On ladies who fear being silenced by trolls

17 Feb

In order for this post to make any sense, you’ll need to read this piece titled “Twitter: a new world of abuse against women” by Julia Baird in which the author addresses the problem of “evil” trolls.

Then I strongly urge you to read this piece by Helen Razer, titled “A troll in the park” in which, among other things, the author points out some crucial statistical absences in Ms Baird’s argument.

Then you ought to read this piece by Cathy Young, titled “Is there a cyber war on women,” and if you want further complexity, you could read this piece by me, titled “Toxic, online and feminist. Really?” in which I address the matter of white media feminists claiming they are being “trolled” and “silenced”by women of colour, and am chastised in the comments for my audacity by a couple of white media feminists who no doubt have added me to their list of trolls.

No thinking person could quibble with the disagreeability of being targeted online for abuse. While I can control this on the blog, I’ve been surprised by the abuse sent my way when I’ve written for media outside of my control, and sometimes have had cause to wonder if the moderators were sleeping.  It is not nice. It is not acceptable. It can be frightening.  For women who are usually relatively safe, and have managed to construct an environment for ourselves that is relatively safe, the internet is an area over which we have no control.

An argument made by Ms Baird is that if  anonymity is forbidden at sites that provide the opportunity for engagement, the problem of online abuse will disappear. Very few trolls, apart from the famous ones who make a living from it, use their names, so there is some sense in the argument against anonymity.

However, many, many internet users prefer anonymity, not because they wish to abuse and troll, but because they prefer to maintain their own privacy for any number of good reasons. Should everyone be forced to identify themselves in order to provide a safe space for ladies who fear the troll will silence them?

To my mind, this would result in an appalling silencing on an appalling scale, and so is in no way acceptable.

If we are to participate in an online world we have to be able to deal with its reality, which is that we are not discussing topics around the dinner table in our homes, or only with the like-minded, but we are participating in a global exchange that lacks any of the usual social protections normally enjoyed by the privileged. Anyone can say anything to us. And they do.

Some of us may well be silenced by trolls and this is, of course, wrong and unfair. Yet I know many, many women, myself among them, who have endured enormous abuse, physical, sexual, emotional, mental and spiritual, and who have not been and never will be silenced by abuse we’ve experienced.

The world does not adapt itself to protecting us from the massive potential for abuse it contains. In the scheme of things, the sorry-arsed losers whose only source of pleasure is attempting to intimidate someone else on the internet are very low in the hierarchy of potential abusers. Yes, they say very mean things. Yes, they make threats that are alarming and intimidating. No, of course they shouldn’t do it, and we shouldn’t have to be subjected to it.  However, as there is no way of making the internet nice, and perhaps we should be grateful for that, we’re going to have to toughen up and learn, like the man kicked by a donkey, to overlook the insult on considering the source.

Don't feed the trolls

21 Responses to “On ladies who fear being silenced by trolls”

  1. glitchscatter February 17, 2014 at 9:02 pm #

    Nicely written
    To force users to use their “real” names and strip them of their anonymity will also silence users – who may be silenced in the “real world” politically economically or by other means.
    Besides it wont work facebook tried to make users use there “real names” and has by the most part failed.. because well… do you really want to give all of your personal information to a nameless corporation?

    While its not at all doubtful that women become the target of online harassment. The inter-webs are a microcosm that reflects the real world which is where the real issues needs to be addressed. It is the WORLD wide web after all.


  2. uknowispeaksense February 17, 2014 at 9:04 pm #

    I feel obliged to leave a comment. I am a man and I work very hard to maintain my anonimity. This is because I have my own blog that used to attract its fair share of trolls but my comments on other sites in my own name resulted in two antisocial and juvenile behaviours. One was an endless stream of emailed and written complaints to my employer arguing that I should be sacked simply for accepting (and contributing to) the science underpinning anthropogenic climate change. The second (and most serious) was a creepy letter that was hand delivered to my letterbox mentioning my children and wife by name and hinting at “terrible things” that might happen to them if I continued to be vocal about climate change. So, it’s not just trolls who use anonimity to suit their needs. Some of us fear lunatics.


    • Jennifer Wilson February 18, 2014 at 7:35 am #

      Yes, this is exactly my point. There are very good reasons for remaining anonymous online. Thanks for making that point.


