In this post, I will analyze a blog post by popular atheist blogger Stephanie Zvan in which she proposes criterion for what constitutes cyberstalking and asserts that she is being cyberstalked (and abused). I will argue that her definition is most unreasonable, would lead to absurd consequences, and that Zvan — as a blogger on a prominent blog network — should realize that what she constitutes as cyberstalking is par for the course in regards to public figures like her. Further, I will argue that Zvan seems to be minimizing cyberstalking and seems to be speaking from a position of privilege – I will provide examples of abuse and cyberstalking — among other examples — I have received because I am an atheist activist.
What’s the issue?
Stephanie Zvan — blogger at “Almost Diamonds” on Freethought Blogs (likely one of the most-viewed websites aggregating blogs by atheists) — recently authored a post titled “Is Cyberstalking Abuse?” in which she responded to a post authored by Todd Stiefel concerning harassment at atheist/skeptic conventions. Stephanie notes that she is “pretty sure we [atheists] as a movement simply aren’t grown up enough to handle [ourselves(?)]” and “not sure we’re grown up enough to handle what abuse is.” Explicating, Zvan defines what she means by ‘cyberstalker,’
The facts of the matter here are that Rebecca Watson and the outspoken feminists of FtB and a few of the people we talk with and about have a bunch of cyberstalkers. These are people who get together to talk about what we write, our speeches, our tweets, our postings on Facebook, pictures of us available on the web. They glean the personal information we use to make ourselves and our topics more relatable and go back years to try to dig up dirt. They lie when they can’t find anything ugly enough for them. They built a fucking wiki dedicated to us. Not only that, but every bit of them talking about this stuff is meant to damage us. We have cyberstalkers.
Later in the post, Zvan proposes what might be considered the opposite (not a cyberstalker),
People argue with us in public places–which is fine–with no plan for dealing with our stalkers–which isn’t, because it means we can’t interact with our critics without interacting with our stalkers. Then people get on our cases for being insular if we protect ourselves by staying away. They, with the best of intentions, aid the people who are trying to shut us out of the public conversation because they can’t or won’t believe the situation is real.
Zvan also alludes to ERV, a blog on the ScienceBlogs network, where what she believes to be cyberstalking is taking place. She notes that National Geographic hosts the blog “[d]espite the fact that [she and like-minded persons] been talking about this for months, and dealt publicly with two threats to conference speakers that have come from our stalkers, people still claim we have no reason to ever feel threatened.”
Is Zvan’s definition of a cyberstalker a tenable one, especially in light of cyberstalking having serious legal consequences? While ‘bringing a dictionary to a debate’ is not always the most helpful course of action, I think it would be helpful to first review some proposed definitions of cyberstalking — from the first page of Google results — considering that legal terms, of course, have definitions.
Cyberstalking is the use of the Internet, email or other electronic communications to stalk, and generally refers to a pattern of threatening or malicious behaviors. Cyberstalking may be considered the most dangerous of the three types of Internet harassment, based on a posing credible threat of harm. Sanctions range from misdemeanors to felonies.
Second, from North Carolina law,
(b) It is unlawful for a person to:
(1) Use in electronic mail or electronic communication any words or language threatening to inflict bodily harm to any person or to that person’s child, sibling, spouse, or dependent, or physical injury to the property of any person, or for the purpose of extorting money or other things of value from any person.
(2) Electronically mail or electronically communicate to another repeatedly, whether or not conversation ensues, for the purpose of abusing, annoying, threatening, terrifying, harassing, or embarrassing any person.
(3) Electronically mail or electronically communicate to another and to knowingly make any false statement concerning death, injury, illness, disfigurement, indecent conduct, or criminal conduct of the person electronically mailed or of any member of the person’s family or household with the intent to abuse, annoy, threaten, terrify, harass, or embarrass.
