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.