Online Abuse – It’s Not Just “Words on the Internet”

Published August 31, 2012 by Fat Heffalump

I want to talk about trolling.  Mostly because it is a hot topic at the moment, what with the Charlotte Dawson case (please note, this whole case is very disturbing, be warned that it is highly likely you will find it very triggering if you delve too deep into it) happening over the past few days.  A potted version for those who don’t feel up to delving further, Ms Dawson (television personality) was involved in an online argument, which blew into a massive Twitter hate campaign with hundreds of violent, hateful messages aimed at her, and then Ms Dawson ended up in hospital.  I don’t know if she attempted suicide, or self harm, or if she was suffering extreme emotional/mental distress, it really doesn’t matter.  The point is that the bullying did her harm.

At this point, I’m going to stop using the term “trolling”.  I’m going to call it exactly what it is – abuse.  It is not just someone “saying something nasty” online, it is psychological, emotional and sometimes even physical abuse, and it is calculated.  I think that the term “trolling” has a connotation of some silly, juvenile teenager leaving comments on the internet to stir up trouble or be annoying.  It minimises the very real, very damaging abuse that many people, particularly women, suffer from complete strangers.  I am also going to focus on this abuse as something predominantly suffered by women.  And I want to get away from the expectation that we “don’t feed the trolls” and not pay them any attention, because this is about more than annoying attention seeking.  This is about the systemic, institutionalised abuse of women online simply because they are women, and they are visible online.  So from here on in I shall be referring to these behaviours as online abuse.

What I have seen over the past couple of days are a whole lot of privileged people – white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cis-gender, not-fat, educated men (and a few privileged women) thumping on about how we should just:

  • be polite
  • ignore it
  • learn to tolerate criticism
  • get more resilient
  • don’t argue back
  • just block them
  • don’t retweet or quote it
  • don’t let them know they’re hurting you
  • don’t be so sensitive
  • harden up

Funny thing is, those who seem to be dishing out the most of this oh-so-helpful advice are those who have never experienced the kind of organised abuse and hate-spew that we have seen aimed at Charlotte Dawson, and that many other women, including myself, have experienced in their time as internet users.  It must be so easy to come up with solutions to problems you’ve never experienced yourself!

What isn’t being acknowledged by these people is just how privileged they are, in that for many of them, what they are experiencing (and calling trolling) is criticism.  Just that, criticism of their work, their statements and so on.  In fact, in responding to several privileged people last night criticising their dismissal of online abuse and victim blaming, I myself was called a troll, blocked by several and told to “just shut the hell up”.  Because they are so privileged that this is what they consider online abuse, me coming along and saying “I disagree with you because telling online abuse victims to harden up/ignore it/be polite is blaming the victim, and doesn’t solve the problem.”, to them, that constitutes online abuse!

The reason they think it’s so easy to prevent online abuse is because they’ve never actually experienced it in the way that those of us without their privileges do.  They’ve never been sent rape threats, death threats or other violent threats.  They’ve never had webpages made about them stirring up other abusers into trying to frighten them offline.  They’ve never had phone calls at their house, they’ve never had emails claiming they know where they live, they’ve never had their private/personal information published online.  They’ve never had someone sign them up to pornography sites, weight loss clinics, mailing lists sending pictures of maimed and mutilated bodies and so on.

No, what these privileged people think constitutes “online abuse” is merely criticism.  Personally, I would LOVE to be in their position, where the worst behaviour I have ever been subjected to online was criticism.  Not all of the aforementioned abuse, which I have personally been subjected to.  And I know others have been subjected to far worse.

