Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The invisible foe

Barbara here. What do the West Edmonton Mall, feminist writers, and Justine Sacco have in common? They have all been in the news recently as targets of internet threats. The internet is surely the great invention of our era, connecting us across the world and providing access to knowledge, entertainment, and services at the click of a mouse. It is such an integral part of most of our lives that it's difficult to remember how we did things before. Book a flight, find a B&B, find the best Italian restaurant in town, bake oatmeal scones, compare features of lawnmowers... It's all there. And email and social media have made it possible to stay connected (and indeed to reconnect) with friends and family around the world. To share photos and anecdotes and birthdays.

But with this vast, unfettered playground have come the playground bullies, who have their own dark desires to fulfill  and who revel in the chance to unleash their cruel side without ever having to reveal their identity or look their victim in the eye. We've all encountered them. At their most harmless, they are the trolls who hijack the 'comments' sections of newspaper articles with absurd rants or who make crude personal attacks in place of reasoned argument. Most of us have learned to ignore them rather than respond and thus give them the forum they crave.

As writers, whose work is out in the public sphere, we have to learn to ignore a special kind of troll– the negative reviewer. By this I don't mean the carefully considered critique that finds our work lacking. As painful as these are for us to read, we generally recognize they are written in the spirit of appraisal rather than attack. But there are reviewers out there whose goal is not to appraise or critique but rather to trash. Because they can. Because they enjoy it. Although these are more difficult to ignore, because their negative reviews can affect the ratings of our books, we generally grit our teeth and try to ignore them too.

But many forms of internet abuse are far more destructive, because of formless and unknowable nature of the threat. Sometimes it becomes a multi-headed monster, as when a single, ill-advised tweet gets retweeted and retweeted until perfect strangers all around the world are savaging you (as happened to Justine Sacco), causing you to lose privacy, friends, and sometimes even your job. How to contain it, how to grapple with it and try to reverse it?

Sometimes the threats are graphic and criminal in nature, as in the case of the feminist writers who were threatened with rape and other violent retribution, but the persons responsible, being anonymous, cannot be called to account and dealt with. Not knowing where the danger lies, or how serious it is, can lead to serious anxiety, which is of course one of the abusers' goals. Such is also the tactic of terrorists making videos containing vague threats of destruction, the exact time and place unknown but specific enough (like the West Edmonton mall mention) to sow fear and get the reaction they want– a world held hostage to nameless and faceless bandits.

But to bring this back to writers, on a much smaller scale, I have begun to notice a small but increasing number of nasty personal attacks, some of which have made me feel vaguely unsafe. Writers are vulnerable because our work– and our soul– is out there for all to see, and we encourage interaction with the public. I have a Facebook page which anyone can view, and a website with contact information. Generally I love the messages and emails I receive, the vast majority from readers who have enjoyed my books or want to know when the next is due out, etc. Sometimes I receive pleasant, mildly chiding messages correcting a fact or a typo in one of my books, and these too I appreciate.

But I have received a few notes which seem just plain nasty, which attack the book or myself in a way that feels vindictive. As a crime writer I tackle social and moral issues, and I understand the messages in my books are not going to appeal to everyone. Sometimes I choose to respond, and the exchange of emails opens up a dialogue that ultimately enriches both of us. But in most instances I sense there is no basis for reasonable dialogue; that as with 'comment' trolls, the vitriol is the thing, not the message itself.

But it does leave me feeling vaguely unsettled. Vaguely threatened. I would be easy to find, if someone chose to go beyond the emailing of nasty notes. And as I embark on my new series, which will tackle even more global moral and human rights issues than I did previously– issues such as human trafficking, self-radicalization, and human rights– I suspect the subtle threats may increase. It gives a writer pause, not just about what they might choose to write about, but also about how publicly available they want to be. Which would be too bad.

I'd be interested in hearing people's experiences with this, both as readers and writers. Is the phenomenon growing, and if so, how do we respond?


Anonymous said...

Without exception, I have enjoyed all the Type M for Murder blog posts, but this one is the best one I've read. It was insightful, thought-provoking, and even brought back some of the ugly memories of a couple of bad reviews I've gotten. I wonder sometimes why people can't just be kind. Not that they should write a good review of a book they don't enjoy, but do so with an eye toward helping the author, not simply tearing him or her down. As my editor told me after I freaked out following a particularly mean-spritied review, the good thing about being an author is that you've put yourself out there. The bad thing is, you've put yourself out there.

Eva Gates said...

So sorry to hear this Barbara.