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Netizens Misbehaving - a Possible Solution
April 26, 2006
by Trudy W. Schuett

Disinhibition isn't just for the Internet. It has become general, and the notion of behaving better when in the public eye has taken quite a beating. Henninger's focus on the Internet misses the point: His own examples suggest that if people are behaving badly on the Internet, it's because they're behaving badly everywhere.

Glenn Reynolds: The Medium Isn't the Message at Tech Central Station

Amen to that! It’s not just bloggers who behave badly and engage in vicious personal attacks on people who simply disagree.

Case in point: The so-called National Alliance for Family Court Justice has been around, their website claims, since 1993. While the name and website’s text would suggest a large organization, in fact the group consists of only one to four major players at any given time. There is no actual organization, as that term is generally perceived. There is no membership, it holds no meetings or any kind of organized group activity.

The only things this group has to define itself are a website and e-mail discussion group.

There are three rather bizarre opinions they hold, that serve as guiding principles:
1. All fathers who seek custody of their children after divorce are abusive.
2. Today’s court system routinely awards custody of children to fathers.
3. The entire American court system, from the Supreme Court to the lowliest small-town court clerk, is a massive ring of pedophiles dedicated to separating children from their mothers for nefarious purposes.

All of the above statements have been made publicly by one or more of those associated with the website/discussion group. The most stunning example of this was an appearance in 2002 on the Judicial Watch radio program by a woman identifying herself as Cindy Ross. When the host pressed her for evidence of her claims, all she could say was, “Well, everybody knows…”

There are frequent claims made they have “proof” to support all their statements. Yet, when you dig down in search of that proof, all you find is a collection of links to websites and newspaper articles. Elizabeth Richards, who appears to maintain the website, says she is an attorney, and has thousands of case records where women have lost custody of their children. None of that amounts to proof of anything.

All of that above is provided, to perhaps give some insight into their horrific behavior. When someone disagrees with them publicly, or points out one of the gargantuan holes in their conspiracy theories, they begin harassing that person by phone and/or e-mail, attempting to discredit that person (or organization) with all kinds of outrageous accusations, and threatening to sue all and sundry. That radio appearance I mentioned earlier was the result of one of their intimidation campaigns.

They haven’t limited the scope of their venom to writers or media, either. I’ve heard rumors that they’ve focused on legislators, as well. Of course, leaders of father’s groups are common targets.

Apparently, they don’t consider their opposition to be wackos, or idiots, or just plain stupid, which is a more-typical example of online character assassination. No, anyone who disagrees with them is a criminal, and part of their imagined conspiracy. When I was still monitoring their discussion group, up until last winter, they were still making criminal accusations against someone on an average of once a day. Numerous complaints to Yahoo over the years have been ignored.

Even the major feminist organizations know enough to stay away from this gang of disturbed individuals. When they were somehow able to convince CANOW to give input into their misguided 2002 Family Court Report, the national headquarters of NOW quickly disavowed any association with the project. CANOW even had to admit they had no proof of the claims outlined in the report.

I reported this in the pre-blog incarnation of the DLJ, and boy, did they ever let me have it! My personal inbox was full of hate mail. Their e-mail group was abuzz with their furious protestations, and insistence that I made up the whole story, which only served to reiterate, as far as I was concerned, that their claimed close association with NOW was nonexistent. After all, they could have verified the story by picking up a phone.

More recently, they were able to talk their way into a PBS special on divorce issues, which even PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting admitted was one-sided, after receiving numerous complaints. That issue was the subject for the appearance of an editorial by the group’s webmaster in the Washington Times on Sunday. Here’s part of it:

In December 2005, fathers rights activists' Senate allies got a $150 million earmark slipped into the "Deficit Reduction" bill which directed further funding for these purposes. Our group has obtained substantial evidence of misuse of these funds for paying fathers custody attorneys in deliberately dragged out high-conflict custody litigation, and PAS custody evaluators who rubber-stamp every woman a malicious liar and recommend sole custody to the father.
    Fathers rights activists do have a lot to be scared about. Their scheme is unwinding and some of them will be prosecuted for what they have been doing for many years.

I can only wonder if the Washington Times was subjected to a new threats-and-intimidation campaign. I have no doubt that the unlucky Carey Roberts, who wrote the original piece she’s responding to, is getting the full treatment.

I’m sure this is only the beginning of another skirmish in the war these women have declared on the world in general. The problem is not even that they engage in such rude and offensive rhetoric in their e-mails to writers and the like; the problem is that they have caused untold harm to many innocent people by their behavior. They’ve even caused damage to their own movement. In this case most people are neutral on the issue, and don’t generally respond well to hysteria and wild allegation.

The mean and cranky have always been with us; only now they can express themselves more widely and efficiently due to the internet. Likewise, the honest and better-behaved have the same access. In a lot of cases, maybe even most, the quality of the presentation does eventually prevail.