Her first criterion, “These are people who get together to talk about what we write, our speeches, our tweets, our postings on Facebook, pictures of us available on the web” does not seem to be part of the above definitions – especially considering, as it should be important to emphasize once again, that Stephanie Zvan fits into the category of ‘public figure‘ as she is one of the writers on the very popular Freethought Blogs network. Stephanie operates a Twitter feed, posts frequently on her blog, and offers a great deal of information about herself — in many ways — to her audience. Similarly, the other criterion seem to fail to cohere with the previous mentioned definitions of cyberstalking.
Some people at this point may be thinking, “well, you’re blaming the victim!” Before a glib dismissal would take place — and perhaps in anticipation of it in the comment section or related comments — it is important to consider some points. As a blogger [on a popular blog network], people should expect [if they garner a large enough audience] to receive criticism in many forms including personal attacks, strawmans, discourse similar to that of or otherwise indistinguishable from YouTube comments, and more. While this behavior might not be the nicest thing for one to do (rather than, for example, taking the person’s argument, being charitable, avoiding personal attacks, etc) and I don’t condone it, it will happen – and should be expected. A person who enters the blogosphere and then complains (or, perhaps, to stay in tune of being charitable, is expressing dissatisfaction with) about criticism while calling it cyberstalking, harassment, etc. seems to be in an awkward place and — as others might say — making a mountain out of a molehill.
Shall we consider people who, as Zvan notes, get together to talk about Zvan’s communications in the form of what she writes [all public on her public blog and elsewhere, a result of her continued writing], speaks [recorded at conventions or whichever other venues she freely attends], Tweets [available on her Twitter feed open to the public], postings on Facebook [available to many followers and likely transmitted from person to person], and pictures available on the web [again, publicly available], personal information she uses to make her topics more relatable [publicly available in her publicly available writings], dirt from years past [likely publicly available], and a wiki page [based off her information freely available on the internet]. I don’t think so.
‘Critical thinking 101’ textbooks usually mention something called the reductio ad absurdum – a strategy of sorts that one can use to show an argument fails because, when the most logical consequences are reached, it would be profoundly unreasonable. For example, consider someone who believes that abortion is immoral on the grounds of it preventing potential life. A glib retort — a reductio ad absurdum — to this line of reasoning would be, “Well, you’re not having sex right now…therefore you’re preventing potential life.”
In the same light, Zvan’s definition of cyberstalking appears to fail because — when taken to the most logical consequences — we would have to consider, as a friend on my Facebook page noted, major news organizations to be cyberstalkers because they read everything that many well-known individuals write, dig up dirt, and talk about what they say, etc. Forums from those in the Tea Party movement who say nasty things about liberal political individuals would constitute cyberstalking. Similarly, comment threads on CNN, Fox News Network, etc. would also be considered cyberstalking. I would be considered to be cyberstalking many of my favorite living philosophers, my ‘starred friends’ on Facebook, and perhaps everyone on Twitter. My Twitter followers, additionally, read so many things I write…
Magnitude and privilege
What about the magnitude of the alleged cyberstalking that Stephanie Zvan writes about? Can it be compared to legitimate forms of cyberstalking, harassment, etc. others may experience? Again, I don’t condone nasty things people say about Stephanie and her associates — and would not use that language myself — even though she and her blogger friend ‘Lousy Canuck’ are happy to call me a “vacuous shitbag troll” and more in blog posts and comments.
Stephanie indeed is associated with nasty names on a daily basis as people say nasty things about her, but is there more than this? I’m also fully aware of some really bad experiences some have had at conventions and have read examples of harassment people have faced. This is bad and should not happen – although it, at the same time, is much different than what Zvan is calling cyberstalking – and certainly not something, to my knowledge, that Zvan has experienced. It’s important not to conflate the comments of ‘random people on the internet’ who seem to be harmless and have no inclination of violence with these incidents. Might Zvan, then, be minimizing what constitutes cyberstalking [lacking solid examples of such outside of ERV comments, blog comments, etc]?
