Saturday, June 07, 2008

What if the target were you?

Suppose this image were your userpage and you logged in one day to discover a randomized IP had written all over it. You knew the person who was using it operated out of a set of IP addresses that all resolved to location within driving distance of your home and workplace. The text appears small in thumbnail so I'll quote.


Looking at the things that have been said throughout WP about you and to you over the last several weeks, it's apparent that somebody really doesn't like you or something you've said or something you've done or the company you keep, or some combination of these. The overall tone of what's been written conveys more than simple mischievousness.

If I were you, I would be particularly wary and vigilant, and careful of where I go and who I meet. Further, I would not advertise my whereabouts or plans to attend any event open to the general public, or where the public would have easy access. In particular, I would not attend the Wiki event at Columbia this Sunday -- anyone wishing to do you harm would have no trouble getting to you and then getting away.

Within WP you've written about the general area where you live in the city, though wisely you've never pinpointed it. Nevertheless I would be cautious in my dealings and encounters anywhere, particularly with strangers. You really never know.

Keep a watchful and suspicious eye wherever you go. I sense that you are not safe.

Special note to anyone considering deleting this post: This message is intended for David Shankbone and should only be removed my him. Should any harm befall Shankbone, and this message is removed without his seeing it, the person removing the message would be complicit in whatever happened to Shankbone. Forewarned is forestalled.-- 16:40, 14 March 2008 (UTC)

David wasn't the person to log in and find that message; I was. And in spite of the warning I went ahead and removed it. Then I notified a Wikinews administrator, who protected the page from further editing, and I contacted David. Usually I keep quiet about this sort of event. Now that David has gone public about his experience I'll say that this example was far from the only disturbing message that targeted him. David did attend that event at Columbia University in spite of the problem.

But it's not really a simple matter of go or don't go. Messages like that one turn an ordinary outing into an undertaking of tactical logistics. First one plans notifications: friends, event organizers, campus security. Then there's the question of how to get to the event and away from it while minimizing the chances of being followed by a malicious stranger. Of course there's also the issue of what to do if a physical attack actually happens, and balancing that there are doubts about whether the danger is serious or only a bluff.

It's not a fun way to live. And it's especially not fun to interact with people who are usually sensible and ought to know your character well enough to trust your judgment, but who treat the problem as a figment of your imagination. Or worse, who dismiss you as a liar and a selfish bluff.

Another dilemma that David faced, and I face, and a core of Wikipedia's most productive and dedicated volunteers face is the question of how much of the situation to disclose.

If you don't expose the problem, dismissive people accuse you of being a drama queen.

If you do discuss the problem, some of those same people play a game called It Isn't Bad Enough. Did you actually get knifed? Did he actually break into your home? No? Pshaw.

If you expose the whole problem those naysayers may stop nettling you, but they won't help you. They'll say the law ought to handle it even if it doesn't. Then they'll walk away. Those naysayers won't care that the trouble you've taken to persuade them a problem exists at all actually worsens the problem. The stalker becomes more engaged and the real danger increases. New individuals who are fundamentally parasitic take an interest in you too.

So I look at Dan Tobias's response to my last post.

Neither David's article nor your response, however, get into the prevalent use of exaggerated accusations of "stalking" and "harassing" that are used constantly on Wikipedia as a "Get Out of Criticism Free Card" by certain people who like to cultivate their victimhood and wear it on their sleeve.

Dan, I agree with you up to a point: outright false and frivolous claims are destructive. Those aren't unknown. Yet we don't have the data to draw a conclusion that exaggerated accusations are prevalent. Nobody has ever done a scientific or scholarly study of Wikipedia with regard to stalking and harassment. And as I outlined above, there are powerful dynamics that discourage open discussion. My firsthand experience and anecdotal data say that harassment and stalking affect a very small portion of Wikipedia's volunteers overall, but among prolific contributors to controversial subjects it is not nearly as rare as you suggest. The problem is real, serious, and underreported.


pfctdayelise said...

Deeply troubling, and I have difficulty seeing any good solution.

Dan said...

