Categories of Harmful Speech Online

I’ve been studying the phenomenon of aggressive speech on the Internet for some years. Jon Pincus will be moderating a workshop on this at CFP2008. I’ve added a few links to the wiki, but I expressed to Jon that I felt the current structure should be expanded.

Here’s how I came up with my model. First, there is a larger category of aggressive speech which often escalates towards, or is otherwise confused for, harmful speech. Second, what is harmful or aggressive may manifest in one of two ways: as disruptive to a forum, or injurious to a person.

Jon has helpfully sent me his review of Owen Fiss’s book The Irony of Free Speech. Fiss, as I understand him, is a free speech balancer would support the argument that harmful speech should generally be discouraged by institutions.

[This is a draft; I need to add some links.]

Disruptive / Impersonal

  • Sharp disagreement
    • Hillary supporters v. Obama supporters on Facebook, DailyKos, other forums.
  • Civil discourse nuked by irrational arguments
    • See Godwin’s Law.
  • Deliberate harming of group discourse
    • Internet trolling
  • Hate speech

There’s often a gradiant from aggressive to harmful.

Injurious / Personal

The effect of injurious speech is to target an individual, and often meant to silence them, or otherwise intimidate them.

Pincus quotes Fiss: “In this context, the classic remedy of more speech rings hollow. Those who are supposed to respond cannot…. Even when these victims speak, their words lack authority; it is as though they said nothing.” 

  • Insult to Reputation
    • Has some ring of truth, and thus is potentially defamatory
    • Cahill v. Doe
    • The aggressor knows the aggrieved party
  • Stereotyped harassment
    • Based not on actual knowledge of aggreived party, but on a stereotype thereof
    • AutoAdmit
  • Incitement to harassment
    • Ann Althouse inspiring sexist attacks on Jessica Velenti
    • Phillip Hullquist’s Digg posting of Amanda Brunzell’s personal information
  • Crowd-sack (to be defined)
    • Target is a popular/powerful journalist who embodies a grievance of disempowered 
    • Dan Rather, Deborah Howell, Lee Siegel, Kathy Sierra, Sarah Lacy
  • Intellectual theft
    • BrownFemiPower, a popular anonymous blogger, felt that Amanda Marcotte had rehashed arguments for blog posts in an article for Alternet without attribution.

I’ll be writing more on crowd-sacking…it’s interesting because it’s the case where the aggravators most feel that the injury is justified.