Online harassment has been front-page news multiple times over the last several years, with particularly egregious and vile instances of it bubbling forth to the mainstream media from a terrifying daily mire of abuse, threats, and mobbing that has often specifically targeted women and racial and sexual minorities.
Our society has long needed a comprehensive and up-to-the-nanosecond book-length treatment of online harassment as both a civil rights issue and a sociological phenomenon, particularly to explain it and outline potential solutions, uniting disparate areas of awareness, experience, and fact into a landmark study. Unfortunately, Gendertrolling: How Misogyny Went Viral, by scholar Karla Mantilla and published by Praeger, is not quite that book—but for the moment, it will have to do.
The book provides an excellent introduction to the subject for those who may still be overwhelmed by its novelty and virtual origin; Mantilla ably defines a large number of terms that may confuse the technically challenged, and she summarizes a number of signal cases that have gained some media attention. But it is also not a terribly deep book, and, on its own, could leave readers with unhelpful and unchallenged preconceptions about the roots of online harassment. Mantilla’s goal was to shed light on online harassment, tell women’s stories, and propose solutions to this growing problem; she does well enough, but the book is often terribly lacking in a genuinely intersectional perspective and fails to get at the truly inky depths of this issue.
It is extensively researched and well-organized in parts, providing a much-needed 101-level introduction to this still widely-misunderstood subject. She provides a glossary for terms like “concern trolling” and “flaming” that will help neophyte readers navigate the often treacherous terrain of online society, doing so in a useful introduction that grounds the reader in her subject.
She also uses this taxonomy to situate and justify her title, Gendertrolling, in order to distinguish it from the historical phenomenon of trolling, full-stop. Trolling online, as she describes it, is an aggressive rhetorical provocation issued by someone who “may not actually believe in anything he writes.” Using the example of an anti-recycling troll, she says, “He may even be an avid recycler IRL [in real life] … His intention was only to get a rise out of you—and he did. You’ve been trolled.” This is more or less accurate; trolling, in the classical sense, is about upsetting people for laughs, often through hyperbolically insincere speech.
“Gendertrolling,” Mantilla argues, is different, aimed at women and defined by its ideological sincerity and genuine wish to hurt the target. They “are not doing it for the lulz,” she argues, and “believe ardently, even obsessively, in the stances they take and act against their targets out of their sincerely held convictions.”
This is a serviceable distinction to make; online abuse is indeed often of a sincere variety. If it is hyperbolic, then that is merely a side effect of the depth of the abuser’s conviction. But there is something left wanting here that is not fully explored by the rest of the book: Namely, how this shift happened and, perhaps more importantly, a critical take on how even classic trolling has been perverted by the growth of online abuse.
Put differently, classic trolling “to get a rise out of someone” and its more violent descendant now have much more in common than Mantilla seems to credit. Even trolls not specifically affiliated with misogynist movements were trying to get trans women to kill themselves recently. Another “operation” of trolls from the infamous 4chan message board sought to sow confusion among online feminists by impersonating women of color and saying particularly outlandish things, such as “white people can’t be raped.” Yet this whole mess is entirely elided in Mantilla’s book, despite its serious implications for both the study of trolling and its gendered dimensions. You cannot understand the abuse of women online without understanding what sociologist Jesse Daniels calls “cyber racism,” for instance. Even if one claims to be narrowly focusing on the online harassment of women, that research agenda is poorly served by emphasizing the axis of gender at the expense of all else.
Although Mantilla correctly points out that most victims of online harassment are women, she seems regrettably determined to treat this as a woman-specific problem denuded of race, class, sexuality, and most anything else. Online abuse does, after all, draw extensively on any characteristic that can be exploited to cause maximum harm; harassment often takes on specifically racist, homophobic, and transphobic terms.
Even as she cites people like Mikki Kendall talking about the extensive and shocking abuse she has faced online for being a politically minded Black woman, little effort is spared attempting to either elaborate on or explain the racial dimensions of that abuse, nor the fact that white women are often perpetrating it. Kendall and I spoke together on a panel at Queens College in New York about online harassment, where this was a point she emphasized again and again; it matters, and it is a non-trivial piece of the puzzle to discuss these dynamics as well.
Meanwhile, when trans women are brought into the discussion, in the person of British activist Jane Fae, it is only to use Fae’s quote about how the abuse she got when perceived as a man versus as a woman was different, with the latter being qualitatively worse. Once again, discussion of the unique textures of abuse faced by trans women—and the fact that cis women, as well as cis men, perpetrate that abuse—is absent and unexplained.
The racism and transphobia of abuse directed at these women is not mere flavoring of the abuse, but rather its very content, and that remains thoroughly unanalyzed. It is not so easy, after all, to say where abuse of a Black trans woman becomes specifically “gendertrolling” as opposed to “racetrolling” or “transtrolling.” They’re inseparable, and that’s rather the point, from the perspective of the abuser: Every part of you is available to them for attack.
The book is rich with qualitative data on the subject that establishes quite clearly how damaging online harassment can be to people’s lives. Mantilla ably catalogs the unique ways in which women are treated—sexualized harassment, graphic rape threats often paired with violent fantasies, and threats of mutilation or murder—and quotes woman after woman who describes both the breadth and impact of the abuse. Some people stop using the Internet altogether, quitting jobs that require them to be online; others vary their paths home or move altogether; still others have had to defend against violent threats made to their children. Mantilla quotes Kendall’s public writings, for example, where Kendall details how she was harassed by people who looked up where her kids went to school and repeatedly threatened them online. In short, this abuse is real in every sense of the term and bleeds into our everyday lives, whether we ignore it or not. If nothing else, the uncountable sources for Mantilla’s book testify to this.
