It's been a bad week for women on the internet—but also a clarifying and validating one. British MP Stella Creasy began receiving rape threats on Twitter (in other news: fish are bonkers about water!) after expressing support for feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez, who was also being deluged with misogynist online abuse. Criado-Perez's crime? Advocating (successfully) for Jane Austen to appear on a £10 banknote. That, obviously, cannot be borne. Doesn't she know that money is man-paper!? HAS CRIADO-PEREZ NO COMPASSION FOR THE INTERNET'S POOR NERVES!?
After a Change.org petition and widespread outcry from prominent feminist voices including Caitlin Moran, Twitter has announced that they're working on a "report abuse" button for rape threats and hate speech. (Also, one of Creasy's online tormentors was actually arrested—a scene so cathartic I might have it drawn on top of a cake and then have sex with it.)
Via the Guardian:
Creasy used Twitter to inform the police of the threats, warn her abusers that she was logging their threats and taking screen grabs as evidence.
"You send me a rape threat you morons I will report you to the police & ensure action taken," she wrote.
...A [Twitter] spokesman said: "The ability to report individual tweets for abuse is currently available on Twitter for iPhone, and we plan to bring this functionality to other platforms, including Android and the web.
"We don't comment on individual accounts. However, we have rules which people agree to abide by when they sign up to Twitter.
"We will suspend accounts that, once reported to us, are found to be in breach of our rules. We encourage users to report an account for violation of the Twitter rules by using one of our report forms."
Right. Well, we'll see. Unfortunately, the reality of attempting to moderate Twitter isn't quite so simple:
The danger is that "report abuse" button could easily be used against the people it's intended to protect. When trolls* created a fake Facebook profile for me during the Great Rape Joke Kerfuffle of 2013 (mostly to express how much I hate rape and love donuts, because comedy), and I attempted to have it shut down, my genuine account wound up getting reported and suspended in retaliation. At most a minor inconvenience, but needless and irritating nonetheless. The thought of having my Twitter account potentially suspended by abusers in retaliation for fighting back against my own abuse is profoundly enraging. On the other hand, though, this week someone created a parody account of my dead father to harass me because of my stance on rape jokes (still going on, because COOOMEDYYYYY). And you better fucking believe I wanted a "report abuse" button for that. I can see both sides—though mostly what I see right now is how hard the entire system is rigged to fuck women over.
I used personal examples there, because I happen to have those on hand (so, so many of those), but this isn't actually about how I, Lindy West, am treated on the internet. This is about how people—particularly women—are treated on the internet when we challenge entrenched power structures.
We are treated like subhuman garbage, and that's because internet trolling is not random—it is a sentient, directed, strong-armed goon of the status quo. And the more we can hammer that truth through the public consciousness, the sooner we can affect the widespread cultural change we need to begin tamping down online hate speech.
One of the pillars of conventional wisdom about internet trolling is that internet trolling just happens. You hear this all the time, from even the most progressive allies: Oh, well, it's the internet. There are trolls. Trolls troll the internet. Rape threats are like oxygen. Whatareyagonnadooooo. So, I'm just supposed to accept that psychological abuse is built into my job and I'm some thin-skinned rube if I complain about it? Easy for you to say, Señor Rando. Not only is that framework supremely unsatisfying for me personally, I'd go so far as to say that it's a dangerous and patently false myth. Internet trolling does not "just happen." It is not some mysterious, ambient inevitability that affects all internet users indiscriminately.
Internet trolling is a force with a political agenda.
Broadly speaking, the type of violent, choreographed, overwhelming hate speech currently battering Creasy and Criado-Perez is directly aligned with our male-supremacist power structure (race is a deeply salient factor too, and unpacking that deserves its own article). I'm trying to think of an instance when anonymous women descended, spewing violent rape or castration threats, upon a man for expressing an opinion as innocuous as Criado-Perez's. I can think of instances of funny, political, retaliatory trolling—like when Twitter feminists co-opted the #INeedMasculismBecause hashtag, or when Rick Perry's Facebook page was deluged with questions about menses. But those are not examples of aggression, they are self-defense. They are not analogous to "I will rape you in an alley" or "Don't leave your phone at home, sweetie." They are reactions to misogyny—the same brand of misogyny that fuels internet trolling. They are women speaking to power—the same power structure that empowers and perpetuates anonymous trolls.
