Why Ariel Waldman’s Twitter harassment is a serious call to social networking sites about stalkers

ariel waldman and violet blue
Ariel under the mistletoe, my house NYE 2008; photo by our friend Scott Beale / Laughing Squid.

If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly urge you to read Ariel Waldman’s incredibly brave (and chilling) post, Twitter refuses to uphold Terms of Service. It’s being posted everywhere from Vivane’s Sex Carnival to making feature fodder at cNet. Basically, Ariel was stalked and harassed in what had to be the most hateful, open and shocking way you can imagine via Twitter, and the service gave her the runaround when she asked for help. The same thing happened to me — with the same person, who went after me expressly because I am one of Ariel’s friends. Twitter was not helpful for me either, but what’s worse is what Ariel suffered in addition to the emotional toll: Twitters can get indexed by Google, creating a monster that can effectively destroy a reputation.

Many, many people — lots of influential tech people — witnessed Ariel’s Twitter terrorizing firsthand. For me, it’s been one of the reasons I’ve never fully jumped on the Twitter bandwagon. It’s hard to like a company when your friend — and full disclosure: Ariel is my close friend — is living within a 24-7 nightmare and the company doesn’t do anything about it, let alone acknowledge it. It’s even more frustrating when Twitter can be such a fun way to connect with people. Their inaction becomes its own action, and forces us to make choices about the rules and values that govern our interactions with these companies. Basically, if they won’t step up to the plate and act like responsible members of a community, we are forced to do so as a community — especially when we see someone (especially someone we care about) being attacked. Sorry, Twitter.

The thing is, and you all know, I’m a veteran of some pretty extreme web stalking: threats (2 days ago some guy emailed promising to publicly attack me for the rest of his life), Wikipedia attacks (and attempting to out my bf’s personal information on the Wiki talk page), email death threats, Flickr system abuse, and Twitter harassment. The surprise to me has been that in the real world, the SFPD has taken my cyberstalking way more seriously than any of these online services. Of course they have. The police have experience with this kind of terror and abuse, when dot-com startup dweebs with piles of funding do not. And that’s the wake-up call. The SFPD has treated my emails, my printed files of stalking and harassment, and even things they don’t fully understand like Twitter — as seriously as they would real-life stalkers.

And so should all social networking companies.

Ariel knows what being relentlessly stalked and terrorized is like. Anyone who says differently has never been: stalked, on the receiving end of hostile hateful destructive unwanted attention, nor has ever spent a sleepless night wondering what thing (or community) she has is going to be destroyed or taken away next, what evil nightmarish threat is going to be waiting for her when she wakes up, or wondering what’s going to come to her front door after her personal information has been spread all over the internet and back.

I saw many of Ariel’s Twitter attacks: posted, then deleted by the user from Twitter’s system, but Ariel screencapped all of them. They were sickening, horrifying. I can’t say that Twitter didn’t take Ariel seriously (we will never know because it’s hard to read *inaction*). But Twitter was never in control of the situation (nor did they follow up) and now they’re attacking Ariel in her comments (so they only care NOW). Stalkers and trolls are never going away, and social networking sites are only going to see more abuse of the holes and flaws in their system. And like Twitter they are a cyberstalkers playground, when users ask for help and the company hides behind arguments about definitions of harassment and what their TOS “really means”. That’s fucked up — that’s like trying to decide if porn is “obscene” or not.

I’ll tell you what your TOS “really means”. It means your users have to abide by your rules — and YOU DO TOO.

Twitter is a sad example of how 2.0 sites desperately need to evolve, and grow up and admit that they are going to have to deal with all sides of humanity, especially the scary side — not ignore it. Your 2.0 world is actually *in the real world*. Twitter could be a shining example of what creates brand and user loyalty. But right now, they’re not.

Think she deserves an apology?

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  1. Wow. I’m pretty new to the online world and community sites (mostly cuz of a learning disability that makes it hard to sit for very long) but I’ve always been hesitant to really open up like you do. The amount of info people have on each other is mind boggling to say the least. When I go on dates I sometime look up people before I go to find out what kind of food they like (yummy Vegans do taste better), what music we may have in common (Granddaddy), but also to check and see if they are sexist, ignorant, and vibe them out.

    I went thorough a 3 hour myspace addiction when I checked my messages every three seconds/minutes while creating this whole thing in my head about certain people. It turns out I was wrong (thank god) and decided that a lot of this info is like gossip. Best left alone and to horny teenagers with extra time. Filling in the gaps (not the good kind) isn’t my strong suit, never has been. I feel for your friend and after reading your article I will be sure to guard my info, because (as I suspected) the community business isn’t gonna protect and serve like the SF Police (kudos btw). I guess buyer beware.

