Can Digital Vigilantism Make the Internet Safer for Women?

Curt Schilling's war against Internet trolls follows a distinctly American tradition of justice. Namely, it's about more than just vengeance.
By Jared Keller ,

On February 25, former Red Sox pitching star Curt Schilling did what any proud, tech-savvy father might do to celebrate his 17-year-old daughter Gabby’s acceptance to college on a softball scholarship: He sang her praises on his Twitter page. He expected, and got, the usual Internet snark in return—"smart ass college kids," as he put it, tweeting "I’ll take care of her" and "can’t wait to date her!" But even to a longtime social media user like Schilling, many of the responses were appalling, even infuriating. "Teach me your knuckleball technique so I can shove my fist in your daughter," one Twitter user wrote. "How far is Salve Regina from Jersey? I wanna come and play, but Gabby wants me to cum and stay," wrote another.

"Is this even remotely ok? In ANY world? At ANY time?" Schilling wrote on his blog.

That whole experience may have taken Schilling aback, but it came as no surprise to many others. Women in particular have long been unwelcome on the Internet, subject to a never-ending torrent of verbal abuse that often escalates to stalking and violent threats—often as retribution for simply speaking their minds. Seventy percent of the 4,043 people who reported experiencing severe online harassment between 2000 and 2013 were female, according to the volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse. More recently, a 2014 Pew Research Center study found that some "26 percent of these young women have been stalked online, and 25 percent were the target of online sexual harassment."

Many of these victims lack the time, resources, or will to fight back. But not Schilling. He spent the next several days tracking down the trolls threatening his daughter, ferreting out their real names and hometowns—and, in turn, addresses, jobs, high schools, and colleges—from information made public on their Facebook and Instagram pages. “Within an hour and a half, I found nine of them,” Schilling told the New York Post. He quickly got one of his daughter’s would-be harassers fired from his job as a part-time ticket seller for the Yankees; another was suspended from New Jersey’s Brookdale Community College and placed under investigation by local police. Schilling has publicized his troll hunt on national television and enlisted fans and sports-world chums into this digital posse of sorts, urging universities and businesses to hold their employees accountable for their online activities.

Schilling’s run-in with the Twitter sewer is part of a larger backlash. A moment when, both culturally and legally, a message is finally being sent to racists, abusers, and misogynists: The days of the Wild West Web are numbered.

According to the Post, Schilling is no longer "naming names," at his daughter’s request. But his fight is far from over: Unsatisfied with getting a few punks suspended or fired, Schilling is reportedly pursuing legal action for the emotional distress inflicted on his daughter. More than any lawsuit or financial compensation, Schilling wants to set an example: "She's already started to move on, and I need that to happen," Schilling said to the Post, talking about his daughter. "But I want young girls and women to know: You don’t have to take this."

The mini-saga of Curt Schilling vs. the Internet captured the attention of the entire nation, and not simply because of his celebrity. To understand why war against digital trolls waged by Schilling and thousands of other women resonates so deeply in American culture, we have to look back to another frontier in American history: the Wild West.

San Francisco in the mid-19th century was a lawless place. As thousands of fortune-seekers poured into the city following the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill, they found a legal system overwhelmed and corrupted, unwilling or unable to prevent or punish arson and murder. The entrepreneurs and con men capitalizing on the Gold Rush paid little heed to the lack of justice—so long as the victims were indigents and immigrants. But by 1851, crime had reached intolerable levels. The specter of violence and arson fueled by organized marauders sparked the formation of the Committee of Vigilance, an ad-hoc law-and-order movement led by local importer Sam Brannan that used any means necessary—including lynching—to succeed where establishment policing had failed. Seven hundred citizens strong, the vigilante handily drove the bandits from town. After that, having accomplished their mission, the group promptly dispersed.

American vigilantism’s initial trial run was brief; the streets of San Francisco remained relatively safe as the city's population continued to grow. That all changed in 1856. The Daily Evening Bulletin, arguably San Francisco's most influential paper at time, had been relentlessly denouncing the greed and abuses of local public- and private-sector elites. James King, the Bulletin’s outspoken editor, was murdered in the street by a bitter enemy and establishment crony in retaliation for targeting the political establishment. King’s death sparked a second, much bigger Committee on Vigilance, this one swelling to some 6,000 men virtually overnight. This group’s “justice” was swift; King’s killer, political operative James Casey, was hanged on the same day as the journalist’s funeral. The righteous principles of vigilantism quickly went mainstream in San Francisco, adopted by a People’s Party that replaced the corrupt political machine and governed the city for more than a decade before annexation by the Republican Party. Vigilance committees began popping up across the Wild West, and America’s love affair with vigilantism was born.

Portsmouth Square, San Francisco, during the Gold Rush, 1851. (Photo: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

One hundred and fifty years later, another Republican—Schilling—is waging a battle against online abuse not unlike that King and his vigilante peers did against San Francisco’s civic corruption. Instead of beleaguered merchants (and their armed cronies) waving the bloody shirt of indignation over the burning of their businesses, vigilantism’s newest icon is best-known for a bloody sock—and his targets are the anonymous Internet trolls who threaten the lives of women online.

