Is The Oatmeal A Cyberbully Or A Victim?

This is why I do not support fist-transmission protocols.

I originally was going to write a blog post today about the law being debated in the UK that would force social media platforms to disclose user information if served with a complaint.  Failure to do so would make the platform liable for the statement itself, a clever way of shifting burdens to hopefully make platforms more responsive to these claims (unlike the less than clever burden shifting Malaysia did recently that won’t be as helpful).  The law is being discussed in the wake of a particularly nasty case of cyberbullying.  A woman posted an innocent message in support for a reality TV contestant and she became the target for some trolls.  First they posted nasty responses, then they escalated to posts on her wall, then they created fake profiles under her name to continue to post offensive messages and content.  That kind of one-sided attack is an easy case where we can point to one party (or group0 and safely say they were cyberbullies.

But then several people sent me links about the ongoing case of The Oatmeal and it made me stop and think: can both sides of a dispute be a cyberbully?  And, in this case, is The Oatmeal a cyberbully?

We first discussed this last week when The Oatmeal publicly responded to the legal threat they had received.  That story has continued to develop.  First, Scribd has a copy of the official legal response from The Oatmeal’s attorneys.  It’s a letter worth reading if you’re interested in the official legal responses to the claims made by the site threatening The Oatmeal.

But I also find the letter interesting in this regard: it was sent the same day as The Oatmeal’s blog post responding to the FunnyJunk threatening letter.  I don’t know if the timing was a coincidence, but we do know that Matthew Inman, the artist behind The Oatmeal, must have already had conversations with his attorneys about the threatening letter.  And Matthew probably knew that the law firm was going to send an official response.

So then why did he do the blog post?  I’m sure at some level he felt threatened by the letter–after all, getting a letter from an attorney demanding money or you will be sued never feels good even if you feel you’re completely in the right.  There’s time and money involved in defending yourself even from the most frivolous of lawsuits and while sometimes you can recover money at the end that’s not as common as it should be and takes even more time and money.  So I’m guessing the blog post was a way for him to respond, to feel empowered, to lash back at someone who threatened him.  But did he go too far?

There are many debates over what constitutes cyberbullying.  I don’t think any single definition captures it all.  But I do think that central to the concept of cyberbullying is the bully having an inappropriate response to something the victim has done.  That typically involves some kind of escalation.  In the UK, the victim posted an innocent comment of support that the bullies then escalated by accusing her of criminal acts and creating fake accounts in her name to continue those attacks.  They may have thought it was just a joke (doubtful, but let’s go with their best case scenario) but even as a joke that is an inappropriate escalation.  Just like in a schoolyard if two people disagree and one throws a fist–that’s an inappropriate escalation.

To be fair, most people don’t think they’re escalating the conflict.  At some level they think it’s an appropriate response–it’s outside parties that step in to say they went too far.  That’s usually an easy thing when the escalation involves words turning into physical harm, but it’s harder to measure when the conduct stays in the verbal realm.

Which brings us back to The Oatmeal.  Matthew knew his attorneys were dealing with the threatening letter.  Who knows how many letters he gets like this each year?  Maybe this was the only one, maybe he gets dozens.  Regardless, he had his lawyers dealing with the letter from another lawyer.  Then he decided to take it to his audience.  Granted, he did so in a humorous way and that was fun, but I think most people reading the response thought that it was how The Oatmeal chose to respond to this threat: showing it to everyone and then raising money for some charities as a way of telling the original threatening party to go away.

But that wasn’t the response.  It turns out there was an official response from lawyers (smart).  The blog post and charity campaign was something more, an escalation.  Was it an appropriate escalation?  That’s hard to say.  But in The Oatmeal’s response, Matthew specifically called out the attorney (more than including the name on the letter, he also included links and tried to call out some potentially embarrassing information).  He also wrote the following:

I don’t want to get tied up in courtroom nonsense. I don’t want to pay more money to my lawyer.

Maybe that statement was meant to be vague, after all nobody wants to pay more money to their lawyer.  But it does leave out any indication that he’s also dealing with this officially.  In fact, he lays out his plan for dealing with the threat and nowhere in the plan does he mention the official response.

Of course, he doesn’t have to tell the public anything about his legal plan.  But it does make his response an escalation.

