Can abuse and online harassment be effectively addressed by FamilySearch?
FamilySearch needs to address the issue of online harassment on their platform.
My reports to FamilySearch of abusive behavior by two Patrons —actionable libel directed at me, along with harassment over many months — resulted in form letter replies that did not appear to address the problem. FamilySearch needs to involve some experts, talk to their lawyers, and work on a process to identify and deal with abusive users. Abusive users’ accounts should be suspended immediately.
A search on this community board for “abuse” returns many posts, showing a persistent problem with online harassment. It does not appear that FamilySearch is very effective in their responses.
*Example 1 — Abusive User:
I was recently the target of online harassment and libel posted on FamilySearch. A simple research dispute turned into extended harassment, with another User sending acrimonious notes to my message board, and posting comments about incompetent research on my ancestor’s record. I posted every document I could find and wrote detailed notes, but that didn’t help. Recently, the other User publicly posted two statements about me that contained actionable libel. At that point, I reported the User to FamilySearch for abuse. The report number is (FSSRA-4531).
FamilySearch sent an email telling me they removed the inappropriate comments from the record. [One of the libelous statements being removed from the record. Another comment containing libel is still in the “Change” list on the record for my ancestor, along with other spiteful comments.]
Then the email included a lecture about managing research disputes and that FamilySearch is a shared tree. To be clear, I did not complain to FamilySearch about the research dispute. I did not gripe that someone was changing “my tree.” I reported actionable libel.
Since I’m on FamilySearch almost daily, I am well aware of disagreements and people changing the information on the tree. I normally spend between 20 and 60 hours a week on genealogical research, so I have seen my share of research disputes.
FamilySearch’s form letter response concerned me, since it did not address the problem, and reprimanded me for the research dispute. This is called Victim Blaming, i.e. “you shouldn’t have made him/her mad.” FamilySearch basically excused the other User’s behavior because of the research dispute. I was a victim of libel and was effectively blamed for the situation.
In this case, I looked at the change lists down through the generations to find that the Abusive User has a pattern of poor behavior. S/he rarely contributes anything except snarky comments, and recently went through a family line detaching dozens and dozens of documents, stories, and photos, mostly posted by other Users. A look at his/her ancestors’ records also showed that the User had made many disparaging comments about other FamilySearch patrons.
If the Abusive User’s account had been suspended two years ago when s/he first posted some abusive comments directed at other users, perhaps his/her inclination to post so many mean-spirited comments would have been curbed before s/he posted libel.
*Example 2 – Online Harassment:
I began to research a particular family line in 2017. I worked back on FamilySearch, verifying the posted information, checking the documents and sources for each generation. When I got to the 1700s, I began to find huge problems — common FamilySearch issues, like everyone who was named James Marsden was merged into one entity with 25 children and 6 wives, living in 3 counties in England, with some children born in Massachusetts. I’m sure any long-time FamilySearch user is familiar with the type of merged records that I was constantly seeing. One User’s name showed up as a consistent “merge-everyone-with-the-same-name” offender.
After I took the time to un-merge individuals back into their own families, this User began to undo the work I had done, repeatedly merging everyone with the same name. I spent hundreds of hours re-doing work and writing long explanations on each page, referencing the records, and explaining that the families lived in different towns. The posted notes were ignored, so eventually I sent a message asking the User to please check the sources and documents attached to the records, and to please be aware that not everyone with the same name was the same person. I received a somewhat incoherent response claiming a certain Marsden Book was the ultimate source – although his changes didn’t match the book, which was in my files. I resolved to ignore him, and to keep watching the records to maintain accuracy.
Soon he began sending mean-spirited messages every so often. Here is a sample (not edited for clarity or grammar):
“Marsden or De Merclesden. there are so many spellings. do not do any more on this family tree. or I will have to DELETE it” [Deletes the alternate surname spellings I had added to the record.]
“You Just Leve the Marsden Tree ALONE”
“Why Can you not stop touching my Work Every one keeps on Doing things That I Have Dune My Records are Correct. do not think I just Think it. I know that it is right .”
“Why Can't you stop Doing my Tree I Have Spent Years on it Now I am trying to redo it, because some one can-not stop interfere with it, I have Records going back to 1050 AD.”
On November 25 last year, he sent me a profanity-laced message, which I reported to FamilySearch (FSSRA-4147). I’m not going to quote his message.
The reply from FamilySearch was:
“Dear Melinda Bowers,
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Appropriate action will be taken.
“FamilySearch Data Administration”
I’m not sure what “appropriate action” was taken, but it did not work. The User continued to send me messages. I reported him again (FSSRA-4984) and FamilySearch told me to “mute” him.
In the past two weeks, he has sent me at least four more messages, including this: “no you are not right, in record you wright what you See not what you do not see, this is the correct way of doing it, THE LDS way.”
I finally muted him, even though I will not be able to track his changes and correct them — unless I happen to be watching that record.
Except for the message with profanity and his occasional threats, each message by itself seems simply mean-spirited. In this case, it’s the cumulative effect and increasing frequency. A couple of years ago, his messages came every two or three months. Before I muted him, he was sending messages weekly.
I am a dedicated genealogist, and for a while I considered leaving FamilySearch after the personal attacks. I have mostly taken a break for a month, but I am back on FamilySearch. I think FamilySearch needs a better response to real abuse and harassment.
FamilySearch can and should do better. FamilySearch is providing a forum for the abuse and does not seem to be addressing the issue. Unfortunately, online harassment, cyberbullying, and libel are not just an issue of FamilySearch policies. There are real legal issues, too.
Every state in the USA has a libel law, and twenty-four states (including Utah) have defamation laws. There are federal laws relating to online harassment, and many states have their own online harassment laws.
FamilySearch is based in Utah, so I’ll post the Utah Law for Libel (Utah Code 45-2-2), which says:
"Libel" means a malicious defamation, expressed either by printing or by signs or pictures or the like, tending to blacken the memory of one who is dead, or to impeach the honesty, integrity, virtue or reputation, or publish the natural defects of one who is alive, and thereby to expose him to public hatred, contempt or ridicule.
[As clarification, “expressed by printing… or the like” includes online posts that are publicly available.]
If FamilySearch allows unchecked harassment, defamation, and libel on their platform, nothing good will result. Here are some scenarios:
1) An attack on a patron on FamilySearch results in them logging off FamilySearch permanently. They never contribute again. (I’ve seen this happen.)
2) An active user on FamilySearch is attacked, and decides to delete all their documents, photos, and contributions to FamilySearch, resulting in the loss of valuable research. (I’ve seen this happen.)
3) An attack on a FamilySearch user with the means and motivation results in a lawsuit for FamilySearch. Since FamilySearch is providing the platform for the harassment or libelous statements posted by the abusive User, a lawsuit would have to be filed against FamilySearch to obtain information about a User’s real identity so the victim could sue the abusive User.
FamilySearch’s policy of sending an email reprimand to an offender does not seem to curb bad behavior or harassment, nor does it provide an adequate response to abuse that rises to the level of libel or defamation.
May I suggest that if a conversation, comment, or post is (as the Terms state) “threatening, bullying, degrading, violent, or otherwise abusive” that the reported user’s account is suspended immediately until they finish some online training about expectations for behavior?
I would like FamilySearch to consider more effective ways to deal with online harassment and worse on the platform. FamilySearch’s responses to my abuse reports were not encouraging.
Have others been targets for similar abuse?
Is there anything to be done? Thoughts?
This is a serious problem.