Beyond Schilling’s celebrity appeal and the delicious schadenfreude of his revenge, his singular act of modern vigilantism has illuminated a moment of peak awareness of online abuse and harassment (particularly of women)—like a stark tabloid photograph splashed on the front page of popular culture. Schilling’s highly-public, much-lauded, and mega-viral run-in with the Twitter sewer is part of a larger backlash. A moment when, both culturally and legally, a message is finally being sent to racists, abusers, and misogynists: The days of the Wild West Web are numbered.

“Having been a women who’s experienced an unprecedented amount of harassment, and that he was able to get some satisfaction, it makes my heart sing with joy,” says Brianna Wu, head of development at Boston-based video game studio GiantSpaceKat and a frequent target of online harassment by gamers.

Online harassment has only recently become a mainstream social issue, as its growing scale and ugliness demand media attention. The mass shooting in Isla Vista, California, by self-styled misogynist Elliot Rodger in May 2014 sparked a discussion on stalking, abuse, and male entitlement. The hashtag #YesAllWomen has spotlighted both the universal experience of digital misogyny and the most alarming corners of the “angry white male Internet,” as Ryan Broderick calls it. Author Rebecca Solnit of "mainsplaining" fame called the hashtag a watershed moment for the national conversation on sexism and misogyny in modern America, crediting it for popularizing the concept of "sexual entitlement.” The GamerGate saga—which includes the online assaults against Brianna Wu—brought the worst parts of the Internet’s digital vitriol to the front page of the New York Times after a bomb threats forced feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian to cancel a speech at Utah State University.

While Schilling was exacting his vengeance, Wu herself forced to pull out of a recent video game conference in Boston because organizers could not guarantee her security—a frequent experience for the outspoken developer. "The irony is that the past year has been so terrible but its pushed this issue to the forefront," Wu says. "Between Anita Sarkeesian and [developer] Zoey Quinn, we've had hundreds and hundred of death threats, and what we find frustrating is that nobody’s gone to jail."

For long-time sufferers of online harassment and cyberstalking, the attention is better late than never. "When we started WHOA in 1997, something like 95 percent of the victims of online harassment were female and 90 percent of the perpetrators were men,” says Jayne Hitchcock, who in 1996 co-founded the volunteer organization after being the victim of cyberstalking. "When I first experienced harassment, there were simply no groups out there to help victims, no resources available, nothing."

Activists like Wu and Hitchcock say the current conversation around the online harassment of women would have been considered impossible five years ago. And according to Wu, the American public has a real moment to address a problem that’s plagued women since the dawn of the Internet. "I look at the progress we’ve made—that Twitter and other companies are getting more serious, that people like Curt Schilling are highlighting the diversity of this issue—I’m tremendously encouraged by this new dialogue," she says.

"Having been a women who’s experienced an unprecedented amount of harassment, and that he was able to get some satisfaction, it makes my heart sing with joy."

Law enforcement has been largely ineffectual at combating this abuse. While every state in the United States has at least one law on the books prohibiting “cyberstalking” or “cyberharassment” (or both), police officers often fail to take threats seriously, treating harassment like the 21st century version of the prank phone call and shunting reports of online abuse into the bowels of police bureaucracy.

"I've had 48 death threats against me in the past six months," Wu says. "I've had specific threats [from] people to blow up conferences like Pax East. It's clearly illegal, but there's no clear chain of command, no clear jurisdiction or sphere of responsibility within law enforcement."

There are non-criminal forms of legal recourse, as Schilling's courtroom crusade shows. Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland Law School and a legal expert on online harassment, has noted that victims can sue their harassers in civil court using tort law—claiming the damages for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and a litany of other types of harassment. But that’s not available to everyone, as the Atlantic's Marlisse Sweeney wrote: "Unless you have Jennifer Lawrence's resources this isn't exactly realistic: Filing a case like this is a very expensive and time-consuming process, not to mention emotionally draining."

The institutions that ostensibly exercise control over the primary means of online harassment on the Internet—social media—haven’t been much better at handling abuse. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all been accused of not taking online violence against women seriously. These companies know they’re failing, too: Twitter CEO Dick Costolo recently conceded in February that Twittter "suck[s] when dealing with abuse." (Employees at Twitter have said the company is exploring ways to take abuse more seriously, according to both Wu and Hitchcock.)

Curt Schilling is not the first person to appropriate the tools of digital hooligans—and the righteous drive for accountability that marked the vigilantes of old—to get results where public and private institutions won’t. He’s also not the first to make sure the public understands the ugly reality of online abuse. Collectives like Racists Getting Fired ferret out the personal information of racists, misogynists, and other Internet bottom-feeders and force-feed them the real-life consequences of their actions. One video game journalist in Brisbane, Australia, who endured weeks of violent threats tracked down the mothers of her juvenile harassers on social media and exposed them to their sons handiwork. More recently, journalist Lindy West found the troll who'd used a photo of her dead father as his digital face when threatening her life.

