When I was head of community management at reddit.com in 2015, my job was to help create policies and manage the team that would enforce them. I had been managing the RedditGifts community, which I cofounded, for several years, but now I was facing a much larger and more difficult task. After ten years of a very hands-off management style, Reddit had become a cesspool of hate, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ultraviolence. Our policy changes began by addressing individuals targeting and harassing other users and Reddit communities that were based on actively harassing and promoting harassment.
Maybe you have never been harassed on the Internet (and that's awesome!) so you're wondering: Is it really that bad? Why not just get off the Internet? Delete your social-media accounts and start fresh?
One community on Reddit, aptly titled Fat People Hate, was very vocal, very hateful, and very active, with over 100,000 members. They were shockingly attached to what they considered "a movement," but which was just the hate and dehumanization of overweight people. The community organized by targeting individuals on Reddit and off, using social media as their tool to find more information to do as much harm as possible. They used images from personal accounts, from job sites, anything they could find, to make innocent people suffer.
The work we did to combat this meant those people turned their targets on us — and me. This was just one of the many direct messages I received when we banned the community:
"Go fuck yourself you worthless piece of shit, I hope [you] fucking get raped and your entire family gets raped in front of u and then they kill them all and make you eat them you mother fucking asshole. Fucking get raped motherfucker! You fucking fat son of a whore!Go fuck yourself you fat fucking whale! Fucking retarded faggotGo fuck yourself Motherfucker You will all pay for deleting my sub motherfucking fat fucking planets You will all pay Motherfuckers! Mark my word Motherfuckers"
It wasn't an account I could avoid, nor should I have to. And I was lucky. The messages I received were not direct threats with personal information. There was no "I'm coming to your house at ___ street in ___ city at ___ time," as many people do get. It was merely disturbing, and even so over the top that it was funny. That's not the case for everyone.
The idea that we should just walk away from the Internet as if it isn't a huge part of daily life now is a shortsighted Band-Aid that will do nothing but isolate the victim further. Think of how many people you keep in touch with through social media. What if your job requires a certain amount of public presence? Closing your accounts and walking away can have repercussions beyond superficial socializing and cat memes — and sometimes, even doing so isn't enough.
Online abuse can often become a real-life threat to safety. In 2014, Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the popular Tropes vs. Women video series, was scheduled to speak at the University of Utah but eventually had to cancel after receiving a threat of a "Montreal-massacre-style attack" — a reference to a Canadian mass shooting in 1989 that targeted women. This put not just Sarkeesian in danger, but attendees and students in the area as well.
Doxxing and swatting are less extreme than a massacre, but they are much more common and still-dangerous methods of harassment. Doxxing, the gathering of personal information including phone numbers, home addresses, employers' addresses, and Social Security numbers to disseminate to strangers with the intention of harm, is used to widen the scope of damage done to a target's personal and professional life. When that information is used to swat, a SWAT team is called to your home and will pound on your door with guns drawn after a false report of imminent danger, such as a hostage situation, is made to law enforcement. Many agencies are unaware of swatting, and trying to explain that a stranger on the Internet is lying about you may be nearly impossible. Being under threat myself, I tried to preempt this by going to my local police department and explaining the situation, to which the officer kindly replied, "I don't really read the Internet."