In many circles — and rightly so in many cases — the word “privilege” is thrown about. Some people, because of lack of experience or personal immutable characteristics, as some say, ‘do not know what it is really like.’ Christians who talk about ‘Christian persecution’ (when crosses are removed from governmental land, for example) are scoffed at by atheists like myself who can’t even purchase and display an advertisement on the side of a county bus with the word “Atheists” on it while Muslims are being profiled and followed by FBI agents. I think that Stephanie Zvan is privileged in the sense that she doesn’t really seem to know what cyberstalking is – or otherwise is inappropriately inflating the magnitude of what she deems to be cyberstalking. Let me state my case.
As an atheist activist, I understand that there will be repercussions that may follow my actions. In 2009, while on a telephone call with some people before I went forth with my first church/state complaint [click to see all posts of mine related to this issue], I was perhaps ‘warned’ and told that severe repercussions ranging from hate mail, violence, threats of violence, death threats, and even death may follow. A friend of mine from high school also called me while crying on the phone — urging me to back down — and honestly feared that I would be killed or physically harmed by many in the community – and with good reason for her to believe so given the oppressive climate that was present.
I had the chance to ‘back out’ in 2009, but refused to – while going forward with the understanding that repercussions would follow. I — as an out atheist at a Catholic college — challenged the constitutionality of a courthouse religious holiday display. I went on local television stations, had my picture taken for the front page of newspapers in interviews which I agreed to, went on local radio shows, and much more.
I was called ‘the third most hated person in Luzerne County.’ I received a tremendous amount of hate mail and threats from fellow college students (at my school), people in the Northeastern Pennsylvania area, people I went to high school with (some from those who had bullied me), a person in the military, and others. People sent letters to my college asking for me to be expelled. The director of Residence Life made sure to call me by phone at this time and heightened the security of the undisclosed location I stayed on while on campus during the winter break. She called to check on me and made sure I was safe. It goes on.
In a very strange turn of events, I was challenged to a wrestling match by a wrestler who goes by the moniker “Banger” Ritch Howe (the guy here with the black shirt) who, as a local radio personality said, attempted to use $1000 for charity as leverage to fight me – a person who is not at all a fighter calling me Justin “Eat Me” Vacula (whatever that is about) and “Looks like Justin Vacula eats shit. $10 says we never hear his name again.” (He needs to pay up.) “Banger” then went on a radio show and said, “As far as Vacula’s concerned, I’m the damned devil,” “Oh, I’ll definitely teach that boy some manners. He’ll find God…oh, he’ll pray come January 10th,” and “I intend to do lots of brutal stuff.”
Months later, “Banger” sent me hate mail calling me an “attention whore,” calling my actions “mean-spirited and spiteful,” noted that my “personality detracts from any cause [I] may be championing,” that ‘I am far from being an actual benefit to the community,” and am a hypocrite because I challenged a psychic to a test of her abilities and failed to fight him in December. He then went on to say that I don’t believe in God because my parents failed me and this is why I am so angry and this “hardly takes a therapist to identify it.” Further, “Banger” noted, “nothing [I] will ever say will matter in the least, because [I] lack the courage to follow [my] convictions past a typing fit,” that I am “pretty convincing proof no such thing “intelligent design” exists,” and that I am “just another useless bump on the log of social ignorance” …among many other things.
Also in 2009, Roman Catholic blogger “The Rockin’ Traddy” — writing about “traditional Catholicism and today’s liberal church” from Luzerne County, the county which I lived in at the time — authored five interesting blog posts with my name as a tag. In “Hellbound Plan Next Assault,” Traddy used the following terms to describe me: “Dungeons and Dragons playing” (not the most obvious fact about myself that may have been gleaned from my Facebook profile), “girlfriendless” (a fact about myself, at the time, that had nothing to do with a church/state issue – likely gained from my Facebook profile), “living in their parents’ basement losers” (odd thing, not true) noting “Traddy has eyes everywhere. I have observed these people [referring to members of the atheist community group which I belonged and belong to].