“Each of these instances have their own individual merit in terms of impacting the people who were harassed,” says Jamia Wilson, executive director of Women, Action and Media. “If people are harassing other people without accountability, that’s the most problematic thing, but I don't think its negative when individuals force institutions to hold their abusers accountable—that's something that's completely within their right, and it's a righteous thing to do."

Hiding from Twitter. (Photo: Pete Simon/Flickr)

The media has become a supportive cheerleader of the vigilante backlash against online harassment, misogyny, racism, and homophobia. Triumphs over adversity are good for clicks, especially when a deliciously quotable celebrity like Schilling is involved. The Schilling saga, after all, centered on a loving father delivering a "perfect response"—the atomic unit of human morality in the Internet age—to universally horrifying behavior. It's the type of digital smackdown the Internet's vigilante-loving culture adores, like this gay couple's response to homophobic graffiti or these protesters having a kiss-in at a homophobic Burger King. These hero-bully narratives are the perfect vehicle for a whole host of political and social movements and, more important, catnip for the media. They've given the cause of online harassment new weight as a cultural grievance, and provided new justification for victims to strike back.

"There's something phenomenal happening in these sort of stories—there's a human face put on this experience," Wilson says. "In the past, people conflated abuse with online bullying, which leads to an infantilized conversation around aggression online, reducing very real emotional abuse to a playground spat. But there are now more voices than ever pushing back, more stories describing the abuse people have actually experiences, showing the psychic costs of being a woman online. It really creates a visceral portrait of abuse."

Schilling's brand of media-fueled online vigilantism isn't just about doling out justice. The very fact that these sorts of stories go viral on such a large scale makes them exercises in norm enforcement, a re-assertion that the abuse of women is unacceptable and Internet trolling has real-life consequences. Schilling himself identified the disconnect that makes his revenge so effective and culturally appealing: "This is a generation of kids who have grown up behind the monitor and keyboard. The real world has consequences when you do and say things about others.... What part of talking about a young woman, my daughter or not, makes you even consider the possibility that this is either funny or makes you tough?"

Even when the offender seems like a worthy target, vigilantism doesn’t always pause to make sure the punishment fits the crime.

It's oddly appropriate that Schilling speaks from his cultural throne of Big Jock Bro: It makes his Perfect Response and his threats of legal action all the more salient. He's speaking from the culture of misogyny, to the culture of misogyny, and doing so with the adulation of the entire Internet. "I was a jock my whole life," Schilling wrote. "I know clubhouses. I lived in a dorm. I get it. Guys will be guys. Guys will say dumb crap, often. But I can’t ever remember, drunk, in a clubhouse, with best friends, with anyone, ever speaking like this to someone."

The locker-room eloquence of Schilling's backlash—and the unusual sight of a Hall of Fame jock taking on Internet misogyny—gives his crusade a simple, compelling storyline. But as the full story of San Francisco's pioneering vigilantes makes clear, revenge can be a complicated dish, especially when served hot.

While the first Committee of Vigilance in 1851 faced a clear threat with righteous action to save lives and protect property, the motivation and tactics of its 1856 successor are more muddIed. King, the assassinated journalist, had used his editorials to create a "near-panic psychology" concerning municipal crime, despite the fact that California newspapers reported that the organ of law enforcement had crime well under control during that time period. While the vigilance committee did methodically collect evidence of election fraud and municipal corruption before whipping and exiling the goons of the city's reigning political machine, this was not a precursor to democratic change. It was more like a coup, with the vigilantes becoming the new bosses.

This captures a fundamental problem with digital vigilantism: Sometimes the pitchforks and torches create injustice, rather than rectifying it. There have been some appalling instances of this in recent years: In 2012, an elderly Florida couple was deluged with threats after director Spike Lee sent a Twitter message containing their address to his 240,000 followers, thinking it belonged to George Zimmerman. But there are also more everyday infractions, like the tale of Justine Sacco, the hapless PR professional who posted a clumsy attempt at humor about AIDS, Africa, and race, and found herself the target of an international online takedown.

"The collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective," journalist Jonathan Ronson wrote in the New York Times Magazine in reference to the firestorm that engulfed Sacco. "It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment."

Even when the offender seems like a worthy target, vigilantism doesn’t always pause to make sure the punishment fits the crime. Lindsey Stone, a Massachusetts woman who posed for a photo while pretending to scream and flashing the middle finger next to a sign demanding "Silence and Respect" at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns, claimed the tasteless gesture was part of a running joke with a friend, and she hadn’t realized her Facebook photos were public for the world to see. But the photo went viral and cost Stone her job amid a wave of vituperation. According to the New York Times, the incident affected Stone so badly that "she rarely left home for the year that followed, racked by PTSD, depression and insomnia."

For activists like Jayne Hitchcock, Brianna Wu, and Jamia Wilson, the viral appeal of Curt Schilling's epic bro-down signals a cultural change in how the Internet thinks and talks about online abuse. But it also suggests a deeper truth: That online abuse will only begin to recede if that cultural awareness filters into the institutions that can actually affect lasting systemic change.

Lead photo: Curt Shilling pitching for the Boston Red Sox in 2007. (Photo: Andrew Malone/Flickr)