  2. All the 2.0’s will eventually have to invest in some serious security-related customer service. This will mean some offline investigators, some legal, some Web Movement And Trends Trackers( personal hax) and a specialized department dealing with harassment with a stalking tinge. Passing it off lazily to the police who are still living in the 1980’s techwise is not quite going to cut it. I don’t and have never used twitter, and I won’t till they get their shit together…that was my policy before and this just confirms my suspicions.

    Much respect Ariel and V, as always!

  3. oh my, I am sory to hear about that. I so enjoy using twitter- I do hope they stop being utter dunderheads. And anyway, if they are afraid of lawsuits, shouldn’t they be afraid of being sued for allowing people to be harrassed? How can somebody be sued for enforcing their terms of service? It’s not like they’re a government institution… alas, american law continues to boggle the mind of this european.

  4. @ Erik : So basically what you and others are saying is that Ariel isn’t being stalked or harassed, that she just has an agenda? And your proof would be…what? Or is it just speculation on your/s part? Are you actually intimate with the details?

    Voicing one’s opinion is one thing, but attacking the character of another is also bullying and beneath contempt.

    I’m amazed at how many people live in ivory towers.

  5. @ erik: I’ve seen another comment similar to yours. and I can’t disagree more. again, I think this kind of accusation comes from people who have never been stalked or terrorized online, never been threatened and harassed and been discounted when they’ve asked for help from people in positions of authority. no one stands to gain from any of this — except for Twitter if they set an example, stop being douchebags about it, and do the right thing. sb wisely remarked, “It’s just another manifestation of the same old twisted mentality that makes it so difficult for woman to report being raped.”

    btw, I’m not a Pownce fan, either, not in the least (and no offense meant). I have used Twitter more.

  6. # 12 Joe Says:
    May 24th, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    I was thinking of using twitter, but I think I’ll use Pownce instead.

    That, my friend, is exactly why some believe that this whole issue got blown up in the first place. Congratulations on making their point.

  7. Having read the posts before me, they bring up several good points. The police are the best source for action in this instance. There is a law broken and companies do not feel they are beholden to pursuing legal action unless threatened with legal action – which I think this may apply. Just as someone is an accomplice to murder if they are aware of someone’s intent to commit murder, even with the inaction of sitting by and doing nothing to stop it, these companies are therefore accomplices to stalking by their inaction to address the issue at all. Your friend should contact a good lawyer. Unfortunately, it’s probably PR people, poorly trained in the ethics of PR, putting out “we’re not to blame” statements. It’s corporate attitudes to deny liability that give legitimate PR people (who do practice good ethics and know how to handle crisis communications yet are not listened to) a bad name. As a PR flack myself, I would have made the statement that the company is now addressing the issue along side the SF Police Dept., and then wailed on the legal team to begin procedures to have that person removed from Twitter, or that will be a PR nightmare, which we’re are seeing unfold before us.

    In a former life, I used to do studio catering, and the most unpleasant catering job I ever had to do was when we catered the commercial shoot after the death of Rebecca Schaeffer to ask for the govenor of California to enact stronger laws against stalkers. The whole cast from “My Sister Sam” was there It was like catering a wake. It is my deepest fear that it will require the death of a blogger before companies will take such threats seriously: A multi-million dollar lawsuit against a dot-com company for inaction in the face of an obvious mortal threat. I’m just hoping it will take a lawsuit of stalking and not someone dying before companies do take action.

  8. I was thinking of using twitter, but I think I’ll use Pownce instead. As for Slashdot… it’s not a very civil community; I’ve seen threads where the majority of posters advocated some very violent and twisted viewpoints.

    A note where police are concerned — sometimes, as has been my experience on multiple occasions, they can be worse than useless, and just as unresponsive as Twitter has been. The problem of course is that when the police don’t act, it amplifies your feelings of helplessness by several orders of magnitude.

    Last year, my business partner’s entire family was at our office, when a psychopath threatened to kill all of them, including his eight year old sister. The police did absolutely nothing. And that’s only one of my stories; A woman I was seeing was being stalked by her ex, and the police laughed it off. I was also the object of his… obsession. You always remember your first death threat, heh. And I still remember when a very gentle friend of mine was wrestled to the ground by half a dozen police officers and thrown in jail over a case of mistaken identity. When the police realized their error, they didn’t even apologize. My friend was traumatized by the experience, and they did nothing to alleviate the stress they caused him.

