Mean to an EndHow Online Harassment Became a Feature, Not a Bug

Photo credit: Victoria Heath/Unsplash

Jenna Mahale is Bitch Media’s 2021 Writing Fellow in Technology

In February 2020, writer Lyz Lenz was about to read the final chapter in the final book in the Harry Potter series with her children. Her daughter seized the moment as an opportunity to celebrate the end of a journey they’d been on together for so long, extending her arm for a handshake and solemnly declaring: “It’s been an honor.” Later, after Lenz shot off a tweet about the comic moment, the conversation devolved, as many do on the site, into a hyperpolitical discussion, and eventually a critique of Lenz’s choices as a parent, as well as whether or not she’d made the whole thing up. “I’m not half as creative as my kids are,” she says. “I wish I could come up with dialogue as good as the stuff my daughter says.”

Former New York Times writer Charlie Warzel has branded this kind of situation as an example of “context collapse,” something that happens when a social-media post travels away from its intended audience to be received by another, “which then reads said information in the worst possible faith.” In an April 13 dispatch from his Substack, titled “It’s Not Cancel Culture — It’s A Platform Failure,” Warzel speaks to journalist Elle Hunt about her own recent experience with a wildly decontextualized tweet—one about whether horror films can be set in space. Hunt’s playful, offhand musing that the 1979 cult classic Alien forfeits itself from the horror genre because it’s set in space, was catapulted into super-virality by Twitter’s Trending Topics widget, earning her upward of 6,000 angry quote-tweets overnight. 

“It feels wrong to even call what happened to me harassment,” Hunt told Warzel. “And yet when you look at the volume and frequency of how it comes in, it’s hard to talk about it as anything other than harassment.” But there is a marked difference between harassment as a side effect to virality, and harassment as powered by determined, vitriolic bigotry: For one, the former tends to be the purview of more privileged users with large platforms, though there is of course overlap. However, both are endemic to large-scale social platforms like Twitter and, unfortunately, a feature rather than a bug. The facilitation of harassment in its many forms is perhaps social media’s most reliable content strategy.

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In “Angry by design: toxic communication and technical architectures,” a 2020 article published in the journal Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, researcher Luke Munn posits that digital spaces are built for purpose in much the same way urban spaces are planned: “This design is not a neutral environment that simply appears, but is instead planned, prototyped, and developed with particular intentions in mind.” Changes to site design that are ostensibly done under the guise of improving user experience are, in reality, only really beneficial to the platforms themselves. One compelling example of this is, of course, the non-chronological reorganization of our social media feeds a few years ago. 

“The decision about which content to show us is instead based on how likely we are to engage with it,” Tobias Rose-Stockwell writes in Quartz. “Emotional reactions like outrage are strong indicators of engagement. With the most basic algorithm that sorts our feeds, this kind of divisive content will be shown first, because it captures more attention than other types of content.” Anger begets anger begets anger. Quote tweets, in particular, are especially prone to producing what Rose-Stockwell calls “outrage cascades;” he describes these as exponentially infectious, a viral explosion of “moral judgement and disgust.” 

“It’s fine to be an asshole,” Lenz assures me, “but that’s why Jesus Christ invented the group text.” The 38-year-old journalist and author has received more than her fair share of online abuse, but she believes its effect on her life has, overall, made her a more generous and empathetic person. “When it first started to happen, I was like, ‘Oh well, fuck everybody,’ but now it’s made me more gentle toward people,” she says. “I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. When I see a tweet everybody’s shitting on, it makes me think, ‘Okay, what’s the context here?’ And ‘Is this necessary?’ I’m no longer so quick to dunk on something, because I think about how I would feel if I were that person.” 

Despite a laundry list of other online “incidents,” journalistic or otherwise—the Harry Potter thing, the Tucker Carlson thing, the Joe Biden thing, the Richard Spencer thing—a dumb joke Lenz once made about internet dating is the thing that she gets harassed about the most. “I don’t feel silenced, I don’t feel oppressed!” she yells. But having every dumb tweet you write put under scrutiny has to be rough, right? “I always have to do a little soul searching. So first of all, [I ask myself] why do you want to say it? Can’t you just like, text it to your brother? Why is it important for you to perform?” The answer, of course, is that we’re incentivized to do it. For writers in the digital sphere, the issue of maintaining an active and personable online presence—in much the same way social-media influencers operate—is compounded.