When I wrote that comment, I wasn't referring to things like direct threatening messages as described here... I was referring more to the mindset in which everything from leaving a talk-page message critical of an editor's behavior to linking to a "BADSITE" in a non-harassing context is labeled "harassment" and "stalking" and other nasty words and used to call for the banning of users who do that, and the complete suppression of their point of view even if it might have validity to it.

David Shankbone said...

The problem with DanT's comment is that it looks at the issue in the wrong light. The question is not "Does harassment and stalking exist?" It does. The question is now: How do we determine what is harassment, and what do we do about it? Focusing on all those people who cry harassment (homophobia, racism, sexism...) falsely doesn't solve the issue for when it does exist.

The main thing, the main problem with my situation, is that it was ALL on-wiki. Not once was it off. No e-mails, no nothing. Soft-blocking a range of 65,000 IPs solved the problem. For three months I had to go through this, have my reputation smeared, when the solution was so simple. Three months. I became irritable, I felt unappreciated, and it made contributing a joyless task. Why bother continuing in an environment like that.

Joshua said...

Dan, there are many problems with what you are saying: first, the so-called "BADSITES" did have real harassment by any reasonable definition. BADSITES was a bad idea but you don't need to pretend that there was serious harassment occurring in many of those external links.

Second, note my past tense "BADSITES was a bad idea". That policy proposal was rejected for good reasons. Not everything is about BADSITES. There are few things which hurt your credibility more than invoking BADSITES as some mantra that must be mentioned in almost every single post.

Durova said...

For people who don't know the context, Dan is referring to a failed proposal about external linking.

Two things, Dan:

First, I've got doubts about the appropriateness of focusing on a dispute that ended last year in this discussion. Neither David nor I were supporters of that proposal. David's problem is real and ongoing: the person who targeted him is still at large. It's a courageous thing he's done by stepping forward. It would be easy to interpret your posts as trivializations, because you focus on something that barely even relates to the serious matter at hand without acknowledgement of the legitimage portion of the issue.

Second, you say this problem you describe is commonplace. Okay. Please send me specific examples where established editors use the word "harassment" or "stalking" in those contexts. If that's a problem that's clouding the real issue, that deserves to be addressed.

Dan said...

A few examples of people over-using the "harassment" or "stalking" or related labels, for posting concerns to a user talk page, or starting a user conduct RFC, or wanting an article to be created about a site, or raising concerns about the copyright status of an image, or editing the same articles as another editor.

Durova said...

The first three of Dan's examples all relate to a particular off-Wikipedia website, and two of the three also relate to a particular Wikipedia editor who was singled out in retaliation by the people who run that website. Although it claims to be a parody, a substantial portion of its content goes well beyond the realm of protected speech. For example, on the day it was proposed that Wikipedia re-link to that site, their main page featured a "profile" of a fifteen-year-old boy that patched his face onto a pig, onto Hitler, and onto gay pornography. For over half a year that site also ran a recent photograph of my seventy-four-year-old uncle along with his real name and a not very subtle threat to harass him in real life if I don't stop volunteering for Wikipedia. That uncle of mine surived 9/11 from a high floor. The photograph of him violated copyright, their photos of me violate copyright, and I doubt they have model permission for the indoor picures they run.

The fourth of Dan's links goes to a long threaded discussion where my search function found no instance of either "stalk" or "harass". He linked to the entire page rather than any particular post.

The fifth instance might indeed be hyperbolic, but not by as far a stretch as Dan implies. To put this in simple terms, Editor A had come from a notable family and contributed to articles about her late relatives when she was new to the site. She later learned about the conflict of interest guideline and stopped doing so. Afterward, Editor B went to those same articles and attempted to have them shortened or deleted. He did that not for a brief time but for months, picking up multiple blocks, and pursued the matter in ways that reflected a palpable grudge against Editor A. To the best of my knowledge he made no actual threat.

Dan said...

@joshua: The original BADSITES may be defeated, but see Slim Virgin's recent mailing list post where she seems to be advocating something very similar, as a foundation-level policy to be imposed on all Wikimedia projects regardless of the feelings of the local communities. In addition to wanting the Foundation to impose bans on linking to sites she considers to be involved in harassment, she wants people to be prohibited from discussing such things, and she wants community decisions on who to promote to admin or bureaucrat to be overruled when she regards the person as bad.

