Decision-making over whether to respond to trolls reinforces social values about who can speak and who can’t, writes Victoria University’s Dr Emma Jean Kelly

Earlier this year, I submitted a piece to that was published as a “reader’s report” with the headline Men need to fix New Zealand’s Rape Culture. I argued, as have many feminists before me, that I was concerned by the idea suggested by some in the wake of the Wellington College Facebook scandal and the St Patrick’s College boys filming their female teachers that in order to change things young women should educate young men about how it feels to be sexually assaulted or raped.

Over the next few days, the article was shared 1100 times and garnered such a response that Stuff shut the comment section down because it demanded too many resources to continue moderating it. I became interested in why people wrote the comments they did, most of which were hostile to my argument, and why when I talked to people so many said dismissively, “Just don’t feed the trolls”.

So, like a good academic, I turned to the literature on trolling to try to understand what might be happening.

According to psychology experts Naomi Craker and Evita March, “trolling is an interpersonal antisocial behaviour prominent within internet culture across the world” and is usually anonymous. Journalism researcher Amy Binns argues that it is intended to “aggravate, annoy or otherwise disrupt online interactions and commmunication”.

The consequences of trolling include serious psychological effects identical to face-to-face experiences of harassment and emotional abuse. This is significant, as online harassment and other antisocial behaviours are often deemed less problematic than face-to-face encounters. Furthermore, the literature argues, these psychological effects lead to unwelcoming online spaces that inhibit sustainable communities.

Journalist Brendan Koerner wrote in Wired magazine in 2013:  “Genuine trolls take pride in their craft … Their reward is the palpable rage they elicit from people too thin-skinned or naive to heed one of this millennium’s most important maxims: ‘Don’t feed the trolls.’”  

Other popular culture writers have a different view, feeling that responding to trolls is part of the work of interacting on social media.

Lindy West is a self-proclaimed feminist writer who says of the online environment: “People who don’t spend much time on the internet are invariably shocked to discover the barbarism—the eager abandonment of the social contract—that so many of us face simply for doing our jobs.” Examples of the kind of messages she receives daily include but are certainly not limited to, “Fat”, “Fat Bitch”, “Too fat to rape” and “Holes like this make me want to commit rape out of anger”.

When West and others such as Australian writer Clementine Ford have challenged the harassment they face online, they are accused of trying to censor freedom of speech. After years trying to find ways to challenge trolling, earlier this year West announced she was leaving Twitter, as it was “unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators” and its lack of moderation was in part responsible for the rise of leaders like Donald Trump.

People say ‘what we’re all really thinking’ anonymously online. Except we’re not all really thinking that – and if we are there’s something wrong with our society.

Studies of self-identified trolls find that both males and females equally partake in abusive messaging of others on social media, although feminist, transgender, queer and female-identified authors are more likely to be trolled.

Blogger Jessa Crispin suggests there is a certain “pleasurable anger” in joining the pack and criticising someone online. This notion is key. While psychologists may interpret this as sadism or psychopathy, I think Crispin is suggesting something more everyday than this: schadenfreude, if you will—the enjoyment of seeing someone else fall, particularly a public figure.

Arguably, in an online world, we all become public fodder whose degradation, humiliation and shame can be amplified to a large audience extremely quickly. Policing the status quo through shame seems to me an unconscious driver for many anonymous comments online. In the words of my colleague Rachael Anderson, it is quite possible the ‘don’t feed the trolls’ maxim is “a learned online practice that reinforces social values about who can speak and who can’t”.

After reading about all this, I decided to respond to the comments on my own article and asked Stuff to reopen the page’s comment section long enough for me to do so. But was I engaging in a civil conversation or was I tricked into simply feeding the trolls—perpetuating the spectacle for no useful purpose apart from attracting clicks?

Although I certainly never received the kind of insults Lindy West has endured, I felt discomfited and disturbed by the fact 120 people would log in to a site in order to tell me to shut up or to support those who had said so with a ‘like’.

I grouped comments into three major categories. First was #noteveryman, which appeared to be written by those who had read the headline but not the article (such as ‘ToxicSwampThingy’, who simply said “there is no rape culture”). Second were those who were supportive and third were those who seemed genuinely bewildered, such as ‘SingleFather’ and ‘Ashtopher’.

I decided to respond to the comments I felt were from people who wanted to have a discussion and therefore had asked a question. Although the trolling literature says these are the people most likely to want to hook me into reacting, I thought it was worth a go.

I clarified a couple of points I had made and answered a question about my own experience. In part, I said, “When I brushed over my own violent sexual attack, I thought you could read between the lines when I said it undermined my confidence for a number of years. I am a human who has put my name to an article about a very personal experience which stripped me of my dignity … do you actually want me to give you the details of my bruises and fear and how I fought off a drunken sexual attack and then stand up in front of a class of 160 people on Monday morning knowing they’ve probably read that? Do you not understand that I’m saying someone did not listen to my saying ‘no’?”

I’m glad I wrote this, because one of the trolls responded by thanking me for explaining my perspective further. I choose to appreciate this, rather than dwell on the fact another reader calling himself ‘Status’ told me what I said was “indulgent cobble”.

I think it is also significant my article was shared 1100 times. Anecdotally, I know people share articles they find interesting or want to discuss. Offline, I have found people supportive: whether this is because face-to-face communities tend to be more civil whereas anonymity breeds contempt I don’t know. Having said this, an email from a (male) fellow writer I had never met, encouraging me to continue writing about this issue, suggests there are those who have not abandoned the social contract so quickly.

I have concluded that the online world reflects the offline world to quite some extent—we know women are sexually assaulted frequently in New Zealand and although many purport to find this horrifying, in the everyday it’s still happening. Power structures and privilege in offline communities are reflected online in responses to a clearly feminist view, and I think people feel free to say ‘what we’re all really thinking’ anonymously online. Except that, hey, we’re not all really thinking that—and if we are there’s something wrong with our society.

The argument that those who feed the trolls are naive, lacking in intelligence for responding, and have failed to play the game seems to me a tired one. This is just another message that women and those who do not conform to gender and sex norms must lighten up/shut up/stop trying to censor others.

Dr Emma Jean Kelly is a Teaching Fellow in Victoria University of Wellington' School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies.

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