Leslie Jones and the Ethics of Amplifying Online Harassment
How should journalists cover harassment and hacks that are meant entirely to get attention?
Soon after news broke that Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones's website had been hacked and replaced with stolen nude photos and racist memes, I got an urgent email from Whitney Phillips, one of the world's foremost experts on online trolling and harassment (Phillips quite literally has a doctorate in 4chan). Phillips wanted to know if Motherboard was going to cover the hack, and how we were going to do it.
"I have some thoughts on the ethics of amplification—how, we can't not comment on stories like this, but commenting perpetuates the disgusting narrative and associated imagery. The question being, what's the ethical way not just for journalists and academics to respond, but for individuals, as well?" she said.
"Is more harm than good done when the association of Jones with Harambe is given longer life? I'm honestly not sure," she added. "BUT I WANT TO HAVE THAT CONVERSATION."
In her book This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, Phillips explores how early trolls from 4chan's /b/ board manipulated the media into spreading their message. Though "trolling" is now an outdated, imprecise term, the Twitter harassment and illegal hacking of Jones's website are amplified the more journalists write about it, the more people retweet it, the more we allow it to stay in our collective consciousness. (Take a look at how the alt-right celebrated after Hillary Clinton vindicated the movement's existence).
Phillips emailed me as I was also considering whether there's an ethical way to cover abhorrent behavior on the internet—decisions about how and whether to write about racially, sexually, or xenophobically motivated hacks and harassment is a question the Motherboard staff considers all the time, but it's rarely a conversation that ever makes it to the public.
And so I decided to have that conversation with Phillips and the roles we all play in amplifying questionable or grotesque online behavior. This is an edited transcript of that discussion; the entire audio of the conversation is this week's episode of the Radio Motherboard podcast. (You can subscribe here, or on any podcasting app)
MOTHERBOARD: When something like this happens you don't want to give the people harassing her or hacking her publicity, but at the same time you want people to know this is happening. To me it seems like like an analog is how we report on mass shootings—how are we supposed to cover a mass shooting without getting copycats? Or how are we supposed to cover online harassment without perpetuating what happened?
Whitney Phillips: The ideal outcome is to not incentivize further behaviors. The way this works is, there's an immediate reaction and then a flurry of think pieces and news coverage. The ideal outcome is we don't create a space, a circumstance in which these behaviors are so effective for the people engaging in them. As you said, by not reporting on what's happening, by not condemning what's happening, then you risk almost seeming complicit, like it's not worth mentioning. It's a fine line between explaining what happened to condemn something, to contextualize it, to talk about it, and incentivizing future behaviors.
Those two things happen almost simultaneously, so it really is a bind cultural critics and journalists are in but also one individuals face. This is a space where individuals can lend their voices to important conversations, but in so doing it amplifies the story. Every retweet, even if it's a retweet in order to condemn, it still is furthering a particular message.
Eventually that story became so huge that it was like, "Why aren't we condemning this, Why aren't we saying something about this?"
I don't know who is responsible for these actions, I don't know what kind of people they are like in bodied spaces, but if i had to guess, part of the "game" for them is to trick regular Americans and journalists alike into continuing the harassment. Every time we repeat what they've done, we are amplifying that message. We are keeping it in cultural circulation. And those images—it's not just about the impact it has on Leslie Jones, but any person of color, any woman, any person who is thoughtful—that's harmful.
Do you think journalists are beginning to think about the things you brought up? I remember when the Fappening, which was the celebrity iCloud leaks, happened, everyone was like "Oh my God, let's report this," but not too many people thought "Hey, maybe we shouldn't publicize this" because the publication of the fact that this happened is going to lead people to seek out those photos. I feel like there was eventually a backlash to that sort of coverage.
Motherboard kind of sat that one kind of completely out because we thought "We don't want to amplify this message."
But eventually that story became so huge that it was like, "Why aren't we condemning this, Why aren't we saying something about this?" And since then we've taken the tack of we should report on this stuff because people deserve to know what's going on—we're an online culture publication, but we're sensitive about how we're going to report on these things.
It seems like the Fappening was a turning point and people are being more mindful of these things now and don't just have a bonanza of coverage every time something bad happens online. But I don't have insight into other newsrooms and you talk to journalists all the time—has the tone of your interviews changed?
Definitely—they've started to think of their complicity in amplifying this content. People were still repeating and sensationalizing the Fappening as they had done with online harassment up to that point. But things started to change for last year's pro-rape rally organized by the pick-up artist and all around… piece of work Roosh V.