And make no mistake, the situation has escalated.  The Oatmeal raised the initial goal of $20,000 in 64 minutes and has currently raised over $180,000.  And there has been a flurry of press attention.  Almost all of it dealing with the standard story of Internet-author-wrongly-accused-of-crime-takes-conflict-to-the-Internet.  What hasn’t gained as much attention are the attorney’s claims that his website has been hacked and that he has been mocked and ridiculed on Twitter.

If your first response was, “So what?  He deserves it for his threatening letter.” then you’re missing the point.  Those are escalations of the conflict against him–the attorney in the case.  These are above and beyond anything that may be happening to the site that the attorney represents.  And I’m also not mentioning the attacks that appear to be targeted against the website client (Matthew’s illustration and some tweets) but the attorney believes are aimed at him.  The end result is that now the attorney himself has filed a lawsuit against The Oatmeal alleging that Matthew incited the cyberbullying he has now fallen victim to.  The attorney also includes the site raising funds for the charities and the charities themselves, something that may not be a smart move from a public relations perspective but one he may feel is required to get them involved since he believes the charity campaign is not following legal requirements.

This lawsuit is yet another escalation, but is it more of an escalation than The Oatmeal’s blog response?  Is it more or less appropriate an escalation?

Fans of The Oatmeal, or the little guy in general, may find it easy to side with The Oatmeal.  And to dismiss the actions that others may have taken without Matthew’s knowledge after his blog response.   But your view of the situation may change knowing that all of these escalations didn’t need to happen.  Matthew’s lawyers were dealing with the complaint.  The letter was not posted publicly.  I’m not suggesting he just sit back and deal with the letter himself, but he was having his attorneys deliver the official response.  The rest was escalation.

Does that make The Oatmeal a cyberbully, or was that a proper response to a cyberbully?

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8 Comments

Filed under CopyFUD, Copyright, Cyberbullying, Laws, Social Content, Social Media Lawyers, Social Platforms, UK

8 responses to “Is The Oatmeal A Cyberbully Or A Victim?

  1. I enjoy reading your blog posts but I disagree with you on this one. A lot. I do not feel that any part of Inman’s response can be interpreted as bullying nor was it an escalation. I see it as Inman’s refusal to (only) play the game that Carreon set up using only the rules he created.

    I think your definition of bullying lacks an important element. It’s not just when one person is mean to another but an action in which an inherent power imbalance exists–a dynamic which is clearly at play here with Carreon leveraging the legal system to extort money from Inman. Carreon set up the game to give Inman only two choices: 1) pay one amount to his client or 2) risk paying a higher amount to fight him. Insisting that he take either 1 or 2 or risk escalation insists that Inman is and should continue to be a victim. If Inman only fought back with his attorney, he limits himself to Carreon’s game.

    The idea that we plebes are entirely powerless against these abuses of our legal system but for our mature, big boy attorneys taking care of things on the QT is part of the frustration that leads folks to distrust the legal system and make merciless jokes about lawyers (not that I ever would do such a thing). I tend to bristle at the idea that the only legitimate power we have is through our intellectual vanguard of high-priced representatives of the court.

    Writing and art are also legitimate tools against abuses of power. Discouraging the publishing of satire because it might lead to inappropriate action by unrelated third parties and holding that any grievance should really be left to the attorneys sounds awfully dystopian. Do you believe that only a legal response avoids escalation because legal responses never escalate a situation? There may be a few examples buried out there somewhere that contradict this notion but I can’t be sure.

    I think getting sucked into the argument that Inman caused an escalation and that he should in any way be liable for the actions of outraged 4chan tweens operates from the perspective that the only legitimate game is the one Carreon created. Thankfully, there are other games Inman can (and did) choose to play.

    • But I’m not sure the power imbalance tipped against The Oatmeal here. They received a letter from a lawyer. He was having his lawyer respond. His lawyer probably already told him he had strong defenses. The response was happening anyway. The blog post was above and beyond the legal response. And The Oatmeal has a large following–he certainly thought $20,000 was doable although I believe he was shocked at the time it took to collect that.

      I’m certainly not saying he’s responsible for all the actions other people took as a result of the escalation. But he did escalate it under the guise of “he punched me, I’m kicking back.” In reality, he got punched so he decided to punch AND kick back.