In the post “Constitutional Scholar Vacula,” Traddy took a picture from my Facebook profile and photoshopped it with the word “LOSER” at the bottom. In this post, he took a comment I made from the — at the time — NEPA Freethought Society message board on meetup. In his post “VICTORY!” Traddy, noted a status from my Facebook feed in which I announced I would be on local radio. In “Just Because…,” Traddy, taking a photo from my meetup.com profile and posting it, encouraged readers to “Send me some Christmas cheer” listing my e-mail addresses and thanking “St. Mary’s of Dorrance Parishoner” for the information. Finally, in “Come Together,” Traddy considered giving me the “Scumbag of the Day” award.
In another post on Traddy’s blog, he noted where I would be on December 26, 2009 — at an atheist meeting in a restaurant — and suggested that people seemingly boycott the restaurant for having us. Traddy wrote, of Rodano’s, “So, Rodano’s allows them to hold their meetings free of charge. If anyone feels like calling Rodano’s at [#] be sure to tell them they’ve lose your business, for catering to groups like the “freethought” people. If they can offer them a place to meet for free, they apparently don’t need your business.”
Before any of this, I became a target of hate by many students at the Catholic school I attended for the atrocity of wanting to start a Secular Student Alliance chapter on campus. I had people scream in my face, write nasty messages on my Facebook page, create hate groups online, harass me while I was working, and so much more… all of this, again, with the knowledge that this would be a possibility.
In late 2011, my Aunt Lori — presumably following her reading my website posted on my Facebook page about how she “will show everyone the proof” and “so will [my family]” that I am Roman Catholic because I was a devout Catholic when I was younger. She notes, “alter boy ccd classes church every Sunday…and even Ash Wednesday…gave up candy remember….even got baptised.” She said she thinks I am “doing this 4 attention” and “need a reality check” before telling me to “get a real job,” character attacking my father, telling me I will be — as she says — “a nothing” like him and “a bum.” After hearing from another family member about this, I was told that my Aunt Lori started to tell lies to my mother which lead to my mother crying on my cell phone voicemail…and me being homeless – not allowed back into my mother’s house and with no place to live. I had to stay in an apartment for much longer than I was legally able to, had to leave at 5AM for about two weeks during inspections to avoid being ‘caught,’ and — after I was eventually ‘caught,’ my only option of living, as I had very little money and lack of people who would take me in with that lack of money, was with an elderly woman my father did odd jobs for. I had to live there for months and finally, after a grueling period of intense drama, was able to move back in with my mother following my first semester of graduate school in which I lived on financial aid money and had to pay $425 a month in rent.
Previous to my Aunt Lori’s comments — very mild in relation to those of another aunt which I will detail here — my Aunt Carol, on her Facebook page and the Facebook page of a cousin of mine, after read my website, had some ‘kind words’ for me including, “Stay the fuck off my wall fuck head go argue w/someone who wants to argue with you over you friggen shit! leave me the frig alone. When u grow up call me Aunt..until then leave me alone start trouble elsewhere” and, to my cousin, in regards to me, “He thinks GOD does not exist […] go to the 7th floor [of a psychiatric ward] and visit him some day :D” Further, she said, “He Justin is so fucked up,” “Anyone who knows him has to be desperate to associate with him,” “let him waste away and go to the 7th floor,” “ASSHOLE needs a SHRINK,” called me “brain washed,” and “SHRINK SHRINK SHRINK.”