It puts journalists in the position that, regardless of what their conscience is saying, that's not the business model, and so you have a conflict between sort of editorial demands and human ethical moral demands
The journalists I talked to in the US and overseas were worried if they filed stories on this case—it's just some guy, his reach is limited, but it becomes much different when you give him a national or global platform. You risk drawing additional participants, not just genuine participants, but you attract people who enjoy controversy or just want to stir the pot for the sake of stirring the pot, and so journalists were in this moment—they recognized that risk. They also recognized the risk of not reporting on the story. In order to combat violent misogyny, you have to name it and show examples of it.
No one had answers, but I could hear in their voices that they were genuinely concerned and wanted to do right by the people who are negatively affected. But our media ecosystem doesn't do well with nuance, and sort of—it values clickbait and sensationalism, it values likes and views.
It puts journalists in the position that, regardless of what their conscience is saying, that's not the business model, and so you have a conflict between sort of editorial demands and human ethical moral demands. Those two things don't always go together in this moment of media history. It has been heartening to see the conversations are happening. The consensus is that people don't really know, and they're worried about the impact their stories are having.
I can't help but thinking it's important to have these conversations about motivations, but obviously there's a very concrete and public victim here: Leslie Jones. We don't have her to talk to right now, but how should the victim's wishes factor into how we cover it?
That's a tough question. The problem is there are so many victims of these behaviors that we probably have a reasonable sample size to pull from, and that's not a joke. This happens so frequently, you know—it would be, I would wonder what each individually thinks. We don't often (or ever) have access to their inner thoughts, and it's completely understandable if any of us put ourselves in her shoes, the last thing we would want to be doing is engaging with a bunch of journalists and answering their questions about stuff. I would want to disappear for a long time off the internet and out of the public eye.
Regardless of whether we know what they want, we should defer to what is going to do the least harm. It's such an egregious case, it's an issue of justice and fairness—in the end we should try to rally around our own, meaning a human who has feelings and a family and people who worry. What would we do if this was our mom or our sister? We would want to protect them and be kind to them and anything we could do to not make it worse, that's what we would do. Thinking about this case, treating the victim as imagining what we would do if we loved or knew them, I think that's why these conversations are so critical, because there are lives at stake.
If the internet is bad or if it yields more negative outcomes than positive outcomes, that's a function of all of us
The Hollywood Reporter interviewed Milo Yiannopoulos from Breitbart and asked what he thought about Leslie Jones getting hacked. Milo was the one who initially incited a lot of the early Twitter harassment, and I couldn't help but think that this is the old school, "let's cover this from every possible angle" sort of journalism that isn't helpful and amplifies a message.
But then I looked and their tweet about it was highly successful, that story got a lot of attention. People on the internet click bad things. Everyone wanted to know what Milo thought because he started this. So like, there's always going to be someone who says "Here's where you can find the photos," "Here's what one of the harassers thinks"—are we fighting a losing battle?
The danger there in framing it as an "us vs them" is those things we're accusing "them" of doing are pretty endemic to the "us" as well. Milo is an extreme example of someone behaving in grotesque ways, and other instigators like him are similarly grotesque. And it's really tempting to point the finger and say "They're the problem, they're the bad guys, they're the ones that are doing this," that he started it.
But all the people who retweeted that tweet and who commented on that story and who then perpetuate it inadvertently—even the people who are doing it from a well-meaning perspective or commenting on the story in order to condemn the story—we're all responsible for how the internet is. The internet is not bad because of a few bad eggs. If the internet is bad or if it yields more negative outcomes than positive outcomes, that's a function of all of us. That's why it's so critical for all of us, regardless of where we draw the moral or ethical line and push people over that line, you've got to think about what can we individually do? What are we doing and how can we do better? How can we be more mindful, more compassionate?
That is a more helpful approach to those questions because we all carry some responsibility. We're all curious about the story. We don't necessarily all want to see the images, but we all want details, we want to know what she thinks, we want this information. That desire for information, even if it comes from a neutral place or a positive place, it still perpetuates our system.
What this example shows and the other examples show, all of these outcomes that many people condemn as being hateful or grotesque, it's all reflective of the fact that our system doesn't work, that our system is not set up for humane engagement, it's set up for hot takes and clickbait and sensationalism. This is the result of that. This is the bed all of us have made.
We haven't all embraced it, but this is the result of a media economy that privileges metrics. This is what happens. And so, in order to really think about how do we fix it, we have to think about the "we." We deal with the we, and then we think about them later. What I hope comes out of it is some self reflection, because it's deeply, profoundly needed.