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When Will Online Harassment Be Taken Seriously?

kanye taylor justice

Recently, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, and Taylor Swift got into an online feud over certain lyrics in Kanye’s latest release, “Famous”. Since then, the internet cannot stop talking about it. Many other celebrities, like Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, have also given their two cents on the tussle; some openly siding with Taylor Swift while others rooting for “Kimye”. Surprisingly enough, there’s not much debate about the highly infamous video of the song in question. In the video, Kanye and his perverted, yet highly skilled graphic artists show a bed of fully unclothed celebrities sleeping side by side. These celebrities included Rihanna, Chris Brown, Amber Rose and even Donald Trump, possibly the next president of the United States. The digitally altered video of these celebrities was largely displayed out of context and alarmingly, without consent. Kanye himself knew that his video was provocative, to say the least, and even dared those featured in the video to sue him:

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A few celebrities took it in humor, Chris Brown for example said:

“This nigga KANYE CRAZY, talented, but crazy????”

However, some realized that the content of the video was not only wrong to display, it was brazenly invading other’s privacy and was nothing short of harassment and public defamation. Lena Dunham spoke against the video extensively and said,“…it makes me feel sad and unsafe…”

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What bothers me most is the silence on the matter by Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan or the likes of such, who should be *relentlessly* posting about this especially as they shamelessly endorse matters like Kim Kardashian showing sweat stains through her dress (I kid you not) or what Kylie Jenner puts in her Ramen noodles? Why isn’t the world and more importantly, the media more worried about this? Has Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression transgressed every statute of morality, social courtesy, and self-regulation? Or have we unconsciously become desensitized to it? The answer, as hinted by our acceptance to vile pop culture references, is yes.

We don’t break much of a sweat when Eminem threatens to rape Iggy Azalea in his raps saying:

“Put that shit away, Iggy. You don’t wanna blow that rape whistle on me.”

We also don’t mind it much when Kim secretly records Taylor’s phone call and breaches clear codes of privacy, in fact, we laud her.

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kim kardash

A recent Australian Study indicated that harassment of women online is at risk of becoming “an established norm in our digital society.” If we look at it in a broader sense and with our own social media practices in mind, online stalking; name-calling; posting of crude pictures is usually ignored or at most blocked. But does closing your window to the display of a fire outside stop the flames? No, it just blocks the recipient from being exposed to the problem, it does absolutely nothing to solve it.

Harassment is largely taking place on social media, with 66% of the total cases in the U.S. – three times as many as by email (22%) or text (17%). 63 % of people agree that social media platforms should be responsible for intervening and helping stop harassment and 64% percent think that creating an online code of conduct would be somewhat or very successful.

Such stats clearly indicate that there is a great need for social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to take greater responsibility for harassment on their platforms. In all fairness, they have and are continuing to improve their security policies and measures. Twitter very recently announced a new method to tackle abuse and threats made on the network. Around the same time, Facebook launched a tool to offer support to users perceived to be at risk of suicide. It also installed a new feature that sends an automatic alert anytime Facebook thinks someone might be impersonating a user with a fake profile. Another feature deals with the issue of what is commonly known as “revenge porn”: Intimate pictures posted without the owner’s consent. While we already had the opportunity to report images containing nudity, the update ensures that you will now have the option to notify Facebook that it’s actually you in the photo and that you did not consent to it being posted.

However, the question arises, is online regulation enough? In this day when Facebook alone has over 1.6 billion users (which is 3 million more people than the entire population of China) should we not finally consider including online norms, crimes, and codes of conduct in our national legislature. It’s only fair that countries should take measures to regulate the platform on which much of their population is present on. Similar questions to those posed above were asked by many during the recent US Supreme Court case; Elonis vs The United States.

Elonis, a man hailing from Pennsylvania, took to Facebook to “rant” about his wife, Tara, days after she moved out following a divorce. He then continued to upload a number of Facebook posts which were questionable (to say the least) and led to Elonis’ indictment by a grand jury on five counts of threats to park employees and visitors, local law enforcement, his estranged wife, an FBI agent and a kindergarten class. Some of his posts directed to his ex-wife were:

  • If I only knew then what I know now… I would have smothered your ass with a pillow. Dumped your body in the back seat. Dropped you off in Toad Creek and made it look like a rape and murder.
  • Tell [our son] he should dress up as Matricide for Halloween. I don’t know what his costume would entail though. Maybe [Tara’s] head on a stick? :-p.

Tara felt threatened, so she requested and was granted a protection-from-abuse order from her local court. Three days later, Elonis posted on Facebook in his defense saying

  • “…Art is about pushing limits. I’m willing to go to jail for my Constitutional rights. Are you?…”

Two months later, in December of 2010, Elonis was convicted “under a federal law that makes it a crime to use a form of interstate communication (like the Internet) to threaten to injure another person.”

However, after spending the past three years in prison, Elonis challenged his conviction in front of the Supreme Court. The Court decision on the legitimacy of the threats was to set a precedent for how free speech is protected on social media. The Supreme Court had to decide whether a woman’s sense of security took precedence over a disgruntled man’s right to spit out violent threats in the name of free speech.

The verdict came through on June 1, 2015. Elonis had appealed to the Supreme Court based on lack of any attempt to show intent to threaten and on First Amendment right. In return, the Supreme Court reversed Elonis’ conviction in a 7-2 decision.

This decision did not only have a major impact on the lives of Tara and Elonis it was also anticipated as a model setting a precedent for how far questionable content on social media can be deemed as freedom of speech. The case transgressed the personal matter of a drifting couple and entered the territory of the worldwide issue of security and online harassment. Overruling Elonis’ conviction, especially on the basis of intent greatly clouded the standard of what could and could not be said online. Exercising his first amendment rights, Elonis conveniently claimed his threats to kill his wife and put her butchered head up on a stick was “therapeutic” for him. A way of venting out, he appealed. However, his innocent ramblings scared his ex-wife to the extent of taking legal action against him. But on June 1, the Supreme Court decided her fear was misplaced and unnecessary.

“Free speech” should not have to mean “free of consequences” but that is what we see over and over again. The First Amendment gives such great leverage to individuals that unless the laws are narrowed down and the epidemic of online harassment is directly addressed; clear life threats will be seen as nothing more than blowing off steam. This consequently will not set too great of an example for other countries if the United States, the country where ultimately most of today’s major social platforms like Facebook and Twitter are established, is reluctant to address the issue herself.

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