In a recent issue of the newsletter Embedded, writer Kate Lindsay lays out how this directive has manifested itself in the very fabric of digital media, pointing to the content-generation phenomenon of news sites building entire articles around one or two tweets. “One of the biggest freedoms that has come with this newsletter is not having to pretend anything is more important than it actually is,” writes Lindsay, who exemplifies her argument with a recent New York Times article that essentially invented a controversy around artist Billie Eilish and her British Vogue cover by mining a single tweet from an account that at the time had three followers. 

In this way, the tossed-off, half-baked musings of an individual are exaggerated as being an indication of an entire cultural backlash, when these pieces are really just a product of a media company’s need to create conflict (and subsequently engagement) when there is virtually none to be found. “You can just keep pointing up, up, up until you get to the much more complicated answer: There’s no big bad villain causing any of this,” Lindsay writes. “It’s just the result of a decade of learned toxic productivity, trickling down to a single, stupid, embedded tweet.” The idea that because the internet isn’t “real life,” users shouldn’t be affected by online harassment, has persisted for more than a decade, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. And, given that people of marginalized genders—women of color in particular—are disproportionately the targets of organized campaigns of harassment, the logic used to diminish the very real psychological impacts of it has always felt of a piece with a larger rape culture. 

There is a marked difference between harassment as a side effect to virality, and harassment as powered by determined, vitriolic bigotry.

If you find yourself affected by abuse and harassment you’ve experienced online, you will have done something to deserve it, the reasoning goes; the attention you receive, however negative, is still attention, and something that you have attracted to yourself—something you have asked for—simply by existing online. Having received death threats, bomb scares, and images of her previous home inside of a sniper scope, Lenz was still told that the blame lay with her, for looking. “There were so many people in my replies being like, ‘Well, if you didn’t read those threats, you’d be fine,” she says. “I could turn off my computer, delete the apps, do all that stuff. But it doesn’t matter, because the fear is already there. Like I’ve already seen that they know where I live, that it’s people who live close to me who are doing this.”

One truism that tends to crop up in these discussions is the idea that no one thinks that a mob will come for them until, of course, it does. In Lenz’s excellent interview with Culture Warlords author and fellow doxxee Talia Lavin, the pair delineate the difference between legitimate and non-legitimate uses of social media pressure. Lavin compares Andrew Cuomo’s claims of harassment—which stem from the fact that women are coming forward with legitimate accusations about his behavior—with the threats and slurs journalists are frequently inundated with. “I think it’s important to retain that nuance,” says Lavin, “lest we always frame the issue of harassment as a blanket condemnation of the public and public feedback. So I don’t want to disavow the idea that large and impassioned social media campaigns can have their place. But there’s a distinction.”

The issue at the core of many conversations about so-called cancel culture, writer Rachel Connolly explains—in, fittingly enough, a recent Twitter thread—is that the opposing arguments are extreme to the point of untruth: Social-media pile-ons are not always the most righteous course of action for a perceived wrongdoing, nor do they have a “genuinely apocalyptic impact on free speech.” Context matters, history matters, and power relations matter. The internet is not an unflawed arbiter of justice, and it should be okay to admit that without invalidating what it has afforded in terms of a platform for the marginalized. Bad-faith takes are all too possible, and, after a year in which extraordinary circumstances have brought out the absolute worst impulses in us, perhaps more common than you’d think.

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Jenna Mahale, an Indian woman with long brown hair, poses against a wood fence with a lavender shirt
by Jenna Mahale
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Jenna Mahale is a freelance journalist and editor living in the United Kingdom who is extremely, extremely online. She writes and edits primarily for i-D, covering film, art, music, books, beauty, politics, and digital culture, especially frog memes. Find her on Twitter @jennamahale.