  3. samjandwich February 17, 2014 at 10:46 pm #

    *ooks* well it’s Monday night ergo I’m under the influence of too much gin and some hastily-prepared beef stroganoff-type concoction so apologies for any squishiness… but from where I sit this whole discourse really is fascinating – and we might well be seeing the early stages of some new ways of analysing what we all mean to each other. And thanks Jennifer for bringing it back to a more interpersonal level, which ultimately it seems to me is the best way to understand these things.

    By extension, I’ve never put much store (or had much truck? I don’t know, I’m feeling increasingly attracted to the idea of chucking it all in and becomeing a truck driver these days) in statistics when applied to social science, since it seems to me the only really meaningful source of meaning is individuals’ perceptions. But that’s what makes it all so fascinating, and circular, because individuals’ perceptions are imperceptibly influenced by what they perceive.

    Right from when the internet began I’ve thought that one of its greatest advantages is that (as opposed to the world of politics for example) the anonymity it allows allows ideas to gain primacy over the people who express them – and maybe when we’re talking about trolls then we could say the ideas that emanate from them range almost invariably from tawdry to misanthropic, and thus rarely have anything positive to contribute. For those brave enough to brave them though (however I must say the paucity of trolls on Sheep could be an indication that they know they’re out of their depth?) I would think that personally-directed offensive messages must always be a little bit upsetting, regardless of how ridiculous they are… whereas people like me whose high teas know no limits can sit back a little from anything that does happen to be directed at our alter-egos.

    So I wonder whether all that can be said is perhaps that we are now living in a world where real people and fantastical, made up personalisations can interact freely together. Perhaps the challenge to the trolls then is to stand up to the challenge of interacting with real people and to attain the sme level of sophistication as real human beings… because until they do it will remain very difficult to take them seriously.



    • Jennifer Wilson February 18, 2014 at 7:37 am #

      That’s an interesting point, Sam, I hadn’t considered the peculiar opportunity offered by the www for the real and the fantastical to engage, for better and worse.


  4. hudsongodfrey February 18, 2014 at 12:21 am #

    Yes I think overlooking the insult considering the source is just about the only way to go.

    I’d add that faking an identity is trivial these days anyway. so all anyone would achieve by trying to coerce trolls out of existence would probably be a bunch of pissed off trolls who’re doubly secure behind their IP blockers and VPN’s. The people who’ll give up commenting are the genuine kind who simply want to be able to talk about sex, religion or politics without their boss or family looking in on them.

    I actually think the initial experience we’ve had with the internet and freedom of expression is going to change our sensibilities towards one another and it may be for the better. I can’t guarantee anyone that of course, but one of two things probably has to happen. Either people become so thick skinned that outside of their cyber activities they’ll become equally unflappable, or we’ll come to expect one another to work out our aggression online but maintain far more decorum elsewhere. Eventually though I think many people are simply going to tire of trolling and leave off abusing people to negligible effect as people learn not to feed ’em.


    • samjandwich February 18, 2014 at 12:48 pm #

      HG and Stewart: just because I like analogies, one that I think is useful here is that of road-raging drivers – who seem to feel comfortable with the idea of being abusive towards other road users from the security and relative anonymity of their cars (though when you take a closer look at them they are invariably emotionally immature blokes in the late-20s to mid-50s agegroup, with wrap-around sunglasses, short hair or shaved heads, and who hold their steering wheel at the top with only one hand – a sure sign of moral depravity!).

      Nonetheless, I think that if we want to keep driving then we need to come to terms with the fact that there will always be people like that around, and that we all need to learn to deal with them on both an individual and a collective level.

      So from that point of view I prefer the title “trolls” precisely because the abuse happens from a position of relative anonymity.

      You could of course put them on the same spectrum as domestic violence abusers, as here again the abuse occurs relatively covertly.


  5. Stewart Hase February 18, 2014 at 7:12 am #

    What bullies want is a sense of power. That’s why the do it. So don’t give them any. It’s not possible to fiercely confront bullies on the internet as you would on real life and strip them of power-won’t work using words. So, yes, just ignoring them as if the do not exist is probably the way to go. What I’ve do e is write a replete but not to them and certainly not naming them, indirect, if I’ve needed to. Let’s them know I am not down and out. And, of course, I report them if possible.

    I think we should stop using the word troll, it’s almost a badge of honour. Call them for what they are….bullies.

    I get called a troll for just making a comment that someone doesn’t like even though it is merely a comment. So it is a bit abused as a term itself.

    Finally, just remember that there are some loonies out there and we need to understand that. So, yes, consider the source. Squish the grubs!!!!


