safe havens for hate speech are irresponsible

I love Kathy Sierra. I think that her work is fantastic and well-needed throughout the tech community. So when i heard that she’s getting death threats, i wanted to vomit.

The brief story is that three prominent bloggers got annoyed at another female blogger for not permitting mean-spirited comments in her blog. They created a site called as well as a spin-off. These blogs encouraged people to say terrible things about others and it spun out of control. The content by the sites’ creators (again, prominent bloggers) was completely unacceptable – misogynistic, racist, and horrid speech. Their words were bordering on hate speech so it’s not that surprising that anonymous commenters took it one step forward.

There’s nothing illegal about what the prominent bloggers did, but i think it is unethical at every level. This is not an issue of censorship, but an issue of social responsibility. What does it mean when the most prominent bloggers are encouraging speech that divides, particularly that which divides along the lines of race and gender? What kind of standard does that set? How can anyone support their practices, even as a “joke”? I believe in moral responsibility and key to that is a level of social respect, even for those with whom you disagree. Without social solidarity, the moral fabric of society erodes. When you allow room for intolerance, you breed hate.

This is not just an abstraction for me. When i was in college, i was the recipient of unbearable hate-motivated speech, forcing me to leave Brown for a period of time. In the computer science department, there was an anonymous forum called “rumor.” It was the space for everything from critiques of professors to offending links to descriptions of how some women should be raped. It was disgusting. The speech from rumor spread beyond the anonymous forum; i received blackmail phone calls. My students received notices that they were not wanted (these were minority students and it was clearly racially targeted). Then, one day, i came in to find that my private emails about a lawsuit were posted to the forum. I was accused of having left them around but after a series of investigations, we learned that /dev/kmem was world writable on a machine in one of the labs and that root su-ed to my account on that machine. We learned who was logged into the machine before root, but there was no way to guarantee that this was the person who took my files.

The police (and various members of my department) asked me to pursue legal action. I declined because i realized that the cost for each email stolen was 30 years and i did not feel confident that i would ever know for sure who really was behind that machine. The person logged in was a friend of my boyfriend’s and i just didn’t want to go down that path. It didn’t matter. Everyone in the department blamed me, telling me that i deserved it. People speaking with me in mind (during the time in which i had left) asked for the destruction of rumor; i was accused of censorship. Truth was i never thought that rumor should be destroyed technically. I believed that it showed a failure in the department, proof of the destruction of social solidarity, proof of the intolerance that was bred. I believed that it was a failure on the part of all who participated and allowed that forum to breed. In other words, i didn’t want a technical solution – i wanted social responsibility. I never got it.

That incident had long-lasting effects. There were classes that i could not take because of it. I was not allowed to hold positions in the department because of it. Many people did not respect me. I remember sitting outside a TA room listening to two of the friends of who i suspected discuss my exam. They were shocked that i had aced it; they assumed that i had some guy do my homework for me. I remember going home and crying for hours.

I will never forget the descriptions of how me and my friends were to be raped. And Kathy will never forget the descriptions of how she was to be harmed. That’s what it means to be terrorized. How can we live in a community that permits that? How can we allow spaces like that to foster under the guise of “free speech”? We have a responsibility, a moral responsibility, to help generate spaces that breed tolerance, to speak out in support of those around us, and to bite our tongues rather than spit hatred when we’re frustrated. The web is persistent. We bitch about what young people write on the web but how dare we promote it.

My hope is that this incident, as it spreads its way across the web, will make people think twice about the racist, sexist, homophobic, hate-filled, mocking, and otherwise cruel speech that they make space for. I’m all for deleting mean-spirited commentary; i’ve done it time and time again on my blog. I think that we have a responsibility to do our best to make the web a safe space so that we can make society a better place.

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19 thoughts on “safe havens for hate speech are irresponsible

  1. Michael Faris

    I am sorry to hear that you had to go through that while at Brown. It amazes me how people are so willingly (and exceedingly happy) to say harmful things about and to other people. I agree that deleting harmful comments is a good thing to do, especially when there doesn’t appear to be a chance to have a teachable moment with the perpetrator. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. epc

    I don’t understand why people believe there is a right to anonymity in networked communications, or that this right is somehow sacred and immutable. Yes, we have a notion of a right of privacy in the U.S., but that is a right against government intrusion into personal affairs, not a right to write or speak in the public space anonymously.

