A cartoon that was about inclusion and representation brought fans of all walks of life together. How did this togetherness almost bring one girl close to suicide?
On the internet, the most horrifying place you can find yourself trapped is an echo chamber.
It's hard to remember that harassment isn't solely the domain of wingnuts, MRAs, or petulant twenty-something men with something to prove. Even those who say they're the most committed to social justice can find themselves on the giving end of harassment, and recently, that almost caused a woman to take her life.
On October 27, The Daily Dot published a story about Paige Paz (aka Zamii070), who identifies herself as a 20-year-old Tumblr artist. Paz announced in a video that she had attempted suicide after enduring a long period of online harassment and bullying on Tumblr, and was receiving treatment. Since then, she's posted three videos that detailed her recovery and explain what she had to go through to keep afloat—she stayed away from the kitchen where she attempted suicide and spent time with friends and family.
(Editor's note: The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is toll-free in the US and available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255, while suicide.org has a list of international suicide hotlines, including Canada and the UK.)
On Tumblr, Paz is known for restyling popular cartoon characters. She made a fat character on Steven Universe skinnier. She "racebent" a pony from My Little Pony into a stereotypical Native American. She stripped an afro off an alien character perceived as black and replaced it with straight, blond hair. She was then continually brigaded for months by Tumblr users for drawings that were deemed "problematic."
The previous examples were just a few transgressions deemed politically incorrect by the Steven Universe fandom, but the scale and ferocity of the responses she received were comparable to the sort that figureheads in the feminist gaming movement, such as Brianna Wu and Randi Lee Harper, receive on a daily basis for saying anything even potentially objectionable.
In fact, there were concerning parallels. The sort of person who wants to harass Paz and the sort of person who wants to harass Harper or Wu are almost two sides of the same coin; they're never wrong in their minds, they see themselves as the true victims, they assume the worst in the people they target, and they use the same vitriolic, reductive tactics to shame those people into hiding.
One Tumblr user, who calls herself Urushi Karri, told me she doxed ten of Paz's harassers, reporting them to the police for cyberbullying. She told me that the police responded by asking her to report anyone who told Paz to "kill herself." Karri received these Facebook messages from one person who appeared to have been arrested, including a picture of an arrest warrant, the veracity of which we've been unable to identify:
Paz told me that she found these harassers by doing some basic searching: usernames led to emails, which led to services with addresses and phone numbers, and phone numbers led to full names. The messages Karri received is suggestive of the crowd Paz dealt with.
At the height of Paz's brigading, Tumblr users started at least 42 blogs that monitored her activity, whether to call her out or just to keep tabs on the drama surrounding her. On other blogs, her posts were constantly reblogged into a punitive echoing chamber where she was berated by aggrieved Tumblr users for hiding behind artistic license and not owning up to whatever wrong she did for drawing the things she wanted to draw.
Paz's harassers also started a number of wall of shame-esque "receipt blogs," which closely monitored her exchanges with other Tumblr users and called her out for politically incorrect slip-ups. Not only that, but her those harassers also archived her tweets, in the same fashion that Gamergate members would archive supposedly incriminating content.
The constant stream of harassment reached a tipping point on October 20, when Paz put up a post suggesting announcing that she was going to attempt suicide. She was taken to the hospital, then took a few days off to be with her family and friends.
The events, along with the media coverage, created a wider discussion in the Tumblr community about better ways to critique art and to positively reinforce political correctness, ensuring safer and more conducive spaces for everyone.
But it also brought far more extreme users out of the woodwork, ones who still insist on attacking Paz. Some of her most enduring critics insisted that her suicide attempt was faked:
The fallout split members of the Steven Universe fandom on Tumblr in two: those who claimed that Paz's artwork was regressive/problematic and believe that she deserves to be continuously policed, and those who support her brand of artistic freedom and believe that the community's aggressive brand political correction is shutting out potential and important voices in the community.
As many Steven Universe fans on Tumblr have pointed out, the site's userbase can't claim it supports the ideals of creative freedom, problematic or not, if it polices itself into extreme forms of censorship and creates a hostile environment where nothing can really be accomplished.
As user todesfurscht writes:
"The most mind blowing thing for me is this; social justice warriors (aka majority of Tumblr) have good intentions, but they lose those good intentions as soon as they insult/belittle/attack/harass/etc other people. They don't care if they make a 'privileged' individual cry or hurt themselves. You want to change things? Don't put someone down to bring someone higher. That is not equality."
Another Tumblr user, midopyon, thinks this will certainly cause a chilling effect among other Tumblr artists:
"For many other artists this is the place where they come to be who they really are, in this site they've met the friends that had kept them going when things were hard in school or in their homes. This was their favorite site, a place where they could take a break and have fun, without being judged for liking ponies or homestuck or whatever.
But look at what you've done. You've made a social network made for artists and fans a [social justice warrior] circlejerk where you get to choose who stays and who is a racist ableist cis scum that deserves to be harassed to death. Well done."