I’ve been using the Internet for nigh on 20 years now, and social media for nearly as long. But a few weeks ago, I experienced an Internet first: a troll genuinely apologized to me for his behavior.
What happened? I called him out by calling in his family members and his peers. By treating him like a human being, instead of an anonymous insult machine with a keyboard and Internet access.
The conventional thinking when it comes to online harassment might be “Don’t feed the trolls”—as in, just ignore them and they’ll go away. But I propose a new convention: Do feed the trolls … to people they know.
I’m not advocating in this instance for “public shaming,” a practice that’s getting a bad rap these days among certain crowds—erroneously so, in my opinion, but that’s another piece altogether. I’m talking about demanding social accountability, a modicum of civility, from online trolls, using much the same approach I’d employ for any asshole who wandered up to my stool at the bar and called me, ahemm, a “stupid fucking cunt.”
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Because this particular troll had indeed messaged me from his real account on Facebook, calling me a “stupid fucking cunt” and telling me to kill myself. He did this from an account that also publicly listed his friends and relatives. So I copied his message and sent it to a couple of people on my troll’s friends list who shared his rather unique last name. It was a shot in the virtual dark, but I sent a brief note, along with a screenshot, asking the troll’s presumed family members to maybe consult with him about more productive ways of talking to strangers, particularly strange women, online. It cost me $1 to ensure my message went to these folks’ regularly visible inboxes instead of their “other” boxes, where spam and—ironically enough—troll messages from total strangers tend to land.
Just days after I did so, I got the best return on any investment I’ve ever made. My troll sent me just one line, but it was a glorious one: “I’m sorry about the last message. I sincerely apologize.”
I’ve never had a troll apologize to me before, and I’ve had probably thousands of them—mostly men, mostly intent on alerting me to my sluttiness, fatness, and overall rape-ability—take up residence in my timelines and inboxes over the years. It’s an experience that any social media user who isn’t a straight, cis white guy is very likely to be intimately familiar with.
What made this guy different? Well, I reacted differently to him than I have to any other troll, ever. Instead of pretending like he existed solely on some elusive nonspace called “the Internet” that we’ve somehow (wrongly) come to think of as being wholly separate from the “real” world, I treated him like a human being, who owes it to his fellow humans not to act like a complete jerk.
It wasn’t putting this guy on blast to my 15,000 or so Twitter followers—which I did, by sharing the same screenshot I sent his family—that had evidently prompted his apology. And look, it absolutely felt good to do so. There are social and emotional advantages to reaching out to a friendly community when you’ve just been told that you’re a stupid fucking cunt who should die by her own hand.
It also created an echo chamber—albeit a supportive, funny, entertaining, soul-enriching echo chamber. Sure, I’d do it all over again (and did do, with subsequent messages), but it also treated my troll as if he existed nowhere but on the Internet: as if he were a screen name and avatar attached to a nobody-nothingness ripe for mockery and moving on. It didn’t have any effect on, or perhaps for, my troll.
But showing his mom—or possibly his wife, sister, or aunt—what he’d said was a different story. She wrote back quickly and told me she’d “look into it,” though she told me his message was “completely out of character for him.”
This guy didn’t care what 15,000 strangers thought about him calling me a stupid fucking cunt. But he did care what his family thought, at least enough to make a show of sending me an apology.
My inspiration was Alanah Pearce, a video game reviewer who did something similar with young men who’d sent her rape threats on Facebook last year: She messaged their moms. Said moms were mortified. Sons wrote apologies. And as I read my troll’s apology, gobsmacked, I also thought of writer and comedian Lindy West’s brilliant This American Life piece about confronting her own worst troll by telephone. This elicited not only an apology, but some mighty thoughtful introspective self-evaluation from him. West’s troll actually reached out to her first, but there’s something about bringing trolls into a space where they have to grapple with an actual human that seems to disarm them.
And after I posted my own troll apology success story, another friend of mine told me she’d been inspired to confront one of her trolls, an anti-choice blogger who’d posted a picture of my friend’s baby online, inviting a slew of death threats and abuse into her life. Through a mutual online contact whom she had reason to believe that her troll rather respected, she asked the troll to remove the photos, and they complied with her request.
Trolls thrive on one-way communication; even responding to them publicly on Twitter is a gamble. Maybe we get to rip through a few good burns and toss off some funny jokes, but ultimately, the troll’s first message is often all they ever need or care about: They just want to make sure that their target hears, and hopefully internalizes, whatever horrible invective is issued their way in that initial conversation.
By bringing our trolls’ social circles rather than just our own into the fold, though, we were able to redirect a one-way communication, volleying their cruel messages back over the net to their team, instead of punting it haplessly to our own.
These examples complicate the knee-jerk “don’t feed the trolls” narrative, wherein people who are harassed or abused online are told to simply ignore message after hateful message, lest they provide more fuel for a troll’s fire.
