By Emerson Dameron
According to MRI scans, the areas of the brain affected by social rejection are the same ones that process physical pain.
According to the webcomic Penny Arcade’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, “Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad.” There’s a lot of brutal rejection on the internet. And it doesn’t always stop there. There’s also invasion of privacy, character assassination and, occasionally, a threat of in-real-life physical pain.
In a long and highly confessional 2013 piece for the website Gawker, humor writer Jeb Lund describes returning from vacation to find voice messages from some people who obviously knew him through his posts on a then-popular comedy site. They included personal information, harassment, threats, and an offer to rape Lund’s wife.
“In the months that followed,” Lund writes, “the futility of trying to do anything about the calls was confirmed and reconfirmed. I got harassing and threatening messages from Facebook accounts obviously created solely to send them… When Google Earth updated its pass above my house, I got an email notifying me of what kind of yardwork I needed to do to clean it up and stop being such a ‘lardass faggot…’ I was even sent pictures of my house from the street, although not Google’s street view. From the curb.”
He scrambled to delete as much of his online footprint as possible, but not before his tormenters had virtually associated him with racist and pedophile organizations. His panic attacks returned.
Apparently, the extent of his original crime was that his fellow posters didn’t find him funny enough.
In the heady days of BBSes and USENET, a lot of techno-utopians had high hopes for an anarchic field of fully open communication, breaking down physical and commercial barriers and confounding traditional authority. It didn’t work out exactly as any of us expected, but we got a lot of what we wanted. And it’s not always a pretty or safe landscape.
Because issues of online privacy are so poorly understood by our legal system—the cops can’t even keep people from selling drugs and guns online with any lasting success—an “internet takedown” can happen at any time, for any reason, to almost anyone, with limited recourse. Reputations can be smeared. Physical safety can be compromised. Many panic attacks can be had.
Every conflict, clash of opinion, or embarrassing photo could cause serious problems if you set off someone with the right motivation, which, with the ease of online distribution, doesn’t have to be much. If it happens to you, or someone for whom you care, there are a few things you can do.
1. Don’t engage. Unplug. Shut it down. If you try to defend yourself or “take the high road,” you’re more likely to exacerbate the situation than you are to pacify your antagonists. The larger the “mob,” the less you’re going to be listened to.
Beware the “Streisand Effect.” In 2003, Barbra Streisand discovered photographs of her Malibu mansion circulating in obscure online channels and unsuccessfully sued for their removal. In response, the photos were widely distributed by keyboard warriors who smelled obnoxious celebrity blood. If she’d kept mum, it wouldn’t have been as much of a pain in the ass for her.
2. Remember that the internet is “real life.” Although the nihilists of 4Chan might mock you for taking what happens online the least bit seriously, that is what you must do. Work quietly to undo as much of the damage as possible. Then take comfort in people whom you trust, and go easy on yourself. You will put your life back together. Just maybe not right now.
3. Talk to the experts, if you think it’s appropriate. Online libel cases are expensive and difficult to win, but speaking with a lawyer may give you some useful information and put things in context. Most commercial “reputation management” firms are also prohibitively expensive, but there is plenty of free information that may help. Look up “66 Online Reputation Management Tips” by Clayburn Griffin or the work of blogger Lauren Starling for a wealth of resources.
4. Keep your nose clean. We live in a very conservative era. All of our information should be considered public. Avoid bad associations and irresponsible conduct. If you wouldn’t want everyone you know to know something about you, it’s best not to make a record of it. It’s possible that, as the generations that have never known life without twerking videos assume power in society, people will start to relax again. If everyone has a mountain of incriminating information out there, then perhaps no one really does. We may yet see a generation of CEOs and hiring managers who don’t see much to get excited about in a naked selfie. Until then, take care and focus on what you can control.