Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Rape threats and DDOS attacks?

When it comes out that one is a skeptic or a critic of the main characters of the "donglegate" and "elevatorgate" dramas, people generally have a very pointed set of questions that follow a general theme.

How could anyone be so callous?

Don't the critics know that Rebecca Watson and Adria Richards received threats and were victims of DDOS attacks?

There are certain things people need to understand about these "threats" and "attacks".

Distributed denial of service attacks - what is the deal here?

When it comes up in the media, a Distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack is marketed as a sign that the internet at large is mad at you. In the case of "donglegate", this internet of hotheads was implied to be mostly male.

Yet the reality is that DDOS attacks are relatively mundane.


DDOS attacks:
  1. Are not difficult
    • A denial of service attack is neither conceptually difficult nor hard to execute
    • Weapons of DDOS are essentially free
  2. Do not require a massive number of people
    • There is nothing about a DDOS attack that suggests a large scale human intervention
  3. Do not require a massive number of computers
    • All a DDOS attack needs to be successful is enough requests sent to a target.
    • The target node(s) simply need to be less capable than the attacker
    • The DDOS attack need not take out an entire network to be effective. It just needs to focus on a vulnerable point.
  4. Are very time limited in nature
    • Why aren't the websites of entirely unpopular organizations (Scientology, WBC, CIA, etc) down all the time? The reasons coincide with what has been stated - the DDOS attack is fairly easily tracked, the attackers are usually a limited set of people, and anonymity within a larger set of attackers is typically rare.
  5. Are about as impactful as graffiti. 
    • Adria tweets: "I setup @cloudflare last night to address the DDoS attack against my blog. Distributed CDN is working well #iwillbeheard"
  6. From the outside, a DDOS is indistinguishable from mere popularity.
    • Mere mortals on the internet, removed from the operations of a particular hosting organization, have a difficult time knowing the difference between a DDOS attack and simple organic popularity causing a website to implode.
    • Popularity bringing down a website has been called in the past the "Slashdot effect"
What we may conclude: DDOS attacks are not the Spanish inquisition. They can be planned for, don't necessarily represent a mob of vigilantes, and don't actually accomplish their goals with any sustainability.

Corporations, or even individuals, take a few more requests in stride. 

DDOS attacks are definitely a bully move - but it's a bully move that ultimately costs the attackers and is only as effective as it emphasized. The attacker either wants to annoy you, or let the world know they are annoyed with you. 

It is not difficult to annoy somebody on the internet to the extent that they want to return the favor. This is what is happening in a DDOS attack. Yet when spoken about in the Twitterverse, the attack is always assumed to be sourced only from the deepest, darkest hatred one can feel. 

This is a completely baseless assumption.

Now, on to trickier subject matter...

Rape threats? Death threats?

Yes. They happened. And they were awful.

One example is feedback posted to SendGrid's Facebook profile, which ended with a disturbing "Make her pay. Make her obey."

Now a skeptic on the internet has a bunch of responses to this evidence presented - "It's Photoshop", "Poe's law", etc.

However just by running the numbers, it seems almost guaranteed that many of these threats must be real. And very creepy.

Let's say an individual like Rebecca Watson or Adria Richards is the subject of a million comments on the internet. It's not an easy threshold to pass these days.

Assume for a moment that a tiny fraction of those comments - say 0.00001% - made explicit threats.

That's 10 creeps already.

But we should already understand this reality at a very basic level.


Rebecca Black, Casey Anthony, Nickelback, Jane Fonda, Barack Obama.

Educate yourself just a little bit and just look at what people are saying about these people on Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Facebook and random forums...

Obviously this is a scale of infamy - ranging from an amateur pop star in California to a US President.

There is nonetheless a pattern - each receive several threats, wishes of harm, distasteful suggestions.

And it gets even weirder.

There are conspiracies to murder actresses like Joss Stone. This is just the latest variation of psychopath that famous people find themselves subjected to.

Back to the topic at hand - criticism of subjects related to 'feminism'.

Supporters of 'feminist' figures on Twitter, Tumblr, or other social media are addicted to mentioning the threats their protagonists face.

In the face of example threats, a critic of 'feminism' is expected to:

  1. Be surprised
  2. Be remorseful
  3. Be apologetic
  4. Be agreeable
  5. Be conciliatory
There is several problems with this.

There is nothing surprising about the messages themselves because they can be found directed at loads of people that are even moderately well known.

There is nothing to be remorseful of because the statements are those of other people.

There is nothing to be apologetic for because the "creeps" do not necessarily belong to 'feminism's critics.

To be agreeable comes without work - literally no rational person is defending violence or threats of violence.

And finally, there is nothing to reconcile because no debate has happened to occur.
"Can't these anonymous people on the internet be absolutely insane?"
Yes, they definitely can be. 

If you see a plausible threat, report it to the local authorities.

After establishing that people on the internet are creepy, can we agree on some more things?

The internet is a crazy place filled with crazy people. We can make a few conclusions.

Intimidating messages and hate mail do not magically bless the recipient with a shield of superior arguments.

Publicly shaming people on the internet is reckless and endangers all parties involved.

It's just that simple.


  1. Until now I had heard of only one specific example of a threat and that was the the one that took place on Twitter that included the threatening image. Other references to threatening images however have not been of actual threats. For example Mother Jones called a tweet a threat when it wasn't. I saw someone on Twitter make that same mistake. I think that

  2. ....that we shroud be wary of claims about an "onslaught" of threats toward Adria Richards especially amid all the other distortions and omissions

  3. I agree.

    Someone tweeting "I hope George W Bush gets hit by a bus" (something many Twitter 'feminists' have probably stated) are not actually voicing a threat of any kind.

    So far there has been a grand total of just two messages that I've seen directed at Richards that look like they would hold up in court as threats. The vast majority of the 'bombardment'* is simply negative comments that question her actions or motivations, sometimes with profanity.

    * 'bombardment' is actually a word Jill Filipovic used to describe events, and I've responded to her article here:

    Then there is the case of Rebecca Watson, who wrote a piece for Slate stating she received rape threats.

    The only man that was "outed" in the piece was someone who joked about "copping a feel" after meeting her in an elevator. It would not have qualified as a rape threat by any means.

    The second perceived threat against Watson that she's documented is someone drawing an offensive MS Paint picture of her. More discussion that here:

  4. this is a really helpful and interesting perspective. I basically agree with it, and you did a better job than I did explaining how easy DDoS attacks are to launch. Thanks.