Set forth below is the text of an e-mail that I sent on August 12, 2008, to my congressman offering an overview of the abusive tactics used to block honest posting re the analytical errors in the Old School safe-withdrawal-rate studies and re the effect of valuations on long-term stock returns in general.
This is Rob Bennett. We spoke by telephone on Friday afternoon re my problems with internet harassment and my request that Congressman Wolf explore possibilities for helping constituents who suffer from this problem or who are concerned about the effect it has on the ability of those who do not directly suffer from it to learn about the world around them in the internet age. Thanks for listening to my description of the problem. I have put together this e-mail in response to your request that I supply more background information in written form.
I am building a writing business on the internet. My web site is: PassionSaving.com Web Site
I began posting on the internet regularly in December 1999. One of the first things I did was build a community of aspiring early retirees that met at a Motley Fool discussion board. My goal was to bring the most effective savers in the world together in one place so that we could share ideas. This board became the most successful in the history of the Motley Fool site and the insights that we developed as a community became the basis for my self-published book Passion Saving: The Path to Plentiful Free Time and Soul-Satisfying Work. You can read reviews of the book and listen to radio interviews about the ideas set forth in it at this page: Reviews and Radio Interviews re the Book Passion Saving
The Motley Fool board became an amazing learning resource. There were tens of thousands of people who used the board to learn things about personal finance that could not be learned by reviewing the material in the most extensive personal finance libraries in the world (because discussion boards permit an exploration of how money management strategies work in practice that is not possible through any other communications medium). Our board was so successful that Motley Fool created a retirement course based on our ideas and hired me as an instructor for it. Motley Fool Co-Founder Tom Gardner wrote one of the endorsement blurbs that appears on the back of my book (he wrote that “the elegant simplicity of his ideas warms the heart and startles the brain”).
In May 2002, the board began examining the studies that retirement planners use to help people plan their retirements and discovered significant flaws in the existing studies. The work we did led to the development of The Retirement Risk Evaluator, the first publicly available retirement calculator which includes an adjustment for the effect of the valuations level that applies on the starting date of the retirement. The link immediately below brings you to the calculator itself as well as to several articles (at the bottom of the page) at which community members and several big-name experts point out why it is critical that retirement planning tools take this factor into account (the short version is that millions of retirees will suffer failed retirements in days to come if they are not made aware of the flaws in most existing studies).
John Greaney is the author of one of the flawed studies. His response to learning of the errors in his study was to launch a smear campaign against me and all community members who tried to share information about the community’s findings. Greaney has his own web site and has a good number of supporters. He organizes the smear campaigns that he employs to block discussions of our findings from this web site: Goon Central
Greaney’s efforts led to the destruction of the once-thriving Motley Fool board. Community members who wanted to engage in civil and reasoned discussions of the issues once explored at that board created a new board at a site called NoFeeBoards.com. That board too was destroyed by abusive posting. Honest posting on the safe-withdrawal-rate question was subsequently banned at the Early Retirement Forum, the Financial WebRing Forum, the Vanguard Diehards board at Morningstar.com and the board at Bogleheads.org. When I post about our community’s findings at blogs, Goon Squad members inevitably appear to intimidate anyone seeking to ask questions and learn about this important subject matter.
The intimidation is achieved through the vilest means imaginable. I have seen threats to kill me, my wife and my children. I have seen posts charging falsely that I engage in plagiarism. I have seen posts claiming falsely that my parents were alcoholics. I have seen posts claiming that I stalk women. I have seen posts claiming that my wife has left me. When I have been quoted in newspapers, the Goons have sent e-mails to the reporters who wrote the articles or to their editors making false claims about my financial status. When bloggers report favorably on my writings or my calculators, the Goons put forward suggestions that new web sites will need to be established to ridicule these people. In cases in which these people do continue to report positively on our community’s findings, these threats are carried out. I have had malicious “reviews” of my book posted at web sites and at Amazon.com.
The obvious intent of these efforts is to intimidate people who show an inclination to discuss our community’s findings on retirement and on stock investing in general from doing so. The intimidation works. The people who participate on discussion boards and blogs do not get paid for doing so; they do not believe that they should be required to tolerate abuse in return for putting forward their views or trying to help out their fellow community members. Many people are fearful of the harm that can be done to them by those practicing identity theft and engaging in other forms of high-tech trickery (most average people have little or no idea how to protect themselves from sophisticated forms of internet trickery but tutorials on how to engage in all sorts of vile practices are available on the internet to those who possess a desire to make use of such information).
