Or rather, we need to stop talking about them. But let me explain.
Back in the early days of the Internet, when I was desperately waiting to turn thirteen so I could join Elfwood, the word “troll” meant something specific. It meant an anonymous person who deliberately posts false, inflammatory or outright stupid things for the sake of getting a reaction.
This traditional form of trolling is not harmless. As this article on the figure of the troll points out, trolls usually rely on being as abusive or offensive as possible. However, trolling used to come with a layer of self-awareness at the very least, and functioned as a powerful form of disruptive satire at its best. The troll made an art out of being as infuriating as possible while remaining believable. Their goal was to make people angry, mostly for perverse personal amusement but also sometimes to challenge entrenched views within a certain community. And so the prevalent wisdom was not to “feed the trolls” because that’s exactly what the trolls want.
Nowadays, troll seems to mean literally any asshole with an Internet connection and trolling means any incident of online abuse. The goal of Twitter users who are frequently branded as trolls may be to make people angry but it is also in a large part intended to shut people up and specifically to shut women up, which is why the brief #twittersilence response to events of the past weeks was somewhat misguided.
In case you didn’t hear about said events, writer and activist Caroline Criado-Perez successfully campaigned to have Jane Austen memorialised on the English £10 note.* This followed an announcement that Winston Churchill will replace Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note come 2016, bringing the representation of non-monarch women on British currency down to exactly zero. Now even if you’re someone who thinks this whole feminism lark has gotten a bit out of hand and the PC crowd are overreacting as usual, in the grand scheme of things, surely this is a largely inoffensive campaign? And even if Jane Austen does end up on the tenner, sure who doesn’t like a bit of Pride and Prejudice? Right?
Wrong. The Twitter misogyny brigade responded in its usual measured way by inundating Criado-Perez and Labour MP Stella Creasy with rape and death threats, and topped it off with a bomb threat directed at Professor Mary Beard.
Criado-Perez’s campaign is a matter of national interest and that is fantastic; it means that the media coverage has transformed online sexism into high-profile issue and has even prompted an apology and promises to do better from Twitter UK. But sadly, for the garden variety Internet feminist, this problem is not new or even faintly surprising. It is just the latest is a long list of incidents illustrating how being an outspoken female presence on the Internet is a terrifying experience and as for being a self-proclaimed feminist online… well, you’re effectively inviting rape threats, particularly if you use Twitter, because, I mean, you were obviously just looking for attention, deliberately stirring shit, totally asking for it. And you’re probably fat. Bitch.
Anita Sarkeesian is a media critic who talks about gender inequality in TV shows, and this is what happened when she announced she wanted to do the same thing with videogames. Lindy West is a comedian who made the unforgivable faux pas of having opinions about rape jokes while being fat; listen to her read out four minutes worth of sexually degrading tweets she received because she participated in a civil debate on the subject with a fellow comedian. More recently, Marion Bartoli had the audacity to win Wimbledon while not looking like a supermodel, and once again, tweeters descended to remind her that her primary worth resides in how her body looks in her tennis whites. Fortunately, thanks to the power of the screengrab and projects like Public Shaming, we have the ability to painstakingly document the scope, depth and toxicity of this abuse and expose the levels of violence and anger that are frequently directed at women who dare to suggest that hey, maybe, just maybe, sexism might be a thing.
Documenting the abuse also gives us a sense of who the perpetrators are, and it’s important to note that not all of them operate in total anonymity. Many have legitimate accounts, otherwise full of mundane tweets about the weather and food and TV shows. Some users even tweet rape threats and sexist slurs from accounts that feature a full name, a location, a photo or other identifying information. By and large, there is no whiff of parody or satire. The perpetrators are not being ironic, or playing devil’s advocate, or any of the other things people usually say after they have been called out on their shitty opinions. As Emma Barnett discovered in an interview with a couple of self-confessed trolls, at least two of the perpetrators feel that violent and scary abuse is exactly what women deserve when they “stick their heads above the parapet” on the Internet.
