Sara Perry, an anthropologist at York University specializing in prehistoric and visual archeology, talked at the Center for Digital Ethics Fourth Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics about the relationship between gender and digital culture. She has had personal experience with online harassment, especially sexual online harassment, and discussed her research on harassment in the professional academic sector. Many times people associate online harassment as being anonymous, where online strangers contact victims and act behind a digital mask. Perry’s experience, and her research on online harassment in the academic sector, contradicted this generalization. Stereotypical faceless perpetrators were replaced by coworkers and colleagues, people Perry saw every day and interacted with frequently. Worse yet, Perry and other victims were at a loss on how to solve these problems due to a lack of tools in stopping/preventing the harassment from continuing as well as absent or aloof institutional support/intervention. Perry’s situation, and the situations of so many others, is extremely relevant due to the increased participation of professional academics in using new media, as encouraged by their respective institutions. This “exposure of their professional identity”, as Perry describes it, leads to greater risks.
The utopian ideal of new media continues to be broken down by cases such as Perry’s. The Internet is an “unruly and wild” place, Perry quoted. This can take away from the element of productivity the Internet has, as much as it encourages it. Where this becomes the most evident to me is in the lack of action taken to stop online harassment, by the victims and by institutions. Perry resolved her online harassment problem by ignoring it, but is this a truly resolved solution for this situation? The world of new media is complex and not completely explored. We are all still learning the ropes, navigating the waters of digital spaces with blind instincts. While we are sailing around, the waters are only expanding. This unbalanced-ness leads organizations to respond to problems, such as online harassment, with an aloofness that can be misinterpreted as apathy. Just as Susan Etlinger, an Industry Analyst with Altimeter Group, recommended to do with big data and Burcu S. Bakioglu, a postdoctorate fellow in New Media at Lawrence University, recommended to do with virtual worlds, a code of ethics needs to be drawn out and defined. Institutions need to make a decision on how to respond to these types of situations rather than drown in their complications. For as much as they encourage the use of new media, institutions need to be responsible and regulate their employees’ misuse.
As much as new media gives power to strangers and the faceless, it also gives power to the familiar and those in close proximity. I used to think the Internet was dangerous because of the walls between the communicators and the under-exposure a user can have. After Perry’s talk, though, I realized the Internet is a dangerous place because of the hyper-exposure it gives users. New media requires a certain amount of trust among users, as you publically post your identity into a digital space accessible to many. This trust can be broken just as easily as it can in the non-virtual world.
Dara Byrne, an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Theater Arts at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, discussed her research on digital vigilantism. Specifically she discussed the Nigerian email, 419 scam, and the 419 Eater‘s response to such Internet scams. Byrne relates this community to other digilante communities like Anonymous and Perverted Justice. Born from the online fraud that scammed millions of dollars from its victims and rallied together by the lack of swift legal action from the Internet Fraud Complaint Center (IC3) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the 419 Eaters created a website promoting the ideas of punishment and justice against Internet scammers. Inside of this community, Byrne found “The Trophy Room”. Designed to display the scammers in positions of punishment, the Trophy Room was littered with compromising photos. The 419 Eaters validated their work as “scamming the scammer”, using the body as a vessel for justice and punishment. Within this community, Byrne also found a social element. Community members can earn points based on the trophies they receive, measured by the level of punishment inflicted on the scammer. Byrne described this as the 419 Eaters taking control over the definition of what is right and wrong in pursuing criminals.
Tapping into the ideas of surveillance and control, the idea of a digilante is a controversial one. The federal government has its own deficiencies in responding quickly and delivering swift justice to criminals, but when is it okay for a third party to step in? For something like the 419 Eaters, their response came from a legitimate need by the victims of the Nigerian email scams. Their message of justice, though, conflicts with a true idea of retribution and melds more along the lines of revenge.
Run by pleasure, the 419 Eaters encourage a selfish idea of justice. In a pornographic sense, the community members get back at scammers by using the same techniques the scammers used against the scam’s victims. They force the scammer to manipulate their physical body or pose in compromising position with photographic evidence of their legitimate identity. They spread fraud further through the online communities, only this time using it for their own personal benefits. Essentially, no one is gaining any ground in stopping the scams from happening. They continue the idea of a scam rather than eradicate it. It is as if they don’t see scamming as the problem, but the fact that they were the ones to get scammed as the issue. This does not prevent any other people from falling victim to the 419 scam or even decrease the spread of the 419 scam. Their intention for justice seems skewed if the ultimate result is not a prevention of the 419 scam. The fire fueling the 419 Eaters community will keep on burning and the trophies will keep stacking higher.
John Thomas, the director of editorial content at Groupon and former editor of Playboy.com, spoke on his experiences working as a journalist in the online community. Focusing on what it means to be an editor in the digital world, he discussed online correctional policies, or lack thereof, in major websites. He admitted to witnessing websites post articles without going through the required processes of vetting and fact checking as they would for print articles. He discovered major news sources did not have online correctional policies for their online posts, which reach international audiences. He recognized the access people have in being able to personally review products, whether it’s the latest beauty product or highly regarded literature. He summarizes this by commenting on the existence of a new standard in journalism, where the individual determines the guidelines of online ethics. He brought up the example of the Chicago Tribune’s special section of their website titled “Mugs in the News”, dedicated to posting all mug shots in the news, regardless of conviction status. The Tribune is given free access to these photos, meaning they are posting these shots on their website purely for the commercial reasons of gaining more traffic.
Since when did posting something online make it not worth as much as print? Some people get their news purely from online sources. Others spend a majority of their day flipping through articles in order to pass time. I am one of them, using major news apps like CNN in order to update myself on current events. Twitter feeds provide real time updates to news stories and I can take articles anywhere with me on my mobile device. People from around the world read online articles. The idea that the articles posted online are scrutinized less than print articles and deemed as purely commercial endeavors goes against the basic principle of journalism as a system of education for the masses. News already steers towards emotional responses when they can, favoring the heartstrings stories over factual updates. Something like the Tribune’s “Mugs in the News”, though, incites people to stereotype and maybe even take matters into their own hands like Dara Byrne’s digilantes. News no longer can be a source of trust. Without news, the world goes fairly blind.
The Internet has been there to give people a voice, but when does it start taking others’ away? From something as simple as a young elementary-schooler’s review of War and Peace on Amazon to the complicated mess of GamerGate, the Internet is one large forum and opinion sharer. A person has to weed through fact and opinion, because the Internet is full of both, but the line is often blurred. Opinions are heard more than fact, due to their sting or ridiculous content. Thomas draws attention to the shift of online information, once regarded as factual, towards a more emotion inducing, opinionated posts. The digital world is still a legitimate world and should be treated as such. As it seems with most of the talks given at the Symposium, online correctional policies should be defined, created, and enforced. New media cannot be ignored, but it can be improved.