A remarkable scene unfolded at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre this past Saturday. Amid a panel about online harassment where two women had told heart wrenching stories about their own experiences, a man in street clothes--who had conferred with the moderator in whispers but moments before--took the stage and availed himself of an empty seat. “I’m Nobody,” he said by way of introduction before holding up a badge that caught the light, identifying him as a member of an Australian police force (I saw it up close afterwards and can confirm its authenticity).
But before I get to his remarks, it would be inappropriate if I allowed him to steal the spotlight from the excellent cast of scheduled panelists, which put Officer Nobody’s appearance in some context.
At the recent PAX Australia, Michelle Star of CNET moderated a fascinating panel -- Why We Won’t Just Log Off: Surviving Online Harassment -- which included Jennifer Scheurle, a game designer and all around tech wizard at Sydney-based Flat Earth Games, Kelsey Gamble, a social media manager, Dr. Raffael Boccamazzo, the clinical director of the Take This nonprofit, and Alanah Pearce of IGN. The arrangement of the panel was, in a certain sense, unfortunate. It felt as if Scheurle and Pearce were primarily asked to describe their experiences with online harassment while Dr. Boccamazzo was tasked with providing the theorymaking and interpretation. There is always a risk of such panels compelling women to put their pain on display while others are allowed to intellectualize it and give it wider meaning.
But both Pearce and Scheurle took plenty of control of their narratives.
Alanah Pearce made headlines when she began to contact the mothers of young men who threatened her with rape on social media, and the turnabout-is-fair-play tenor of her remarks elicited plenty of laughter in the end, especially when she talked about saving the unsolicited dick-pics she received and sending them to men who sent her new ones. On a more somber note, she discussed how she had a stalker who would post to Reddit, brazen as you please, soliciting advice on how best to find her and how to push legal boundaries in following her. The police, she said, did nothing.
That was when I noticed a man in the front row with a hat frown, lean in, and fidget.
Jennifer Scheurle’s remarks were, on the whole, more searing, as she had never spoken about her own experience of online harassment in public before a physical audience before. The gathered crowd seemed to walk across a threshold with her as she described what happened. She’d posted a funny image of a statue that she’d dubbed “Mansplaining: the statue.” As the tweet blew up, it caught the attention of Markus Persson, creator of Minecraft and, of late, Twitter edgelord. He attacked Scheurle to his 4 million followers and mocked the situation by saying people were "cuntfusing the issue." [Update: edited for clarity.] This would sire a weeks-long flood of rape and death threats that left Scheurle frightened and adrift. She said she was continuing to “feel isolated and disconnected from the people I love.”
After dedicating her entire professional life to video game development -- she teaches game design in Sydney, to boot -- it felt like the industry had turned on her because of Persson’s bromide. It felt like “no one will stand up for you.”
Then, someone did.
Applause would wash over Scheurle from an appreciative crowd as that man in a hat ducked over to speak to Michelle Star in private. I wondered what was going on, and in less than a minute I got my answer. After a brief introduction from Star situating the man as a last minute replacement for a panelist who had to cancel, he got up there and flashed his badge.
He expressed his unqualified sympathy for Scheurle and Pearce, saying that Pearce’s treatment at the hands of the police in particular had been wrong. Online harassment was, he said, “fuckin’ illegal” in Australia and pointed to federal law to make his case. His appearance on stage was certainly unorthodox, but he very much came off as a bobby-on-the-beat after hours, professionally describing the law in one breath and swearing with an Australian brogue in the next (“it’s shit,” he said of online abuse).
More interesting, however, was what he said was inhibiting police investigation of online abuse: access to evidence from social media companies themselves. Singling out Twitter, he said that executing a warrant for the American-based company from Australia involved “a process that would make your head spin.” Comments about the conflict between the right to privacy and online security immediately popped up on the Twitter hashtag, understandably. It’s a thorny issue to say the least: to what extent can foreign police forces subpoena data about Twitter users?
With yet another crackdown on Turkish journalists and opposition MPs making headlines, it’s all the more urgent to ask how such powers could easily be abused. In the realm of physical street harassment, there’s already been an elaborate discourse developed by feminist organizations like Hollaback, who seek to address the problem of sexual harassment in public without giving broad new powers to the police that, they argue, would be disproportionately weaponized against people of color, the poor, and the homeless.
But it remains valid to ask why companies like Twitter might stymie investigations of obvious cases of cyberstalking or use of the service to hurl threatening invective at people, and why they aren’t taking the lead on finding a compromise on the issue. Officer Nobody favorably contrasted them to Facebook who, he said, gave 30 days worth of access with an Australian police warrant.
Scheurle had many applause lines; despite her initial, hand-shaking trepidation, she ended up being a forceful advocate. In addressing the central question of the panel, she said that she shouldn’t just quit the internet because “I built a home for myself here, a workspace, from the ground up,” speaking movingly about the followers she’d made friends with and who she was meeting for the first time in-person at PAX Aus. She added that “people speaking up, calling out abuse, and comforting survivors, are beacons,” exhorting people to not simply be bystanders when harassment occurs, but issue public support. Even simply being seen, she said, can do a world of good to ameliorate the feeling of isolation.
Boccamazzo (or Dr. B as he prefers to be known) presented his own beliefs about the origins of online harassment, suggesting that it stemmed from “human nature” on the basis of a 1976 Seattle study about the origins of rule breaking. The study, he said, showed that anonymity, peer influence, and scapegoating were the primary drivers behind the individual decision to break with a rule or norm and suggested this was applicable to online harassment. This was an interesting remark to make on the heels of Pearce whose whole story was about how easily she could identify her harassers -- right down to the names of their schools and parents. Anonymity plays its role in enabling abuse, but it’s a multifaceted problem.
Anonymity is often confounded with dissociation, a related but distinct phenomenon. Put another way, all anonymity is a form of dissociation, but not all dissociation is anonymous. People operating online under their real names, with real portraits of them beside all their words, can still feel safe saying the most vile things because they feel disconnected from their actions and their consequences. If I shove someone physically, I have an immediate sense of how much that must have hurt; a kind of empathy kicks in. Online, making a rape threat may come from a bilious place of hate, but also from feeling like you’re not really attacking a real human being with real feelings. Both they and you are just words and avatars on a screen.
Still, Dr. B’s remarks were profound in their compassion, and in his attempts to get the audience to understand, correctly, that harassment does not come from someone being “evil,” but from a place that any one of us could easily find ourselves in. That much is certainly quite apt, and he built on Pearce’s remarks -- wherein she talked about sensing that the youth of her attackers meant that they could still be taught how to behave decently--by saying that it was up to men like him and others who were not immediately under attack to take up the task of educating others and intervening when someone you know is engaging in abuse.
Gamble’s expertise on social media, meanwhile, led her to advocate for more robust, more intelligently designed tools that empowered end users to better deal with the abuse they were receiving.
At the end of the panel, Officer Nobody took a few questions, including one from your present correspondent. I confirmed that he was indeed a police officer but agreed to protect his identity. The role of law enforcement in dealing with online harassment is a significant but deeply complicated one. On a visceral level I appreciated the policeman’s willingness to take a professional risk and stand up to say something supportive for those women on stage. But on an intellectual level I know that it will take so much more than this to make headway on this issue. Without impugning Officer Nobody’s individual good intentions, it’s enough to say that navigating a tangled morass of racial, class, and gender politics to get this right will be a generation-long project.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.
Travel and accommodations paid for in part via the Victorian government's Visiting Journalist Program.