      • Inman wasn’t bullied by his receipt of a letter from an attorney. He was bullied by his receipt of a letter from an attorney attempting to extort $20K from him which required him to spend money on crafting a legal response. Unless Inman’s attorney was working pro bono when he drafted the response, the power imbalance was still definitely tipped against The Oatmeal. Every dollar Inman spends on representation is a win for Carreon and a reminder to Inman that he could end this he would just send him that darn $20K. Carreon’s game is to inflict financial pain. Inman’s attorney’s response wasn’t a punch back, it was his face absorbing the punch thrown by Carreon.

        Inman might have known he had the power to raise $20K for charity through satire, that’s far different than raising $20K for paying off an attorney, raising money to pay for his own attorney, or raising over $180K for charity to send a message of overwhelming public outrage. Regardless, none of those things is an escalation.

        Script kiddies attacking Carreon is an escalation. Filing suit in federal court is an escalation. Expressing outrage at being bullied isn’t an escalation. It’s not a kick, it’s commentary on the fight. It does no actual, substantive harm to either FunnyJunk or Carreon. Why insist that any deviation from Carreon’s two choices is an escalation? Why does Carreon get to define the game and its rules and why must Inman play along?

      • But that’s the thing–lawsuits are not extortion. They’re lawsuits. Yes, some may be frivolous and there are ways of dealing with those. And some are losers. Heck, 50% of lawyers at trial are wrong in the end. But that’s not extortion, that’s the legal system. Just getting a single legal threat isn’t extortion no matter how annoying the lawsuit may be. And the proper response is what he did, he had his lawyer write a letter back.

        But the blog post was absolutely an escalation. It was taking a private matter public. I’m not saying he didn’t have the right to do it–he did. I’m not saying it wasn’t funny–it was. I am saying it was an escalation and I don’t know if that crosses the line to be considered bullying. And I’m not saying FJ didn’t escalate first by lawyering up over a year-gone issue. But escalation is escalation and if The Oatmeal wants to take FJ to task for doing something like the lawyer letter then, to at least some degree, The Oatmeal needs to take some responsibility for the blog post. He’s probably happy to do so.

        Look back at the original FJ conflict. Matthew sent a private message to FJ asking for comics to be taken down because it was Matthew’s legal right to make that request. FJ responded by posting a message to its readers saying The Oatmeal was suing to take all of FJ down and FJ readers should let The Oatmeal know they didn’t like that. FJ’s initial response was absolutely an escalation and was almost an exact equivalent of what Matthew did (substituting the call for telling the other website with a request for charity funds). We can side with one over the other because, in the end, The Oatmeal makes a contribution to society we value more than FJ. And because The Oatmeal rocks (full disclosure: I have an autographed copy of his book and love his work).

        But I’m not sure he didn’t contribute to the problem here. I think he may have intended it, or just not cared because he was angry. That may explain it but doesn’t excuse it.

  2. It may not fit the legal definition of extortion but a threat of a lawsuit from a party with a great deal more money is a shakedown when the intent is to use the burden of the cost of litigation to force a settlement. This entire situation wouldn’t have occurred were we to use the English rule.

    I also don’t agree that the actions of these two are equivalent; manipulation through an intentional distortion of facts (i.e. telling his users that Inman’s suing to take down all content from FJ when he was neither suing nor asking for all content to be taken down from FJ) and posting an original letter with satirical commentary added. One has the intent to inflame while the other has the intent to expose.

    What specifically do you think was escalated by Inman’s post?

    • England has its own quirks so let’s not go hypothetical forum shopping just yet. 🙂

      I think The Oatmeal escalated the issue in the following ways. Again, I’m not saying these are inappropriate escalations by themselves, but they are certainly escalations.

      1. Turning the issue from a private matter into a public matter.
      2. Doing the blog post when his lawyers were already responding to the letter.
      3. Making thinly veiled slights against the lawyer.

      And I’m not saying they’re exact equivalents, but many of the issues that Matthew had with how FJ handled the original complaint then turned into things that he did (the public airing being a big part of the complaint after he sent the letter to FJ privately). Maybe he thought it was fine given what happened earlier, and maybe it is. But it’s an escalation of the conflict.

      Like or system or not, we have a system for resolving legal complaints. You are absolutely free to air your grievances in the court of public opinion in addition to your asserting your legal rights before a judge or jury. But fighting inside one arena while then taking the fight to another is an escalation. You may be doing it to stop a bully, but you may end up being the bully.

  3. Pingback: Is Social Media Creating Cyberbullies? | SoMeLaw Thoughts

  4. Pingback: Tweeting from Glass Houses | The Off Switch

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