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The Offensive InternetReview - The Offensive Internet
Speech, Privacy, and Reputation
by Saul Levemore and Martha C. Nussbaum (Editors)
Harvard University Press, 2010
Review by Elizabeth Drummond Young
Dec 11th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 50)

This collection of essays centres around four main topics; firstly, the internet and its problems generally; then, internet-related problems arising which relate to speech, privacy and reputation, specifically. The writers are hard-hitting about the problems – there is no attempt to deny that the internet has brought about significant harm as well as good. The discussion falls into two main areas – the nature of the harm which the problems cause and the legal redress which can be taken by victims, particularly in the light of US legislation. Most of the examples of internet harm are drawn from the United States, mainly from academic institutions, such as the infamous 'AutoAdmit' site. (Brian Leiter's contribution is especially pertinent here as he was the subject of cyber attack himself for investigation into 'cyber-cesspools' as he calls them). Many examples are shocking and disturbing. In this review, I will largely ignore the issues of legal redress and concentrate instead on themes drawn from  the philosophical and psychological nature of the harm which can be done through use of the internet.

The introduction to the volume is particularly rich, dense even, in its discussion of internet problems. The comparison to which it returns frequently is the useful distinction between living in an internet society and living in a village prior to computer communication. In a village, everyone is known to everyone and allegations against certain people can be checked off by what we know personally of that individual. In the internet world, the impact of the harm done to others is in direct proportion to their public standing. Trolling against a major celebrity may not even be noticed by the celebrity and will certainly be discounted by the otherwise favourable views which are held of that person. When Google search or similar is applied to the celebrity's name, more favourable entries are likely to appear at the top of the list than a smaller selection of negative comments A directed hate campaign against an otherwise unknown person (who has little or no counterbalancing 'good Internet publicity') puts smears, rumours and innuendo right at the top of the search list to be seen by potential employers, colleagues and so on. The message from this volume is that real harm in the shape of psychological damage, loss of job prospects or actual employment, destroyed relationships, and even suicide can all arise from false rumour which can go unchecked in the internet world.

The two most interesting contributions which analyse aspects of this sort of psychological harm come from Martha Nussbaum's 'Objectification and Internet Misogyny' and Cass Sunstein's 'Believing False Rumours'. Nussbaum makes the point that women suffer disproportionately from internet harm through objectification. It is easy to objectify women on the internet and Nussbaum rehearses the well-known conceptual analysis of objectification which allows women to be seen as a collection of body parts over which men have control. She locates the reason for the success of the internet in proliferating objectification in a connection between the reactive emotion of shame and  the traditional analysis of  the way in which boys are brought up to value strength and independence from tenderness and other 'weak feelings'. Men who feel under threat by women in the real world (for example by studying alongside highly intelligent women in competitive spheres such as law and medicine) can find relief of a Nietzschean ressentiment kind in reducing those fellow students to a set of body parts and 'violating' them on the internet.  The shame that they feel through their weakness in the real world is mitigated by the delight that they can take in destroying their fellow students reputation in public whilst at the same time being protected by the anonymity of the internet. Power that is lost in competition with women in the real world is returned to such men via the internet through the thought that they now have power (and often voiced sexual power) over these women and there is nothing that the women can do about it. (Dismally, Nussbaum points out that even if the wronged women attempt and are successful in vast and expensive legal battles, the women's reputations remains 'damaged' in the same way as a vindicated rape victim, who can never recover her previous public status).

It is not clear that women will hold the dubious status of being the most victimised for long. Cass Sunstein discusses how the internet aids 'the information cascade' through which false rumour can spread and damage anyone who does not hold a counterbalancing public status. Sunstein describes the process by which a false rumour can gather pace through group situations even in the presence of fair-minded people. In addition, when views are discussed in specialist group situations which are readily available on the internet then more extreme views become the norm through the accumulating authority of a view in relation to the number of people who hold it. Depressingly, although the internet should lead to an exchange of ideas and broadening of views it actually acts as a magnet for confirmation of pre-discussed views so that extremism of all sorts is the order of the day.

Controlling the internet by policing young people's use of social networking and heavy regulation of internet providers seem like short term expedient solutions. Long term solutions will come through increased moral awareness of the significant harm which can be caused through the internet. Perhaps trolling will eventually acquire the distasteful status of drink-driving, since it leads to similar consequences?  Meanwhile, we are left with the worrying that that although the internet offers us a global village, we still seem to enjoy sitting in a tight circle of those who share our views, even if it is a cyber circle.

 

© 2012 Elizabeth Drummond Young

 

Elizabeth Drummond Young has tutored in philosophy for some years at the University of Edinburgh, where she gained her doctorate in moral philosophy. Her research interests include the philosophy of love and friendship, in which she is running a course at University of Edinburgh's Office for Lifelong Learning.


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