But if a troll is trolling, the fire’s already been started. And when trolls launch into attacks that include words like “cunt” or “fatty” or “bitch” or “whoreface,” the fuel, as it were, is the simple act of being a woman in public.
Do trolls take cues from their victims’ reactions? Sure. Many times, ignoring a troll will mean that the troll stops with just one message. By contrast, they often enjoy the thrill of engaging further with their victims. I don’t deny that, and I’m careful about the lengths to which I’ll entertain a public kerfuffle with a harasser.
“Don’t feed the trolls” doesn’t stop trolling in general, though—it just means that our inboxes and timelines fill up with a bunch of one-way messages filled with hate and vitriol.
The truth is, I’m starting to think that “don’t feed the trolls” is as much about absolving nice people like you and me of the responsibility to confront the fact that our friends, family, and loved ones are taking to the Internet to spew abusive invective at strangers as it is about simply not providing more fuel for the troll fires. Because in truth, online abusers and harassers thrive, in part, on the shame of the people they target, benefitting from the helplessness of their victims to do anything of consequence to shadowy, anonymous strangers—including confronting the trolls, the trolls’ families, or the trolls’ social support groups about their behavior.
So “don’t feed the trolls” can promote the silence that trolls bank on. If the default response to trolling is to ignore it, trolls can enjoy knowing that their targets will keep quiet about their harassment, and no one who might hold the troll responsible for their actions will ever be the wiser. It’s a guarantee against transparency.
In fact, it feels a lot like the admonition we give our children: Don’t be a tattle-tale. I’ve never understood this way of thinking, because it reads predominantly as laziness to me: Don’t make me get involved; I’m trying to watch the game.
Maybe I feel this way because I was a tattle-tale. I guess I still am. I like it that way.
This is a plea I have made again and again, particularly to my guy friends and male feminist allies: asking them to tell their fellow dudes that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. Invariably, I receive pushback on this idea from people who say that they don’t know anyone who would threaten to rape or murder women on the Internet, or that their own family and friends would never hurl racist slurs at people of color online.
I suspect that the friends and family members of the trolls I contacted a few weeks ago might have thought something similar—indeed, the evidence suggests that at least one person felt that their relative’s trolling was “completely” out of character. But now at least a few of them know otherwise, whether or not they intend to ever do anything about it. I was able, in a terribly small way, to chip away at the anonymity that not only affords trolls the ability to operate with impunity, but gives those in their social networks’ ability to plead ignorance.
This doesn’t work all the time. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to trolling, and not just because so few trolls undertake to abuse and harass strangers under their real names. My suggestion—feeding a troll back to their social circle—is a tremendous risk, and it’s not one that I suggest anyone undertake lightly. It could be dangerous, and it requires a troll’s target to have the time and emotional wherewithal to risk further abuse, or to hear from those whose aid they seek that it’s just not their problem. Or worse, they could find that their trolls’ social circles support their behavior.
I know this because I also contacted the friends and family of some of my other Facebook trolls, and either never received a response or was told that it wasn’t any of their business. In one instance, the father of a man who told me that he hoped that I “get raped by a gang of black man [sic] and they set you on fire” and “fuck you in the face you fat cunt and kill yourself” excused his son’s behavior by explaining that “he is very outspoken and excitable.” The same troll’s girlfriend told me that she’s “one of those to each there [sic] own kinda people so I won’t be much help.”
So, yeah. To each their own, indeed. Not an A+ solution in every case. Obviously.
But I do take some comfort in knowing that a man who told me to “get raped” didn’t get to do so quietly, in the privacy of my inbox. Even if I never hear a word about it, maybe the friends and family members of these trolls will look at these guys a little differently now, knowing the behavior they indulge in online.
Maybe they won’t. Maybe they still don’t give a shit. But I feel a hell of a lot better.
The Online vs. “Real” World Fallacy
At first, I struggled with the idea of outing these guys to their friends and families; it seemed, somehow, even more rude and uncouth than telling a total stranger to commit suicide. As if I were breaking some kind of sacred rule.
And in a way, I was. Women are socialized to be demure, accommodating. I’m not surprised that my trolls felt empowered to harass me. After all, they probably expected me to do what women the world over have been taught to do: Keep quiet. Mind my own business. Don’t cause a fuss. Don’t be a tattle-tale—that’s so very much worse than bullying could ever be!
But gendered violence, gendered bullying, is my business, and I’m not the one causing a fuss when I’m on the receiving end of a line like “you’re a treasonous twatbag who needs to be eliminated soon.” It’s everyone’s business, and it is especially the business of those who possess the social capital to demand better of their peers.
