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20 September 2017 09:39 (South Africa)
Opinionista Vashthi Nepaul

Robyn Burger and the Toolbox of the Future

  • Vashthi Nepaul
    Vashthi-new-photo.jpg
    Vashthi Nepaul

    After over a decade coaching school debating, Vashthi gave up working with children in order to write about them instead. Her book, GIFT: the search for South Africa’s genius children, recently won the City Press Tafelberg non-fiction award, which means she definitely has to finish writing it. Her day job is in IT, her hometown is the Internet and her bad jokes live online @giveusalol

This neighbourhood we call the internet needs fixing, but there’s a lot of potential if we’re all willing to pitch in. I learnt that from an exceptional person who was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to expose the good the Web can do. What do you think – can we do this thing?

In my house it was always my mother. She would sit in the odd wooden chair by the telephone with a battered phone- and address-book on her lap, calling relatives and family friends, letting them know that someone dear had shuffled off this mortal coil. It was never a comfortable conversation, striving for the right words through one’s own grief is no simple task. I always regarded it with trepidation; an adult rite of passage I’d happily avoid forever. A few days ago, it was my turn to make my first ‘notice of death’ call.

This is not where the story starts.

This story starts in September 2013 with a creeping horror and the ubiquitous sound of mouse clicking.

Imagine that you live in a pretty nice neighbourhood. There are only a few of you and most of you know each other. Sure, there are a few shady characters but they keep to themselves and don’t bother anyone. The police hardly ever get called in and for the most part, people get along. The most heated it ever gets is when people disagree over which TV program is the best. You help each other out and share with each other and occasionally pick an issue to get all protest-y about. That was the online community in simpler times, some two decades past. That was my neighbourhood.

Imagine too that your neighbourhood grows slowly in the 1990s and early 2000s, only to leapfrog to the point of overcrowding in 2007. Suddenly your friends were far flung and you were pretty certain that some very unsavoury elements had moved in: bullies, religious zealots, men who probably shouldn’t be allowed near the playground, hater groups for nearly everything, possibly even a terrorist cell. Despite it being the neighbourhood you grew up in, and one you helped build, you find yourself giving serious thought to moving out.

In September 2013, Reuters Investigates published a five part series called The Child Exchange. The result of 18 months of research and compelling enough to lobby for legislative change, the series exposed the practice of ‘private rehoming’ or ‘disrupted adoption.’ In short – it looked at people using internet communities to give away their adopted children outside the bounds of the law. Sometimes the children were given by their parents to child abusers. It is some stomach-turning stuff but one of the more alarming things about it is that Internet very definitely made it happen. Could people do this without anonymous online communities? Sure, if they were determined and resourceful enough. But not as easily, not with such reduced personal risk, not in these numbers.

2014 brought back #NotAllMen with the popular internet cartoon of Not-All-Man, which got a few laughs before it got picked up again by men and seriously this time. It was the tail end of May 2014 and Elliot Rodger had just killed six people in Isla Vista as part of what he called ‘My War on Women’ in a manifesto he published online. Many men took exception to claims that Elliot’s misogyny was gender-typical and reprised #NotAllMen to prove it. In response to both the Elliot Rodger story and the burgeoning male indignation online, an anonymous woman on Twitter started #YesAllWomen, a tag about everyday sexism against women which would be retweeted 1.2 million times in four days. It was the start of open gender warfare and it was hitting people in the online places where they lived. Instead of a story existing somewhere out there on a blog in the ether it was suddenly in a user’s Facebook and Twitter feed, it was in the mainstream media, people they knew in real life were asking them about it. It was unprecedented and it was awful.

Investigative journalists, meanwhile, were following another trail left by Rodger to websites like PUAhate.com and online forums like ForeverAlone. In order to understand these sites, you have to know a bit about the culture they come from. Ten years ago, journalist Neil Strauss wrote a book called The Game. It exposed the world of pick up artists (PUA). These ‘artists’ were the confidence men of one night stands; they had all hit upon a way to both appear superior to other men and sexually desirable to women. Even a decade later, between 148,000 and 172,000 people are still in internet communities, dedicated to learning this alleged skill set.