    • hudsongodfrey February 18, 2014 at 10:35 am #

      I agree with you that when trolling tends to sheer abuse then the motivation behind it is indistinguishable from physical bullying. It seems to be a kind of taunting behaviour that we thought adults grew out of.

      Hoewever if I may I think the one slight advantage in sticking to troll rather than saying bully is that physical bullying is distinguished by being a lot more difficult to avoid. I don’t think that bullying is the kind of problem to which the response would often be, ignore it and hope it goes away. Yet more often than not in the case of internet trolling that is precisely the advice we have for people.

      I know that seems less than satisfactory to some who’d ask why they should modify their behaviour to accommodate others who are the real culprits. Maybe there should also be more advice and indeed perhaps an online repository thereof as to how to use the filtering, blocking and privacy settings in social media to protect oneself. When coupled with lobbying to ensure the social media sites meet people’s needs in a user friendly manner that might even be empowering.


    • paul walter February 18, 2014 at 11:31 am #

      “I get called a troll..just for making a comment someone doesn’t like”;

      I also agree with the rest of his comments, I have read and in case heard personally from one high-profile blogger, that real abuse of the sort outlined goes on…yes, they are grubs and monumental losers, because they ensure that whatever their underlying cause is, it is likely invalidated in the eyes of the alienated receiver.

      But from the Julia Baird effort, I derive a sense of anxiety and it is the anxiety of an individual undergoing circulation deprivation,hence relevance deprivation,(ultimately job deprivation?) as someone employed by an organisation losing credibility as it resorts to censorship of real news and paywalls while the demographic shrinks and turns more defensive and conservative, avoiding real issues like the conditions female asylum seekers must endure..this sort of thing is unsanitised and people don’t want to know about oppression unless it is white, wannabe oppression. It reinforces rather than challenges conservatism

      To cut to the chase, it is demographic massage. It confects an enemy and a victim in an attempt to reestablish “Elite Voice” and confidence within the target demographic rendered sympathetic.

      With Anne Summers you’d get a straight column on some thing real world political, say a problematic aspect of government policy, but most of the other people she names are just into reinforcement- give them what they want, coated with a bit of treacle.


      • paul walter February 24, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

        Its always good to come across journalists or columnists who work with issues.

        The two that come to mind this weekend for me are Van Badham on Murdoch’s freebie and Lenore Taylor, on asylum seekers, at the Guardian.

        They are living truth that woman can write skillfully on real world issues. Not an armpit razor or botox needle in sight, yet they did it.


    • helvityni February 18, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

      Agree Stewart, they are bullies, most of them unhappy with their lives, therefore they like to upset and unsettle others.

      Also not everybody who blogs is made of steel, there are plenty of good, vulnerable people who do not blog to be attacked….abused…

      I had to leave one unmoderated blog in disgust.


      • helvityni February 18, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

        …and as for Helen Razer, she bullied Stephen Berkoff on her radio show and got sacked from ABC….


    • doug quixote February 25, 2014 at 12:42 am #

      No, they are trolls. It should be impossible to be bullied online. You should ignore them and “reply” only to someone who is a human being. You can reply obliquely in that way, whilst depriving them of oxygen.

      I have tried fighting fire with fire, and out-fighting them; it works with some, but others who come in late to see the stoush will be unimpressed with you as well.

      If you argue with idiots, the onlookers may be unable to tell the difference. 🙂


      • zerograv1 February 27, 2014 at 8:01 am #

        DQ you are quite correct, throwing petrol on the escalating and troll baited fire-y debate wont disabuse them since although some are genuinely seeking a debate on differing viewpoints others are just childish s**t-stirrers thriving on the reaction they get. I don’t mind a debate as you know and will pull some one up on it I feel they are resorting to personal abuse in order to save themselves when losing the argument….Im quick to pounce on that and try to steer the discussion back to the points at hand. That’s the benefit of NPFsheep really, not everyone co-aligns with a viewpoint but if that means new viewpoints or food for thought are offered we are saved from the torture of mindless aligned groupthink even all these years past 1984


  6. fivefrogsblog February 18, 2014 at 7:47 am #

    Well said J. And besides, it takes 5 minutes to set up a fake email & troll using it sp what’s the point of demanding “real” names?



  7. doug quixote February 18, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

    “WHAT KIND OF WORLD threatens the freedom of average thinkers to say unsurprising things?

    Not this one. Wish it fucking would.”

    (Helen Razer)

    I don’t always see eye to eye with Helen, but this time she has the right of it.

    If dear reader you have got this far without clicking on Jennifer’s second link, go back to it at once!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: