Hating Hate Speech: Safety for Kathy Sierra and all women online

BlogHer Original Post

Resource for action: What do you do when you're cyberstalked, taunted or abused online?

I spent most of today offline at UC Berkeley, where I gave a talk to journalists from newspaper and television newsrooms on the value of participating in social media. I extolled the value of user comments and the quality of conversation on BlogHer and in the blogosphere.

Ironically, I then came home to an RSS reader and emails pointing to this post by Kathy Sierra:

Death threats against bloggers are NOT "protected speech" (why I cancelled my ETech presentations)
"As I type this, I am supposed to be in San Diego, delivering a workshop at the ETech conference. But I'm not. I'm at home, with the doors locked, terrified. For the last four weeks, I've been getting death threat comments on this blog. But that's not what pushed me over the edge. What finally did it was some disturbing threats of violence and sex posted on two other blogs... blogs authored and/or owned by a group that includes prominent bloggers. People you've probably heard of..."

I'm writing tonight to respond to Kathy's post and the many other writings I've read reacting to her news. There's a lot to say, but for now I'm going to limit myself to the topics of hate speech and personal responsibility, on BlogHer.org and on the Internet. Here goes:

1. Hate speech - on the Internet and on BlogHer

The hate speech aimed at Kathy makes me sick. I am appalled by her experience and moved by her post. And I am sorry to confirm what many women online already know: Kathy Sierra is, literally, one among countless women assaulted like this online. I have no idea how many women have emailed and telephoned me about attacks via IM, IRC chat, message boards, email and blog comments. These attacks use language that describes detailed rape, dismemberment, profanity and indescribably sick images. The goal? Abuse and humiliation of women.

These assaults are happening to women blogging in every corner of the Internet -- food bloggers, political bloggers, feminist bloggers, tech bloggers, entertainment bloggers and -- perhaps especially -- mommybloggers. The only predictor I have observed is that the more famous the blogger (and/or blogger's spouse), the more lesbian, and/or the more not-white, the more vicious her attackers. Denise knows the score.

Kathy (whom I've never met in person but read regularly) provides details on and links to the threats made against her. She describes a frightening image of a noose near her head, and provides a copy of another image altered so that Kathy appears to be screaming into a pair of underwear on her head. These threats are legally actionable and, indeed, Kathy reports that she has filed a police report. Filing that report, however, does not make her feel safe. Rather than earn her living as an expert, she writes that she has decided to stay at home.

Hate speech is forbidden on BlogHer -- we designed our community guidelines to ban hate speech, and every member of the community has the right (and the responsibility, but I'll get to that below) to report this behavior. In the rare instances that such comments have made it past our registration process and spam filter, we have deleted them immediately. We crafted our community guidelines in order to give ourselves permission to do just that:

An excerpt from the BlogHer Community Guidelines
We have just two rules: We embrace the spirit of civil disagreement and we decline to publish unacceptable content. Specifically:
* BlogHer embraces the spirit of civil disagreement. As a Web site devoted to creating an opportunity for all kinds of women bloggers and their friends to seek greater exposure, education and community, we agree to agree and to disagree-as strongly as need be-without crossing the boundaries into unacceptable content (see below).
* BlogHer declines to publish unacceptable content. Everything published on the BlogHer Network is content: Your posts, comments, forum messages, poll responses, audio, video, text, images, you name it. We embrace your diversity of opinions and values(see above) but we insist that your content may not include anything unacceptable. We define unacceptable content as anything included or linked that is:
o Being used to abuse, harass, stalk or threaten a person or persons....read entire BlogHer Community Guidelines

2. Personal responsibility - on the Internet and on BlogHer

These community guidelines didn't happen by accident. I drafted them as a cornerstone for the kind of environment Elisa, Jory and I wanted to join online and offer to other people. Everyone who registers with BlogHer agrees to participate according to these guidelines -- including our esteemed editors. I mention our editors specifically, because Kathy highlights BlogHer Contributing Editor Jeneane Sessum twice in relation to these awful posts. First Kathy mentions Jeneane as a contributor to one of the blogs where the noose image appeared. Second, she makes a more personal statement about Jeneane's involvement:

"I do not want to be part of a culture where this is done not by some random person, but by some of the most respected people in the tech blogging world. People linked to by A-listers like Doc Searls, a co-author of Chris Locke. I do not want to be part of a culture of such hypocrisy where Jeneane Sessum can be a prominent member of blogher, a speaker at industry conferences, an outspoken advocate for women's rights, and at the same time celebrate and encourage a site like meankids -- where objectification of women is taken to a level that makes plain old porn seem quaintly sweet..."

Since Kathy invoked Jeneane's involvement in BlogHer, I called Jeneane and spoke with her tonight via telephone. She told me, as she has written on her personal blog Allied, that she did not author any of the posts about Kathy Sierra that appeared on these blogs. She also told me that she was in the hospital when these threatening posts were made about Kathy. When she was released, the sites were down. Jeneane also repeated to me, nearly verbatim, the comment she left on Shelley Powers' blog:

"I don't feel i can speak on this, though I wish I could. Legal statements have been used in emails that leave me unwilling to go beyond stating what I have on my blog. I'll state it again here–anything i have ever written about kathy has been on my own blog. I agree with much of what shelley has written here and thank her, and parts of what Frank has written on his blog as well.
My statements are and will be on my blog, the place I where I actually write stuff, when I know I can speak freely without legal consequence. There are important issues here to discuss, which shelley mentions — layers and layers of them.

I hope Kathy does find the commentor who has threatened her life and takes action to feel safe. And I hope she uses the same vigor to exonerate those whom she has inaccurately linked to those acts."

I need to mention here that for the past two years, Jeneane has been an important voice of encouragement and counsel within the BlogHer community. She was a conference advisor for two years. She has done an enormous amount to enrich BlogHer, including her single-handed leadership of our BlogHer '06 Conference Chat. Her BlogHer posts have enriched BlogHer's mission. In short, I believe her and I think she offers the above statement about Kathy in good faith.

For the record, I deeply disagree with the premise of sites like meankids.org and others, and am surprised by the women and men who recommended and linked them from the beginning. To me, these sites are the FuckedCompany.com of the blogosphere, a place where bitter cowards who don't have the courage to own their snark hide and spit. I disagree with Frank Paynter that the early posts were designed to be "mere anarchy". It looks to me as though the site devolved into being exactly what anyone who has ever seen that kind of site fester would expect. I'm glad he apologized for the effect the site had on the community (see the comments).
My opinions aside, we don't believe that linking to and associating with sites we don't like is currently in and of itself a breach of our community guidelines and editor agreements. If, however, we learned that an editor created hate speech of any kind (on or off of BlogHer) it would be a different story.

I hope this long post helps clarify where BlogHer stands on the issue of hate speech against Kathy Sierra or anyone online. We're against it and we're here to help - if you are experiencing online abuse, I recommend you read this post: What do you do when you're cyberstalked, taunted or abused online?

Look forward to your thoughts. Welcome your links below.

Lisa Stone is a BlogHer Co-Founder. Her personal blog is Surfette.


In order to comment on BlogHer.com, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.