Off the back of this story grew the pick-up artistry industry – designed to build the confidence of dateless, sexless men. Just like the Nigerian prince who really wanted to give you five million dollars, some things on the Internet are a scam. From the realisation that pick-up artistry was not a magic trick that could get you sex, grew PUAhate.com and forums like Red Pill. These men were angry with pick up artistry for lying to them. Their online communities have tens of thousands of members, frustrated with their inability to impress the objects of their desire and sometimes frustrated with women themselves. Some communities took it a step further, declaring themselves ‘incel’, shorthand for involuntarily celibate. These men defined themselves entirely by the fact that women would not sleep with them. These online communities also have tens of thousands of members.

Some of the comments on these sites include:
“media doesnt aknolwedge the majroity of males' discontentment with current sexual dystopia… its all about HATING WOMEN”

“how many of you here ever thought about committing mass murder?” and

“what's your rape count”

Of course these worrying people are only a small portion of the people online. But when even the minority numbers in the tens of thousands, you have to be realistic about the likelihood that it could still cause significant harm. After all, it was people in Internet communities who encouraged Elliot Rodger, and Elliot was one of them.

It was clear that 2014 was going to be a difficult year to be online. It was, after all, the year that the mainstream media had to learn to use the word ‘doxxing’. Hacktivists and cyber-bullies alike would reveal personal information about their targets, including where they worked, their credit card numbers and their physical addresses. The year 2014 was the year where the Internet could find your home and threaten your loved ones.

The dust had barely settled when journalist Luke Malone published online a fascinating piece of investigative journalism on young paedophiles. The byline? “There’s no helpline for paedophiles who want treatment before they act. So a teen with a terrible secret had to find his own way to save himself and others like him.” Yes, the article is about non-offenders supporting one another so that they stay non-offenders. But it is also set against an online backdrop where paedophiles can organise, and a 16-year-old boy can easily download reams of child pornography without alerting any authorities.

The article alarmed many people because it expanded the mainstream perception of paedophiles beyond the stereotypical older man, into youth as far down as minors themselves. Child abuse is easily one of the most widely condemned transgressions; across many societies it is reviled, outlawed and policed. And yet, here on the internet, young and not especially bright people were easily able to access and share the fruits of its labour, despite all the governmental taskforces and technical monitoring in place. The same people who were amazed by the article - it was unusual, relevant and the result of much time and study - were also fighting the horror of what their neighbourhood had become.

But the year was not yet done with us. Online communities would have two more draining public kerfuffles: #GamerGate and #ShirtGate. Should they have happened? Yes, absolutely yes. Both issues genuinely started meaningful discussions about gender, sexism, funding and professional conduct. Gamergate addressed these issues in gaming, Shirtgate did this same for the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Were people discussing these issues before these instances? Yes. However, these particular online eruptions pulled in far more participants than ever before. Discussing these issues was no longer left to just ‘the usual online suspects’ but instead spread to the greater online community, to a number of popular celebrities and onto the televised and print news media. In short, Gamergate and Shirtgate were not online issues, they were news issues that had their origins online.

It got ugly. Mixing gender conflict and internet anonymity meant a lot of unproductive gender negativity from all parties, spiralling into rape and murder threats, stalking, doxxing and the kind of messages that require calling the police. Like the case of Elliot Rodger and #NotAllMen/ #YesAllWomen, it hit people in the places where they lived, which is a shorter way of saying that people of a certain generation and below could not avoid these issues in the spaces they frequented online.

Shirtgate took us all through the end of November, petering off in the silly season. “Good,” I thought, “no one breaks news now.” I was hoping to recharge and return to a slightly more likeable Internet. Of course, January rolled round with a puling argument about which massacres we should be hashtagging, Paris or Baga. Then came the furore around Zelda La Grange and in the present tense, one of South Africa’s highest trending hashtags is #SowetoAttacks. We don’t need to look far to see our prejudices these days. We only need to look online.

