[Transcript below. Click Read More]
[Content warning: misogyny, online harassment, threats of violence]
Online, you can be anybody. Who are you then? What do you say and who hears you? Do you learn? Do you build community? Do you entertain? Or do you spend your time ‘trolling’ and harassing others? The presence of trolls and harassers in virtual space is one of the ways that the online world becomes as unsafe a space as any place offline - potentially more so. What happens online does not stay online.
As Steph Guthrie explains in the video above, to troll is to “pretend to hold a particular point of view with the sole or primary purpose of creating chaos in a community” but she goes further. A lot of negative online behaviour gets dismissively labeled as trolling, a tactic that you should just ignore (“don’t feed the trolls”), but it is often actually misogyny, harassment, hate speech and/or abuse. The death threats, public release of private information, stalking, rape threats, aggressive sexual comments and the other disgusting remarks that people (most often women) face online cannot simply be ignored.
I never could ignore the trolls because I was so frustrated to discover that this was some people’s (many people’s) response to the freedom on the Internet to access communities. The idea that someone spends their free time entering spaces for the sole purpose of hurtfully messing with people who have come together online on a message board or comments section is just so hostile to the concept of community-building and hostile to the humanity of others that I frankly don’t understand it.
People say that online abuse doesn’t matter. They’re “just trolling” - just pretending to believe things in order to anger/frustrate/hurt others - and so we should shrug it off. The haters can’t really get you through the internet, they say. I’ve tried to be cool enough for this approach, but it doesn’t work for me. In the video, Steph makes a great argument for why we can’t just ignore trolls who are saying bigoted things. She says that we shouldn’t let them dominate conversation by drowning people out and enforcing silence as the only response to their bigotry. In addition, trolls and observers need to see that their behaviour isn’t acceptable.
I agree with Steph, but as someone who values online community and virtual life, there is another reason to take trolls seriously. For me, whether a troll is acting like a bigot or just a jerk, trolling is frustrating because the very premise of trolling is based on the assumption that what you say or do online isn’t real and shouldn’t be taken seriously. I just don’t buy that.
I believe that there is often no useful division between the real and the virtual when it comes to human interaction. There are certainly uniquely online and offline experiences and identities and communities, but we have been code switching for different spaces and audiences offline since we were all toddlers. The fact that there may be differences in your online personae compared to offline does not indicate it’s falseness or lack of reality, and I argue that it is not much different from the demeanor switch around your boss vs your best friends vs your grandmother. We are complex beings who can maintain more than one way of engaging with the world. We disclose ourselves differently all the time. If identity is performative - if you construct yourself out of what you do - acting like a jerk to perform the role of a troll makes you, in fact, a jerk. If you are exploring this online identity of a troll, that is a facet of you. It isn’t likely the sum of your entire identity, but it means something about you that this how you spend your time. While trolls will tell you over and over that their performance of disrupting communities and virtual spaces means nothing and they’re just trying to be provocative - have a little fun! loosen up! - I think it says a lot.
More importantly, I think there is an astounding loss that occurs when you attribute a lack of reality to virtual interactions. Not only are you stripping others of their online identity, relationships and community, but you are excusing yourself from acting as your real self. You are lowering the bar for your humanity, and so it is no surprise when people treat each other as less than human. When their interactions are somehow ‘not real,’ they can treat others online with the kind of hatred they might never imagine in person.
Anita Sarkeesian, founder of Feminist Frequency, is a prime example of the outrageous hatred you see performed online, especially against women. Many people have already heard about her Kickstarter campaign to raise money to produce short videos regarding women’s representation in video games. Unfortunately, the backlash against her potential project was terrifying. She talks about it on her blog, going into detail about some of the vitriolic responses to her campaign, and she also did a TED talk discussing what can be learned from her experiences (transcript available via the link also). [NB: trigger warning for both links]
In Steph’s video above, she highlights a particularly awful response to Anita’s Kickstarter campaign in the form of a videogame that allowed players to beat up Anita’s picture online. It makes me nauseous to imagine a man on his computer, spending his day carefully constructing a realistic black eye and swollen lip on her face. I have to ask myself what kind of person dedicates time to that. Of all the things they could be doing, why choose this? Why funnel your time and skills into simulating violence against a woman who wants to talk about videogames and gender? And how is that not a ‘real’ reflection on you? Steph speaks about her interactions with the ‘game’ creator online and her attempts to make the connection between this online violence and so-called ‘real life,’ and I wonder if that message was ever really delivered. For me, this is the risk of seeing virtual space as separate from or less than reality: people think that their cruelty somehow doesn’t count in binary code. I want to assure them that it does. The desire to hurt people for fun is still terrifying on a screen. Their hate and misogyny is loud and clear.
Too often, it isn’t safe to be heard online. Anita is far from the only one to be punished for her opinion, and many communities have turned on women who have spoken out, especially on feminist topics. Amanda Hess recently wrote a thorough article looking at the prevalence of violence against women online and how rarely it is taken seriously, despite its real (and gendered) impact on the lives of its recipients.
“[Women] are more likely to report being stalked and harassed on the Internet—of the 3,787 people who reported harassing incidents from 2000 to 2012 to the volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent were female. Sometimes, the abuse can get physical: A Pew survey reported that five percent of women who used the Internet said “something happened online” that led them into “physical danger.” And it starts young: Teenage girls are significantly more likely to be cyberbullied than boys. Just appearing as a woman online, it seems, can be enough to inspire abuse. In 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland set up a bunch of fake online accounts and then dispatched them into chat rooms. Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.” - Amanda Hess
Although I wasn’t able to find reliable statistics breaking down these binary gendered statistics or how race, religion, ability or age specifically factor into who is targeted for harassment, I think it is reasonable to assume that the closer you match up to the white, able-bodied, straight, cis man, the less your deviance is going to be seen as punishable - and vice versa. This post by editor and blogger Grace Hwang Lynch includes many examples of harassment reported by women of colour who confront gender and race issues in their online work, and there’s more where that came from. If you are a person of colour, trans* or part of another marginalized community, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the reaction to your online presence could be as vitriolic and dangerous as the response you might receive offline; people are trying to silence you, regardless of the medium.
As Amanda Hess’ piece “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” explains, harassers act as gatekeepers, silencers and reminders that a woman with an opinion online can become the target of intense hatred at the drop of a hat. Say the ‘wrong’ thing or address something even in a community that you thought you belonged to and you could be on the receiving end of thousands of rape threats. How charming. We have come so far that now, if we’re very lucky, we can receive violence threats on 3+ platforms and 2+ devices.
Online harassment matters. Our virtual identities (and our virtual bodies, which are constantly referenced in violent comments that say what would be done to us) deserve the same respect expected in offline contexts. Anyone who opens their mouth to voice a marginalized position can find themselves at the wrong end of a cybermob and that kind of reaction is not acceptable. We can’t just shrug it off or ignore it. The bigotry online is part of the same bigotry offline, so both must be addressed before we see real changes in either space. The revolution may not be televised, but it will be online. Virtual space is worth defending from those people hostile to the potential for genuine community and connection.