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4chan, Trolling, and the Potential Danger of an Anonymous Internet

July 27, 2010

A battle is heating up between Gawker and 4chan’s /b/ forum, and it all centers around an 11-year old girl who may have a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. 

The Internet is not always a friendly place.  Because there is a degree of anonymity on the Internet, people feel they can express themselves in ways they would never dream of in person.  People can be rude, vulgar, and sometimes downright mean. 

We have all seen it.  Inappropriate comments on a YouTube video.  A local politics message board overrun with profanity.  A Flickr post inundated with sexual propositions.  When does this kind of conduct cross the line into actionable harassment?

A civil action for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) requires that the defendant acted intentionally in an extreme or outrageous way that causes a severe emotional response in the plaintiff.  In most cases, Internet harassment does not escalate this far, but the real obstacle to recovery is anonymity.  Even when the denizens of Internet harassment are at their worst, they are usually veiled behind anonymous comments and message boards.

Perhaps no place on the Internet is as crude as‘s /b/ message board. [NSFW and probably Not Safe For Anywhere!]  The board is almost always filled with racist comments, child porn, and insults between posters.  4chan’s terms of service seem to endorse the conduct inside /b/:

Do not post the following outside of /b/: Trolls, flames, racism, off-topic replies, uncalled for catchphrases, macro image replies, indecipherable text (example: “lol u tk him 2da bar|?”), anthropomorphic (“furry”), grotesque (“guro”), or loli/shota pornography

/b/ takes the abuse of anonymity to a new level, however, as a haven for “trolls.”  Trolling, generally, is the practice of intentionally attempting to illicit an emotional response from someone else on the internet.  This might be accomplished through spamming a chat room, posting pictures of the person, or simply hurling insults at them. 

Recently, /b/ declared a troll war on Jessi Slaughter, a provocative 11-year-old video-blogger.  Jessi Slaughter is not her real name, it’s an alias she uses when posting videos.  /b/ cut through the alias, and posted Slaughter’s real name, address, and other information.  Then, /b/ members encouraged each other to harass her, culminating thus far in a series of death threats and this response from her father.

Internet news site Gawker has tracked the assault on Slaughter since the beginning.  This caused /b/ members to retaliate.  They launched at least one attack on the Gawker site, and have begun targeting the writer who broke the story.

/b/ didn’t stop there, either.  On Friday morning, Good Morning America aired an interview with Slaughter and her parents.  Not to be outdone, /b/ members launched a defamation campaign against child advocate Parry Aftab, at one point lifting the phrase “Parry Aftab Arrested for Child Molestation” to the top of Google Trends

So what about Slaughter’s IIED claim?  Remember the 4 elements: 1) Intent, 2) extreme or outrageous conduct, 3) causation, 4) severe emotional response.  Clearly these types of attacks are intended to provoke such a response.  Actions such as death threats necessitating police protection are certainly extreme or outrageous.  Causation here is a pretty clear link, and the severity of the response is documented by the video response of the family and Slaughter’s mental health treatment.

Despite the otherwise clear case, there remains one major problem: there is no defendant.  Because /b/ is anonymous, there is no one to hold accountable.

In copyright actions, Internet sites that allow infringement and entice or encourage infringement can be held liable for resulting infringement.  Perhaps its time to allow vicarious liability for Internet sites that encourage IIED as well…

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