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Thursday, December 22, 2011

The great cyberbully subculture

Thank god I don't use Twitter. If you tweet, stop. If you don't tweet, don't start.

No less a personage than John Dean -- yes, the Watergate guy -- has written a remarkable and insightful article on the dangers of cyberbullying. It's surprising that a person of his generation would be so wise in the ways of the online world; we usually presume that anyone born before 1970 must be a Luddite who uses quill pens and parchment to communicate.

But Dean knows his stuff:
The anonymous cyberbully has the distinction of being the most despicable of all bullies, because of his or her anonymity (or pseudonymity), which marks the bully as particularly craven and spineless in the refusal to take any responsibility for his or her behavior. Everyone knows who the playground or boardroom bully is. But the cyberbully’s identity is known only on rare occasions, and often only to confederates in his or her bullying.

Anonymity makes the cyberbully a new breed of uber coward, a bully who may feel empowered because he or she sees himself or herself (incorrectly) as unencumbered by personal responsibility or accountability for his or her actions. The cyberbully believes he or she can wreak havoc and inflict pain on others invisibly, and without personal consequences.

Unlike the schoolyard bully or the workplace bully, who has limited access to a target, technology enables the cyberbully to go after his or her online target(s) 24/7, and to play to a larger audience when spreading cruel rumors, lies, or false information; or, on occasion, releasing personal and private information—all typical cyberbully tactics. In short, the cyberbully can do far more harm, with less effort, and all with little personal exposure, than the real-world bully (at least, one who does not resort to violence) can. On many occasions, the victim of the cyberbully will not even know who is attacking them, or why they are being attacked, and the victim almost never knows the true evil behind the undertaking.

In short, the cyberbully, like those found tweeting pseudonymously on Twitter, are uniquely disquieting, and deserving of more than a special loathing.
Dean's remarks about the psychology of bullying strike me as very astute:
Like most all our traits and proclivities, bullies are a product of both nature and nurture. Bullies are predominately males, and many perceive themselves to be socially, intellectually, or politically superior to their target(s)—when, in fact, the opposite is the case. They often see themselves as rivals of those whom they target as their victims.

Bullies usually have high-self esteem, which can too easily result in unstable self-evaluation. People with unstable high self-esteem can become aggressive in response to even seemingly minor or trivial threats to self-esteem, researchers note, thus resulting in bullying. The bully is often a socially ineffectual person, lacking the emotional competence needed to detect, understand, and respond to the feelings of others. The bully has no empathy and could care less about his or her lack of it, for he or she lacks the ability for self-reflection and the skill to appreciate another’s perspective.
Dean's analysis is excellent, but incomplete. A few additional observations:

1. In the world of online politics, cyberbullying is a phenomenon of both the right and the left. The worst miscreants, in my not-unbiased view, skew right. But make no mistake: Plenty of lefties get involved. We saw numerous examples during the great Obama/Hillary online wars of 2008.

There are subdivisions within subdivisions. Left-wing cyberbullies will stalk other left-wingers. I imagine that something similar occurs on the right.

2. Political cyberbullies often use pseudonyms and fake identities. They will go undercover to ingratiate themselves into a perceived enemy camp. In short, the cyberbully often functions as a spy. As a result, politically active people with robust online lives may never know whom to trust.

3. The people who play these debauched games tend to be ultra-paranoid. They justify their underhanded actions by presuming their enemies to be just as underhanded. Paradoxically, sworn enemies who exist within this subculture form a sort of brotherhood: They focus so closely on each other that they lose all cognizance of the outside world.

I have a personal reason for this post. Consider these words a kind of shot across the bow.

Years ago, there was a fellow who used to contribute to this blog. This fellow, who considered himself a cyber-sleuth par excellence, never formally posted an article under his own byline. Still, he commented often, and some of my writings used his information. He operated under a name that the above-referenced John Dean might find very recognizable. For that reason, let's call him JD.

Although this personage did some worthwhile investigative work (especially on the Brent Wilkes scandal), I always kept him at arm's length.

The last time he played a role in this blog was here. JD had caused a huge stink on the HillBuzz site (a GOP ratfuck operation posing as a pro-Hillary blog) by revealing the real name of one of the people involved. When that happened, the HillBuzz crew went mega-postal, accusing all of their perceived enemies -- including yours truly -- of being in the pay of the Evil Soros Conspiracy. (The Hillbuzzers found that embracing victimhood can be a useful fundraising tool.)

By that point, I had long since disallowed JD from having a voice here. He had pissed off a lot of other lefty bloggers with his paranoia, his conclusion-hopping, and his strange cyberstalking antics. Occasionally, he would attempt to participate here under a new identity (he has even been known to adopt a female pose), but his disjointed writing style always gave the game away.

I have reason to suspect that JD -- who, after an anti-Obama phase, became rabidly pro-Obama -- was the scoundrel who revealed the real-world name of a blogger I happen to like.

