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Abuse by Reddit: Proxy Recruitment in Tech

cw: discussion of emotional abuse tactics & online harassment

Feminists have been angry on the internet approximately as long as the internet has existed. People have been angry at Internet Feminists for an equivalent length of time. These are seemingly-unshakeable facts of the Internet.

Some people who are angry at Internet Feminists are trolls; are people who harass, abuse, threaten, and stalk people they perceive as “social justice warriors”. Some people take a softer approach, and merely publicly criticize the tone and tactics of Internet Feminists who they feel have gone too far.

I intend, with this article, to explode the myth that these two groups are meaningfully different.

Abuse by Proxy

Abuse by proxy is a tactic in which abusers recruit others into harassing their targets for them. In a domestic violence context, abuse by proxy can include:

While abusers often lie or misrepresent situations in order to recruit proxies, lying is not a necessary component of abuse-by-proxy. It still counts if the truth’s used to manipulate others into worsening an abusive situation - for example, it’s certainly true that Thicke’s partner left him, but the public hay he’s making of that situation is nonetheless an abusive act.

Abuse-by-proxy, like other abuse tactics, can be present in all interpersonal abuse, not just domestic violence. Abuse-by-proxy - like gaslighting or threatened physical violence - operates at the community level in the tech community. Individual members of marginalized groups are abused by other people in tech. This often-public abuse is an implied threat against other marginalized people in tech. As threats of abuse are also an abusive tactic, aggression against symbolic activists is effectively aggression against everyone they represent.

Classic Proxy Recruitment in Tech

Traditional, friend-to-friend proxy recruitment occurs frequently in tech. Victims of harassment, abuse, and assault in tech communities face extensive career and other risks if they choose to come forward about their experiences. Many instead opt to quietly avoid their harassers. Their harassers, in turn, exploit this quiet to convince mutual friends to act on their behalf.

Speaking up about harassment does little to alleviate abuse-by-proxy. I know of one prominent man in tech who’s been harassing several activists, both directly and by proxy, for nearly a year now. These activists have publicly called out this behavior several times now - but just last week, one of them got an email from a friend telling her that her harasser had tried to get said friend to intervene on his behalf.

(I’m not going to name the man I’m talking about here. Don’t ask. This is a common behavior, who it was this time is irrelevant to my point, and I’m not inclined to send further harassment these activists' way by identifying them.)

Scaling Proxy Recruitment

The Internet makes things easier to scale, and proxy recruitment is no exception. The most overt and damaging form of proxy recruitment in the tech community - the #thatwoman call-out - relies on this easy scalability.

A year and a half ago, Adria Richards was hounded out of her job and off of the internet by disgusting trolls from Reddit, 4chan, Hacker News, and other pits of villanry. She’d reported a Code of Conduct violation at PyCon, and the employer of one of the men involved later independently chose to fire him. The storm of harassment that Adria experienced was set off when that man posted to Reddit about it. It’s possible, I suppose, that that man didn’t realize what was about to happen. But in the wake of that incident, anyone who “doesn’t realize” the effect that public call-outs of marginalized people in tech can have is either culpably negligent or lying.

When people from privileged groups, or who hold positions of power, attack someone with less privilege or power, harassment happens. (While many attackers here are white straight cis men, that’s not a requirement - for example, white women have a long history of attacking women of color in this manner.) In these cases, the emotional violence of the initial attack is compounded by the inevitable wave of trolling which follows it. In some of these cases, the attacker may use abusive victim-playing to gaslight their victim and the broader community, and confuse the issue of who is attacking who. Criticisms of marginalized people that don’t rise to the level of overt abuse also incite trolling and more dangerous forms of harassment, up to and including rape and death threats.

Sometimes this harassment occurs because the trolls who carry it out have sincere beliefs which they wish to violently express. Sometimes they’re just generally interested in harassing marginalized people on the internet, and are glad of fresh targets-of-opportunity. (Sometimes, they’re both!) However, in all cases, the initial criticisms which prompt this harassment are used to excuse and legitimize it.

In any given internet firestorm, there’s usually some polite, good-faith criticisms from people who agree with the initial caller-out but retain some common decency. However, even “nicer” criticisms also worsen the effects of the community abuse experienced by called-out marginalized people. They can egg on trolls further, and they add stress to what’s already a stressful situation for the person targeted. They also serve to isolate harassment victims from community support.

I’m going to state this again because it’s important - often, people who set off cycles of harassment-by-proxy will claim it was unintentional. Many will even decry the abuse being perpetuated in their names. This does not excuse them. By now, internet harassment of activists and the marginalized is a well-known and well-described phenomenon. Anyone who is ignorant of an attack’s likely effect is willfully ignorant. That’s nearly as bad as intentional abuse.

I would also like to note, so my words aren’t twisted to silence other activists, that the power differential described here is crucial. So is the nature of the attacks. Sometimes, it’s true, women call for allies because someone’s mansplaining to them and won’t fuck off when told to. If you can’t see the difference between that and a torrent of graphic rape threats, then kindly go and get a moral compass before you rejoin the company of decent folk.

Enabling Abuse-by-Proxy Via Tone Policing

I’m going to go on a quick tangent here about tone policers in feminist communities. What they’re doing isn’t quite abuse-by-proxy, but it often has similar effects. Right now, for example, it’s quite popular to publicly decry Shanley Kane’s tactics. Calling other women unacceptably angry, or dismissing them as unstable, plays directly into the misogynistic dehumanization of prominent activists and thereby enables abuse which targets them.

I understand the attractions of a gentler approach. I understand wanting to make it clear to people - either for your own safety or your own effectiveness - that you’re into quieter tactics. But that’s not the effect that tone policing has.

