May 22, 2008

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.

As a child I hated this mantra. As the target of taunting and teasing I knew full well that names, and false accusations, do in fact hurt. Some of those childhood emotional scars took a long time to heal. And I fully believe that somewhere in the tortured lives of those young men who take guns and bombs to school there exists prolonged and repeated teasing, hazing, and humiliation.

The idea that what another says can’t hurt you is patently false. Words can do damage, often permanent and sometimes costly. So I have empathy for someone who is under an attack of words, particularly if the words are incorrect or false. However, I do not have much sympathy for someone who engages in a war of words and then cries “Foul!” when the other side responds in kind.

When I first started riding motorcycles I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) Basic Riding course. At the beginning of the first night of class, the instructor asked us if we thought a motorcycle could be ridden safely. After some discussion we thought that, yes, it could, provided you were very careful. He then pulled out a dictionary and read the definition of “safely.” It means “without risk”. He continued to say that, “Once you throw your leg over the seat of a motorcycle, you are telling the world you are willing to accept some risk.”

There are many endeavors in life that come with some risk attached. In fact, it might be easier to list the ones that are truly risk free. Starting a campaign or crusade to right some wrong, or convince the world that your viewpoint is right, by attacking another’s viewpoint, is one sure way to take on some risk. Waging your crusade on the Internet guarantees that the whole world could be part of the audience. “World Wide Web” isn’t just a catchy marketing phrase.

In fact, the Internet is the new play ground, one allowing anyone with access to a computer to sling insults, barbs, jabs, lies, taunts, and flames. Forums, mailing lists, and comment threads are often overrun by cretins hiding behind the anonymity that being online provides. Wiki-style pages, where anyone with an account can edit the contents, have become hugely contentious virtual spaces. Zealots create dozens of alternative IDs, known as sock-puppets, to make it appear like they have support. The best known Wiki, Wikipedia, is often in the news as a result of contentious factions on opposite sides of an issue, biography, or fact, trying to keep their view on top, as the most recent edit. If nothing else, Wikipedia is the best example I can think of for the need to think critically. One has to evaluate the information there, asking again and again, “what is the source?” Without an understanding of the source, of the foundation a given entry stands upon, any information taken away from Wikipedia can only be considered hearsay.

To their credit, Wikipedia does try to manage the often unruly mob of editors and contributors, but it is a Sisyphian task. Zealotry abounds there, and if you are one to take umbrage at what another has written or said, you would be well advised to not participate. As they say, wrestling with a pig results in you both getting muddy, and the pig likes it. Wrestle with virtual pigs in the form of trolls in comment threads or online forums, or sock-puppets on Wikipedia, and you merely make yourself their next target.

Recently there was an article about Wikipedia in general, and about one contributor in particular. The journalist tried, through various means, to discover the real world identity of one particular Wikipedian, going so far as to try and back track though IP addresses where he or she was located. At one point in the article, believing the mystery Wikipedian lived in a particular area of the city, the journalist mused about how to identify and confront him or her. In effect the journalist was stalking this person, albeit for the purposes of completing her article. What the journalist wanted to confront the Wikipedian about was his or her alleged stalking and bullying online, of the journalist’s sister. It seems that the mystery Wikipedian was using sock puppets and other tactics to run roughshod over other contributors. However, the journalist’s sister may well have had some sock puppets of her own. Or maybe not. You see, that is the entire problem with trying to confront this type of childish “he said, she said” behavior. It is never ending, and impossible to eradicate. What’s more, in her article she herself admits that after five unsuccessful attempts to contact the mystery Wikipedian, she would have to get “pushy.” Objecting when someone tapes a “kick me” sign to your back is one thing, taping one there yourself and then objecting is another thing entirely.

How do I know about this sordid little tale? I wrote a piece about Anonymity that garnered a comment. This comment was offensive to the journalist. The journalist responded to the comment, here on my site, with not one, but two comments of her own. She also sent me an email claiming that the original comment was defamatory. She wanted it removed from my site. She wanted to know,

[...] whom my lawyer or I should contact about asking that this false and defamatory post [sic] removed as soon as possible.

The post in question, mine, has absolutely nothing to do with this journalist. I believe she is referring to a comment on my posting, the one she replied to twice. (I believe the rebuttals to be hers, anonymity strikes again.) Her article, unknown to me until I received the journalist’s email, one Sunday afternoon in April, is lengthy and ultimately boring. As of the writing of my posting today, there were 117 comments following her article; some of which could be considered defamatory. The same, nearly canned, responses that were left on my site appear in that comment thread.

So this afternoon, when the journalist called me on my cell phone, to ask if I would remove the comments that offended her, I was again put off and reluctant to comply. If she is willing to allow comments that don’t paint her in a flattering light to appear on an article published by her own employer, then why should she get to pick and choose which comments appear about her on an obscure, nerdy web site that largely pertains to the existential navel gazing of a middle-aged man? Beyond the potential defamation in the comment, her reason for having the comment removed, said to me during our brief phone conversation, is a fear the subject of her article may be stalking her. I hardly think the absence of one comment will stop him (or her) from doing what ever they want.

If she thought that she was going to write this article and “out” a Wikipedian for less than ethical behavior, be patted on the head and given a lollypop, and have that be the end of it, then I think she has an awful lot to learn about the Internet. There are any number of comments on the article critical of the journalism in the article, and any number of other sites critical of it, with one site noting, “She chronicled her meandering, unsuccessful saga in 4,275 paralyzing words.” The last comment on my posting indicates that this article was the subject of some discussion in a college journalism class. The Internet is merciless and unforgiving and not a place to engage in word games, unless you are willing to become a target yourself.

The site Expert Law, on their article about “Defamation, Libel and Slander Law” has this to say about why commencing a defamation action may be a bad idea:

While people who are targeted by lies may well be angry enough to file a lawsuit, there are some very good reasons why actions for defamation may not be a good idea. The publicity that results from a defamation lawsuit can create a greater audience for the false statements than they previously enjoyed. For example, if a newspaper or news show picks up the story of the lawsuit, false accusations that were previously known to only a small number of people may suddenly become known to the entire community, nation, or even to the world. As the media is much more apt to cover a lawsuit than to cover its ultimate resolution, the net effect may be that large numbers of people hear the false allegations, but never learn how the litigation was resolved. Another big issue is that defamation cases tend to be difficult to win, and damage awards tend to be small. As a result, it is unusual for attorneys to be willing to take defamation cases on a contingent fee basis, and the fees expended in litigating even a successful defamation action can exceed the total recovery. Another significant concern is that, even where the statements made by the defendant are entirely false, it may not be possible for a plaintiff to prove all of the elements of defamation. Most people will respond to news that a plaintiff lost a defamation lawsuit by concluding that the allegations were true. In other words, the plaintiff in a defamation action may be required to expend a considerable amount of money to bring the action, may experience significant negative publicity which repeats the false accusations, and if unsuccessful in the litigation may cement into the public consciousness the belief that the defamatory accusations were true. While many plaintiffs will be able to successfully prosecute defamation actions, the possible downside should be considered when deciding whether or not such litigation should be attempted.

I fear that the journalist’s toothpaste is entirely out of the tube, and no amount of work will ever get it all back in again. However, the possibility of creating an even bigger mess is entirely within the realm of possibility.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.