I’ve been asked to write about hashtag activism, hashtag vigilantism, and hashtag cyberbullying. Sometimes people think they are all the same. They’re not. I’ve been hitting my head against this essay for two weeks and I can’t seem to uncomplicate it enough to write anything coherent. So here are some general thoughts on how hashtags work and the benefits and problems they have. Because I love bullet points. And sentence fragments. Obviously.
- Speech (in the US) is a fucking free for all. You can’t control what people say, who they say it to, or how they say it. This is especially true on the internet because law enforcement doesn’t take online threats seriously (in the US) unless they involve money (fraud).
- Our hate speech laws are weak, and even though direct threats of violence are illegal, they are rarely if ever taken seriously, let alone prosecuted. This makes any ethical discussion super fuzzy. If you want to see a country that takes responsibility for online behavior, look at the UK.
- Hashtags are pretty neat little things – they let people coalesce around just about anything. Events (#marchforourlives), social justice issues (#oscarssowhite, #metoo, #blacklivesmatter), charity fundraising (#familiesbelongtogether), and funny memes (#secondcivilwarletters).
- They are also used for public shaming (#bbqbecky, #permitpatty), and in some extra crap cases (#gamergate) violent, damaging, bigoted attacks.
- The problem is there is no clear line between who does what. And because our legal code don’t give a fuck about online violence, it’s easy to rationalize harmful behavior.
- There seems to be a push to paint all shaming, aggressive, or angry behavior online with the same brush as revenge porn, stalking, doxxing, and swatting.
- The problem in writing about this for me lies in an essential conflict between sociological and psychological perspectives. Something that can be moderately damaging psychologically (shame, fear, anger) can have positive sociological effects if it enforces more equitable social norms. I have no idea how to resolve this epistemologically.
- The closest I get is that there is some psychological research that shows that bullying experiences in youth can have positive outcomes as well as negative ones. We learn where our boundaries are. We learn what strengthens and weakens relationships. We develop a greater sense of right and wrong. We learn to survive.
- So behaviors that can seem mob-like or bullying online, when used to highlight things like social inequality, can be powerful tools.
- Speaking of tools, there are lots of people who are tools and use these tools to be tools. They use hashtags, photoshop, hacking, and other stuff to terrorize people. Not make them uncomfortable–terrorize them. THIS IS NOT THE SAME THING.
- If you are being personally harassed or terrorized online, report it to the website. Report it to the police. Document it on the Southern Poverty Law Center website (#hatewatch) if it has any sexual or racial or otherwise discriminatory tone to it. We can’t make laws if we don’t document this shit.
- Don’t freak out every time someone disagrees with you. There’s a difference between someone calling you an idiot online and someone threatening to kill your kids or all Jews. Learn the difference. Please.
- I’ve been called fat, stupid, ignorant, and various other things online. Oh, and that time some rando told me my insta picture burned his eyes because I was so ugly. Does it suck? Why yes, it sucks. Is it a crime? Nope. But if someone found my personal info and published it widely, published false information about me, or threatened me or my family, I would report the shit out of them.
- The internet gives a collective voice to marginalized people. Black Twitter is a real thing, and it’s vital to change the embedded, structural, institutionalized racism in our country. Reverse-racism is NOT A THING.
- Calling out white people for calling the cops on black people for #existingwhileblack is not terrorism. Is it bullying? Maybe, but I think the social good outweighs the negative. Most social progress has been made through some form of public shaming.
- #metoo same/same. Misandry is not a thing. Rape culture is. Making white men hyperaware of their behavior is not bullying. It’s the cessation of millennia of abuse.
- But if some asshole decides to use that as an excuse to threaten one of those women — be it #bbqbecky or a #metoo participant — he’s breaking the law and should be prosecuted. And here we end up back at the same point – crap laws; no prosecutions.
- Conclusion – we need better hate speech laws and better laws to govern internet behavior. The end.