So, is it time to leave the neighbourhood?

In October 2014, I spent a day with primary school children in Cape Town, learning about how they are learning. The school, with its regimented lawns and intrepid squirrels, is one of the few government primary schools running an enrichment programme for gifted children, and how I ended up there is also a neighbourhood story.

Last year, I was contacted by commentator on this very site, Daily Maverick, wanting to help with my research into gifted children for apparently no reason other than that she could. Her name was Robyn Burger and she had been an educational psychologist during the Apartheid education system. To say that Robyn was overflowing with relevant information would only be about halfway there. However, I had been learning that the online space is not a friendly one. We had invented a wonderful way to reach out to each other, and then systematically poisoned that space with hateful diatribe and a lack of reason. I was disinclined to reach my own hand across the virtual space. Had Robyn been less herself - a pensioner of admirable character, and interesting enough that my curiosity overcame my good sense - I would not have responded to her.

It was Robyn who sent me off to sit, heartened, in that primary school classroom, who facilitated meetings with people she thought I should find, who would send random information to me from the corners of the internet. Robyn passed away this month, leaving me sad and yet wondering. As I picked up my phone to share the news of her passing, I was struck by the fact that she had left me with people to call. In a short time Robyn had reached out of a comments section - of all the vile, detested spaces in the ether - and created connections for me. She loved the web. For her it represented a very connected, very human place and one where she could continue to learn. Robyn, humorously frank about ignoring Internet knuckleheads, adored the concept of the MOOC – massive online open courses. She would send her friends links to TED talks. She would reach out to far away family via email. She was fascinated by our new freedom of information and what it could mean for the poor child who wants to learn.

Robyn’s advanced age also made me think a lot about the forced perspective of the Internet. Global study after study tells us that the world now is a much safer, saner and more sharing place than it was in our past. In fact, we are still exposing atrocities now that took place as recently as the early 1900s. Many bad things happened in the past; we just didn’t have any way to find out about it. Damaging news was more easily covered up and contained and we had no power to blow the lid off it the way we can now. Even if we did find out about something heinous, we still didn’t have any way of talking about it. So yes, we spend a lot of time online raging at one another. However, we also have this place for collective grief, for sharing ideas, for starting things.

We have Wikipedia, and Google is literally dropping money on the poor these days. We have Project Gutenberg and its 46,000 free books, so anyone online can read Shakespeare when the need arises. We can be inspired by TED talks or donate money to a cause we just learnt of. A young woman can move you to pledge to donate your organs online. Hundreds of thousands of artists and writers will share their work with you for free. We have the first not-for-profit publishers of humour and fiction. There’s Kickstarter, where people can directly fund good ideas.

There is so much news that we can now have niche news – for the things that print media couldn’t justify including before. We have internet forums – hateful sometimes, but also brimming with practical instructions for mastering everything from cooking to electronics. We have space for voices often left behind: women, LGBT kids, the protestors of #Ferguson, the good folk of #illridewithyou, civilian reporters in revolutions and wars. We also have the anonymity that lets them get help and spread information with less fear and less risk. Coursera exists so any of us can get a free new education from the Ivy Leagues across the oceans. Free cellular-based services are helping the poor with online banking, medical records and school tuition. And more than any humans in our past, we are connected. We have the freedom of speech to make a comment and, if we’re anything like Robyn Burger, we have the opportunity to be a good neighbour.

I don’t think I will give up on this neighbourhood yet. Yes, she’s a fixer upper, but there are enough of us to turn it around. Join me. DM

  • Vashthi Nepaul
    Vashthi-new-photo.jpg
    Vashthi Nepaul

    After over a decade coaching school debating, Vashthi gave up working with children in order to write about them instead. Her book, GIFT: the search for South Africa’s genius children, recently won the City Press Tafelberg non-fiction award, which means she definitely has to finish writing it. Her day job is in IT, her hometown is the Internet and her bad jokes live online @giveusalol

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