    It’s the Ann Coulter school of communication theory: make any threat, any vile statement you want to and it’s ok as long as you say “I was just kidding”, but you don’t even need to do that if you’re writing anonymously.

  3. thomas payne

    danah: i am completely shocked to hear this about your experience at brown (or any other good school). whew, you would think people would know where to stop and what is completely inappropriate in settings such as these. one might expect this in a prison or something, but at brown?

    sorry to hear about this. i hope all is well in la.

    tommy payne

  4. orcmid

    I feel like I have lived a cloistered existence. Not a saintly one, but one that has me be really clueless at the crap that women and others suffer when hate is dumped on them.

    I remember being startled to learn what my two sisters (and my mom) reported when sexual harassment and molestation came up in a safe conversation. It was unbelievable for me. I know others who have been seriously abused. But somehow it is all unreal until someone shares the gory, hurtful, and fearsome details.

    Your account on the heels of Kathy Sierra’s report has me feel like there has been no progress, majority males such as myself still “don’t get it,” and this festering sore is being transmitted undiluted to the young.

    I cling to the belief that we have made progress in civil rights and in honoring the sanctity of others. Clearly the last battle has not been fought.

    All I can do is refuse to countenance any hateful conduct that comes to my personal attention, and to ensure that all lawful means are used to excise such behavior. I can’t think of anything else. If you see more that can be done at the individual, personal level, please blog about it.

  5. Tom

    That is truly gross. I send you a left handed fist in the air from London on that. Creating social responsiblity frequently depends on social accountability. This is a really interesting area to think about when building a community, but it feels a bit wrong talking about it on the end of this post. Keep kicking ass, please, and remember your posts and work help others work out how these social responsible spaces should be made.

  6. morganya

    Thank you for posting. I’m sickened by what has happened (to Kathy and to you), but I’m glad that both of you have the strength to speak out. It’s an important step in making the perpetrators learn that they can not get away with their actions. Sadly, I’ve seen women who speak out against violence of all forms blamed for some or all of it, and that needs to change too. Anyway, thank you.

  7. Robert Scoble

    I just now found out what they wrote about Maryam on MeanKids. It is TOTALLY VILE stuff. Chris Pirillo, you’re wrong about this.

    I want an apology in public from all involved. It is TOTALLY DISGUSTING. I am so pissed and hurt by what they wrote.

  8. Wax Banks

    Reading about Kathy Sierra’s situation today, I’ve been repeatedly surprised at how naive a number of prominent* bloggers are (or pretend to be) about what computers and online fora are used for. Of course sociopaths use the Internet; of course they have a right to; of course it’s morally reprehensible, and would that this kind of thinking could be avoided; but how can people whose job consists of blogging about blogging not be aware of the kind of reprehensible business that takes place daily in countless online spaces?

    Next thing perhaps Mr Scoble et al. are gonna tell us they had No! Idea! Whatsoever! that of all things the Internet afforded access to pictures of naked people.

    What was posted about Kathy Sierra shouldn’t be countenanced by the site administrators, and it’s awful that it occurs to people to think/feel in this way. But sociopathy is not a problem that’s going to be fixed by comment-moderation policies. What can in theory be fixed is this: people who make a living writing about online communities and blogs-as-identity have a responsibility to know that this kind of speech exists and what kind of online communities enable it, and to have an informed view of them that goes beyond NIMBYism. (Danah, I’m not talking about you here.)

    Threats should be acted upon to an extent – of course – but I think Chris has the right of it: The amazing thing isn’t that such vileness exists in the world. That’s just the horrible part. The amazing part is that it comes as a surprise to anyone. That may well be the definition of luxury.

    If there were some way to make this point without appearing to minimize Ms Sierra’s very real fear and trauma I would do so; I hope I’m avoiding that pitfall but I doubt it. But reading a comment like e.g. orcmid‘s, I can’t help thinking it’s more important to make this point than to offer the usual gestures of sympathy. Not more important than to feel empathy if one can, of course – what’s more important than that? But there’s other work to be done as well, I think.