But Mantilla still seems to rely on the false distinction between online and offline life, the examination of which is vital to understanding online harassment. She recites the definition of IRL—”in real life”—uncritically, not truly exploring how our reliance on that conceit makes harassment easier. If you believe the online world isn’t real, that words don’t do anything other than express ideas, then it becomes easier to use the Internet in destructive ways or to dismiss people being harmed by others’ online actions. The division she makes between online threats and abuse, and “real-life” acts like stalking and swatting (calling in a fake police report that causes a SWAT team to descend on the target’s home), misses a crucial continuum between the two. One leads to and sustains the other, and both are “real.” The terror they inspire is real; the way it can cause you to change your life is real.
I have, thankfully, never been the victim of online abuse that bled into another human being physically attacking me, but the online abuse I received had tactile effects nevertheless. It was so pervasive and fear-inspiring that I had to take Xanax just to be able to eat properly and stop shaking, and for the first time in my life I had to take an SSRI (the family of drugs that includes Prozac). Put another way, my body chemistry literally changed due to online abuse, no SWAT teams required.
I have no doubt that Mantilla would have sympathy for this, and indeed her book makes the point again and again that online mobbing and harassment routinely does that sort of foul work. She also, eventually, cites feminist writer Soraya Chemaly, who actually does argue that “the Internet is real life.” However, the mention is brief, and does not delve too deeply into the subject. Mantilla may have been trying to introduce new readers slowly to the revelation, but it doesn’t quite stick.
And for all her extensive reporting on and recitation of the experiences of others, Mantilla does not weave that data into a theory that could properly explain the origins and motivations of harassment. Some chapters are a series of block quotes with minimal substantive writing from the scholar herself, for instance. It is unfortunate because it feels like this is precisely why she does not more fully interrogate our received ideas about the Internet, like the online/IRL dyad; she instead defers to others, and in doing so forgoes a theoretical sophistication that could make more meaning of the terrible stories she recounts again and again.
This has another regrettable side effect that is, ironically, rather gendered. In this book, women are usually articulators of their own individual experience, while most of the cited men get to be quoted as theorists with access to the “big picture” on online harassment. Mantilla extensively quotes writers like Arthur Chu on explaining GamerGate and the culture of sites like 4chan, but women who’ve had a lot to say on such things are generally reduced, with a few exceptions, to merely describing how they’ve been hurt, even if they have theorized more widely. This may seem nitpicky, but it speaks to a larger, oft-underregarded issue with online abuse against women: We are treated as experts only on our experience, our own terror, and not on the larger sociological issue at hand.
Artist and writer Liz Ryerson, for instance, is mentioned talking about the anxiety she experiences in watching other women get harassed, but her extensive theoretical writing on the subject, while cited once, is used in a very limited fashion to describe the misogynist nature of the mob abuse heaped on game developer Zoe Quinn. The very essay Mantilla draws from, “On Right-Wing Videogame Extremism,” brings the kind of theoretical heft to explaining the underlying psychology of online harassment in gaming that Mantilla’s book lacks. For instance, in one of the sections Mantilla did not cite, Ryerson writes:
[Online harassers] employ the same logic that you see applied against LGBT and marginalized people that leaders in power in places like Iran or Russia do — social justice is a realm of Western entitlement and indulgences that are actively destroying the ways of lives of average, common people. [They] continually assert that these social justice issues don’t matter compared to large political or global conflicts, and use it to justify their behavior. [Because] social justice is the not a “real” realm, but one of the entitled babies who don’t care about global issues, their bullying is justified and will come to no real consequence in the end. [The] internet is, then, a playground for them to angrily act out their own paranoia and insecurities onto.
Ryerson usefully engages with the way all targets of online abuse are dehumanized by being rendered as fictive virtual entities, and how the online world is seen as an unreal playground where no one will really get hurt.
Mantilla, to her credit, does an excellent job of debunking much of the nonsense that garlands and sustains harassment: victim blaming, giving “both sides” equal moral weight, claiming the victim is feigning victimhood, claiming that the harasser is oppressed by scrutiny, and so on.
She also makes an excellent argument in the final chapter against the over-reliance on “intent” when legally reviewing cases of online harassment. “The standard of intent,” she argues, “applied to the determination of credible threats adds a layer of difficulty at a time when it needs to be easier rather than harder to enforce the law against credible threats.” This ignores the impact of abusive language, how it sows fear and hatred, and how speech often exceeds the intentions of the speaker in any case, to say nothing of the fact that short of an admission from the harasser, they can lie about their intent into perpetuity. These insights make Gendertrolling worth a look.
Yet, another failing of the book emerges in this section as well: uncritically treating anonymity as a cause of harassment. Anonymity is a valuable tool for women and minorities to not only shield ourselves, but reinvent ourselves as well—to say nothing of how it protects sex workers (another group Mantilla does not discuss), trans people, stalking victims, people escaping from abusive relationships, and so on. Yes, sites like 4chan are quite infamously anonymous, but that is hardly the whole story.
Ultimately, “Gendertrolling,” as a concept in and of itself, is faulty: The phenomenon we are dealing with is neither trolling, nor is it always about gender in the straightforward way Mantilla describes. We are all capable of being seduced by the conceit of virtual unreality into being abusive online, and though women are most often the victims of that abuse, we need to understand its racial and trans dimensions as well. We need to understand that women can perpetrate the kinds of abuse Mantilla describes. Even if the overwhelming majority of forces like GamerGate are men, similarly structured online hate movements like that of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) are almost exclusively women. This begs explanation.
The book remains a useful introductory resource to this issue nevertheless and provides material, such as its copious glossaries, that should be added to any library. Just make sure it sits beside Danielle Keats Citron’s Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things, and Sarah Jeong’s The Internet of Garbage to provide needed perspective.