But I guess this is just my pernicious obsession with BADSITES reading things into her words that aren't really there and discrediting my own position, so maybe I should just shut up and leave.

Joshua said...

Dan, that some people are still advocating it doesn't change what's generally been decided by the community. If you haven't figured out by now, almost no one stops arguing their positions even after there is a set decision (look at for example issues with fair use of pictures on the English Wikipedia). Frankly, I don't think Sarah will have any success. The Foundation has neither the resources nor the inclination to get involve in that sort of thing, and it would at minimum make the Foundation much more legally involved with the various projects than it wants to be.

And frankly, SV's ideas about admins and crats isn't BADSITES, its a distinct proposal having little to do with the BADSITES. It is a bad idea, and I'd be pretty annoyed if the Foundation did anything like that, but it isn't BADSITES. Moreover, the problems with it are completely distinct from that.

And none of this changes the most serious point: even if one disagrees with SV's views about how we should handle harassment, the fact is that there is a serious problem and we haven't dealt with it. It is not only ruining lives but also damaging the various Wikimedia projects.

Dan said...

No matter how I'm caricatured, I'm not singlemindedly obsessed with BADSITES alone. True, it's tended to be at the center of my focus, given that it's the issue that got me involved as a vocal activist in WikiPolitics a year or so ago, and sometimes I get a bit overboard in trying to tie every conceivable issue to it, but it's still not the only thing I'm concerned with. In particular, I've come to see it as just one part of a harmful mindset that goes way beyond BADSITES itself, to encompass such things as those in Slim's recent proposal, many of which are, as you note, not directly related. They're still a bad idea, as you also say, but unfortunately there is a political atmosphere these days where somebody who opposes bad ideas like these on principle are likely to be labeled "trolls" or "enablers of harassment" or similar things, as in the manner in which the admin nominations of Cla68 and Gracenotes were scuttled. Slim's message seems to be soliciting the assistance of the Foundation in accomplishing such scuttlings in the future.

Durova said...

What does a troll do, though? A troll takes a serious issue and derails the thread on a tangent to waste people's time.

What does an enabler of harassment do? An enabler of harassment dismisses concerns out of hand, or blames the victim, and ignores solid evidence that a genuine problem exists.

Dan, I think you're sincere. When we spoke in voice you came across as someone who does not have harmful intentions. In text, though, consider the impression your reaction creates.

Dan said...

Yet another abuse of the term "harassment" is this recently-filed RFC, where parties (and, bizarrely, a whole list of non-parties, including myself) are asked to stop "harassment" which consists of "participating in discussions" about certain other users. Apparently, critical discussion = harassment.

kayers1974 said...

Durova, please go to the news media with this. Jimbo doesn't respond to the concerns of us peons, but he does respond to the prospect of bad publicity.

Ignore Dan, as usual. It's bad enough that he continues to spew his abuse on WP. His incessant blame-the-victim, ZOMG BADSITES!1!!1! attitude lost its novelty value long ago. But I assume you're free to mod him out here.

Durova said...

This one was actually written by David Shankbone, and in my pre-coffee stupor I accidentally hit the "reject" button rather than the "publish" button. So with apologies to David, here's the cut and paste.

From David Shankbone:
But what's your point, Dan? You bring up instances where people misuse the claim of "harassment." My case is a clear case of Cyberstalking. I was defamed, I had threats, and it went on for three months. It all happened on wiki. I don't understand why you are trying to use this clear-cut situation that should have had a community response, to say, "Harassment doesn't always exist." We know that already.

At least say why you are raising it. It seems like your comments are better geared to the "let's define harassment and stalking" discussion then they are suited to where we are at here. What are you proposing?

Here is what I am proposing: we should all be able to agree at the very least that a repeated threat of physical violence is a low bar to define harassment. Can we all agree on that? There needs to be a community response to it. I am not saying that every time a person claims harassment or stalking that they are deserving of a community response. But physical threats have no place in any interaction any of us have.

Dan said...

My apologies for "hijacking" the thread... I do get somewhat obsessed with my own hobby-horses sometimes. I didn't mean to trivialize the attacks Mr. Shankbone, or others, have suffered.

Durova said...

Thanks very much, Dan. :)