Here's where it gets very strange.

In the wake of Weinergate, JD got in contact with me again, using another name. For a while, I was fooled.

Apparently, he is now involved in an impossibly complex twilight battle with his right-wing counterparts in the world of hacking and sockpuppetry and whatnot. I've tried to follow what is going on in that universe, and lemme tell ya -- it's nearly impossible to tell who is on which side. After spending a day or so trying to keep track of all the names and accusations and counter-accusations, I've decided that the game simply is not worth the candle.

Suffice it to say that the effort against Anthony Weiner -- and the even stranger mindfuck op directed against Tommy Christopher of Mediaite, who was investigating the Weiner scandal -- sprang out of this cyberbully subculture. (Feel free to supply your own pun based on the word "sprang.")

I could send you links to their various microblogs -- but why bother? Right, left, and in-between, what we are dealing with here is a bunch of paranoid drama queens, endlessly bitching about who tweeted what to whom under their numerous fake identities. JD participated in those covert wars using various disguises, most of which were pretty easy to see through.

Yet these attention-famished creeps will keep finding ways to poke into the "real" world. L'affaire Weiner was but one example. There will be others.

The right-wing cyberbullies gravitate toward Breitbart's sites, while the left-wing cyberstalkers operate on the fringes of Kos-World. A pox on both their houses.

One of these days, the denizens of this subculture will find a way to do some real damage. As the old saying has it: There ain't much culture, but it sure is sub.

(Sorry if parts of this post seem unnecessarily cryptic. As I said: It's a shot across the bow.)
Your own account was interesting and informative, but I can't say the same thing about an article which provided not a single illustrative example.

Bulling is a problem for which the cure can easily be worse than the disease. What's the most obvious remedy to the threat of bullying? There is already an effort underway to force citizens to identify themselves when using the Internet. Facebook makes its victims use their real names and Google+ headed down that road.

John Dean writes:

I would be interested in any and all techniques developed by attorneys who have dealing with cyberbullying. This field is evolving quickly... it has become a problem that is increasingly finding its way to the desk of attorneys.

Should we be comforted by the thought of more attorneys policing the online world for their clients? Won't this result in the substitution of one kind of bully for another?
Unexpectedly sensitive piece by Dean. I'd add: 1) there's often a political subtext to cy-bullying when the target is a blogger. It's often organized i.e. Ax-Rod & the DNC hackoids, assorted Rove-warriors funded by XRoads et al and not-so-random-spookery. 2) Added to the sociopathic qualities listed by Dean, I think faceless cyber bullies r often creepy, high functioning autistic types who live a life of desperate aloneness.
Jotman -- I'm a little surprised when you say that my account was informative, because I was necessarily cryptic.

If I were not cryptic, then I would have to tell some very detailed stories about some small and easily angered people who don't deserve the attention.

You do bring up a good point about the "real identity" movement on Facebook and Google. That's something I have always opposed. Of course, Facebook goes WAY too far when it demands a cell phone number.

Like it or not, I think John Dean is right. Personal attorneys offer some measure of protection -- or, at least, some way to fight back. Of course, attorneys are costly. But once a few legal precedents are established, then defendants operating in pro per will be able to protect themselves.

I think Dean's piece would have been weakened if he had become mired in giving us the details of a specific case. That said, it is obvious that a specific case (or two or three) came to his attention and set him to thinking about the problem.

Given the paranoia that many people feel toward Dean and his wife as a result of "Silent Coup," it is very likely that Dean himself has been the victim of some rather vicious cyberstalking.
I'm surprised by Dean as well. but I'm on the other side of the identity road.

When I first got into the "blogbiz" after Katrina, I used on my own real name, which I found out later made me uncool (Joe excepted, of course). I accidentally used a pseudonym once because there were four Bobs on one comment thread and I became "churl," tho even that name links back to the real me. I've managed to garner a few death threats and one stalker. Is that because a)I use my real identity or b) nobody reads my blog? I'll go with b).

Am I advocating everyone use real identities? No. But I am thinking...
Using your own name made you "uncool"? Assuming cannon is your real last name, how could that not be cool?
Cannon is indeed the name on my identification. Using a real name is neither cool nor uncool -- but it does carry certain dangers. There are lots of mentally ill people staggering around out there in internet-land, and they will obsess on certain bloggers/media figures/writers/whomever.

Then again: Embracing danger IS kind of cool, isn't it? I guess you and I like to live on the edge, Sandro...

I've probably told this story before. When I spoke to Farhad Manjoo on the phone, he asked in a very suspicious tone of voice: "Is Joseph Cannon your REAL name?" I said yes.

After the chat ended, the thought struck me: A guy named FARHAD MANJOO thinks that "Joseph Cannon" is an unlikely name...

Only in America!
You do bring up a good point about the "real identity" movement on Facebook and Google. But, being anonymous has its advantages, it helps you to get past what bothers you in your personality.
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