People conflate Ashe Dryden and Shanley all the time, as “those unreasonable women being unreasonable”. It’s ridiculous, of course, as Ashe’s personal style is far less abrasive than Shanley’s. To me, that makes it clear that people are reacting to the content of both of their messages - in other words, to their feminism - rather than to their tone.

So if you’re a feminist in tech and want to tone-police someone: I ask you, why? If you’re truly behaving with the sweetness and light you’re espousing, then the only people who will confuse you with Shanley are people you will never reach anyway. In that context, is repudiating her tactics really so important that it’s worth putting her further in harm’s way to do so?

But enough infighting.

Assumed Goodwill & Proxy Volunteerism

Occasionally, some well-meaning individual will see an argument occurring between a marginalized person and someone who is more privileged or powerful than them on at least one axis. This well-meaning individual - let’s call him Chad, for the sake of example - will notice that the relationship between the marginalized person - let’s call her Ashe - and the person she’s arguing with (hypothetically named John) seems to be getting increasingly strained. Oh no!

Chad, good-hearted soul that he is, thinks that the best way to solve the problem will be some nice honest old-fashioned communication. An admirable impulse! Out of the goodness of his heart, he tweets at both Ashe and John offering to facilitate an open video call between them so that they can iron out their differences in the presence of a mediator. Everyone wins!

Well, not everyone.

Chad, you see, has been so busy assuming the goodwill of both parties that he’s failed to check into what each party actually wants. He’s failed to notice that John has been stalking Ashe for a while; he’s failed to notice that Ashe has publicly mentioned blocking him; he’s failed to notice Ashe’s repeated requests that John respect the boundaries she’s setting with him and go away.

Because Chad hasn’t completed that due diligence, he’s placed additional pressure on the boundaries Ashe has been attempting to set with John. As such, Chad has joined John in harassing Ashe. In effect, he’s volunteered to harass Ashe as John’s proxy.

Oops.

Assumed Goodwill Redux

Let’s talk, a little less snarkily, about that assumption of goodwill - about why people assume good faith of the privileged even when they’re overtly harassing others; about why assuming good faith can be a toxic act in itself given that.

In order to do that, I’m going to pick on Chad Whitacre some more. I’m not doing this for the sake of picking on him. I’m doing this because I misjudged him towards the beginning of the recent Gittip arguments, and I think a specific and personal example of how these mistakes happen will best illustrate my point.

Until Saturday 6/21, I believed that Shanley had started the recent public fight between her and Chad. I was upset with him anyway - I felt his public call-out of Shanley was a clear and horrifying example of recruiting proxies to be one’s personal troll army - but I remembered the fight he’d had with Shanley in April and I remembered thinking that Shanley had gone from zero to “fuck off” awfully fast. Even though I thought that Chad was dealing with his resentment in a manner that verged on open incitement to violence, I had sympathy for him. He was dealing with his feelings in the worst way possible, but his feelings themselves seemed reasonable.

Then a friend urged me to reread the April conversation between Chad and Shanley. (I will not be linking to it here, as Shanley has made it clear that she is not comfortable with strangers creeping on her timeline for “journalistic” purposes.)

Reader, I was ashamed. When I reread the conversation, it was immediately clear that Chad had been oddly aggressive from the get-go. He’d shoehorned his way into a Model View Culture call-for-pitches to demand that Shanley interview him about Gittip - not for MVC, oh no, for Chad’s blog. Shanley set boundaries with him several times, at first politely but later with a snark that was frankly only appropriate, given the bizarre nature of Chad’s demands. When Chad attempted to justify them by citing that Gittip was an open company, Shanley let him know quite frankly why she felt Gittip’s open-company policies could be harmful in some situations. Yes, she definitely used some swears, but Chad was actively ignoring her boundaries - that is to say, harassing her.

Why did I read the conversation differently the first time? Why did I completely miss Chad’s aggression? Because he was that nice [white] dude who ran Gittip, of course.

Humans are not rational animals, and brains are generally lazy. The human brain wants to collect as little information as possible, form a conclusion, and move on. In order to maintain the illusion of rationality, the brain will selectively fit memories to its internal narrative and discard the ones that don’t fit.

We’re socialized to trust men, particularly white men, more than we trust women - if you think you’re the grand exception, then go forth, take the Implicit Association Test, and disillusion yourself real quick. In retrospect, what clearly happened is that my brain went “that woman who says fuck a lot is yelling at that nice man whose project lets me give good people money.” That was all it noticed, and that was all it remembered - even though that story outrageously misrepresented the situation.

Assumed Goodwill and Proxy Recruitment

As mentioned previously, proxy recruitment on the internet usually happens when a privileged person on the internet calls out a marginalized person; the Worst of the Internet finds marginalized people to be inherently compelling targets, and is grateful for the excuse. This is one reason why even the “politest” public harassment of women is not meaningfully different than the “lol rape” school of trolling. However, because of the assumption of goodwill, these public call-outs are relatively safe for those in privileged positions to make.

So let’s stop assuming goodwill.

I’m not calling for an end to civility and graciousness when I say that. I’m merely asking that we acknowledge our brains' limitations in this arena, just as we acknowledge our brains' limitations when we test our code.

Let’s acknowledge that when we see an activist make a cranky tweet at someone, we are seeing one tweet. We aren’t seeing the activist’s history with the person in question. Even the most innocuous comments can be harassing in context - and that context may include private emails or in-person interactions.

Believing victims, and believing the marginalized, are feminist acts. This is as true for online abuse as it is for domestic abuse.

So let’s believe the victims of online abuse. And when their harassers choose to incite further harassment, let’s call that behavior what it is.