If the last couple of years have taught us anything, it is that it is tough to be a woman online.
Of course, #GamerGate is the most well-known example of women getting punished for using the Internet while female. Game developers like Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu and feminist critics like Anita Sarkeesian and Leigh Alexander have dealt with everything from hacks and DDoS attacks to harassing phone calls to rape and death threats with their own home addresses attached.
But they aren’t the only women in the tech world who are under fire. Last year Ellen Pao’s lawsuit accusing the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers of gender discrimination, while unsuccessful, got people talking about the “woeful gender ratio” in the tech industry. Soon after, she led a campaign to clean out the most notorious hate forums on Reddit, a move for which she was targeted by an angry mob wielding racist and sexist tropes as their weapons of choice.
In such an environment, we might be tempted to celebrate when the tables are turned and a misogynist who advocates for the legalization of rape (seriously) gets a subjected to the troll treatment. Recently the notorious “neo-masculine” pick up artist Roosh V (aka Daryush Valizadeh) announced the cancellation of a series of meet-ups in cities across the globe. According to The Huffington Post:
“I can no longer guarantee the safety or privacy of the men who want to attend on February 6, especially since most of the meetups can not [sic] be made private in time,” he wrote on his site on Wednesday. “I apologize to all the supporters who are let down by my decision.”
He also reports that he has been doxxed, that his family’s home address was made public on the Internet by the “hacktivist” group Anonymous.
Now, Roosh V has encouraged his followers to dox ideological opponents in the past (the phrase “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” comes to mind) but that doesn’t mean it is ethical to use his tactics against him. On the contrary, I argue that it is just as bad, if not worse, when social justice activists use trollish strategies like bullying and doxxing to publically shame their harassers.
This is because trolling operates as a kind of game online, one in which the winner is the one who can elicit the most intense emotional response in their target while maintaining an aloof distance themselves.
Anita Sarkeesian described the troll mentality in a TED Talk in 2012:
We don’t usually think of online harassment as a social activity but we know from the strategies and tactics that they used, that they were not working alone, that they were actually loosely coordinating with one another.
This social component is a powerful motivating factor that works to provide incentives for players to participate, or perpetrators rather, to participate and to actually escalate the attacks by earning the praise and approval of their peers. We can kind of think of this as an informal reward system where players earn “internet points” for increasingly brazen and abusive attacks. Then they would document these attacks and they would bring them back to the message boards as evidence, to show off to each other – kind of like trophies or achievements.
According to this logic, the primary audience for trolling behavior is not actually the target of the harassment but rather one’s fellow trolls, who one wishes to entertain by creating annoyance (or anger or fear or despair or…) in the life of a mutually disliked third party. The target is more like a game piece then a competitive player in this game.
Since trolling is a game that revolves around emotions, it is unsurprising that it often winds up revolving around gender as well. In a culture where women are considered to be less in control of their emotions, being provoked into having an emotional response becomes a failure of masculinity. The forms that trolling often takes reflects this gendered ideology; trolls often use gendered insults (faggot, pussy, bitch, cunt) to aggravate their targets and when they obtain the response that they wanted, they will sometimes declare victory by telling the target that they “got raped.”
This is true whether or not the troll is a man and/or the troll’s target is a woman. After all, as the famous New Yorker cartoon says, “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” and nobody knows what gender or sexuality you have, either.
In fact, as Whitney Phillips points out,
There is no trolling census; there is no stat box to click whenever you encounter some anon on 4chan. Sometimes the trolls would self-identify as this or that, but even these details were suspect. They were trolls, after all. Even during my research on Facebook, which was more directly participatory (on 4chan I was primarily an observer, while on Facebook I was able to embed myself within a group of RIP trolls), trolls would often joke about telling me nothing but lies in between telling me what they swore was the truth
Rather than being about verifying the “true” sex and gender of an Internet user, the game of trolling is about a performance of masculinity, an occupation of a masculine position and a relegation of the target into a feminized one.
Take, for example, Julian Dibbell’s description of one of the first well-known trolls in Internet history: Mr. Bungle.
Mr. Bungle was a resident of LambdaMOO, a text-based online community where users would create characters to chat and sometimes role play with one another, describing the actions they take to build collaborative stories. Using a program called a “voodoo doll,” Mr. Bungle took over the characters of fellow players and assigned vulgar and disturbing actions to those characters against their will:
He commenced his assault entirely unprovoked, at or about 10 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. That he began by using his voodoo doll to force one of the room’s occupants to sexually service him in a variety of more or less conventional ways. That this victim was exu, a Haitian trickster spirit of indeterminate gender, brown-skinned and wearing an expensive pearl gray suit, top hat, and dark glasses. That exu heaped vicious imprecations on him all the while and that he was soon ejected bodily from the room. That he hid himself away then in his private chambers somewhere on the mansion grounds and continued the attacks without interruption, since the voodoo doll worked just as well at a distance as in proximity. That he turned his attentions now to Moondreamer, a rather pointedly nondescript female character, tall, stout, and brown- haired, forcing her into unwanted liaisons with other individuals present in the room, among them exu, Kropotkin (the well-known radical), and Snugberry (the squirrel). That his actions grew progressively violent. That he made exu eat his/her own pubic hair. That he caused Moondreamer to violate herself with a piece of kitchen cutlery. That his distant laughter echoed evilly in the living room with every successive outrage.