The people who fear the intimidation tactics have good reason to do so. If you check my web site on the Yahoo search engine, you will see that it is identified as a web site that is dangerous because it sends out spam e-mails. This is of course not the case. The Goons send out every day e-mails under my name for the purpose of destroying my reputation; I have received thousands of returned e-mails that I never sent. The Goons have set up porn sites containing many links to my web site in an effort to lead Google and the other search engines into believing that my site is associated with such sites and thereby to hurt my rankings among the personal finance sites. My blog has been deluged with abusive posts when I have opened it for non-moderated comments. I have been removed from blog directories when the Goons contacted the owners of the directories with “suggestions” that removal of my site from their listings should be a priority if the owners of the directories want to remain on the good side of the Goons.
I am a journalist. I possess a strong belief that good information is a public asset, that the best way to help people achieve their life goals is to teach them and to provide means for them to teach each other. I have communicated with tens of thousands of people on the internet who are kind and generous souls who took delight in sharing what they had learned from life experiences with others able to make great use of the insights provided. Such people are the vast majority of people in every internet community at which I have participated. But a community comprised of 90 percent kind, giving souls and 10 percent determined Goons cannot survive the attacks of the Goons. Goon posters are 50 times more determined to wreak havoc than the 90 percent seeking positive goals are determined to protect their community. Normal people are simply not able to comprehend the intensity of the internet Goon. Most people have rarely or never come into contact with such people in everyday life, have little idea of how to deal with such people, and are afraid to be too persistent in doing so.
I have seen first-hand what can be accomplished on the internet when reasoned and civil discussion is permitted. It is amazing. As one example, I will point to the web site of John Walter Russell, a retired government engineer who I met at the Motley Fool board and who has now spent six years of his life working full-time to do investment research of great value for free for his fellow community members. If you want to get a sense of how much good can be done on the internet when people are free to pursue positive goals, please take a look at some of the Letters to the Editor that have been submitted to John’s site. These letters contain the words of ordinary people who have obtained very substantial benefits as the result of one’s man’s good heart and strong mind and a communications medium that makes it possible for him to share what he knows with others. John’s site is: Early Retirement Planning Insights
An entire section of the Smear Site (see the link to the Greaney site above) is aimed at smearing John and his work. Goons follow John anywhere he travels on the internet to employ deception, intimidation and word games to block the efforts of any middle-class investors seeking to learn from him.
The internet is a personal medium. I have seen friends turn against friends when threats were made and one friend submitted to demands that he post dishonestly and another expressed reluctance to do so. I have seen entire sites that the owners spent years of effort to build burned to the ground because the owners expressed a willingness to permit honest posting. I have seen hundreds of community members pretend that they believed things they did not believe (according to their earlier posting history) out of fear that the Goons would come after them next if they continued to post honestly. I do not think it is too much of a stretch to say that, when one human forces another to say things that he does not believe through threat of physical violence, a form of slavery is being instituted. I believe that all citizens of the United States should be free to say what they believe without fear that their lives or the lives of their loved ones will be threatened if they give voice to their true beliefs.
Here is an article at my site in which I set forth 101 snippets from posts by community members expressing a desire that honest and civil discussions be permitted at the various Retire Early and Indexing communities: Article Entitled “Investing Discussion Boards Ban Honest Posting on Valuations!”
Please do not think that I am exaggerating in my description of the realities of corners of the internet where Goon posters have come into dominance. Forbes published an article about this phenomenon as the cover story of its October 15, 2007 issue: Forbes Article on How Internet Harassment Is Becoming a Public Policy Concern
A few highlights:
“She died instantly. The pain of her parents and her three younger sisters continues, deepened by a malicious, masked mob on the Internet. Gruesome police photos of the carnage, her mangled remains still in the driver’s seat, showed up online at Google (nasdaq:GOOG – news – people ), Yahoo(nasdaq: YHOO – news – people ), News Corp. (nyse: NWS – news – people )’s Photobucket and at more than 1,500 other outposts. In chat rooms and on fetishistic car-crash forums, anonymous assailants called Nikki a “spoiled rich girl” who “deserved it.” One post urged cohorts to harass her family, providing the Catsourases’ home address in Ladera Ranch, Calif. ”
“A backlash has begun, and it could gain support in Congress and in the courts unless the Internet industry itself finds new fixes. ”
“In Connecticut two women at Yale are suing the AutoAdmit chat board in district court. They want the identity of “Stanfordtroll,” who started a mean discussion thread (“Stupid Bitch to Attend Yale Law”) saying that one of the women would be sodomized, had herpes, had a lesbian affair with the admissions dean and had botched admissions tests. Another unknown poster wrote of the second student: “I hope she gets raped and dies.” One of the plaintiffs says it prevented her from getting jobs.”
