What We Can Learn From a Reformed Troll

[Content note: online harassment & threats]

Many of us who have dealt with trolls online have spent a lot of time–to much, probably–wondering what motivated them, how they would justify their actions (or not), whether they would ever regret it or apologize.

Writer Lindy West actually got to find this out. After she publicly called out a troll who’d made a Twitter account impersonating her late father and used it to harass her (yes, that happened), he emailed her and apologized. He even donated money in her name to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which had treated her father before he died. On an episode of This American Life, West called him and talked to him more about why he did what he did.

The conversation was both amazingly honest and also painfully unsurprising, at least to those of us who have dealt with this sort of behavior. The ex-troll admitted that he’d been in a really bad mental place when he’d made multiple accounts just to harass West. In the email he’d originally sent to apologize, he wrote, “I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you. I think my anger from you stems from your happiness with your own being. It served to highlight my unhappiness with myself.” In the TAL episode, he explained that he was overweight and unhappy with his body, and West’s public satisfaction with (and celebration of) her own weight made him resentful. Gender played a role, too:

Women are being more forthright in their writing. There isn’t a sense of timidity to when they speak or when they write. They’re saying it loud. And I think that– and I think, for me, as well, it’s threatening at first. …I work with women all day, and I don’t have an issue with anyone. I could’ve told you back then if someone had said to me, oh, you’re a misogynist. You hate women. And I could say, nuh-uh, I love my mom. I love my sisters. I’ve loved my– the girlfriends that I’ve had in my life. But you can’t claim to be OK with women and then go online and insult them– seek them out to harm them emotionally.

West added:

In my experience, if you call a troll a misogynist, he’ll almost invariably say, oh, I don’t hate women. I just hate what you’re saying and what that other woman is saying and that woman and that one for totally unrelated reasons. So it was satisfying at least to hear him admit that, yeah, he hated women.

Indeed, that level of self-awareness is pretty rare in anyone, let alone in men who harass and threaten women.

Although none of my really-awful trolls have ever apologized, one who used to mildly troll my comments section did, and confessed that it had to do with his own mental health issues that he was taking out on me and my blog. I became his outlet, the lightning rod for all his grievances with himself and the world. From talking to other women with a presence on the internet, I know my experience (and West’s) is not unique.

There is a lot to learn from the TAL episode. Although trolls/online harassers probably have a variety of motivations, there clearly is a subset of them that troll because they can’t or won’t deal with their own personal issues. I want to be very careful here and not do the whole blaming mental illness thing, but I also want to trust people who have mental illnesses when they say that their mental illness is what prompted them to do something shitty. That’s part of humanizing mental illness, too–acknowledging that sometimes, especially when untreated/unmanaged, it can cause people to act in ways that aren’t really in accordance with who they actually want to be.

But also, you need not have a diagnosable mental illness to be in a bad place in your head at some point in time. You need not have a diagnosable mental illness to believe on some level that it’s okay to outsource emotional caretaking to someone else. The common thread here isn’t “mental illness” but “people avoiding dealing with their own issues and taking their pain out on others,” which, as I’ve been discussing a lot around here, is a gendered phenomenon.

In the episode, West concludes:

If what he said is true, that he just needed to find some meaning in his life, then what a heartbreaking diagnosis for all of the people who are still at it. I can’t give purpose and fulfillment to millions of anonymous strangers, but I can remember not to lose sight of their humanity the way that they lost sight of mine.

That is what horrified me most about this whole thing, aside from imagining what it must’ve been like for West pre-apology. How on earth could a random writer on the internet give these people what they need–partners, friends, self-love, satisfying jobs? It’s a frustration that I’ve felt before.

When the episode first aired, I saw a lot of people hailing it as some sort of sign that, see, trolls really are people too, and they’re redeemable, and maybe if we just remember not to lose sight of their humanity, then they’ll see the light and stop trolling! (Note that although I’m borrowing some of West’s wording here, I absolutely don’t think she’s this naive. Not after everything the internet has put her through.)

It’s a nice thought. It means that the solution to the revolting bullshit people (mostly women) deal with online is neither to “just ignore it” nor to lash back out or ridicule or petition social media platforms for better moderation. It’s just to talk to them and figure out what’s making them hurt so bad.

You can probably see why this is unacceptable as far as general advice goes. As West said, women can’t take responsibility for healing all these strangers’ hurts. People in my field get paid good money to do that, and I’m not about to do it for free for someone I’ve never met who just called me a fucking cunt.

Moreover, though, I’m not sure that most trolls are “redeemable.” Buzzfeed writer Tabatha Leggett, who got rape and death threats after writing about watching The Simpsons (yes, really), recently described her experience contacting her trolls, and seems to have had a rather different one than West did:

The first guy was a stand-up comedian from Chicago. He’d left a meme that said “kill yourself” in the comments section. He insisted that leaving a meme was different to typing out the words “kill yourself”. “Anyone who knows the meme wouldn’t take it seriously,” he told me. “I just wanted to tell you to shut the fuck up.”

