Online harassment is often many trolls' idea of a good time. How do you fight that?
'My trolls tend to harass me for fun.' Web photo via Shutterstock.
It's exhausting being a woman with an opinion on the Internet. Hands up, ladies: who agrees?
I don't blame you for not putting up your hand. Any time you draw attention to yourself online, you're setting yourself up for an unpredictable amount of abuse -- and who wants yet another dozen anonymous Twitter eggs calling you a stupid slut with nary a brain cell to her name?
I once tweeted out the statement, "Being a woman on the Internet with an opinion sure is fun! #sexism #feminism #YesAllWomen," accompanied by a screenshot of some of the abuse I'd received that day. Immediately I was barraged by a guy:
"So you think somehow your abuse is worse, or more special than the abuse men on the Internet get?"
"Everybody gets hate online. Somebody told me to fuck off because I don't believe in ancient aliens. It's just a crazy place... "
"And somehow men online don't get similar abuse?"
"Yeah -- somehow this kind of stuff only affects women -- men on the Internet just ignore this kind of thing. Professional victims."
There I was, talking about getting harassed online and Some Guy came by to harass me. Some Guy invalidated my lived experience and let me know I was just a hysterical woman who plays the victim. Some Guy thinks a culture of abuse is perfectly fine. Some Guy thought I owed him a conversation and refused to stop tweeting inane sexist statements at me.
I asked him what he got out of badgering me. "Nothing -– just entertainment" he told me, which was probably more frustrating than his sexist assumptions. What I experience as online harassment is Some Guy's idea of a good time. How do you combat that?
One BuzzFeed writer's tale
Over the weekend, BuzzFeed senior writer Scaachi Koul closed down her Twitter account. Presumably this was due to the response she received after she sent out a series of tweets encouraging people who were non-white and non-male to pitch articles to BuzzFeed.
This felt inevitable. Koul, an outspoken woman of colour, writes and talks about issues that matter from a perspective not often heard in the mainstream. She doesn't pull her punches and her adversarial nature gets under people's skin. Koul is unapologetic about courting controversies that need to be courted.
She also knows what it's like being a non-white, non-male freelance writer in Canada. Outside of a few niche publications and websites, there aren't a great many calls for voices that aren't white or male. The majority of Canada's national columnists are male, as are newsroom heads. Media doesn't do a great job of accurately reflecting Canadian demographics, and Koul knows that. In an attempt to combat this, Koul sent out a series of tweets reminding women of colour that, yes, a major mainstream website would like to hear their voices. That's it.
The Twitterverse erupted in cries that what Koul said was discrimination at best and illegal at worst. Her boss, Craig Silverman, rightly pointed out nothing she did was improper. In fact, Koul even followed her request for pitches by saying, "The reason why I was sourcing out work specifically from [women of colour] is because we have filled out [our] freelance roster until June with white dudes."
To recap: a woman puts out a tweet encouraging women of colour to submit pitches for a website. A pack of anonymous social media users take this as a personal attack and harass and threaten the woman so much that she takes her ball and goes home.
I don't fault her at all for that. This sort of abuse happens to me regularly online. I voice an opinion or post a link to an article, a guy takes extreme personal offence to it, and I am inundated with tweets calling me names, questioning my intelligence, presuming my motives, and, in some cases, threatening my person.
My trolls tend to harass me for fun. Some of the people who inundated Koul with tweets were calling her a racist, and while I can't speak specifically to their motives, I imagine there was more than a little projection on their part. The kinds of people who hurl abuse at women like Anita Sarkeesian -- whose apparent crime was daring to critique gender roles in video games -- are driven by the fear that women are coming to neuter their favourite hobby.
What all of these trolls have in common is their desire to silence women. A lot of the time, they are successful in their mission.
The advice I get most often is to close my social media accounts and log off the Internet forever. That isn't a solution; it's a concession to every awful man who thinks women don't deserve a voice. The price for being female on the Internet shouldn't be that you become the target of harassment by unhinged online mobs.
Fight for civility
It's so hard not to feed the Twitter trolls, because I am a lot like them. I am assured in my opinions, I love being right, I pride myself on my intelligence, and I like provoking a reaction in others. Being able to inspire emotion, positive or negative, in another person is a powerful thing. It's hard not to want to chase that feeling. Plus, I have hope that one day I might actually get through to one of my online trolls, tap that vein of empathy that I'm so certain they have, and change their minds for the better.
Dismissing trolls by saying abuse is all part of the nature of online interactions is baffling to me. Harassment shouldn't be considered a normal part of any community. I want to believe the Internet can be a better place, so I fight back -- for now. Until the day when the insults and threats become too much and I take my ball home, too.