Katy Burns: Cyber bullies
Deborah Lielasus is a 54-year-old freelance grant writer from Portsmouth who has spent much of her adult life working in the nonprofit sector, particularly the arts.
She is also – take your pick – a “parasite,” a “useful idiot,” a “professional beggar,” a “scammer,” a “phony,” a “leech,” a “government hack,” a “panhandler,” a “big scab on society” and – bizarrely – “a crack whore from Toledo.” She’s an “Obama minion” and “a dupe.” She has had “a long and pathetic career in bilking others out of their hard-earned money.”
She is – gasp! – as big a blight on society as a community organizer.
So say a motley group of anonymous commenters on various websites, folks who bravely face the world under such names as Nerditarian, chaga, buzzsawmonkey and The Patriot. They ply their trade not only on dubious websites such as weaselzippers.us (“Scouring the Bowels of the Internet”) but at such perfectly respectable places as the Concord Monitor.
What on earth did Lielasus do to merit such opprobrium from a bunch of seemingly total strangers?
Simple. The Portsmouth woman successfully navigated healthcare.gov, the website set up to enable uninsured and under-insured Americans to purchase affordable health insurance. It is part of the Affordable Care Act – the dread Obamacare – and its rollout has been, to say the least, rocky, the object of scathing public criticism and a gold mine for late-night comedians.
She was able to purchase insurance that will save her family hundreds of dollar a month. She has a pre-existing medical condition that meant her only recourse has been to the state’s high-risk pool with its high premiums and high deductibles. Now she will have normal insurance and is eligible for a tax credit.
If this isn’t bad enough, Lielasus allowed the Obama administration to cite her success in an ad. And she penned a column for the Nov. 3 Sunday Monitor urging folks needing insurance to persist until they get it.
Well! The dark side of the internet exploded in fury. Within hours of her column’s publication in the Monitor several of the paper’s website’s habitual offenders were off to the races, competing to see which one could most imaginatively insult Lielasus and pry into her life. Along with an army of other anonymous bullies on other websites, they searched the internet for information – and misinformation – about the grant writer, her circumstances, her family. They blithely attributed nefarious motives to her. They were deeply offended that she had the temerity to have an “expensive” pre-existing medical condition.
They engaged in speculation – wildly inaccurate – about her and her likely income based solely on a website somewhere that said the average hourly income for grant writers is $96. Which I’m sure will be news to a lot of freelance grant (and other) writers.
They, along with others, darkly implied that she was somehow the beneficiary of some sort of government favoritism, given because she has written applications for, among other things, government grants.
For a few days, all sorts of unhappy souls in sad places sat at their computers and did their best to vilify Deborah Lielasus. No tidbit was too petty to post – including details about a husband who turned out to be an ex-husband. Everything online isn’t necessarily reliable. Who knew?
Lielasus is tough, and she isn’t intimidated even if she did remove her résumé from LinkedIn because, she told me, her clients “do not deserve to be brought into the bully fest.” She does admit that when one especially vile web harasser, Dapandico, posted the picture of a pistol as a “cure” for liberals, it was, to put it mildly, disquieting.
But, she vowed, she’d do it again.
Which I’m sure her detractors do not want to hear. Cyberspace is full of bullies, and what they want more than anything is to harass, to intimidate, to make participation in a public forum painful. And they also want more than anything to do their dirty work anonymously, from the shadows. Go to nearly every news organization – including this one – that has a website and you can find them lurking, spitting out accusations and judgments they’d never dream of voicing publicly to their chosen victims.
Virtually all news outfits try to police their websites, with varying success. Of those I check from time to time, the New York Times site is closely monitored and, as a result, hosts genuine discussions, often complete with clever poetry. One of the worst is that of the Washington Post. Despite alleged improvements it remains a verbal sewer.
The Monitor’s valiant site moderators try to uphold standards. It’s a far cry from the Wild West it once was. But there’s only so much a small staff at a small paper can do if a few determined people, mostly anonymous cowards themselves, are hell-bent on imposing a bully culture online.
And I’ve no doubt that the relentless flood of insults spewed by online commenters does, in fact, deter others from engaging in discussions or in making their positions public. Even writers of letters to the editor, who must sign their names, aren’t spared scorn. Online commenters, almost all anonymous, quickly suss out their personal information and try to use it to mock them. It’s contemptible.
This internet can be an ugly, ugly place.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The internet, it was predicted, would lead to a glorious era of great public discussions. But in too many ways, it hasn’t. Like the real, material world, cyberworld is flawed, sometimes grievously. It is a place partly populated by thieves, spies, vandals – and odious bullies.
What a waste.
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)