    * ‘Prominent’ on a sliding scale, of course.

  9. Nathan Vogel

    orcmid’s comment is insightful, I think, in that it asks about what to do at the individual level. Its so easy to fall into thinking that such speech must be banned by some authority. But I think it is very rare that that is the case.

    apophenia wrote “How can we live in a community that permits that? How can we allow spaces like that to foster under the guise of “free speech”? We have a responsibility, a moral responsibility, to help generate spaces that breed tolerance, to speak out in support of those around us, and to bite our tongues rather than spit hatred when we’re frustrated.”

    I think this outlines the conflict very well. We have a responsibility as individuals to protect free speech in our society. Sometimes a crisis arises in which free speech can in fact threaten further free speech and other essential rights. Do we limit free speech? If we do, how much? Who gets to decide what kind of free speech is dangerous?

    The ideal situation is to avoid the crisis, fostering a society that produces members who respect each other and consider and restrain their own speech. But when the crisis arrives, what can we do short of imposing coercive authority? Besides ignoring offenders, what strategies are available for individuals seeking to combat destructive speech?

  10. Steve

    I went to Kathy’s blog and read her story, which was upsetting and disgusting. I was moved to rant about the matter, and I would like to share my thoughts here also.

    I’ve since read more about the issue, and were I to rewrite my comment now, it might be more nuanced with regard to the “respected” bloggers who facilitated or tolerated some of the mean-spirited comments on However, I think my original comment, though maybe a tad flawed and hot-headed, still has some good points – so I’ll let it stand as originally written.

    Copy of my comment to Kathy follows:

    Hi Kathy,

    I am not a member of the blogging community, just a computer guy with the occasional time on my hands to spend exploring the blogosphere. And then I found your story.

    This is disgusting, and these are extremely sick people. And in the big picture things like this are not going to go away until we as a people make a serious commitment to doing everything we can personally and socially to encourage a climate of kindness, caring, decency, and healing.

    That said, I have some comments that suggest some of the blame may fall on the blogging culture itself – even though I admittedly know little or nothing of that culture. But a paragraph in your post gave me some clues I’d like to follow up on.

    You said:

    “I do not want to be part of a culture where this is done not by some random person, but by some of the most respected people in the tech blogging world. People linked to by A-listers like Doc Searls, a co-author of Chris Locke. I do not want to be part of a culture of such hypocrisy where Jeneane Sessum can be a prominent member of blogher, a speaker at industry conferences, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, and at the same time celebrate and encourage a site like meankids — where objectification of women is taken to a level that makes plain old porn seem quaintly sweet.”

    My thoughts are as follows:

    (1) Respected!!!??? How come and by whom? Do the members of the blogging “community” not know the character of some of their leading figures? Or do they not care. Just who is it that gives these @holes respect, and what is their excuse for doing so. These are slimy creeps. What does it say about the blogging community that they are “respected” in that community. Rot starts at the top. Look to the leaders of the blogosphere – whoever those might be – those who set the moral and cultural tone of the community. (And if there are no such – I would question whether there is a “community” in any functional sense).

    And didn’t you say this Chris guy sometimes uses the handle “rageboy”? Hello? Is that a clue?

    (2) Cliques, elitism and Junior High.

    You casually used a term I find telling. “A-listers”. I have heard the term A-list occasionally in celebrity news and the like. I take it to refer to a social elite. The kind of people who can get into an exclusive club without waiting in line. Well, I am far from the world of celebrity, exclusive clubs and social elites. I am probably an “X-lister” if there is such a thing. I can look at the phenomenon with detachment but not dispassion – rather disgust.

    Now I’m going to speak about a paradox of the Internet.
    It is true in a sense that on the Internet anybody can be famous. Democratization of content production and blah-blah-blah. But it is paradoxicaly also true that if everyone is famous, no one is famous. This has been called the “needle in a needlestack” problem which is a transform of the “drinking from a firehose” problem. I like to call it the “human bandwidth” problem.

    Nobody can pay attention to everything. Most of us in fact, can pay attention to only a miniscule fraction of what is out there. So, we make choices. And without a “centering principle” to guide those choices, most of us choose our attention focus almost at random. So it’s hard to be famous among more than a handful.

