Ellen Pao’s ouster from Reddit after she tried to crack down on hate groups has left advocates of both harassment-free online interactions and gender equity in boardrooms shaken to the core. Pao, many argued, was pushed off the glass cliff, since it turned out that the decision that led to her ouster wasn’t her decision at all. “This is a story all too common among female executives like Pao. When an organization is in crisis, female leaders may be brought in to make unpopular decisions in the face of impossible standards, all to only be removed and replaced with another male CEO,” one op-ed writer noted.
But as Pao wrote in her own op-ed this week, her departure was a combination of several factors. Not only did she get blamed on an institutional level for a the site’s problems — but her ouster was partially at the behest of a mob of angry racists and misogynists on the web. This is a growing problem, she said. “Balancing free expression with privacy and the protection of participants has always been a challenge for open-content platforms on the Internet,” she wrote. “But that balancing act is getting harder. The trolls are winning.”
Harassment on the Internet, on Reddit, and to a lesser extent on Twitter is absolutely rampant. Social media organizations are slow and too hesitant to set any but the most basic standards, and when they do, they get huge pushback from trolls. As a result, people continually get chased off the Internet or end up genuinely in fear for their safety. It’s the worst kind of example of anarchy, in which its vacuum allows a tyrannical few to sweep in and take charge (see: #Gamergate).
But an Internet without an authoritarian policing entity doesn’t have to pave the way for chaos — and for people to flee from pitchfork-waving purveyors of lulz. In fact, if the rest of us buy in, we should be able to shape the web into a pretty well-run leaderless society. Because most Internet users are neither victims nor perpetrators, but rather bystanders. And Pao notes that there is another side to the vitriolic outpouring, an equally strong show of support:
As the trolls on Reddit grew louder and more harassing in recent weeks, another group of users became more vocal. First a few sent positive messages. Then a few more. Soon, I was receiving hundreds of messages a day, and at one point thousands. These messages were thoughtful, well-written and heartfelt, in stark contrast to the trolling messages, which were usually made up of little more than four-letter words. Many shared their own stories of harassment and thanked us for our stance.
In fact, when Pao returned to Reddit for a surprise visit, her reception was very, very different from how it had been in the past:
As CEO, Pao’s experiences commenting on Reddit were often met with mass downvoting campaigns and outpourings of abuse, but her turn through /r/casualconversations was surprisingly casual, inspiring newfound affection for the ousted leader. “I just want to say that I am sorry for jumping on the hate train and upvoting all those hurtful posts,” wrote a user named awesterdam. “Seeing you make these small talks made me realise you are human and have feelings too. I wish you well in your future endeavours.” The sentiment isn’t limited to comments: as of press time, the top thread in /r/casualconversations is a post demanding Reddit apologize to Pao.
When Pao was viewed as an overlord, bystanders took the side of the trolls. But when they saw her as human, as one of them, they were ashamed. The majority of Internet users — including the troll-oppressed, the occasionally bothered, and the unbothered alike —have to come together and think hard about standards and moral codes that we can all live with. Drumming mega-trolls off Twitter is a good start, but whoever figures out how to harness the power of the rest of us will unlock the key to a safer, happier Internet. We can’t just accept the kind of mayhem in which a group of virtual cretins are free to terrorize everyone else.
Earlier this spring, Women, Action and the Media’s Jamia Wilson pointed out in an interview with Flavorwire that “prioritizing free speech also means that the safety of users who disproportionately face online abuse (i.e women, trans folks, women of color) is also prioritized.” If you can’t express yourself for fear of harassment, that’s not free expression. At some point, people like Pao’s newfound group of defenders are going to need to wake up to that truth.