As I heard someone say today, we’re still trying to design the boat, even though we have to keep on rowing. So I think it’s probably a good idea for all of us who use the internet to begin promoting a bit more sophistication in the way we deal with those who threaten or harass us. This kind of writing is quite different from being part of a dead-tree publication that doesn’t really encourage constant, immediate communication with readers, if any at all. Those who’ve been using it longer will have developed their own unique strategies, and I think it would be helpful to those who are newer at this game to know how to react. If you’re used to getting maybe one letter a month, two or three months after you’ve written something, and suddenly you find yourself with one a day, or even a hundred a day, that can be truly unsettling.

Note I’m not suggesting any kind of regulation or oversight, or anything of the kind. This is more about being prepared for nasty people up to no good, and recognizing just what their ability to cause actual harm may be. Especially for those dealing in sensitive issues, you’re going to be more likely to encounter those whose emotional load has shifted.

Part Two

I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to have a way of dealing with the nasty and rude people that are also on the internet, among the many thoughtful and courteous. We’ve got a new place here, and right now we have a prime opportunity not to mess it up. We certainly don’t want a bunch of laws and an online police force to enforce them, but we don’t want to have personal attacks and hate mail disrupting our lives and causing us grief.

Those who have been online for a while know a bit about how to deal with trolls and disrupters. Some of us have developed ways that seem to keep this stuff to a minimum. It’s not so much about keeping other people civil; it’s about learning to keep our own reactions to these things in control, and in proper perspective.

While it’s true that there are people who simply refuse to take any responsibility for themselves or their actions, it is equally true that most people will accept the responsibilities of dealing with things that happen online. There are people online who would like some suggestions on dealing with bad situations; it’s not the same as dealing with things in the offline world.

The following are only suggestions. It is a collection of things I’ve found to be effective. Others may have other ideas.

Some ideas for dealing with the bad guys

It’s like living in a glass house; everything you do online will be immediately noted and perhaps remarked upon. You could get a real case of paranoia about this, and I’m sure some people have.

Yet it’s a true cultural shift. You don’t have to wait for the mailman anymore, or the 6 o’clock news or the morning paper. If you want to know something, you can do it right away.

You can also let the world know what you’re thinking at any given moment, and that’s where things begin to get a little tricky. That’s because not only are you informing the world, so are a billion others. That number’s a guess, by the way. I have no idea how many people use the internet and its many fine services, and most likely nobody else does, either.

That’s neither here nor there. The point is that among all the roses in this charming picture there are going to be some thorns, and I think everybody needs to have some strategy for dealing with that. I’m not talking about the general negatives like spam, in all its incarnations. It’s not about the well-publicized idea of identity theft and predators waiting to ____. (Fill in the blank)

This is about people. Some people are going to be rude, or even threatening, and as with the other negative stuff in life, it’s important to have a way of dealing with it.

The internet is so pervasive, that depending on your situation, you may not be able to avoid it entirely if something bad happens. You can’t control what other people do, nor is there any universal Complaint Department to deal with an issue for you. You’re pretty much on your own here, but you can avoid being part of the problem by your reaction to various things.

  • Stay out of bad places. If you’re part of an e-mail discussion group or forum where someone is attacking you or treating you rudely, then unsubscribe or stop visiting. If you haven’t read the forum description, you probably should. You cannot expect the group as a whole to conform to your needs, so there is a possibility you are expecting the group to be different than it is.
  • A group, or website, or blog, is private property. It is not the United States, and you cannot expect the ideal of freedom of speech to apply. Whoever owns the space or moderates it makes the rules. Find out what the rules are and abide by them. If you’re not doing anything wrong and someone is harassing you, then report them to the moderator. A good moderator will have noticed unfair attacks or out-of-bounds behavior and taken steps to deal with the issue, anyway.
  • Do not engage. If you get nasty notes, do not reply to it in kind, though the temptation to do that may be strong. Some people flame others just to get a reaction. Either delete it, or if you have a policy of keeping everything, send it to a folder, but do not reply. Even the most pernicious flamers eventually go away.
  • If it’s an offensive blog post, do not mention it or link to it on your own blog. There are those who feel they can get some extra traffic that way. Don’t buy into their game.
  • Never threaten to sue unless you have already discussed the issue with counsel and have a lawyer at the ready, prepared to proceed. Almost no one who threatens lawsuits ever goes through with it. Keep this in mind if you’re the one being threatened. Most of us are simply not worth suing, anyway.
  • Learn the difference between nuisance mail and truly threatening mail. True threats are the kind that threatens your self, family, or property with actual physical harm. There is a big difference between “You’re a lousy %^&” and “We are going to kill you.” Nearly all of the name-callers simply don’t go beyond that, because most of those who engage in that kind of abuse are cowards. If you have a genuine threat to life or property, then you should call the police.
  • Don’t overreact. Some people actually like to pick fights for their own sake, and have no actual ability to cause harm.

Trudy W. Schuett is an advocate for victims of domestic abuse, and the publisher of the DesertLight Journal, where this article was first published.

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