Little recourse against faceless commenters

Three female professors at Eastern Michigan University were shocked to learn that some young scholars in their lecture hall had been on their cellphones attacking them with lewd public posts, complete with imagery. It was all done anonymously, courtesy of an unusually obnoxious social media app called Yik Yak.

Their lecture topic, post-apocalyptic culture, seemed somehow apt. And to think, this was an honors course.

One complained to her union rep as follows: “I have been defamed, my reputation besmirched. I have been sexually harassed and verbally abused. I am about ready to hire a lawyer.”

It’s not clear what a lawyer could do for her.

She really has only two options: 1. Rip the electronic devices out of the students’ grubby little fingers. Or 2. Choose to not give a fig what anybody says about her anatomy/age/hair color/sweater size.

Having been on that receiving end any number of times, I’d advise 2. The more obscenity and general abuse flourish online the less impact any of it should have. These days, even high schoolers need skin 10 feet thick.

Yik Yak lets people post messages that anyone within a 1.5-mile radius can read. And because the authors don’t have to reveal their identity, they can say the crudest things without putting themselves at personal risk. It’s apparently popular on college campuses.

Some colleges and other places try to keep Yik Yak off their Internet services. But that has no impact on those connecting via their “smart”phones.

Women wanting to punish their unnamed tormenters find mainly frustration. One doesn’t know whom to sue or get fired. And even if you do know who is behind the nastiness, going after the perp might energize an army of creeps ganging up with counterattacks and sometimes threats — again, all hiding behind veils.

There was the case of Adria Richards, as recounted the book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” by Jon Ronson. At a conference for Web developers, Richards had overheard a couple of guys making “mildly off-color jokes” of which she did not approve. She aired her complaints on Twitter and blogs. One of the men was fired, as was Richards from her tech company.

The gang attacked, and she complained to Twitter about 120 cases of abuse. Twitter did nothing about it.

Two pieces of advice for Richards: 1. Get a sense of humor. 2. Stay away from Twitter.

She is reportedly being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Those who have suffered at the hands of the masked mobs may take a measure of comfort in some sweet revenge. A site named Secret, another font of anonymous drooling, recently went out of business. May Yik Yak meet a similar fate.

The problem for such apps is that advertisers recoil from being associated with their sicko commentary. That’s not a great business model.

Even the more mainstream Twitter hasn’t been doing well of late — in part because it lets posters shield their identities, one must assume. That makes its commentary both less authoritative and less appealing.

Facebook is now one of the few social media companies prospering. It remains a fairly pleasant place because “friends” must reveal who they are.

But those wanting some old-school dignity will have to find it in face-to-face settings or on carefully moderated websites. The worry, of course, is that younger people raised in the culture of impulsive nattering will fail to develop the necessary filters.

No one much likes this state of affairs, but sadly, that’s the ballpark we all must play in.

Email Froma Harrop at

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