Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Weight Around My Neck

The Concurring Opinions blog is hosting a symposium on Danielle Cintron's ground-breaking paper Cyber Civil Rights, 89 B.U. L. Rev. 61 (2009). Prof. Cintron argues that certain kinds of online intimidation, defamation, threats and harassment -- often targeting marginalized groups such as women and people of color -- rises to the level of and ought to be treated as a civil rights violation. I highly encourage you to browse the CO site and read what a bevy of America's brightest law professors have to say on the topic.

I wanted to specifically flag this contribution by Kaimipono Wenger, however, which I think is particularly illuminating in explaining why these sorts of activities are a problem. One of the many things I learned from my basic statistics class was the concept of an "anchor". An anchor is a point of reference given to us when we are asked a quantitative question. So, for example, if I am asked "what's the average March temperature in San Francisco?" and then "do you think it is more or less than 70 degrees?" my answer is likely to be closer to 70 than if I been given no anchor at all. This is true even though the statement doesn't actually give me any true, relevant information.

Wenger first points out that the anchor effect still holds in seemingly absurd situations. In one study, the anchor was given via a wheel of numbers that was literally spun before the participant's eyes. In another, the anchor was something facially absurd: 558 degrees as SF's average temperature.

He then applies this logic to online intimidation even in situations where we might "rationally" tell the recipient that it is extremely unlikely they will actually be assaulted:
These and other similar tests show that the human mind is generally not capable of completely separating out and walling off information. Even if a person absolutely knows some piece of information to be false or to be irrelevant, it still enters into the total mix of information (to borrow a term from securities law) of her thought process.

This is why the rape and death threats are so insidious. They insert an extreme anchor value, intended to poison the total mix of information. Even if it is true that Kathy Sierra knows that these threats are bluster and hot air, they still enter the calculus for a host of very important questions (like “am I safe?”). And really, what could skew the calculus on those questions more than threats of rape and death? That is the reason why these attackers don’t simply say “I don’t like your argument.” That would be disagreement, but it would be in the normal expected range, and thus would not have the intense skewing effect of death threats. Death threats, on the other hand, are calculated to uniquely affect a person’s reaction, and behavioral studies tell us that they are likely to have some of that effect even if the target rationally knows that the threats are probably not serious. (The same may apply to other extreme anchoring speech; cf. Richard Delgado on racist speech.)

This of course raises the question of how to respond. There is a whole school of soft paternalism – Sunstein, Thaler, et al – who argue for a set of rules that subtly nudges people towards making better decisions. I would suggest that, in addition, hard paternalism may be required here. The damage done by the targeted extreme anchoring evident in Kathy Sierra death threats cannot simply be negated by saying "get over it" or "it's just bluster."

Fascinating article, fascinating research, fascinating analogy.


PG said...

Since Citron sees pseudonyms mainly as a sad refuge for people who otherwise could reap the benefits of a vibrant online presence, it seems like requiring that everyone use his/her real name in online publishing would solve the problem. That is, people still could email each other from anonymous accounts, but nothing could be published on a website (at least no website that Google will index) without the person publishing it there being named. I still can e-mail Sierra death threats from a pseudonym, but I can't publish those threats on a MySpace page or AutoAdmit.

I think we have to preserve the anonymous email option to allow for the modern Deep Throats who offer inside information but cannot disclose their identities for fear of reprisals. As with Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post, someone still will have to be accountable for the anonymously-sourced claims if they are published, but it keeps open a conduit of information to people who can decide whether it is reliable enough to risk their own reputations to publish. What I find funny in a horrible way about the AutoAdmit types is that they're so upset by the fact that some of the defendants are getting outed. They can't believe that someone should have to take responsibility -- including a hit to reputation -- for stuff he's actually done.

I'm also not sure all her facts about various online dramas are correct. For example, I don't think "Heart's" real name ever has been something she was trying to protect from disclosure.

PG said...

Wrt Heart's publicly identifying as Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff long before the 2007 cyberattack, see e.g. this 2005 post.

David Schraub said...

Is Cintron saying that everyone needs to comment with their own name, or she saying that everybody needs to comment in a way traceable to their true identity (through, e.g., IP tracking) so that it could be accessible via a court subpoena? These seem at least somewhat different.

PG said...

Cintron's solution is to require traceable anonymity, but that works only at the point that a subpoena is issued to the website host. It also increases the incentive for people to use common computers, e.g. at internet cafes or college labs, where it will be difficult (though certainly not impossible) to trace the IP back to a single user.

If Google and other search engines said they would index only those websites that had non-anonymous content, there still would be websites with anonymous publication, but they would have much less prominence and effect on people's reputations. A website that wanted to have its non-anonymous content searchable could just put the anonymous stuff on a different page with a robots.txt tag.