The online swamp must be drained

Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. USA Today Sports photo by Howard Smith.

Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. USA Today Sports photo by Howard Smith.

Red Sox legend Curt Schilling has always been the geekiest of sports personalities. He has been messing around with computers since 1981, and since that time has thrown himself fully into technology and gaming.

In his playing days, he used to describe hours-long sessions of playing World of Warcraft, and in his retirement he founded an ultimately ill-fated video game production company called 38 Studios. There was always a little part of Schilling that remained a kid, which was part of the reason I liked him so much.

He is also a participant in the world of social media. But rather than the typical celebrity presence, which typically revolves around posting promotional material and broadcasting their thoughts to the world at large, Schilling engages with the Twitter audience.

All of which is to say, he is no stranger to the nature of the Internet or what happens online. But even he was likely unprepared for what he would be forced to read one day after he sent a message on Twitter congratulating his daughter on being accepted to college, where she will pitch for the school’s softball team.

If you haven’t already heard this story or seen what some members of the Twitter community then said to Schilling, you can find his personal account of the incident on his blog, 38 Pitches.

Suffice it to say, the reaction was disgusting, vulgar and obscene. Countless users made sexual references to Schilling’s daughter, in raw, abhorrent ways that go far beyond simple harassment, and into violent, borderline threatening territory.

This type of behavior is hardly new for the Internet. I belong to the first generation to be raised on technology, and as someone who built a career around the use of the Internet to politically connect people, I myself have seen the dark underbelly of what I consider man’s greatest achievement.

The combination of anonymity and distance is toxic to human relations. In such a world where you can hide behind a screen and a keyboard with your identity unknown or your physical detachment from people (or both) protecting you, people feel safe and protected, free to say some of the most truly awful, hateful impulses that come into their head.

And there are no consequences, which is what perpetuates the behavior.

In the real world, if any of the sub-human filth that denigrated Curt Schilling’s daughter to mindlessly troll and humiliate him were standing in front of him, they would never have even considered saying what they did.

Take that element away, and the fear of social, or physical retribution is gone, empowering the person to let their worst instincts shine.

Throw a punch at Mike Tyson in his prime, and you would end up in the hospital. But if he were tied up and couldn’t fight back and you got a free punch, many people might throw one just for the thrill of taking a shot at somebody they could never do otherwise.

Still, the Internet is a far better place than it used to be. Anonymity is less common than when it began, particularly since the advent of Facebook and its integration into so much of the Internet commenting infrastructure, and distance does not always protect the hateful trolls they way it used to.

In Schilling’s case, the geniuses who thought it was funny to say disgusting things about his daughter have felt the consequences that are so rare online. The New York Yankees fired an employee of theirs over the incident, and Brookdale Community College has suspended a student, who was one of the worst offenders.

And both of these fools will now have to deal with the permanent destruction of their reputation. Undoubtedly these two will apply for a job several years from now, the employer will google them, and they will not receive a call back.

This is a good thing.

The Internet isn’t for the faint of heart, and to participate in any real way, you have to make your peace with the most awful elements of it.

This is harder for those in the public eye. My wife, for instance, refuses to read the comment section of my columns because it upsets her too much to read what people say about me.

Real world consequences are the missing piece, and more people need to feel them. And not just these knuckle-dragging cretins, but those who insult, ridicule, and attack as a matter of course, just for fun. And there are a lot of those people.

In their case, though, the consequence should be social isolation, and being ignored, since attention is their greatest desire. That requires neither government intervention nor central direction. It requires only us, refusing to reward those who do this.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.