Take it to the trolls?

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The saying online goes: Don’t feed the trolls. Ignore taunts. Don’t rise to the bait. When people join a conversation with outrageous or insulting comments, turn a blind eye. Don’t give them the attention they crave. Leave them alone and they’ll go away. Or maybe they won’t, but in any case you can’t win an argument on the Internet, so don’t try.

In general I’ve followed this advice. I almost never delete comments from this blog, because I don’t want to stifle discussion. However, I’ve made it clear that commenters need to be respectful. This is my playhouse, and you don’t get to come in and vomit on the floor. When commenters have attacked the character of people I know, I’ve told them to knock it off. When they’ve attacked entire nationalities, I’ve called them on it. When one threatened to have me arrested because she didn’t like me joking about her, I pointed out the absurdity of her threats and banned her. Nobody who threatens another’s safety here gets to continue commenting.

But in general I have been okay with pseudonymous comments and heavy sarcasm, here and elsewhere online. Freedom! Brave New World! On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog!

But “online” isn’t a separate special nature preserve anymore. It’s everywhere, ubiquitous, now thoroughly integrated into our lives for communication, entertainment, and commerce. It’s not a special realm that should be exempt from all laws and standards. It’s one more neighborhood where we live.

It’s a neighborhood without streetlights. And that lets ugly things crawl around in the dark. And, sometimes, attack.

If you haven’t been keeping up with the latest tactics of online trolls, a favorite is to threaten women with rape and death.

Caroline Criado-Perez: “After the Jane Austen announcement I suffered rape threats for 48 hours, but I’m still confident the trolls won’t win.”

Criado-Perez led the successful campaign in Britain to have Jane Austen’s picture on the next generation of £10 bank notes. In response, she received thousands of rape and death threats on Twitter. Thousands.

“Wouldn’t mind tying this bitch to my stove. Hey sweetheart, give me a shout when you’re ready to be put in your place”

Men were sending her this message and similar shit every single second for twelve hours straight. Why? For fun. Because they hate women. Because they’re casual bullies who want to shut their victims up and break them. Because they get away with it.

So maybe it’s time to drag the trolls out into the light and call them on their crap. That’s what Mary Beard did this week.

The broadcaster and academic Mary Beard has silenced an internet troll after naming and shaming him on Twitter.

Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University, retweeted the “highly offensive” post from Oliver Rawlings, who has 243 followers on the social networking site, on Monday.

In his tweet, Rawlings called Beard a “filthy old slut” and made a sexual comment.

Professor Beard offered to forward the tweet to the troll’s mother. At that point he backed up so fast he nearly tripped over his own feet.

There have been calls for technological controls to shut down trolls, but I tend to agree with Channel 4: it’s going to take a culture shift.

So let’s set out some principles.

  • Telling everybody to “Jump on the rape train” and attack a woman? Wrong. Wrong face to face; wrong online.
  • Telling a woman that if she’s still breathing after a rape, she needs to be raped again until the breathing stops? Wrong. Always, everywhere.
  • Laughing when a target complains, telling her that the torment is her own fault — that if she would just shut her mouth, they wouldn’t have to promise to rape her in the face with a sledgehammer until she dies — not gonna take that.

If we heard a stranger spouting this garbage at a woman in a restaurant, I hope we’d tell them to stop it. Online, it should be even easier to say: this isn’t funny. It isn’t cool. Cut it out.

Luckily I’ve never experienced such abuse, though this week I blocked my first troll on Twitter. Being called a hack-job, grotesque, and a 1-star author was no fun, even though I know that this troll latches on to writer after writer, flinging insults in a ceaseless campaign for attention and publicity. For now, I’ve simply shut off his ability to attack me… from that particular Twitter account. In the future, I may handle things differently.

Telling people to sit quietly and take it ain’t the way forward.

9 responses to “Take it to the trolls?

  1. Well written, Meg! Trolls and other things that hide in the obscurity and anonymity of the Internet do need to be silenced, but by society, not by laws. We need to rise up and admonish their behavior, declaring it unacceptable. Unfortunately, as you say, it’s going to take a culture shift to accomplish that. Too many people snicker in private, happy not to be the target but unwilling to silence the attacks. Well done, Mary Beard! I salute you!

  2. I join Snart in saluting Mary Beard, and I agree with everything you’ve said as well, Meg. I just don’t understand how any male — I won’t honor these people by calling them men — who has a mother, wife, or daughter can spew such hate.

    Shunning in the real world, as well as the virtual world, is called for, I think.

    • Thanks, Eddie. I’m glad there are plenty of men like you who object to this garbage. And of course trolls don’t only come in this flavor — women can be awful as well, and people hate and scream for all kinds of reasons, or none. The examples I use in the post are just the most current and prominent.

      Real world repercussions are a good way to reinforce the message.

  3. I’ve heard the term “troll” before but have never experienced such hatred. I think this could be a whole new study in aberrant psychology. People who do this sort of thing have to be sick in the mind.

  4. I’m not defending these [deleted because the word is a slur I don’t want people to use here or elsewhere — Meg] in any way, but

    “Wouldn’t mind tying this bitch to my stove. Hey sweetheart, give me a shout when you’re ready to be put in your place”

    doesn’t actually contain any sort of rape threat. It’s clearly written by a dickhead, I agree, but there is no threatening content to it. Surely there most have been a more apposite quote…

    • hedgehog: You’re right, the highlighted tweet doesn’t use the word “rape.” Perhaps a crude and frightening quote would have demonstrated the point more bluntly. But the vilest, most explicit tweets are things I don’t wish to reprint. You can find some of them at Caroline Criado-Perez’s article in the New Statesman. That’s why I linked to it. I’ve paraphrased or partially quoted some of this week’s worst threats in the bullet points above. Those certainly do threaten rape and death.

      Please reread the highlighted tweet in light of the overall post. If you think “there is no threatening content to it,” think again. It’s all threat. This message was sent directly to Caroline Criado-Perez as well as the wider Twittersphere. Calling her “this bitch” and saying she needs to be put in her place — by which he means bound to his stove, so he can punish her… maybe by beating, maybe by burning, maybe by doing what he thinks a man should do to a woman he’s chained up, “sweetheart” — that’s nothing but threat, all the way down.

      And I deleted the word you used to describe the trolls (starts with an R, refers to people with cognitive impairments). I understand that you used it to insult the trolls. They need insulting. But the word has come to be considered demeaning to people who have developmental delays, so it’s off the cards here.

  5. Pingback: 2013: the blog’s top posts | lying for a living

  6. I agree with u. We gotta tell them straight up to get a life, clean up their act, and no amount of trolling ever stopped them from being a loser.

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