Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

Persons of Interest

Jezebel’s Anna Merlan wrote a story last week that I’m frankly tired of reading. It’s cliché, it’s filled with tropes, and most of the characters are shallow and impossibly unsympathetic. Worst of all, it’s derivative! I’ve heard this story before. Someone needs to feed this lady a new prompt, because I… yeah. Okay.

Turns out that she wrote a nonfiction piece about a problem that seems to keep happening.

The tale begins when Merlan wrote a blog post calling 4chan a bunch of trolls. To prove her wrong, they started doing what they do to women on the internet. They harassed her. A lot. She writes about her harassment in a piece that’s easy to read but hard to stomach.

She takes time out to note that what happened to her probably isn’t the worst thing that 4chan trolls have done, by briefly highlighting some celebrated incidents of this kind of behavior. For instance, Merlan notes that they:

mocked the family of a kid who’d committed suicide, sometimes calling his parents pretending to be him and taunting them: “Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?”

Oh, so it’s going to be one of those kinds of stories. Well then.

The Worst Part

Difficult as it is to pick out a “worst part,” in all of these stories – and there are lots of these stories – for me, the completely apathetic response from the police is unbelievable. These women (and it’s always women) document their abuse and go to the authorities and are met with crushing silence. What are you supposed to do when the police won’t do anything?

Merlan documents her experience trying to find out, and the result is horrifying on a few levels:

We’d filed another report only a few months back at the same precinct, for another Jezebel writer. [We] asked if [the NYPD officer] could pull it up. He turned on the computer and patiently waited for it to load. He searched the writer’s name, waited some more. Suddenly, he reached over, grabbed the cords connecting the computer to the wall and gave them a hard tug.

“You gotta shake them every once in a while to make it work,” he told us apologetically.

Oh. Oh, I get it now. This is performance art. Merlan is showing what it would be like if the police were indifferent to trolls while simultaneously being trolled so hard by their IT department that, uh… oh. No, I’m reading ahead and it’s literally just a nonfiction retelling of one woman’s harassment and the utter uselessness of the authorities.

Damn. I really wanted this to turn into some gonzo journalism thing because the alternative is so depressing.

Wait It Gets Worse

So here’s the lesson, right? The police just can’t do anything about harassment or even death threats online. If you want to participate in a campaign of jackassery against your neighbor, you’ll get a restraining order. If you do it online, you operate in a land without consequences. On the web, black is white, up is down, and TCP/IP packets get stuck in ethernet cables if you don’t jiggle them.

Got it. Lesson learned.

This is the usual lesson: The police are helpless in the face of the mixed signals and technological complexity of online threats. Except they aren’t—especially not when the threats are against police officers.

After a Baltimore man killed two New York police officers in December, accompanying his crime with a spree of Instagram posting, law enforcement wasted no time before moving against online antagonists. The NYPD said it combed “hundreds” of online messages and 911 calls, eventually arresting nine men for threats.

Oh, come on. Are you even serious r-

A man in suburban New York was also arrested for posting images on Instagram and Facebook there threatening police. […] In the same week, 17-year-old Fort Worth resident Montrae Toliver was arrested for making a terroristic threat after he posted a photo of a gun pointed at a parked police cruiser on Twitter. The FBI arrested Jeremiah Perez of Colorado Springs for a YouTube comment which read, in part, “WE VETERANS WILL KILL RETIRED HELPLESS COPS.”

Yeah, Merlan goes on. And on. She’s got an extensive list of the many times police were threatened online. Oddly enough, the stories all end with the guy being arrested. The police seem to be keen law enforcement officers when it’s their own hide on the line, but not so much when it’s a woman who upset some trolls.

So I’d say we need the police to know how to handle online harassment better, but it seems like they’re doing just fine. Sometimes.