The other problem I have, is the attitude that the victims of such online abuse are not allowed to feel hurt, angry or traumatised by the abuse that they suffer.  These constant calls to “harden up”, or ” don’t be so sensitive” are actually deeply rooted in misogyny.  They imply that women, by being negatively affected by or showing emotion about the abuse are somehow responsible for it.  It’s that implication that women are “too emotional” and “too sensitive” and should somehow change their behaviours and feelings to prevent being abused.  It puts the onus on the victims, instead of the perpetrators, and is classic victim blaming.  Not to mention that our feelings, and our reactions to abuse are perfectly valid and we are allowed to feel them.  The implication that we should stop “acting like a girl” is really offensive because there is nothing at all wrong with being or acting like a girl or a woman.  Particularly as we ARE women and girls.

Another response I’ve seen is to claim that the victims “bring it on themselves” somehow because they are either rude, angry, emotional, impolite, opinionated, they swear or exhibit any other behaviour that people don’t agree with.  Now yes, while the Charlotte Dawson case has had some questions raised about her own behaviour, which I am not condoning at all as I don’t know the full facts, two wrongs don’t make a right.  Not to mention that the absolute violent hate-fest aimed at Ms Dawson was borne of misogyny, and not a direct response to her behaviour.  Ms Dawson’s biggest crime to the abusers was to be a woman who didn’t behave in a demure, submissive manner, and who didn’t bow to early abuse.  The more she fought back, even if she did so in a manner deemed inappropriate, the more this abuse was ramped up on her.

The thing is, no matter how women behave, online abuse isn’t going to go away based on making women less visible, more polite, more submissive, more demure, more “ladylike” and so on.  Mostly because it sets up the standard that any time a woman does something that men don’t like, they can be abused and then blamed for it.  Which means any time a woman has an opinion of her own, that differs from that of a man, it invites those who feel she should be silenced to abuse her.  Besides, not “feeding the trolls” doesn’t work.  There are those abusers who are not just in this for attention.  They’re here to bully women, silence them and inflict pain and trauma on them.  They will continue no matter how much you try to ignore them, because they enjoy the act of shutting women down and they enjoy hurting them.

It is 2012, soon it will be 2013.  We should be beyond telling women that they should be quiet and not hold opinions, not advocate for themselves, that they deserve abuse simply because they are women.  Which is what telling us not to be so sensitive/emotional is in fact tacitly implying.  It’s the attitude of “stop behaving like women, and you won’t get abused.”

Let’s just state it clearly – THIS IS ABUSE.  We should be horrified by this abuse, and we should be horrified that most, if not all, women who are visible online suffer it at some point or another.  If men were subjected to this kind of abuse on the same scale that women are, there would be outrage.  But instead, it is directly targeted at women and then is dismissed, predominantly by men, as insignificant.

We should be horrified at any kind of abuse, towards men, women or children.  Abuse of any kind, be it domestic, sexual, racial, gender-based OR online abuse, is abhorrent and needs to be acted on to eradicate quickly.  Online abuse can cause just as much trauma to it’s victims as any other form – as we have seen by the Charlotte Dawson case.

It is also time that the platforms this kind of abuse happens on take some responsibility for hosting this abuse.  Online platforms, like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr and any other service need to take a zero tolerance stand on abuse using their services.  For too long they have closed rank and claimed they’re not responsible for the individual behaviours of their users.  They ARE responsible for what they allow to be published on their platforms.  We need to demand they act swiftly and realise that they have a duty of care to their users.  After all, they are public venue hosts.  If we were in a physical public venue, we would expect that the owners of those venues would have a zero tolerance on other users of that venue behaving in an abusive manner.  We need to start seeing these platforms as the online public venues that they are.

As I was writing the last of this post earlier this evening, this post by Helen Razer was shared around Twitter.  I think Helen hits quite a few nails on the head with it, and I want to leave you all with a quote from the piece:

…there is no correct way to respond to ugly, unsolicited threats. In fact,  if this had happened to you, you could very well find yourself in a corner throwing your own poo at passersby while singing the hits of Nicki Minaj.

Terror has its own logic.  I hope, in or out of the spotlight, you never have to learn its terms.

And I hope that somewhere the daughters that Charlotte and I never got around to having are preparing to enter a world where loudmouth ladies are just loudmouth ladies and not women who asked to be beaten down.