The problem with blaming all rape threats and shitty sexist jokes on “trolls” is that it obscures the fact that this is a systemic problem. According to the troll narrative, the abuse is an anomaly perpetrated by outliers, by anti-social weirdos who barely exist outside the Internet. The Internet enables trolls to come together and engage in widespread assholery, and while this is unfortunate, there’s nothing we can really do about it because “that’s just the Internet for you” and “there’s always going be a few crazies.” The idea of trolls allows us to lay the blame on Twitter, on the Internet in general or on individual personality flaws. It allows us to pretend that there is still a fundamental divide between the Internet and “real life” and that a rape threat is somehow less real and less scary because it’s 140 characters long. It allows us to ignore the fact that the language directed at these women is pointedly gendered as well as violent. Blaming it all on the trolls prevents us from talking about why this happens every single time a woman on the Internet has an opinion. And if we can’t talk about the why, nothing is going to change.
So here is the why. The problem is not trolling. The problem is not the Internet. The problem is misogyny and it is not a bug, it is a feature.
Trolling is the narrative of an individual acting like an asshole in a vacuum outside of normal society. (Hint: such a place does not exist.) This narrative asserts itself outside of Twitter too. Last week, a man sitting on a bench grabbed my wrist as I walked by and tried to pull me onto his lap. It’s easy to think “ugh, what a creep, what a dickhead, what an asshole” and honestly, life would be easier if it was that simple. But this guy is probably not an asshole. He probably thinks of himself as a decent guy and it’s possible we could even have a nice conversation under different circumstances. He didn’t harass me because he was born with the asshole gene. He harassed me because he was drunk and entitled and he lives in a culture where it’s ok to grab a girl if it’s all in good fun and you don’t actually intend to, like, rape her or anything.
Whether we’re talking about trolls or assholes or creeps or weirdos, these terms let us all off the hook when it comes to examining our own attitudes and prejudices. It’s almost a perverse form of Othering. If sexism is the sole purview of assholes, then it’s easy to think “well, nothing I say could possibly be sexist because I’m not an asshole.” (And unsurprisingly, nobody is an asshole in the internal narrative of their life.) The men who tweet these horrible things stay locked away in the ivory tower of trolldom while the men who ignore them (or even defend them) get to throw their hands up and say “Nothing to do with me!” and continue pretending that they are not part of a system that minimizes, tolerates and makes excuses for misogyny.
Women’s voices and stories have always been downplayed and silenced, with threats of violence and with scorn and ridicule. The Twitter reaction to women like Criado-Perez, Sarkeesian and West is nothing new, it’s just the same tired old bullshit in a new medium. More than one male friend of mine has suggested that maybe feminists should stop using Twitter because if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen, AMIRITE LADIES!? But the power of social media is important for feminism because it allows women to co-ordinate and tell their stories en masse. Projects like Everyday Sexism and Project Unbreakable let women come together to create a critical mass of lived experience that is becoming hard to ignore and even harder to silence. As much as the Internet can be a harsh and toxic environment for women, we can’t afford to let ourselves be silenced, however exhausting and upsetting the process of shouting back might be.
So here’s a riddle. How many trolls do we need to line up in a row before we get to point out that there might be a pattern? How many thousands of rape threats do feminists need to receive before we’re allowed to say “Hey, maybe society has a misogyny problem?”
I’m not sure. But for the moment, can we stop talking about trolls? Can we stop talking about assholes? Instead can we talk about the people who think that tweeting rape threats at feminists is acceptable or hilarious or both? Because they are people. Even the anonymous ones. They are men. They are also sometimes women, but they are mainly men. They are not monsters living under bridges or freaks hiding in basements. They are men with families and friends and jobs and lives and when they come home in the evening they like to blow off steam by getting on Twitter and saying SHUT UP YOU UGLY BITCH to the feminist target du jour. In the case of every single one of those rape threats, someone sat down, considered what they were going to say, typed it out and hit send. Maybe because they think it’s funny (because of course they don’t hate women, idiot, can’t you take a joke?) or maybe because they genuinely think ugly bitches should not have Twitter accounts. Either way, the net output is the same. They think this is normal. They think this is fine. They think it’s all a big joke. They think you’re overreacting.
And above all, they will argue, vehemently, that our society does not have a problem with sexism. So let’s keep pointing out how good they are at proving themselves wrong.
*ETA: It has come to my attention that Caroline Criado-Perez did not campaign specifically to get Jane Austen on the English £10 note, she campaigned more generally for female representation on English currency and Jane Austen on the tenner was the end result of that campaign.