I’M GOING TO FIND YOU AND KILL YOU.
I WILL RAPE YOUR WIFE AND MURDER YOUR CHILDREN.
YOU SHOULD DO THE WORLD A FAVOR AND COMMIT SUICIDE.
It’s not hard to find violent online threats these days. In fact, it was much harder for me to make up examples without the filthiest language humanity can conjure. Whether it’s a sports player who misses a critical play, a programmer speaking honestly about misogyny in the tech industry, or a woman of color pointing out convergence of sexism and racism in society, critics—often people with no discernible stake in the subject—spew the vilest threats and insults. It’s not always men, and it’s not always anonymous.
The cost is too high. This behavior drives valuable voices out of the public conversation, along with the perspectives they might bring to important discussions. We lose their stories, their insights, even solutions for situations that damage us all.
“What can we do, though?” people ask. “It all comes down to freedom of speech.” In this, as has been pointed out by many people, most folks are mistaken. The First Amendment to the US Constitution only guarantees the right to speak freely against the government, without fear of arrest or other retribution from the State. Freedom of speech in no way guarantees freedom from consequence. Sure, we’ve expanded this right to free expression to cover some of the most grotesque public statements, such as those by the Westboro Baptist Church or the Ku Klux Klan. But people have learned that the best way to exercise their own rights against them is to to create effective counter-protests. From the Angels whose wings block out the sight of hateful signs to miles-long biker escorts for soldiers’ funerals, we’ve found ways to allow hateful speech but deny its effectiveness.
So that’s what I’m proposing for online abusers. Every person who sees someone use threatening, terrorizing speech online should take a moment to reply, message, or tweet a simple phrase questioning that behavior. If just ten people responded in this way every time, to each user they see engaging in uncivil behavior, it would send the clear message that the Internet is not blindly permissive or a safe shield for violent behavior.
It does not need to be profane—“What is wrong with you?” It does not need to attack them personally—insulting their race, gender, parentage, or sexual orientation only lowers you to their level. It does not need to perpetuate harmful stereotypes of mental illness—“If you think saying these things is okay, you’re totally wrong” is just as effective as “You must be a psychopath” or “You must be crazy”.
There’s only one catch: You can’t pick and choose when to do this. You can’t wait until it’s someone whose politics you disagree with; we must be even more critical of our allies as we are our enemies. You can’t leave certain areas alone, with the excuse that “that’s the culture there”. If people are willing to say horrid things in one place, there’s a high likelihood they’re willing to do it elsewhere. And you can’t wait for other people to do this for you. If you want online spaces to be better, it has to start with you.
Good people can deliver a Denial of Service attack on people who cannot follow basic rules of human-heartedness. With enough people doing this, not only will there be plenty of voices against every hateful speaker, but there’ll also be plenty of the emotional support that’s needed when you look darkness full in the face. It’s not a perfect solution, but it couldn’t be much easier to start. If you’re receiving threats, share them publicly, so we know who to respond to. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and give it when requested. Remember your own compassion when you do.
Maybe I’m sounding too much like Pollyanna here, but the Internet doesn’t have to be a cesspool. So many of us have met wonderful people who enrich our world there. Let’s use that community to support those who suffer its inhumanity.