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Nobody's Safe in Cyberspace

I had interviewed or photographed everyone from Augusten Burroughs to Madonna to Shimon Peres for Wikipedia. In two days, I was to fly to Brazil to interview the mayor of Rio de Janeiro and Oscar Niemeyer, the architect. I canceled my trip. “I’m sorry,” I told the tourist board who arranged everything, “I have to fly to Denver because my mother is in the hospital.” What a lie! I flew home to Colorado because I was suffering an emotional breakdown over an Internet stalker. I endured his pursuit for three months on Wikipedia. My behavior grew erratic. My paralegal job suffered. I resigned as a volunteer Wikipedia editor.

David Shankbone and Augusten Burroughs. Photo by David Shankbone.
David Shankbone and Augusten Burroughs. Photo by David Shankbone.

Encyclopedia Dramatica calls this “Wikicide” and I committed it several times over. I wrote long, tortured screeds for help from fellow editors that were misread as arrogant boasts of my accomplishments. My stalker delighted in these embarrassing verbal dances on Wikipedia, the world’s seventh most-visited website. I found little help from authorities or the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the site. “We don’t have the resources,” wrote volunteer coordinator Cary Bass. Wikipedia has become a site where people fight culture wars and ordinary contributors like me are caught in the crosshairs.

My photography illustrates about 4,000 articles on Wikipedia. I have interviewed everyone from presidents to porn stars to poets, on philosophical topics of life, death, sanity and redemption. My questions were those I contended with myself. In 2006, I left Fordham Law School one year short of graduation. I had missed a few credit card payments and could not qualify for student loans. The school would not help, so I returned to life as a paralegal. My sense of failure and financial devastation drove me to the verge of collapse.

This trauma fueled my every photograph and my every interview. The world no longer made sense. Looking for answers, I turned to figures that exist in extremes. Three of the most right-wing Republican Presidential candidates. The President of the ACLU. Al Sharpton, Ingrid Newkirk and the High Priest of the Church of Satan. The Dalai Lama’s ambassador. Punk icon Richard Hell.

But it was only when I met the porn star Michael Lucas that my work became controversial. His outspoken political views have offended Orthodox Jews and Muslims alike, which led to a profile in The New Republic that dubbed him “Gay Porn’s Neocon Kingpin.” I met him at a party for RuPaul, and he asked me if I could make two small corrections to his article. First, he said his birth name was not Bregman, as his article stated, but Treivas. He supplied his Soviet birth certificate. Second, the article stated he had been a “prostitute” in his early twenties, whereas he preferred to be called a “male escort.”

It was over this semantic minutia that my stalker made me a target of defamation, gory sexual fantasies and violent threats for months from an anonymous Internet address in northern New Jersey. I can only speculate why this person felt so strongly. Unlike other cultural and political figures, porn stars appeal to our most base urges and desires. They become transfixed in imaginations; indeed, some people form fantasy relationships with their favorite star. Whatever the reason, it was worth it for my stalker to obsess over those two changes and to make certain I paid for it.

He published my home address on Wikipedia. He learned about my law school experience. “David Shankbone is a fucking failure!” or “law school dropout” was written on my photography and in Wikipedia discussion forums twenty or thirty times a day. Using information readily available in Internet searches, he made it appear I knew him. This is a common stalker tactic. People believed him. He implied I was an alcoholic, on drugs and traded sex for interviews. “Who is this guy? What did you do to him?” I was constantly asked.

Over months I was given warnings that I was not safe. I was told to be vigilant and that “we would soon meet.” If people assisted me, they became targets. I was told that if I showed up to give a scheduled talk at Columbia University, I would be attacked. When I uploaded photos of a famous friend for the site, he thanked me for making it easier to envision a bullet hole in his head. The messages were repeated on the English, French, Italian, German, Polish, Dutch and Spanish Wikipedia sites. As they became more violent, people advised me to contact the authorities. When I did, they said there was little they could do.

Internet cruelty is easy. We do not have to look at the people we hurt. Megan Meier, a depressed 13-year-old in Missouri, committed suicide after receiving harassing on-line messages from a boy she thought liked her. The “boy” turned out to be Lori Drew, mother of Megan’s former friend, who wanted to avenge her daughter for some slight. Drew wrote, “Everybody in O’Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you…. The world would be a better place without you.” Politicians reacted to Megan’s suicide with a typical spate of empty gestures, passing an online harassment law. “These protections ensure that our laws now have the protections and penalties needed to safeguard Missourians from Internet harassment,” boasted Gov. Matt Blunt.

No, they do not. Lori Drew’s behavior was already a federal crime.

With fanfare, George Bush signed into law the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005. It is illegal to conceal your identity to “annoy, abuse, threaten or harass” a person over the computer. I met with legendary First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, who said he doubts such laws can remain on the books. “It’s not only constitutionally vague, but you are probably allowed to annoy someone. A lot of political speech has annoyance as part of it.” Anonymous criticism has been a cornerstone of American democracy since “Publius” wrote the The Federalist Papers.