If you genuinely think that trolling affects everyone equally, look at the response Patton Oswalt received to his essay on rape culture vs. the responses that Sady Doyle and Molly Knefel and I got for ours (not to mention all of the other women who have been absorbing abuse for years for complaining about misogyny in comedy). I'd say Oswalt received...90% praise? At least? The general consensus was that he was honest, he was brave, he was correct. And he does deserve praise—I personally praised him, because he wrote about a hard thing that I've been advocating for for years—but at the same time, I have a feeling that he could count the number of retaliatory rape threats he received on zero hands. I've written several lengthy essays on rape jokes too, and when I spoke out about my rape threats, I got more of this: "Oh, but that's just what happens on the internet. Whatareyagonnadooooooooooooooooo." Well, it's not what happened to Patton on the internet. It is not, typically, what happens to men on the internet. It is gendered. It is the consequence for women if we complain about shit that is shitty for women.
So, world, we have a troll problem. And one of these days we'll have to figure out what we're going to do about it. From the first day the first troll king pooped out his first troll-sac full of butt-eggs (and then told his placenta to eat less/exercise more, fatty), the conventional wisdom has been to ignore them. Ignore them and they'll go away. Stop feeding them and they'll starve. Except...has that worked? That's been the policy since day one, and has trolling gotten better or worse? I'd wager that the people who are drawn to trolling, for the most part, are people who are used to being ignored. Ignoring them is playing to one of their strengths. So instead of fading away, they're intensifying. And if you disagree with that assessment, you're probably not a woman.
Andrew Sullivan linked to a study a while back (on his comment-free blog) that suggests that aggressive, abusive comments actually hinder readers' ability to absorb and synthesize new ideas:
Participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology ... The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were "civil"-e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: "If you don't see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you're an idiot." The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn't a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience . . . Pushing people's emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their pre-existing beliefs.
In other words, when we ignore the issue—leaving trolls to twist in the wind—not only does it not fix anything, it actively hurts us. It poisons healthy conversations. And, more specifically, it actively drives women off the internet and out of the conversation and back into our "safe spaces"—which is exactly what the trolls want. They want us to shut up. They want us out of their territory.
But engaging with the issue is exactly what trolls want too. They revel in attention. So that's the conundrum: As soon as we acknowledge them, they win. But if we never acknowledge them, they also win, plus discourse shuts down and we all get dumber. So what are we going to do? Well, in light of that idiotic Catch 22, I know what I'm going to do. Whatever I fucking feel like doing. I'm sick of being told that I'm navigating my own abuse wrong. I am not interested in being anyone's chew toy—you can chew on me, but I am full of poison.
I feed trolls. Not always, not every troll, but when I feel like it—when I think it will make me feel better—I talk back. I talk back because the expectation is that when you tell a woman to shut up, she should shut up. I reject that. I talk back because it's fun, sometimes, to rip an abusive dummy to shreds with my friends. I talk back because my mental health is my priority—not some troll's personal satisfaction. I talk back because it emboldens other women to talk back online and in real life, and I talk back because women have told me that my responses give them a script for dealing with monsters in their own lives. And, most importantly, I talk back because internet trolls are not, in fact, monsters. They are human beings—and I don't believe that their attempts to dehumanize me can be counteracted by dehumanizing them. The only thing that fights dehumanization is increased humanization—of me, of them, of marginalized groups in general, of the internet as a whole.
Cumulatively, the sheer volume of hate that we're expected to shoulder, in silence, every day, is wearing a lot of people out and shutting down rational discourse. Female bloggers are being hounded off the internet. Teenage girls are being hounded off the earth. There's no good solution, but we have to do what we can to stop these people—unmask them, shame them, mock them, cement their status as social pariahs—for our own sanity and for those whose armor isn't so thick (upgrade yo greaves, son).
Unmasking trolls, as we've seen, can produce some tangible and satisfying results. And I don't mean just in a punitive way, I mean in a changing-the-larger-culture kind of way. People need to understand and internalize that online harassment, violent hate speech, rape threats, slut-shaming little girls until they hang themselves, and so on, are express violations of the social contract. They will not be tolerated and they will result in real-life consequences. That's a long way off, and probably a bit of a pipe dream, but it might be our only hope for cleaning up this shitshow.
*Obviously the term "troll" is grossly overused and encompasses a million different species of special shitflakes—from indiscriminate outrage-stirrers to ideological pitchfork mobs—but I'm using it here as a catch-all for "gratuitous incivility." We can call them trolls or dickheads or burners or Johnny Fappleseeds or salty nut-logs or whatever you like, as long as you know what I mean. Which I'm sure you do.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.