21 comments on “Online Abuse – It’s Not Just “Words on the Internet”

  • Great post, the fact that “we shouldn’t read the comments” is bull and most of it is due to this type of bullying. We should be able to have a nice debate in the comments on pages because that’s what they are designed for. The fact that blogs like “Dances with Fat” was to have a separate area when all the hate mail/comments are put is also bullshit. If you don’t like what someone has to say that fine, you can even comment on it if you like, but deliberately attacking a person because you don’t like them or what they have to say is beyond childish (don’t we teach kids not to do that?). I have not as of yet been victim to this online yet, but I was told those same things for years when I was getting bullied at school and sadly later on in my “career” (I walked off the job). Growing a thicker skin is not an option for me, it just not who I am. My sensitivity is the very thing that makes me a good friend and I now consider to be one of my strengths.

  • Couldn’t agree more! This type of abuse happens much too frequently, and calling it ‘trolling’ does minimize it. All too often it isn’t kids or teens doing this, it’s adults. In fact this is one reason I love your blog, you don’t accept this type of behavior. I hope you don’t get negative responses to this, as I’ve seen some women try to bring this up only to have their voices drowned out by the bullies telling them to ‘toughen up’. Sending you some cyber hugs!

    • Oh yeah, it’s definitely adults Beth. You can totally see the difference between some silly kid goofing off and someone’s calculated attempt to bully a woman online.

      I have and will get hate mail for this, but I refuse to allow it to silence me.

  • These are exactly the same things we tell kids who are bullied (I was one) at school and those who face bullying in the workplace; harden up, shut up, and you are responsible for the way others treat you. Internet abuse is nothing new – it’s just another way of delivering the same ol’ thing.

    And like you’ve said in this post, another way abuse is diminished is by people labeling other behaviors as ‘abuse’. I’ve seen it myself when discussing the impact being bullied had on me, when others tell me about the one time someone called them a name and how they ‘got over it’ and I should too.

    Unfortunately though women are, ime, ‘better’ than men at online abuse. On a parenting forum where 99% of the posters are female I was once told by a poster that they hoped, for the sake of my then-unborn twins, the babies died inside me rather than being born to a fat mother who obviously (because she was fat) would be unfit to care for them. I think women can be horribly vicious and have the nous to find someone’s sore/soft spots and press – hard.

    And who knows, maybe I attract this kind of attention by being who I am but that doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t mean I should change. Like Andrea says, my sensitivity is a huge part of me – a good part – and it’s not one I’m willing to sacrifice for an ‘easy’ life.

    • Victim blaming comes up again and again and again Tanz33. If it’s not online abuse, or bullying, or workplace harassment, or rape/sexual violence, or domestic abuse… everyone wants to put the onus on the victim but not have the perpetrator take any responsibility for it. Enough is enough.

  • Thanks for this. I’m disappointed that this post has not generated much discussion yet. It needs to be discussed. There are some things that just aren’t acceptable and that no one should have to tolerate. Customers making fun of your disability at work? Too bad: The customer is always right. Someone sending you death threats and posting your picture and address all over the internet? They are just trying to bother you. It seems to escape these people that, even if that person is “just playing,” it’s not very funny to the victim. And even if someone is “just playing,” someone else that sees that same material might not. They might see it and take action.

    Some things just should not be played with, and there is nothing whatsoever harmless or funny or forgivable about this level of abuse. And you’re so right. It is mostly younger white men that make comments of this sort and I have very often seen them try to engage trolls on their blogs for a “debate.” Thank God(dess) for people like you that are willing to tell it like it is and stand up for the real victims and not get derailed by people crying “Abuse!” because you told the truth.

    • JoannaDW, I don’t believe there is actually much to discuss. Online abuse is not acceptable. Victim blaming has to stop. Online platforms need to take responsibility for online abuse perpetrated on their platforms. There’s not much grey area about it to be honest.