“Timothy O’Reilly, a publisher and one of the Web’s biggest cheerleaders, now calls for guardrails: “The perception right now is that standing up for good things is wussy, but a lot of people want more civility.”
“The only thing Kathy has to offer is that noose in her neck size,” wrote a poster calling himself “joey.” She contacted the site–yet didn’t directly ask to remove the threatening fare, fearing such a request would “only make it worse”…. Meanwhile, other posts revealed Sierra’s home address in Colorado, information on her ex-husband–even her Social Security number…. “I was mistaken in thinking it is self-policing.” She contacted the FBI but never heard from anyone. She has stopped blogging altogether.”
“The blogs’ vituperative retaliation frightens some victims, such as a corporate recruiter in Malaysia who talked to FORBES but asked to go unnamed in this story. In June she learned that a blog on Google’s Blogspot site was masquerading as hers, claiming she likes micromanaging, throwing tantrums and being condescending. “I’m part of a global company where reputation is everything,” she says. “This could be up there forever.” She says Google hasn’t answered her e-mails. “Freedom of speech like this is wrong. This is cowardly character assassination.”
“We were techies, we weren’t trying to solve society’s ills. I thought this would figure itself out, but it’s taking a lot longer than I imagined.”
“When he intervened with a Finland Web host on behalf of a researcher who had come under masked attack online, many of his Usenet peers turned on him. He got dozens of e-mails accusing him of censorship and received two death threats. “I found it ironic that people professing a concern for free speech were threatening to shut me up forever,” he says.”
“Congress added a splash of impunity to the mix in 1996, when it passed a pro-Internet law known as the Communications Decency Act. Among other provisions the law insulates electronic middlemen from libel suits. The Web site that passively furnishes a vehicle for online postings is deemed to be no more responsible for the resulting content than a phone company is for any criminal conversations that take place over its network.”
Every discussion board at which I have posted sets forth rules that protect community members from the sorts of abuse described above. In not one case have I seen those rules enforced effectively. I have seen cases in which the site administrators made a bit of an effort. The site administrator at Motley Fool told me that he thought “it would be ideal” if honest posting were permitted at the board. But he made clear that he had no intent of taking action against the abusive posters to achieve this result. At Morningstar, the site administrator for two years resisted demands made by Goon posters that honest posting be banned. But he too failed to take action against the Goons bent on destroying the board (or silencing those with other viewpoints). The result is that the most successful board at the site was burned to the ground.
One big problem is that site administrators fail to act promptly. Once highly abusive posting has been permitted for an extended period of time, it becomes part of the culture of the board community. Abusive posting causes people of intelligence and integrity to leave a board while also attracting the sort of poster who views abusive posting as a fun idea. Site administrators are often slow to act (often because sites do not want to take on the cost required to monitor boards) and then find themselves unable to act effectively when things have reached a point where abusive posters have become a larger percentage of the board community than they were in the time before the abusive posting began. At that point, the site administrators seem to think that the best thing to do from a business perspective is to hand the board over to the abusive posters. The result is that the work that thousands of people put into the project of building a board into a valuable learning resource for tens or hundreds of thousands of others is squandered to no good purpose.
One big problem is the Communications Decency Act, referred to above. If site owners worried that they would be held responsible for permitting death threats and smear campaigns, they would take on the expense needed to provide at least minimal protections of constructive posters. Most of the risk today is on the site owner who handles his job responsibilities in a reasonable manner. As the comments above indicate, Goon posters stick together. A site administrator who takes action against one is likely to be required to pay a price by lots of others (and even site administrators are not fully able to combat some of the worst forms of internet trickery that Goon posters specialize in). But the general view today is that it is impossible for any Goon poster ever to be held responsible for any action, no matter how far over the line of what constitutes civil human behavior.
