A Vast Web of Vengeance
Outrageous lies destroyed Guy Babcock’s online reputation. When he went hunting for their source, what he discovered was worse than he could have imagined.

The context: a Canadian woman makes up stuff on the internet trying to damage people she thinks have harmed her and to damage family and associates of those people. She has mental health problems (according to her family and court filings) and has been brought into court over her posting. The stuff she makes up is targeted for maximum impact: accusations of pedophilia, professional misconduct, etc.

Let’s be clear: that impact was real:

A relative of one lawyer said she spent months applying for jobs in 2019 without getting any offers. The woman, who asked not to be named because she feared [the internet defamer], said her bills piled up. She worried she might lose her home.

Then she decided to apply for jobs using her maiden name, under which she hadn’t been attacked. She quickly lined up three interviews and two offers.

The thing is, the NYT is portraying this as a story about tech and I’m not sure that’s fair or accurate to do.

Public smears have been around for centuries. But they are far more effective in the internet age, gliding across platforms that are loath to crack down, said Peter W. Singer, co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.”

This seems like a claim that would be great to support with evidence, and none follows. What do you mean by effective? How do we show that? Based on instinct, sure–but like, Karl Rove didn’t need the internet to spread rumors about John McCain. Do people take no-name review sites more or less seriously than anonymous letters? How do you disentangle the impact of smears-on-the-internet from other changes in how people get jobs, judge dates, etc.? How do you show that cases like this happen more than their pre-digital analogues?

But hey–arguendo, let’s cede the point. Smears on the internet: they’re new, they’re bad, they’re newly bad. How does the NYT frame this problem? Why can’t this be fixed?

Many of the victims have tried to get tech companies to remove the abusive posts. Mr. Caplan said they have run headlong into American laws that protect American websites.

There is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It says that publishing platforms aren’t liable for what their users publish, even if they moderate some content. (Section 230 has become a touchstone in politicians’ fight against Big Tech. Conservatives argue it enables companies like Facebook and Twitter to censor them. Liberals argue it allows the companies to host harmful content with impunity.) And under U.S. law, a foreign court generally can’t force an American website to remove content.

I’m not even sure this counts as both-sides-ing, it’s that bad. If there are people on the political left saying a law is bad, and there are people on the political right saying a law is bad, apparently the New York Times does not feel even slightly compelled to go into why it might have been made a law in the first place, or what its effects outside of this story might be. And because of that, a whole lot of people are now going to think: ah, Section 230. That’s the law that lets evil people get away with shit on the internet.

Okay, maybe the editor just mangled this. Kashmir Hill, the author on the byline, has done some good tech coverage before, so let’s not attribute anything to her ignorance here–editors take out necessary chunks of context all the time, and maybe I wouldn’t have been so mad about an earlier draft. What if we read this with a very forgiving eye to anything technical?

Freedom of speech is just… never touched on in this piece. Ever at all.

I described Ms. Atas to Todd Essig, a psychologist who writes about technology and mental health. He said someone like Ms. Atas could be forced into mental health treatment if she posed a physical danger. “But when someone is a threat to themselves or others online, there’s no way for the mental health system to legally intervene,” he said.

“I also see her as a victim here,” Dr. Essig added. “Tech companies have given her the power to do something that has really taken apart her life.”

The thing that has taken apart her life is her own expression which is importantly somewhere on the spectrum between free speech and criminal defamation. Criminal defamation is extremely titchy in U.S. law because of the first amendment, something only mentioned in this piece by the sleazy review company that hosted the defamatory allegations. The first amendment and relevant prohibitions on prior restraint are an elephant in the room all through this piece. Our last President was very big on the idea of suing people for stuff he thought ought to be libel (never mind how often it was true) and the Times was just as scornful of this as anyone. It is irresponsible to present this as A Problem Tech Has Brought Us without giving the context of this as a free speech issue, as an issue of the bounds of criminal defamation.

I’d agree that the U.S.'s regulation of the internet is inadequate! It’s particularly because change is necessary that it’s so problematic how hard this piece leans on the narrative that “we sure need more regulation of this stuff to fix problems like this, it’s just all so new that the laws haven’t caught up, and wow that Section 230 sure is bad, huh?”

Btw is that what bothsidesing means? Pretending to be fair by giving both sides of an argument. Both really giving my view and a straw man argument.


No, normally it means https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_balance

you also see it in the context of “Side A did a really bad thing, but Side B rounded some numbers when giving a speech, so Both Sides are to blame” or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whataboutism

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