The Chronicle of Higher Education has a fascinating post about cyberstalking. The piece is truly compelling and there are far too many worthy passages to excerpt them all. I’ll summarize it, but invite everyone to click through and read it for themselves.
The author of the piece is a creative writing professor and freelance writer, who was stalked by one of his students. After her graduation, she begins an email correspondence with him. When it turns amorous, he distances himself, as her emails become more frequent and obsessive.
The stalker then starts talking about “unleashing the fury.” She then begins emailing the professor’s colleagues, telling fictitious stories about affairs he has had and sexual practices he has engaged in. She begins writing other acquaintances of his and accusing him of plagiarism. Her accusations to others always have a more measured tone than her private crazy correspondence to him, and she adopts a knowing and confident attitude about the stories she tells. The libel moves to Amazon reviews of his book, and soon she is insinuating that he may have raped her. The professor watches his online reputation go to pieces, and he starts to wonder what effect it is having on people he knows.
You don’t have to be a writer to imagine how it feels to find yourself the object of a malicious attack on the Internet. An ordinary negative review is depressing, but it doesn’t flood you with this sense of personal emergency, as if not only your book but your life, or at least that large aura of meaning that accumulates around your life and gives it value, is in imminent and dire peril.
Call that aura your “character,” call it your “good name,” your “reputation,” your “honor.” Whatever it was, as I read the review on my screen, I seemed to be seeing the first stages of some irreversible damage spreading into this nebulous yet indispensable entity. However crudely Nasreen may have been deploying the gestures of critical theory and gender studies in her attempt to brand me as a monster, it seemed to me that she had mounted a successful attack. Needless to say, her description of “The Siege,” like all her other accounts of my work, bears little resemblance to the story itself, but who was going to check? The semblance of an annihilating critique had been created, and for people browsing the Web, that is all that matters.
The multiplying effect of the Internet—the knowledge that anything on it can be infinitely reproduced—further increases one’s alarm at this kind of attack. So too does its odd nature as a mass phenomenon in which, paradoxically, one participates in the blindest, most solitary manner. Who else has seen what you have seen? Who believes it? Who finds it entertaining? Who has posted it elsewhere, e-mailed it to a friend? One never knows, but where malice is involved, one quickly succumbs to the worst suspicions.
As I read it, I recognized myself in that passage and several others.
If her aim as a “verbal terrorist” was to replicate the conditions of the nation at large inside my head, with its panics and dreads, its droning monomania, she succeeded triumphantly. Possibly the monomania was the worst of these effects: the increasing difficulty of thinking about anything other than Nasreen. In this respect her obsession with me achieved perfect symmetry: I became just as obsessed with her. I couldn’t write, read, play with my kids, do almost anything without drifting off into morbid speculation about what new mischief she might be getting up to.
Then there was the paranoia. This manifested itself in a number of ways, but the source of them all lay in Nasreen’s uncanny ability to orchestrate other people, or at least the illusion of other people, into her attacks. Paranoia requires a social context, and Nasreen’s incorporation of my personal and professional associates into her campaign supplied that very efficiently. It also requires a constantly shifting boundary between what one knows for a fact and what one can only imagine, and this too Nasreen supplied. All she had to do was introduce the concept of smearing my name and furnish a few concrete examples of having done so, and my anxious self-interest could be relied on to expand the process indefinitely.
The calculus was simple: If a person is prepared to falsely assert X about you, then why would they not also falsely assert Y? Why, in fact, would they not assert every terrible thing under the sun? And if that person has already demonstrably reported those terrible things to your agent, your boss, your colleagues, then why might they not also be in the process of reporting them to your neighbors, your friends, or indeed (as in due course she did) your local police station?
As horrifying as this man’s experience was, I thought to myself: he has no idea how easy he has it in several ways. One crazy cyberstalker can turn your life upside down — especially if they are smart, as this woman was. But the professor could always explain this to people by saying: “I have this one crazy woman who is stalking me.” Everybody understands that.
What if he had several?
He claims that she appeared to orchestrate matters so others appeared to take part in the attacks. But none actually did.
What if they did? What if she had recruited other cyberstalkers?
How could she have accomplished this?
Instead of accusing the professor of deviant sexual practices or plagiarism, what if she could muster a paper-thin accusation that he had engaged in some political atrocity? And what if, instead of a writing professor, he were a politician or a political pundit?
If she had enough political allies on the other side of the aisle, she could make any crazy accusation and find a handful of people who would buy it. Think about it. How many times have you engaged in political arguments where people turn off their brains? Any piece of logic you offer is brushed aside. All that matters is the team.
What if you could recruit a whole team of cyberstalkers — all to aid you in a purely personal dispute?
Brett Kimberlin is a master of this technique. When he was in prison, he wanted nothing more than to get out. So he created a political story: he had sold pot to Dan Quayle. It was an outlandish accusation that was eventually rejected by the journalist who investigated it the most deeply — but it made a bold splash. People were only too happy to believe that Dan Quayle had smoked marijuana; it evoked outrage based on perceived hypocrisy. The scam worked. Doonesbury wrote comic strips featuring Kimberlin. A former U.S. Attorney General took his side.
It was all about getting out of prison, and making the federal government seem like a political enemy so he could portray himself as a political prisoner. But it worked. It suckered a lot of people.
Kimberlin never forgot that lesson, and when he tried to remake himself as a political activist, and people talked about his past, he targeted them. And he was smart enough to couch it all as a political dispute.
In this way, he was able to recruit partisans. They helped him create phony stories about his targets, all with a political veneer to attract suckers. The stories appealed to the reptile portion of the brain that turns off logic. By convoluting the story and making it sound political, he not only recruited allies in his cyberstalking, but he also encouraged bystanders to react by shrugging their shoulders. Whenever it seems like you have a partisan political dispute, judges and other bystanders want nothing to do with it.
The technique extends to attacking anyone reporting on the story as well. This frightens some journalists. There might be others who are intrepid enough to report the story, but if they’re attached to an organization, lawyers will keep them from reporting the most damning evidence, out of fear of being sued. As for the other journalists who report the story, attacking them makes them subject to an accusation that they are only writing about the story due to politics or personal reasons.
It is a very clever strategy. It takes clear-eyed people to wade through the convolution to the original source of the attacks: a desire to cyberstalk and smear anyone who dared write about the man’s past.
This is why I fiercely resist describing Kimberlin’s very personal campaign as political, even as I note how political partisans are getting roped in by his fables. This is why Stacy McCain resists being pulled into the story as a participant when he is trying to report it. They want to make it seem political. They want reporters to seem like participants. We are resisting their cynical techniques.
Go read the piece, and put yourself in the professor’s place. Then imagine 5 or 10 Nasreens instead of one, multiplying their slander across the Internet.
Welcome to the life of anyone who takes on Brett Kimberlin.