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Are Faceless Internet Hoards Beyond the Law?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on February 25, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Internet is a fickle beast. The collective power of just a tiny fraction of the Internet's 3.2 billion users can make your cat famous in a minute, as it did with Grumpy Cat, whose net worth is estimated to be as high as $100 million dollars.

But the Internet's attention can also destroy lives, or unleash torrents of anonymous online hate and harassment. And when faceless Internet hoards target someone for harassment, the law often does little to stop them, according to a recent report by The Washington Post.

The Worst Case, but Not Uncommon

The Post uses the story of Gamergate to illustrate how, "in the battle of Internet mobs vs. the law, Internet mobs have won." Gamergate was a particularly virulent episode of online harassment. Gamergate started after an independent games developer, Zoe Quinn, publicly broke up with her ex, then sought a restraining order against him.

It morphed into either a "sexist crusade to destroy game developer Zoe Quinn" or a fight over ethics in videogames journalism, depending on who you ask.

During the Gamergate controversy, Quinn and other women in the video game industry faced death and rape threats, the publication of personal information, and extensive harassment.

That's just one example of a wide-spread problem. According to the Justice Department, 850,000 American adults are the targets of cyberstalking every year. The Pew Research Center reports that 40 percent of adult Internet users have been harassed. The main targets of that online hate are often women, according to a report in The Atlantic, and 38 percent of harassed women describe their experience as "extremely or very upsetting."

It's Hard to Go After a Mob

According to The Post, Quinn "had a solid, even winnable, criminal harassment case," but little ever came of her harassment. Her ordeal demonstrates the failings of the criminal justice system when it comes to Internet harassment. One obstacle is the view that online harassment is not important.

Congresswoman Katherine Clark, who introduced cyber-harassment legislation in June, says that the general view is that harassment is not important because it does not cause bodily harm. "But that misses the point," she explains. "What's so corrosive is that it has the effect of silencing people, of disrupting their personal and professional lives. We see more of a reaction if someone's purse is stolen."

But perhaps the greatest impediment is the difficulty of holding a large mass of people accountable. (This isn't just true for Internet mobs, either. The 2015 shootout in between two biker gangs in Waco, Texas, illustrates similar difficulties.) Though almost every state has a law against online harassment and cyberstalking, when those laws are broken en masse, holding individuals accountable becomes especially trying.

According to Clark, the sheer numbers of actors mean that "at some point, it becomes too much for the system to bear."

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