    (I grew up in the era of the three TV networks and two major wire services. The “center” was undemocratic, tightly controlled, and all but inaccessible to the unconnnected. But you by God knew it was the center!)

    But the human desire for recognition is strong. One of my teenage friends put a telling comment in her (handwritten) journal “I don’t want to be invisible”. Nor do the rest of us. So we seek ways to stand out. Some are successful – perhaps due to actual merit – perhaps due to being creepier than the next guy. I have no way to know. So the “A-List” is born.

    But why use that particular term as a metaphor for merit, respect and high status? My criticism of the term and the attitude I infer from it is that it bespeaks an unhealthy concern with issues of status and fame. That it suggests that an “A-lister” is somehow of more value personally or intellectually than the guy or gal down the hall, down the street, or over in the next cubicle. Obviously, I think this attitude is demeaning toward the non A-listers in the audience.

    It really is kind of Junior High. Don’t you think? Clique, clique. Who’s in the top clique? Who’s invited to the elite parties. Blah Blah Blah.

    And it turns out to be the case that the most bitterly persecuted social outcasts turn into the most raving/raging cliquers when they arrive in a social environment that allows them to be top dog. Think SCA, or SF fandom – or Paganism – or other geek-culture of your choice).

    And why then should it be a surprise that the pimply faced kid who always hated the cheerleader that wouldn’t go out with him can now get his revenge. The Internet provides one big dark alley. And those who suffered at the hands of the “mean girls” are out there waiting to get back.

    And what does it say about a “culture” and a “community” that prides itself on being a leading force in shaping the new century and can’t even provide the depth of humanity to help their own members grow up and be healed.

    (3) Class issues

    The underclass has always had problems analogous to this – but more severe. Deeds – not just words. Casual brutality has been all too common among the poor. But the priveleged have imagined that they were better than all that. That things like that happened among “those people”. Surprise! Suburbia has just as many slimy things when you turn over the rocks as the inner city. But what was hidden from view in your gated communities now comes to light in the pitiless exposure of the universal medium.

    (4) Final comments.

    Can we as people find values that tell us personally and socially to respect and care for other people? In America the notion of a core set of values common to decent people began to fall into disfavor during the sixties. This has continued apace. Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. I would suggest that humanity badly needs to remember what it is that makes people justifiably precious in one anothers sight. And those who know, try to teach those who need to know. Individually – we all need to try harder to remember the humanity within ourselves. Socially, we need to create the shared and promolgated understanding that this is what is expected of a decent person.

    Hope this helps,

  11. greg sepetir

    It sounds as if a bit of mob hysteria occurred with regard to this Kathy character. Without reading the details, I shrink in horror that such spirited conversations will become the norm in attention-deficit consumers. Dramatic flairs are abound in social arenas. Moderators and other such enabled (root) users must at as directors from time to time to diminish or enhance the dramatic effects.
    Sometimes people have a natural tendency to place themselves in harm’s way. In my experiences, I believe few people actually consider the spiritual consequences of such actions. Bravery most often comes from the gut, not the heart, and can easily be mistaken for compassion.

  12. Joseph Kugelmass

    Danah, thanks for writing such a brave piece.

    I’ll mention one other aspect of the mistaken argument for “free speech” on the Internet (meaning unmoderated speech): a hateful Darwinism of thick-skinnedness. Bloggers and commenters who try to intimidate other writers often justify their actions on the grounds that people who can’t take the abuse aren’t fully committed to the cause. This confuses personal hurt in the face of personal attacks with a lack of commitment to discussing and defending a politics or a view of the world. Or, to put it another way, just because you can scare someone into being silent doesn’t mean they were wrong.

  13. Bachi

    I’m so very sorry about what happened to Kathy recently, and what happened to you at Brown. (I’m not a blogger and I don’t read many blogs, in large part because of the verbal nastiness that seems to abound in Bloglandia…I heard about this because I’m at Etech.)

    Since this is such a new and personal issue, I’m hesitant to comment any further…I feel like I’d be intellectualizing about something that’s very personal and painful to you and to Kathy.

    But since you’re are a scholar…. then fwiw I’ll share the following info, in case it’s at all useful at a later date — this following is a somewhat intellectualized peek at a relatively successful conflict management approach in one specific online community space.

