Online bullying has become a serious threat to young people, as an article in today’s issue of the Deseret News points out. It’s an especially nasty business, and when it’s done anonymously, as it often is, it’s not only despicable but cowardly.
Unsurprisingly, adolescents are particularly exposed to it, and, because even the most self-assured of them tend to be rather insecure, are especially vulnerable to damage from it. It is a notable cause of teenage suicide.
But teenagers aren’t the only targets.
Over the past few days, I’ve seen an online friend of mine caught in the crosshairs of one particularly implacable and obsessive anonymous cyberbully, as he has used and abused materials that he’s ferreted out from her past in an attempt to discredit and silence her. In this, to their shame, he’s had indifference or even support from a small group of his disciples. (I’m assuming that this malevolent stalker is male, though he has been meticulously careful about concealing even the slightest clues to his identity.)
This isn’t the first time he’s done such things. I’m aware of several others whom he’s chosen for defamation, maintaining dossiers on them, digging into their employment, posting photos of them, ridiculing their appearance, and so forth. Gradually, he’s driven them into silence, or, at least, from the place where he holds forth.
I’m one of them. For seven years now, perhaps even eight, he’s followed me, reading almost everything I write in order to spin excerpts from it, maintaining files of material from which he chooses quotations and factoids to use against me, combing the internet for things that I might have posted elsewhere, digging into my then-young son’s purchases on Amazon.com, tracking down old tax records from which he thinks he can derive information about my paycheck, gathering and twisting information from hostile “confidential informants” (as he calls them), seeking out the blogs and Facebook pages of people who have known me, in one case dredging up somebody’s online reminiscence about a harmless incident from thirty-five years ago that he could deploy against me. He relentlessly seeks to portray me as an anti-Semite, a heartless destroyer of lives, a sadist, a religious bigot, a voyeur, a homophobe, a craven mercenary, a fascist thug, a racist, a sexist, a hired gun, a liar, a slanderer and character assassin, a ticking time bomb on the verge of exploding into homicidal violence, an emotionally wounded basket case driven by my all-consuming need to avenge some supposed youthful humiliation or other.
Sometimes it’s funny, in a way. Sometimes it’s really not.
My take on this person is that he’s very bright (one might say clever or cunning) but also, quite possibly, that he himself suffers from some sort of mental or emotional illness. I simply cannot imagine devoting so much of one’s life — eight years! — to attempting the defamation of another person whom one has never met. (I have no reason to believe that this person and I have ever had any contact with each other in real life.) Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, he posts materials attacking my character. For quite some time, I tried to correct his falsehoods. It was fruitless. Others told me that, if I simply ignored him, he would grow bored and go away. So, though I never really believed that he would stop, I ceased trying to reason with him several years ago. And, just as I expected, he’s continued on with his crusade. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year. With no discernible slowing down.
Plainly, Mormonism itself is on his target list. Every one of those that I’ve seen him select for attack is a Latter-day Saint. My friend, whom he is currently assaulting, is a member of the Church. (Her sin consists, apparently, in the fact that she has criticized some of his more egregious and patently unjust attacks on me.) And he once indicated that the only thing that would induce him to stop targeting me would be for me to cease writing or speaking or publicly commenting on Mormon-related topics.
But that’s of less relevance to my main point here. He’ll do what he does, and he’ll probably do it until the day he dies. (I’m not sure, frankly, that my own death would interfere fundamentally with his campaign.) And I’m sure that things like this happen in situations completely unrelated to Mormonism.
My main point is this:
Though I incline to libertarianism in some respects, and though I dislike censorship, I’m wondering whether the Internet will continue to be the largely lawless zone that it currently is, or whether society won’t someday have to develop some safeguards to minimize this kind of cold-blooded, obsessive, insatiable, anonymous, slanderous stalking online. The Internet shouldn’t, I think, be a totally consequence-free zone for obsessively hostile anonymous loons.
In the meantime, with The World Table, we’re trying to create a place for substantive online discussions in which such behavior will be unwelcome and stigmatized for what it is.