About 10 years ago I became the target of a deranged internet harassment campaign. Shortly after my wife died an obviously mentally disturbed individual began setting up ids under versions of my wife's name, and posting pornographic text messages directed at me on a variety of different public forums. I have no idea who did this, or why I became the target, but over the period of a few months it made my life miserable, even though it seemed to be coming from only one individual, and even though the total number of posts was probably no more than a hundred.
I did what was considered best practice at that time. I filed a local police report report, in case the harassment spilled out into the real world. I saved individual posts in case I needed to document them for court proceedings, and reported the userids and individual posts for removal. For a few months I continued to silently monitor the forums where the harasser was active, and report the ids and posts.
Of course at first the harasser would pop back up with a newly minted id, but since I had also stopped posting to the forums where the harassment was occurring, he seemed to lose interest, and I was finally able to stop monitoring.
Forget about abstract or philosophical issues of free speech vs. restricted speech for a moment, and imagine the effect this was having on me. My wife had died a few months previously, and I was not in an emotionally strong place to begin with. Some sick individual on the internet had decided to target me for emotional destruction. Think about it. Then imagine how much "free speech" a person who had targeted you for this vicious form of harassment you would grant if you were in a similar situation.
My harasser, by his standards (and I think I'm safe in assuming it was a young male) won the little war he was conducting against me. He added to the misery I was already going through, and I left those particular forums permanently. The advice I was given by everyone I consulted supported that approach, too: leave, and let the harasser move on to another target.
Now fast forward to the present, when harassers have gotten much more organized, and relatively sophisticated in their tactics. Imagine where my sympathies would lie when gamergate, an organized harassment campaign against several women directly or indirectly associated with the videogame industry, broke out.
I may write more about gamergate in future posts, and I may not. Gamergate itself will probably decline until it has the same amount of influence as the Birthers, or any other conspiracy theory which has run through its life cycle. But the strategy and tactics the gamergaters refined will be with us until the general public is fed up with targeted harassment campaigns, and there is the political will to do something about it.
What should that "something" be? That remains to be seen. I'm an advocate of free speech on the internet. But I'm also an advocate of consequences for the deliberate targeting and attempted personal destruction of individuals. Much of the shield that trolls, flamers, and abusers on the internet have revolves around their anonymity. I think that, with careful consideration, an ethical code should be built around what forms of speech are allowable on open forums using pseudonyms, and I think social media should seriously enforce those codes. It isn't just "gaming journalism" that needs ethics. Public posting on social media should follow ethical guidelines, too.
But for now, I would love to see regular prosecutions of the people who break existing laws, and who have crossed the legal line into terroristic threats. New laws, tailored for the internet, that punish targeted harassment, while protecting free speech, should be developed, refined, and put into place.
The way I dealt with my harasser a decade ago, by just shutting up and letting him "win" the deranged game he was playing, is not a good overall recommendation for a healthy and free internet. Who has a stronger claim to their free speech on the internet? The harasser or the harassed?