    While I’m not into blogging, I have been involved as a moderate-level participant the widespread universe of online media fandoms. One of the things I’m interested in with fandom is how people form rules about what types of language and interactions are/are not allowed in various fannish venues (what are the rules of a “fair fight,” how do those rules get enforced, etc).

    One of the ongoing discussion topics in fandom is popularly described as the “nice kids vs mean kids” debate (no connection at all to the meankids blogger website). The debate in summary: whether it’s more important to be very nice and positive in fandom communities, in the interests of promoting positive community behaviors; or whether it’s more important to allow more direct and aggressive discussions/arguments, even if some people might get their feelings hurt sometimes.

    Bottom line, it seems to boil down to personality and communication styles: the “nice camp” people tend to be very attuned to social harmony, and they tend to shut down and/or leave a community when they feel that the discussion is too contentious. On the other side, the “mean camp” people tend to enjoy vigorous arguments, often peppered with clever or snarky comments, and they tend to feel stifled if they’re not permitted to express their opinions with vigor.

    Interestingly enough, despite the ongoing nature of this debate in fandom, rules have evolved about how to “fight fair” on this issue. For example: there’s very little/no violent or sexual attack language used. (This may be in part because the areas of fandom where I hang out are 90%+ women — there’s very low tolerance for violent sexual attack language.) Attack language about appearance, sexual orientation or race is also comparatively rare, as is outing somebody by using their real name. Yes these things happen on occasion, they are damaging, but they are strongly condemned by the great majority.

    Meanwhile, many fans know there are specific communities where fans can go when they want to “play mean”. The most well known of these communities is Fandom Wank (FW’s motto is “mockety mockety mock mock”). In FW, people post up examples of wanks (fans behaving badly: arguing about stupid stuff, posting silly or poorly expressed opinions, etc.). Then people post long, clever, quipping commentary. Although snark and cleverness is encouraged, FWers still are expected to behave by the “fair fight” rules listed above — ie no violence, sexual, racial etc attack language.

    Obviously if you’re the fan whose posting got Fandom Wanked, it sucks. It’s embarrassing to get mocked. However, unless you go over to FW and read the comments there — you won’t get exposed to it. One of the rules of FW is that FW comments are not supposed to get copied over into “regular” fandom communities; FW comments are supposed to stay on FW turf. That rule gets broken on occasion but not all that often.

    Many fans avoid FW entirely, saying they find it hurtful and mean spirited to mock people for any reason, and they don’t want to encourage it in any way. Other fans participate (often under a separate pseudonym), saying that while it may be a vice to be gossipy and nasty, FW serves a purpose by allowing people to point out and discuss examples of fan silliness and bad behavior. in addition, they say, FW can be fun and entertaining, and that as long as FW and its snark stays self contained in its own social space, then it’s OK.

    Anyway, the whole point of my mentioning this here, is that i see this as an example of how harsher argumentative language can in fact be successfully managed in an online community. A community can agree to contain aggressive/mocking/snarky arguments in a clearly labeled area; rules of “fair fighting” can be developed and adhered to. So gossipy, snarky debates don’t have to inevitably deteriorate into attack language and hate speech.

    I’m not sure what this all means, other than there is a middle way — where people have a place to make rude snarky comments, but it’s done in a way and a location where it mitigates the harm to the wider community. Social structures can be built that contain and channel the (potential) toxicity of those types of conversations.

  14. lin

    I’m really sorry that you had that experience. I’ve had a (comparably minor) experience along the same lines and what I found disturbing to me was that the organization I was working with took the line, “ignore it and it will go away”. I was told that in order to be a team-player I had to rise above the falsehoods and say nothing until it all died down.

    It did die down but my reputation was damaged in a totally unjust way. Essentially I took the fall for the organization.

  15. john

    I find the use of hate, or other mean spirited and thoughtless attacks, to be unconscionable. So long as we restrict this kind of behaviour by social pressure all is well. I couldn’t agree more with your hope for social responsibility. I was reminded how important this kind of control, vs legal controls, is when I heard Christopher Hitchens in a debate on free speech. THought you’d like it:

  16. madame l.