    The fact is, a lot of people have no where to turn to. Sometimes the system works, but it’s pretty broken in some places, and it’s far from universally accessible. A lot of victims are on their own. Which really sucks.

    Your friend deserves more than an apology; she deserves restitution and a guarantee that Twitter will stop users from stalking and threatening people through their website.

  9. well, then it would be reasonable to assume that the level of exposure you open yourself to – has a direct influence on the comments you receive on your website. And with sex, there is a large market, easily reached. So perhaps blogging about sex is still selling sex?

    Not in your case, obviously. Your google talks about sex as related to search were inspired.

    that’s all from me.
    chris dorward

  10. Slashdot is completely dumping on her atm. About every one of the posts are blaming her for using her own personal info, for lying to get traffic to Pownce, and that there was little harassment to being with, with posting every one of the supposed harassing posts.

    As being a vicim of harassment from ages back (nearly ruined the relationship of my then girlfriend, now wife) I came to the conclusion years ago that the police are the only way your going to solve this stuff, you can’t count on the internet to do anything because legally they have no reason to and if anything it makes things 100 times worse as now you not only have your assailant coming after you but much of the morally corrupt internet community thats just a hair more mature than Xbox live jock. Your kidding yourself if any of these people running these services are there for any other reason than making millions of dollars even if they have to screw their mother to do it. Making money and losing your morals go hand in hand.

  11. Somehow by just kind of following links after one of your posts on this subject weeks ago I saw the Flickr comments made by the stalker, found their twitter name and then was reading their twitter posts for a while, it was fascinating. What I recall (because that twitter ID is gone I think) is a constant theme of anxiety and repressed anger coming through the posts even the seemingly mundane ones and then out of the blue some direct attack message which would then disappear at a regular interval. I got the feeling the attacks were like a form of stress release that was then followed up by shame and guilt resulting in the removal of the twitters. I felt weirded out just watching this stuff happen. I work in mental health/ social services and if I had to guess I’d say it was some form of Axis II personality disorder (borderline perhaps) with narcissistic features. If you ran into that person in real time they might give you a dirty look from across the room and badmouth you to their girlfriends, oh well, on the web its like being blasted with the internal messages of their psyche without a way to turn it off or leave the room. I have to admit when I heard about your friend Ariel’s story I thought it couldn’t be that bad, that it was getting unnecessary hype but as I remember those messages that I read I get a chill down my spine and wonder what can be done that doesn’t repress free speech but allows for necessary interventions. Maybe what’s needed is a 5150 for the web, if you’re a danger to yourself or others you get a digital cooling off period, hmmm…
    Now that I know the back-story I want to express my sympathy and support for both of you. Change is good, and painful, but at least it indicates you’re on the right track.

  12. I’m sorry you both have had to deal with this. It sounds horrible. :(

    And yes Twitter needs to issue an apology and fire the idiots they have giving them legal advice. Not only is no one going to sue Twitter and own any of the disgusting comments in court, but no judge is going to allow such a lawsuit to continue. This is just plain chicken on their part. If they seriously view this as a risk, it’s a risk that shows that they value their community and thus its worth taking.

  13. Violet,

    As a non-tech outsider (I am a Corporate Risk Manager in TX) I am astounded at the utter disregard by web 2.0 companies of cyber liability. I guess as with anything like this, it’ll take something like this happening with the attendant legal action and punitive damages before the hip cats of web 2.0 start to take notice.

  14. Can you show us some of the harassment posts? I’m new to this story, but I did read the ‘official’ Twitter rebuttal on Ariel’s blog (strangely, almost by coincidence) which suggested that this was some kind of gray area. Your post leaves me with the impression that this was no gray area, which raises a profound implication in my mind : if someone is lying, then why?…..if we could see the words of the stalker, all would be much clearer…..I lean towards taking your side, by the way, because you’re awesome, but still there’s some missing evidence in this case study…..

  15. The reaction of many Twitter loyalist’s and apparent stalker apologists is nothing short of disgusting. There’s a lot of “what did she do to bring it on?” bull shit out there. She’s being crucified in many circles for simply airing the issue. It’s just another manifestation of the same old twisted mentality that makes it so difficult for woman to report being raped.

    I’ve lost a lot of respect for a lot of people over this.

  16. She deserves a hell of a lot more than an apology.

    This may seem rather naive as I’m not up on the techy world, but couldn’t she or you, for that matter, file a lawsuit against companies that don’t uphold their end of the bargain?

    I cannot even begin to describe how much I loathe bullies. If someone ever messed with my gf, they would discover just how tenacious my payback would be.

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