methods to grapple with abuse. One tactic that has worked on turning trolls away from their harassing ways is humanizing the person they are attacking. Writer Lindy West was used to Twitter abuse; then her worst troll came for her with a fake account featuring a photo of her dead father. West decided to write openly about this person who had been relentlessly harassing her.
The day after her piece went live, she received an email from her harasser. The troll expressed deep remorse and regret for his actions. He realized she was a “living, breathing human being who [was] reading this shit.” He didn’t just pay lip service with an apology; he reportedly reformed his ways. He changed and stopped engaging in online abuse. When held accountable for our actions, humans remember they’re human.
In London, the number of people being arrested for internet harassment continues to rise. According to the Register, between 2011 and 2016, the number of such arrests rose 37 percent. In an effort to curb abuse, the United Kingdom recently announced a new police taskforce to tackle digital abuse. The pilot team is based in London where they will be investigating online harassment. This is the first specialized police force of its kind in the UK and will focus on protecting victims and prosecuting perpetrators.
The United Kingdom is not the only government stepping up their anti-hate game. Germany recently pushed several giant online platforms to align their online harassment policies with German law. Canada also has laws meant to protect people from online harassment. You can face prison time if the person you harass has a “reasonable” fear of physical harm or if it causes significant mental distress. In the first case of its kind, a Canadian court ruled in favor of a man who was accused of online abuse. He was found innocent after being charged for criminally harassing two feminist activists from Toronto. Unlike the case of Criado-Perez, the harassments of these activists did not involve tweets of “violent or sexual nature.”
Cases like this draw the line between criminal harassment and acceptable harassment. Since that line is different in different countries, it blurs the guidelines on how to handle harassment online where borders disappear and people of all nationalities converge. In the United States, the responsibility of handling online abuse is in the hands of private organizations. Whether pulling away the veil of anonymity from abusers in London or publicly banning frequent offenders on Twitter, democracies around the world agree that something has to be done.
Whoever is handling complaints of online harassment has their hands full. People who partake in abusive speech online often do so under the pretense that they can’t get in trouble for saying whatever they want. They often argue that freedom of speech gives them the right to spew whatever kind of nonsense pops into their head, even if it’s something you would never dream of saying to someone’s face. The internet calls these people trolls. It’s a problem that continues to grow exponentially as more people flock to the internet to express themselves.