I’ve been reading a lot of blogs lately that have a socially-conscious focus: feminism, racism, glbt stuff, motherhood. Generally I find it infinitely more satisfying to read about the social justice and civil rights movements than I do to read about academics and art, despite my association with the art world. And even if the blogs themselves don’t focus on the specific social issues, the authors tend to be fairly sensitive to the issues in their everyday lives.

In the past year or so of reading these blogs, I’ve found a fair amount of trolling and baiting. It’s to be expected: the ability to retain anonymity on the internet has, of course, spawned a sort of bravado in blog comment sections, especially, where people de-lurk to post their differing views in various tones of frustration. Sometimes the comments get nasty, becoming overtly racist, sexist, homophobic or graphic.

But just this week, I learned of two separate instances on two separate blogs where the comments crossed the line from anonymous, impersonal attacks on the content to personal attacks on the authors.

The first incidence I came across was over at Bent Corner, when Rick posted this entry:

“In retrospect, I should have realized Long Duck Dong was more than just some random weirdo. On learning who she really is, I went back and re-read all of her comments. In one of them, she wrote:

you have no clue what i know and how much, both on these random topics and the person posting them.

She’s implying that she knows things about me.”

I’m happy to say that there were no actual threats aimed at Rick – rather, the comments are sort of incoherent ramblings with the apparent intent of making Rick feel shamed and paranoid. Her comments have the opposite effect, though, as Rick states:

“I stand by everything I’ve ever written here. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I’m not the one hiding behind a goofy name.”

Then today, I read an entry over at Racialicious which just chilled me to the bone:

“[T]his comment, which prompted an immediate call to the police and has resulted in an investigation by both law enforcement and other professionals investigating on-line on my behalf, left me speechless:

Love your blog, Paula.
We share the same name.
Heck, we even live in the same state. xxx (state named). It’s only a matter of time until I find out your address. And your son’s school. And ___’s (husband’s first name used) work.
Then we’ll be best friends. I’ll stay close to you and your family.
And teach you a lesson.
Love ya,

I mean, sweet Jesus. That’s a tangible threat right there. And the blog entry in question that garnered the threat? Right here. An entry on the differences between overt and subtle racism, and how the author feels about each of them.

The author of this second entry has essentially pulled all entries off her blog, except for two recent ones dealing directly with the comment in question. And fortunately she took it seriously enough to get the authorities involved.

These two incidents make me angry. Of course, being the tree-hugging hippie that I am, I believe in free speech, and I’m anti-censorship. However, I think there’s a solidly defined line between free speech and actively threatening someone. And I don’t understand why words on a computer screen can anger someone so much that it would drive them to make threats against a person’s life, family, or livelihood.

I read a really interesting and frustrating article a few months ago in Bitch Magazine about Kathy Sierra, a programming instructor and game developer who had a public blog that was pretty popular. Someone, though, began making threats against Sierra, and they escalated into death threats – to the point where Sierra pulled the plug on her blog and cancelled all public appearances. Sierra’s appearance in Bitch was part of a larger article about the incidence of harassment in the blogosphere, and Sierra’s case was certainly not isolated. The group Anonymous, mostly known for attacking the Church of Scientology, has also targeted feminist websites, forums and bloggers with the intent to intimidate and generally cause chaos.

Atlasien posted a comment to Racialicious that gives some good insight into the psychology of trolling on the internet. Basically there seems to be some general agreement that trolls are looking to intimidate bloggers into silence (which was also mentioned in the Bitch article), which is a sad, sad thing. Especially since those trolls are often quick to cry “First Amendment!” when censored or told to piss off.

It’s sad and frustrating and frightening that this kind of stuff happens, that people behave in such a vile and cowardly way. And though I don’t often blog (with any eloquence) about super-controversial subjects, these occurrences only serve to remind me that it’s important to keep talking about the things I think are important.

“I didn’t know that terror looked like silence…I didn’t know you could be so frightened you couldn’t speak, because all of my life I’ve had my voice.”
Staceyann Chin