Free speech rights allow wide latitude to say almost anything to express disagreement with people. According to Abrams, that includes, “mocking them, using extreme language to denigrate someone’s views and name calling.” You can use racial or religious slurs and, under the First Amendment, still be protected, which runs contrary to the laws of every other democratic nation. The concept of a “true threat” is not protected, however. Despite what a New York Cybercrimes Unit detective told me, a threat does not need to be an explicit warning of pending harm. A person must only clearly convey they are threatening you. “Any line that says ‘You will pay for what you have done…revenge is sweet’ immediately puts the speaker in an area where law enforcement might well get involved and not be barred by the First Amendment,” said Abrams, reading a direct quote my stalker wrote.

David Shankbone and Shimon Peres. Photo by David Shankbone.
David Shankbone and Shimon Peres. Photo by David Shankbone.

The police and prosecutors are overtaxed with more imminent dangers. Bob Rahn, a former NYPD detective turned private investigator, said cyberstalking is a time consuming, labor intensive investigation that is difficult to solve. The stalker may be geographically anywhere. Even when a perpetrator is discovered, many victims do not want to press charges. The judicial process is lengthy and the victim often just wants the harassment to stop. A story about a 13-year-old depressed girl’s suicide makes good news copy and inspires new laws. Once the furor dies down, little has changed. Wikipedia, in particular, provides fertile stalking ground.

“If my involvement in Wikipedia is so dam [sic] important to you that you will threaten my family then fine, you win, I am outta here…It is just a web site for fucks sake.”—A message on the page of a former administrator.

However, it is not just a website. Wikipedia mirrors society and all of its neuroses. People announce their intention to kill themselves on the Suicide article. A 15-year-old student in California was arrested after he wrote names of classmates he planned to kill, Columbine-style, on his school’s article. The Pro-Palestinian group Electronic Intifada exposed that the pro-Israeli group Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) had a coordinated campaign to influence the Israeli-Palestinian articles. CAMERA responded with a letter in the International Herald-Tribune that Wikipedia has an anti-Israeli bias it wanted to correct. The cliché Knowledge Is Power is now a game of cat-and-mouse played by ordinary people. Their desire to share information can hurt their waking lives.

“What is needed is a very strong and coordinated stance from the Foundation. Many of us have asked for this, particularly from Florence, the chair of the Foundation, or from Jimbo Wales, but no progress has ever been made.” That quote came from the person who founded the Wikipedia Cyberstalking group and perhaps one of the most famous cases of on-line stalking in Wikipedia history: SlimVirgin. She will only say her real name is Sarah. She became involved in a series of controversial decisions and articles that incurred the wrath of so many groups, she became a “meme,” or an Internet phenomenon. She has angered, among others, Palestinians, privacy advocates, Lyndon LaRouche followers, Neo-Nazis, cultural critics, animal experimenters and conspiracy theorists. Entire websites and discussion forums are devoted to researching her identity and her contributions to Wikipedia. The unproven theories people swear are true would make a good novel: Sarah is a former spy for MI5; she was a fired reporter for ABC News; she is a member of a Jewish cabal; her boyfriend died in the Lockerbie bombing and she seeks revenge against Libya on Wikipedia. Sarah considers the attention a menace. “I heard people were trying to contact friends, ex-boyfriends and ex-employers,” she told me. “One person wrote that they looked forward to punching me in the face and another wondered whether I was worried about being raped.”

Wikimedia Deputy Director Erik Moeller noted the philosophical difficulty in defining harassment. “I do feel that there is a limited need to differentiate between the 13-year-old jerk and the 30-year-old potential serial killer, because we simply can’t predict or realistically assess what category a person falls into.”

Critics of Wikipedia see things differently. “What Wikipedia editors define as harassment is not harassment,” said Gregory Kohs, who regularly posts on the criticism site, Wikipedia Review, and is himself banned from editing Wikipedia. Kohs is known in wiki communities for his pursuit of his nemesis Lise Broer, who edits Wikipedia under the name Durova. She played a key role in his banning. He feels he was unjustly banned and Broer has unapologetically maligned his reputation. He has fought back by mocking her and monitoring her actions on the site. Floyd Abrams would not see this as harassment, but as Kohs exercising his constitutional right to express his dissatisfaction. Broer, lampooned by Kohs on a series of mugs, t-shirts and thong underwear, feels it is serial harassment.

David Shankbone and Ingrid Newkirk. Photos by David Shankbone.
David Shankbone and Ingrid Newkirk. Photos by David Shankbone.

This is ultimately the problem people on Wikipedia face. Unlike Newsweek or New York Times writers, Wikipedia editors are normal people not paid to ensure the public learns the truth. Meanwhile, there are people and organizations that exist whose only mission is to learn who you are behind that screen name in case you do something they do not like so they know where to find you. The issue can be as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or it can be as trivial as whether a porn star was once an “escort” or a “prostitute.” If you become a target on Wikipedia, do not expect a supportive community. Some people will remove harassing posts whenever they see them. Another group wants to let the posts stand (either as anti-censorship; because they agree with the harassment; or because they lead dull lives and watching someone get harassed is the most exciting thing that’s happening to them that week). A third group is willing to see the posts removed, but wants to “discuss” the principle of the removal. For someone like me, who only wanted to make sense of my own trauma through art and knowledge, it is easier to return to a paralegal’s life.


David Shankbone


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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