I simply do not separate “online” from “offline” when we are talking about manifestations of gendered and racial oppression and prejudice. I refuse to pretend like there are two discrete groups of bigots and bullies in this world, one of which can be roundly appeased with weak maxims like “don’t feed the trolls.” Do we really believe that people stop thinking hateful thoughts as soon as they shut off their computers or smartphones? That the hatred and vitriol these trolls—real humans, with real lives—express online never manifests unless it’s being transmitted through a wifi connection?
The line of thinking that makes women targets of gendered abuse online is merely an extension of the line of thinking that makes them targets of, for example, domestic violence in their homes. The line of thinking that makes women of color targets for misogynoiristic abuse online is the same line of thinking that makes them targets of, for example, police violence offline.
We know that, to some degree, social pressure to behave civilly in our homes, workplaces and neighborhoods keeps people mostly responsible for their everyday actions. That is, at least, how most of us raise our children: We teach them not to steal, because it hurts our communities. We teach them not to make fun, because it hurts our communities. The list goes on.
Why, then, don’t we exert those same social pressures on the Internet? Why do we continue to make it difficult for people who are abused online to report and counter their abuse?
Because abusers and harassers do the most powerful and privileged members of our society the tremendous favor of maintaining a status quo predicated on white supremacy and patriarchy, and anyone who’s in a position to do anything about it gets to simply throw up their hands and say “Don’t feed the trolls!” Then they reap the benefits. That lets us—people who might otherwise have to have difficult conversations with people we’d rather think better of—off the hook just as much as it does the trolls.
It’s a mighty fucking convenient little system, isn’t it?
Case in point: This week, Twitter launched a new feature that allows people to receive direct messages from any user, not just users they follow.
I get harassed on Twitter a fair bit, but I’ve never been harassed in a Twitter direct message. It would take remarkable disregard for the conventions of polite discourse for someone who is able to DM me to also harass me. I don’t reckon it’s impossible, but there’s simply a greater chance that, if someone is DM’ing me, I know who they are in a way that could signal actual consequences for, as an example, telling me to “get raped.” They’d have to actively and purposefully violate a social contract.
Now, Twitter’s powers-that-be have apparently decided to focus their efforts on creating yet another means by which trolls can reach their targets without incurring those social consequences. It’s something of a relief that this is an opt-in only feature. Still, it’s disappointing to the extent that it shows that Twitter’s priorities do not include strengthening their support structure for people who are harassed on their platform, despite claims to the contrary. It signals to me that whatever efforts they have made to empower and accommodate marginalized voices on their platform so far have largely been done half-assedly.
Which is a terrible shame, because Twitter has emerged as a space where people, especially women of color who are often otherwise written off by the gatekeepers of mainstream media and mainstream white feminism, can develop, create, and host wide-ranging conversations without begging for air time from those who would only ever have given it grudgingly, if at all.
At its best, Twitter upsets the historic balance of power in terms of national and international discourse. But at its worst, it is a hellmouth of harassment where the nipping flames of racist and misogynist trolling are not only not stifled, but are indeed continually fed, by Twitter’s own willfully impotent leadership.
To repeatedly fail to put meaningful accountability measures in place—Twitter could, for example, require users to tie their accounts to a cell phone number—is to pretend as though trolling is just an inevitable matter of Internet happenstance instead of a behavior that feeds on anonymity and ease of access to potential victims.
Online harassment doesn’t happen by accident, perpetrated by mysterious strangers with an unknowable agenda. It isn’t as if there is nothing to be done about this kind of behavior besides not “feeding” those who engage in it. As if I have to wonder what’s up the ass of a man who calls me a “stupid fat fucking whorecunt.” I know precisely what he’s upset about: my engagement with and in the world as a woman who has failed to express a sole desire to appease him and men like him.
Indeed, online abuse is expressly intended to bleed over into the “real” world, where it reinforces historic systems of oppression and marginalization. For reference, see the entirety of the “GamerGate” affair, wherein trolls and bullies actively sought, via online harassment, to dissuade anyone who isn’t a straight, cis white guy from participating in the culture of video games. Why would we ever, then, try to pretend that we can’t or shouldn’t use the “real” world, and real-life consequences, to push back in the other direction?
Ultimately, I leave the decision to “call in” a troll’s friends or family members up to the individual being trolled. This piece is emphatically not a demand for all people who are bullied or harassed to engage in elaborate “doxxing” campaigns of their abusers. Indeed, it couldn’t be, even if I wished for it: The vast majority of trolls are, and will remain for the forseeable future, functionally anonymous, because platforms like Twitter continue to allow people to create an endless array of sockpuppet accounts that can only be deactivated if they repeatedly engage in the absolute worst kinds of abuse.
But if you’re being harassed online, and you’ve got the opportunity to engage a troll’s social circle in addressing their abuse, I encourage you to think about doing so if you think you can do it safely. You might be doing your troll’s next intended target—who could very well be someone they know in the “real” world—a favor.