Ultimately, it was determined that Mr. Bungle was actually several people in a dorm at NYU, who would take turns manning the keyboard while “surrounded by fellow students calling out suggestions and encouragement.”
These virtual rapes were upsetting to the citizens of LambdaMOO not because they caused any physical harm but because they subjected targets to non-consensual acts of domination over their online persona. Mr. Bungle turned (digital) bodies into toys for his/their own amusement instead of expressions of their owners’ agency. It (like, arguably, all rape) was less an act of sexual gratification and more an attempt to consolidate power and assert control. The various operators of Mr. Bungle proved their mastery over the Internet as well as other users to one another by turning their own avatars into weapons against them and reveling in the angry and painful reactions they elicited from their victims using gendered and sexualized cultural tropes.
Modern trolls recreate Mr. Bungle’s techniques using various means. For examples, hackers in the MMORPG Grand Theft Auto Online essentially recreated Bungle’s signature stunt using a mod that would enable trolls to take over the avatars of their fellow players.
Some modders choose to make other players bend over, and then proceed to use a sex animation from a different part of the game to thrust into them repeatedly, thus making it look like they’re raping them. Depending on whether or not the modder has made themselves invincible, victims can’t do much in response once the modder is done.
Other trolls attempt to wield power over their victims using different, less flamboyant (but perhaps ultimately more disturbing) kinds of tools like doxxing and swatting (“when a person calls police and claims to have committed crimes like murder and says they’re holding hostages in the home of the target of the ‘prank,’ which results in a SWAT team bursting in and hauling innocent people out at gunpoint”). These tactics are, I argue, yet another form of virtual rape. They are an unwanted violation of the target’s privacy and an incursion on their autonomy for the purposes of controlling their behavior. It is a threat, expressing to the victim that they had better shut up and stay off of the Internet or else their abusers will harass them in real life as well as online.
Thus, while it might feel satisfying to subject someone like Roosh V to a taste of his own medicine, to do so is to play along with the game of trolling, to reinforce its rules and to accept the notion that online culture should be governed by a dog-eat-dog mentality. It suggests that we buy into his virulent sexist ideology: that we agree with him that the feminine equates with the incompetent, the inexperienced, the overly emotional, that to be feminized is the ultimate insult, the ultimate punishment for failure. It prevents us from imagining new kinds of online communities, ones that operate according to a different set of rules and that don’t equate toxic performances of masculinity with power and success.
And yet, the age-old wisdom that one shouldn’t “feed the trolls” is also inadequate. Ignoring the game of trolling means allowing it to continue in the shadows, means turning a blind eye to those who have been targeted by harassment mobs.
Instead, I suggest that we take control of the playing field itself, holding platforms like Twitter and Reddit (among others) accountable for how they manage their communities. Much to the chagrin of trolls everywhere, the tech industry is starting to listen. Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman have continued Ellen Pao’s work over at Reddit, banning even more hateful subreddits and working to develop a Content Policy that will curtain mobbing and harassment. And Twitter’s CEO Dick Costelo recently admitted:
We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.
I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front. It’s nobody else’s fault but mine, and it’s embarrassing.
We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.
Everybody on the leadership team knows this is vital.
If users make it unprofitable for platforms to allow the game of trolling to continue in their backyard, then we can make those platforms more inclusive. And yet, if we register our displeasure via boycotts and refusals to engage with a service as it develops, we allow producers to believe that “people like us” (whatever that may mean: women? minority groups? anyone who doesn’t enjoy a social media experience that resembles the Wild West?) aren’t worth catering to in the first place, a position that is already ideologically tempting enough in certain bro-centric circles in Silicon Valley.
Instead, those of us invested in creating a better web most continue to provide feedback to platform creators, work at crowdsourcing effective community norms and give developers something concrete that they can take to their investors to serve as evidence of the financial incentives attached to inclusivity. We need to make it clear that we have always been a part of these spaces, that our contributions to the development of these communities are integral to their continued success, and that we will not passively accept their descent into social chaos. Social media platforms are obsessed with gathering user data and monetizing it. so let’s give them lots and lots of data to chew on. Let’s make it clear that the trolls are bad for business rather than stooping down to their level.
After all, the only way to truly win the game of trolls is not to play.