Opinion: Don't feed the trolls, challenge them
The tired metaphor of the hungry troll has excused abhorrent online abuse for too long. It's time to stop starving trolls and start questioning humans.
The first time I was ever trolled it was at the age of 14, and by people I knew. It was my punishment for singing a solo in assembly. Internet trolling was in its infancy, and the worst that came of it was a smattering of tossers discussing me on Twitter. Occasionally they’d also tag each other in photographs of me on Facebook (a cleverly constructed method of demonstrating their disapproval in a way cyberbully whip-crackers wouldn’t understand). I never interacted with these subtle digi-jibes, mostly because 14-year-old me was wary of their nasty wit. This particular congregation of dickheads tended to be boisterous and cruel; they wouldn’t think twice about tearing me apart like laddish lions if I told them to stop. Out of fear, really, I learned not to feed the trolls.
But peckish trolls are shrewd. They are opportunists. They find a place to graze. After two years, the same malnourished trolls found their watering hole in my real life. One lunchtime when they were throwing pencils across the room at a nervous, eccentric and intelligent guy in my year, I asked them why they were behaving in the way they were. In what felt like a trollish banquet after two years of fasting, they gorged. I’d been too confidently vocal and they were game for a feast. They yelled my name at me like a football chant until I gave up and moved to sit elsewhere. Then they pulled my chair away from under me. By the sound of their roaring laughter, it was hilarious. It didn’t feel hilarious. Successfully silenced, I walked out of school and never again spent lunchtime in that part of the building.
On another occasion when pretty much my entire year group made a post-GCSEs pilgrimage to T in the Park, the same group of guys inexplicably threw a pie at my tent. Pissed off but slightly amused, I left the soggy mince to fester for a day while I watched Florence and the Machine wail from the main stage. I returned that evening in a rainstorm to find my tent trampled to the ground, belongings strewn across a cider-soaked patch of grass and the same sweaty culprits laughing their eccie-riddled brains out.
Lesson one learned before my sixteenth birthday: ignoring trolls might reduce the incentive but it doesn’t combat the motive.
A patriarchal dream: experimenting with Tinder
And that lesson still stands today. Last month, as part of an experiment for Deviance, I overhauled my Tinder profile and documented the results. Aiming for the idyll of a woman, I curated an identity in which the new Kate was a virtual madonna. A patriarchal wet dream, primed to bake for, play the flute for and adore my winning suitor into a state of maternal romantic bliss. Flooded with matches and somewhat surprised that I’d been taken seriously, I wrote an article about the experience and thought no more of it.
Shortly after, while sitting in the pub after work with a friend, I noticed a stranger had tweeted me. They wanted to know what sort of ‘sociopathic bitch’ could conduct such an experiment, throwing in an anti-Semitic slur for the ride. After briefly lamenting the condition of a scummy human race, my friend and I grinned gleefully at one another. Ironically, this nugget of hatred also meant good news. For a woman, internet abuse is almost a rite of passage when trying to have your work widely read. A gloriously exciting and deeply depressing realisation in equal parts.
But then it continued. My article had been posted in an area of Reddit called Tumblr in Action, a place where users lift ‘SJW’ (Social Justice Warrior) content from the rest of the internet and, in their words, ‘poke fun’ at it. They swarmed like weepy little locusts onto the comment section of my article, wounded by my words and wanting to fight. Fully grown, adult human men who felt it necessary to call me an ‘attention whoring cunt’ and a ‘vindictive bitch’. A ‘deceitful, raging whore’ with ‘miles of cock through my system’. Butch lesbian. Whorish clown. Skeleton. Slut.
Why were these men so angry? Was their furious, unsolicited advice an earnest design to point me in the direction of romantic success? Were these men devout flautists who felt wronged because I’d joked about their hobby? Well, on the whole, no. The trolls reacted so viscerally because they identified with the men who’d fallen for my maternal madonna. Behind my character’s halo they’d found a regular royal whore. Of course they were angry – there’s a lot at stake for men banking on the domestic and financial benefits of their future mummy-wives. Anyone calling out that romanticism is a threat to a pretty cushy set-up.
Their slurs might have hurt my feelings if I wasn’t quite so familiar with the dialect of misogynist trolls. Following the work of writers and activists like Roxane Gay, Anita Sarkeesian and Lindy West and reading their abuse in solidarity means I’m vicariously desensitised to this kind of bollocks. However, when I shared my disgust about the episode with people I knew, a couple of devil’s advocates reared their horns. “Welcome to the internet!” one or two of them told me. “That’s the way it is. Write about anything controversial, the trolls will come regardless of your gender.” I was reminded that being branded a slag is all part and parcel of striking up a debate – the confusing shame of imagining my mother read comments about her ‘slut’ of a daughter the price I pay for talking about feminism. Don’t read the comments! Don’t feed the trolls!
A demand for silence
But to quote the aforementioned Lindy West, an incredible journalist who suffers horrific, almost hourly abuse: “When I speak my mind and receive a howling hurricane of abuse in return, it doesn’t feel like a plea for my attention – it feels like a demand for my silence.” Ignoring gendered online abuse is as effective as sluicing camomile lotion over a recurring rash. It doesn’t solve the problem and the sting will always return. I don’t see myself refraining from writing about womanhood, feminism and sexuality any time soon, which means I worry about that sting becoming a regular component of my professional life.
Yes, perhaps uncomfortable opinions plus anonymity will always result in trolls. Maybe it’s just a crappy part of human nature gone haywire – thriving thanks to the unnatural quirks that technology affords. But if those trolls twig that you’re anything but male, but white, but straight, but cis, but able, but young, but middle class, the hate becomes personal. It’s difficult to remember that trolls are people. They aren’t wind-up merchant automatons but fearful, hateful humans who think they have a point to make. Internet trolling is the cowardly inner core of all types of discrimination. Facilitated by anonymity, it gives oppressors a last-ditch effort to lead half-hidden hate parades. When we try not to feed the trolls, we become complicit in creating echo chambers filled with the sort of hatred that’s taboo in the real world.
And those clusters of trolls – devoid of debate in their lonely little comment sections – might just convince one another that their written words are welcome aloud, too.