I was told to ‘go back to my community of privilege and send my children to atheist schools,’ that I was not welcome in the Harrisburg capital rotunda, that school systems are ‘not mine’ [and presumably are those of Christians or otherwise non-atheists], and that I owned a “sorry sign” and came with “a weak argument” …all by Pennsylvania State Senator Anthony Williams at a ‘school choice/school voucher’ rally I protested with American Atheists. Also at the rally — with hundreds of students and adults brought in by buses filling the rotunda on its many floors — my sign was blocked by people who seemed to not tolerate my dissent. People bumped against me, surrounded me, and would not allow me to show my sign – all while a guard stood by. All of this happened, again, with the knowledge that there would be repercussions.
Later in that day in Harrisburg, while sitting in on a Pennsylvania House of Representatives session with the intention of taking notes and learning about government, I was coerced by an armed guard when I refused to stand for a governmental Christian sectarian prayer even though I was afforded the option to remain seated – the house speaker asks people to stand and a sign outside similarly asks. The bold action of remaining seated was impermissible that day. I did not even expect this to happen. The FFRF sent a letter, the prayer continues, and the policy which seems to allow armed guards to approach people and ask them to stand even though they have obviously remained seated and were aware of being asked to stand by the house speaker — as far as I know — has not changed.
A month later, following my very fair, documented, charitable, and personal attack free criticism of a local chiropractor who fuses theology with pseudoscience, I received legal threats from his fiancee’. Months later, after rebuking my graduate school for including ‘energy medicine’ and a subluxation chiropractor in student health fairs, I drew the ire of students whom I had classes with. Following that, my efforts to start a Secular Student Alliance group in an attempt to, among other things, meet with fellow like-minded students were squelched. Students — most prominently officers and members of the LGBT group on campus — who previously welcomed me with open arms rebuked me.
Most recently, I received threats from a county bus driver because I was successful — with the help of the Freedom From Religion Foundation — in removing “God Bless America” messages from the LED signs of county buses (which I very frequently rode and continue to ride) that were controlled by the drivers/bus company. I filed a police report and the driver was, according to the bus company, rebuked – although he was never fired from his position or, as far as I know, suspended.
Above is a sample of what I have encountered since late 2009 that could easily get a book-length treatment…and there will be much more to come, I am sure. These aren’t just comments from ‘random people/trolls on the internet,’ but rather are comments from people in my community and beyond — many of them legitimate/genuine/attached to a name — who have made my life more difficult than it had to be … largely because I was willing to take a public stand as an atheist. Not all of this is abuse or cyberstalking, but most of it — especially considering the criterion Zvan proposes — could be rightly called that. Unlike Zvan, though, I know what real cyberstalking and abuse is [because I have been the victim of it].
Once more, I don’t condone nasty comments people make on the internet. I am not saying it is permissible or OK simply because one is a public figure, but rather am asserting that these things should be expected. If one cannot handle the nastiness, perhaps it should be time for that person to quit writing. Also important to note — as has been a part of this extended conversation (although this isn’t the post for revisiting other issues) — is that women are stalked, abused, threatened, etc. in a much harsher and more realistic fashion than Zvan proposes. Those instances are quite legitimate reasons to claim abuse and cyberstalking, but from what little evidence Zvan provided, I don’t see that she has much of a case.
I wonder…has Zvan ever had a reasonable reason to fear for her life because she writes on the internet? Have people followed her while walking or driving home in an attempt to catch her off guard and abuse her? Has Zvan ever had to stay in an undisclosed location with security? I don’t think so. Zvan, instead, offers nasty comments on the internet…those indistinguishable from Youtube comments and likely coming from real honest to god trolls who seem tough behind a computer screen, but won’t actually do anything, may simply be joking (whether or not anyone finds it funny), and certainly are not indicative of the ‘atheist community’ similarly to how comments on CNN articles aren’t indicative of democrats or republicans.
If Stephanie would like to respond to this post or dispel my ignorance by offering some real threats and real cyberstalking she has received, I will be happy to link to her post right at the top here. Unlike Stephanie, I won’t block people for dissenting. [I’m blocked on her blog.] Hopefully she doesn’t consider this post to be cyberstalking or abuse…