  • Reblogged this on faithandmeow and commented:
    I’m reblogging this, because abuse is rife online. I and my friends have all been a target at some point, and I don’t at all agree with ‘just stop reading’ or ‘you have to have a thick skin on the internet.’ It’s not okay. It never will be okay. And social media sites need to step up and have clear guidelines and penalties, and clear options available to those who are threatened. The internet is an awesome forum for us to share ideas and resources, to have a voice, and to get our message out there. BUT just like off the internet, basic respect for every other living creature is a necessity and a right. It’s also fine to not agree with another person – but it’s NOT fine to abuse them for their differences.

    • Thank you for this, Kath. I also thought of another thing – I hate that the abusers often say it’s ‘free speech’ because it’s not. It’s the opposite. Free speech is about respecting other’s views and feeling able to share your own. But abuse isn’t respect of other’s views. It’s not allowing them a voice – it’s actually taking their own freedom away. By belittleing them, by forcing their own views on the victim in a ‘this is true and any other view is invalid’ fashion, and for punishing them for having the courage to just speak up in the first place. Or punishing them for even existing – since when is that a crime? And then, to go and tell them to get off, turn it off, not read, not engage? That’s the same as saying “Shut up and suck it up.” NOT ON.
      In the eating disorder blogosphere there’s a (self proclaimed) ex-bulimic who has been abusing other members for daring to be honest about their own truths and struggles, engaging in vicious fat-shaming, and cruel. She follows others to other blogs or their own, and attacks them there, so that other people seeing her blog (now cleaned of the worst of her vitriol) think that she’s lovely and that those who say she’s abusing them are actually the abusers. Worst is that she actually belittles and abuses people who also suffer eating disorders. In all this, we have found both wordpress and blogger platforms to be useless. The only reporting feature we found (on wordpress, blogger has nothing) was pointless – didn’t do anything. The best we can do is mark her as spam. there isn’t any way to even block an abusive person. It is ridiculous.

  • Thank you for that link to helen razor …interesting reading…. I have found this whole thing disturbing …that these nasty creatures ……hiding behind the mask of”” innocent or just trolls “”

  • I am so oblivious to all this. The meanness people express sometimes blows me away. Life is so short. Why waste it on hate?? Wonderful entry. Much love to you for the good you are spreading in the world. Big hugs. Joanna

    • I was bullied on the playground. They told me I was too sensitive and to stop tattling and to ignore it and to toughen up. I still cried. I went to work and two different bosses bully me. One got me fired and took delight in trashing me in my performance review even though no one had told me I’d done anything wrong before that. Then I got another boss who bullied me for years (I tried to find another job but this economy) and was told that too bad, no one would do anything about it. I got away from there, at least, but now my kids get bullied. I am, so, so, so sick of being blamed for being tortured by bullies. Why are they ignored? Why are we told to be “less sensitive”? Doesn’t the world need more sensitive people, not less? It just makes me so angry. Excellent post, by the way. Thank you.

      • Alice, this is the culture we are forced to live in, one that blames victims instead of perpetrators. It’s not right and victims should not have to mitigate possible bullying. It’s time we as a culture change this.

      • I know. The bullying thing is insane. Why do people feel drawn to behave like that?? I fully own my temporary bitchiness at times, but that is more about being crabby at home and it doesn’t last (well, my husband may argue that last part). Hang in there love. If you send out love, you are going to get lots back. Really. I know that sounds hokey but I mean it. Big big big hugs to you!!! Jo

        • Thank you, Joy! Over the years I have discovered you are right about that. The bullies should still face consequences, but we can also work to bolster ourselves so that we aren’t perpetual victims. One way of doing that is to send out love, not succumb to the mean.

          I have worked hard on this. I wish I didn’t have to, and I’m glad we are taking steps to work on the bully issue. But till we get people acting like humans, we have to create our shields when we’re out in battle in the world. I liken it to the Roman army when they got together and formed one big shield with all their shields together. And they pushed back the enemy, because together, they were scary as heck.

          Big hugs to you too.

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