The Communications Decency Act had created a huge trap for the unwary, I had heard talk about abusive internet posting before I put forward my first post at the Motley Fool board. Thus, I checked the rules of the site carefully before making a decision to spend any time building up a board community at the site (building a board community takes a lot of time and hard work). The published rules were rock solid; Motley Fool’s promise to protect me from abusive posters was as strong as any on the internet. The promise was comprised of empty words. The death threats against me appear at that site to this day. Never were any of the posters who put forward the death threats given any reprimand whatsoever. I have been banned from posting at Motley Fool, Morningstar and several other sites despite the fact that I have never had a single post removed on grounds that it was abusive (I have of course never put forward an abusive post — quite to the contrary, I am the leading voice in our community speaking in opposition to abusive posting). The Goon posters happily announce at blogs at which my writing appears that I have been banned at numerous boards, failing to mention that I was banned solely because of their abusive posting.
The explanation that I have been given for the bans is that the abusive posting is “disruptive.” It is, of course. But why is it not the abusive posters who are banned? This question gets to the heart of the matter, the dramatic power imbalance between highly abusive posters and the 90 percent of internet users who are there for constructive purposes. Non-abusive posters have everything to lose by objecting to abusive posters. The abusive posters have demonstrated many times that they will hound anyone who “crosses” one of them for the rest of their days. On the other hand, the abusive posters feel (not without justification, unfortunately) that there is no possibility that they will ever have any price to pay for their abusive posting. I have seen hundreds of thousands of abusive posts during the investing discussions held in the Retire Early and Indexing communities. I have never seen one of the abusive posters receive so much as a warning to stop posting abusively (although, again, the rules of every board at which I have posted promises those joining the community that abusive posting will not be tolerated).
Can it really be so that the owners of these businesses (Motley Fool charged for admission to its board and most of other sites profit from advertising) have no responsibilities whatsoever to the people who build their boards? I have devoted years of my life to building some of the most successful boards in the history of the internet. Yet I cannot participate at the boards I built. The only reason is that I have been unwilling to post dishonestly about a number that my fellow community members use to plan their retirements (it is obviously a form of dishonesty to know that a number someone else puts forward is wrong and to say nothing about it).
There are big-name experts who participate at some of these boards. Several of the big-name experts (John Bogle, Bill Bernstein, Scott Burns, Larry Swedroe) have indicated agreement with my view that valuations affect long-term returns. Yet these experts have been reluctant to speak up in clear terms in communities in which Goon posters are present. No one likes to have his or her reputation destroyed by the sorts of people who make it a sport to destroy reputations on the internet.
Motley Fool, Morningstar and several other boards have banned honest posting on a number that people use to plan their retirements. The likely effect is that millions of people are going to suffer failed retirements in days to come. Can these companies be held financially liable for these irresponsible acts (acts contrary to their own published rules)? I doubt that anyone knows the answer to that question today. We don’t know how upset people are going to be over losing large portions of their life savings when stock prices drop. I think it is fair to say that we should not be encouraging these companies to take on even potential liabilities and we certainly should not be doing things that encourage litigation. Responsible people need to step forward and take at least some minimally responsible steps.
It is not an effective solution to propose that those harmed by abusive posting take legal action against the abusive posters. Most people do not want to take on the expense of bringing legal actions. Even if they did, precedent in this area is slim and many lawyers will not be willing to take these sorts of cases on a contingency basis. The abusive posters of course know this. It is one of the reasons why they are so confident that they can get away with absolutely anything and why non-abusive posters feel helpless when attacked or when they see their friends attacked.
What is needed is something to restore the balance of power between abusive and non-abusive posters. It is probably 90 percent of most community members who are there for good purposes. So anything that would give even tiny bits of power to the non-abusive posters could work a dramatic change in how business is conducted on the internet. For example, if there were a government agency that would look into matters in cases in which a complaint was brought and have authority to fine highly abusive posters (or the sites at which they post) for the damage they do to the reputations of others, that might well be enough to change the culture from toxic to healthy.
Constructive posters feel defeated. They feel that there is no one in their corner. Much of the culture of the internet has been influenced by the mindset of the tech-oriented who were the first to settle there, as is indicated by some of the comments from the Forbes article. The internet is not just for the tech-oriented today, however. It is populated by all types of people. The internet today is where communities congregate to conduct their business. The rules of civility that apply everywhere else need to be incorporated into the internet experience.
Thank for you taking the time to read through this long e-mail. Everything I say here can be documented. If you need more examples of things that I talk about, please just let me know. As long as this e-mail is, the reality is that I held back a lot out of a desire to keep it from running even longer. I am of course happy to participate in any way in any effort to learn more about this phenomenon for the purpose of taking constructive action.
Please let me know what you think after you have had a chance to think this over a bit. I would be grateful for any thoughts you are able to offer as to how to pursue constructive and positive solutions to this serious public policy problem of our day.