    The brief story is that three prominent bloggers got annoyed at another female blogger for not permitting mean-spirited comments in her blog. They created a site called as well as a spin-off. These blogs encouraged people to say terrible things about others and it spun out of control. The content by the sites’ creators (again, prominent bloggers) was completely unacceptable – misogynistic, racist, and horrid speech. Their words were bordering on hate speech so it’s not that surprising that anonymous commenters took it one step forward.

    i think it may be wise for one to have all the facts before jumping on this angry mob hayride. allegations, based, as far as i can tell, on hearsay, are no better than the actions others are being accused of. throwing around claims of racism, without any evidence, is a perfect example of being no better than the actions one accuses others of. this is rabble-rousing at best.

    as the mother of 5 daughters, a feminist, a woman and a writer i think it is a paramount and fundamental right of the accused to be given the presumption of innocence and to be free from attack by people who may have a loaded personal agenda and an incomplete understanding of the information and facts.
    when you allow room for intolerance based on gossip and conjecture, you breed hate.

    i suggest you take your time to gather the pertinent facts before you publish this kind of knee-jerk response that seems to be informed by your unfortunately all too common personal experience.

    i am not defending misogyny or death threats or hate speech. but i am defending the right to free speech and the right not to be tried in the press / blogville.

    please point out some examples you found to substantiate your claims of racism.

    if you haven’t read the tara exchange that you refer to in your second paragraph, or even if you have, i recommend that you go back and really read it and let us know if you would still characterise it as containing mean-spirited comments. i saw nothing but informed debate.

    i follow your blog with interest and i sympathise with your horrendous experiences at brown and agree that misogyny is an overwhelming problem in life as well as the blogosphere, but i will have no truck with trial by blog.

    I think that we have a responsibility to do our best to make the web a safe space so that we can make society a better place. i agree with you here, but this very concept had been used as rhetoric and an excuse for censorship by repressive regimes throughout history.

  17. Chris P

    I’m sorry this happened to Kathy, and I’m sorry Danah that you had all that shit happen to you at Brown. Lots of us talk about online freedom of speech as a wonderful thing, and I think generally it is, but social norms are just as (even more?) important here as elsewhere. And when those norms break down, as it sounds like they did at meankids, it really does provide a feedback loop for our worst elements.

    madame l. seems distressed because folks don’t have, “the right not to be tried in the press / blogville.” It sounds kind of like Kathy was being tried by a particularly mean spirited portion of “blogville”, but I don’t think that’s the argument being made. When you post online you are, in fact, inviting trial by one’s peers. You’re opening yourself up to other people taking your words, hopefully in context but often not, and debating them. That’s kind of the whole point. When this debate turns into personal attacks, this is where those with social influence (the “A-list” and everyone else) should be encouraged to ignore and delete. This is our community, and by encouraging personal attacks as free speech, I think we do ourselves a disservice. Is part of the problem here going to places like meankids and getting offended? If those sites really are all vitriol, would it be better for all to ignore them? If that ignorance spills over onto one’s one blog, and especially as actual threats and hate speech, alerting the police and sending out a general SOS seems perfectly reasonable. I don’t know. It’s just that something terrible happened, and it seems understandable for people with an interest in online societies to be interested in not having it happen again (or as often).

  18. Yasmin is studying removal of Internet libel defamation & online defamation

    The removal of Internet libel defamation & online defamation
    I am researching the progression of internet libel & online defamation/ extortion & the emotional and financial fallout.
    Based on my research, “winners” in court are far and few between. But online slander, libel & defamation is obviously a significant problem. These guys make a living out of getting online libel removed with out-of-court solutions, but they also assist attorneys in investigations: . They do pro bono for victims that can’t get work due to libel.
    I am seeking case studies:
    Please help me if you know of real life examples of the following:
    Suicides or attempted suicide due to online libel or internet defamation
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    Divorce due to online libel or internet defamation
    Termination of employment due to online defamation or web based libel
    Physical assaults due to online libel or internet defamation
    Successful litigation against online libel or internet defamation activities
    If there is someone else undertaking a similar study wishing to collaborate, I’d love to hear from you. The internet is a big place, there is much to sift through.
    Thank you very much,
    yaaawnn AT gmail DOT com (that is G M A I L in case it doesn’t appear )

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