I told him that his comment, underneath the hundreds of other abusive ones I’d received, came across as threatening. He told me I was an idiot for feeling that way. I asked him why he felt the need to comment at all. Why not just avoid reading my stuff in the future?

“You might have other really good stuff that you write about,” he replied. “I just didn’t want you to write about The Simpsons again. I was like, shut up.”

Another man that she spoke to did apologize, but it’s unclear which of these reactions is more typical. Point is, sometimes no amount of emotional labor will extract an apology (let alone genuine regret). And even if it did, what difference does it make? The damage has been done, and there always seem to be more trolls willing to take the place of those who realize the error of their ways.

If there’s anything to take away from Lindy West’s interview with her troll, it’s that trolling is more about the troll than the target. However, note that many people are miserable and full of self-hatred and do not make accounts impersonating a writer’s dead father that they use to harass her. The ex-troll’s misogyny and our society’s tolerance of it probably played as big a role in his behavior as did his personal problems.

Unfortunately, we can’t magically heal everyone’s misery. We can stop blaming victims of harassment for that harassment, and we can institute some better social norms and institutional policies that help prevent harassment. People like Lindy West are part of the reason we’re finally having that conversation on any sort of scale, but it’s embarrassing how much we had to put up with before that conversation finally got started.

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[blogathon] What I’ve Learned From Blogging

This is the fourth post in my SSA blogathon, and another reader request. Don’t forget to donate!

I’ve been blogging in some form or another for ten years. Since I was 12. Did they even have blogs back then? Apparently!

But I only started this blog a little less than four years ago, and it took about a year or two for it to really start to pick up readers. I’ve always written primarily for myself–because it’s fun, because I wanted to work out my ideas–otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to keep it up for 7 or 8 years before starting to really get readers. But having an audience and interacting with it is a big part of what blogging’s all about, or else there would be a lot fewer blogs in the world.

That makes blogging very different from other kinds of writing, and even though I’ve been writing and one way or another since early childhood, blogging has taught me a few unique lessons.

1. Do it for yourself.

I mentioned this already, but I’ll expand on it. Blogging and writing in general can be very thankless things to do. While I get plenty of lovely comments and emails from people about how my blog has helped them and influenced their opinions, most people who read this blog and like it will not tell me so. And nor should they feel obligated to. But that means that in order for someone to keep up blogging and not get burned out, they have to do it primarily for themselves–because it’s good for them, because they love it. The feeling I get from finally working out in writing an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head for hours or days doesn’t compare to anything else I’ve ever done.

But this is important because it applies to many things one does in life. I learned to love working out because I learned to do it for me, not for the approval of people who tell me I need to work out. I learned to love going to parties because I found a way to do it in a way that I actually enjoyed rather than doing it because it’s what college students “ought” to do (and I avoid the kinds of parties that I would not enjoy). And I predict that I’ll love my career not (just) because I want to “help people,” but because I enjoy the process of working through someone’s patterns of thinking with them.

Of course, sometimes you have to do things for other people and not for yourself. That’s a fact of life. But it’ll go better if you find a way to do it for yourself, too.

2. Your worth is not based on how many people agree with you.

Let me tell you this: no matter how confident you are, no matter how many compliments you’ve gotten, even the kindest and most polite criticism will sting. (And when it’s not polite at all, it stings even more.) I’ve come to realize that feeling stung by criticism is not a bad thing in and of itself; once the feeling passes, you can evaluate the criticism on its own merits and hopefully improve and clarify your own position.

But regardless of whether criticism is fair or not, it doesn’t have anything to do with one’s worth as a person. I could write something that every single person who reads it disagrees with and I’d still be a generally decent person who tries to be a good friend and partner and who tries to contribute to the causes and communities I care about. Even if I happen to write the stupidest fucking post that has ever graced this blog, those things are still true.

3. Don’t expect to make a huge difference immediately (or ever).

This also comes back to doing it for yourself. But I think that the more you expect your blogging/activism to Change All The Things!, the easier it’ll be for you to get burned out when you inevitably find that you’re not living up to your own expectations.

Blogging is even less likely to make Big Concrete Change than other forms of activism. If you participate in a march or rally, you’ll get a huge amount of visibility for your cause. If you lobby your congressperson, they may vote the way you wanted them to and help pass important legislation or block terrible legislation. If you participate in a boycott of a company, the company may cave and stop doing whatever shitty thing it was doing.

What does blogging do? Someone, somewhere out there, might read a post and feel like they’re not alone. They may write to you and tell you, but they may not. Someone, somewhere out there, might start questioning beliefs they’d previously held sacred. Someone, somewhere out there, might find a good new argument to use next time they have to debate with someone about religion or politics or social justice.

Sometimes blogging does make a huge visible difference. A good example is something Jessica Valenti discusses in her book The Purity Myth–in 2005, a Virginia lawmaker named John Cosgrove proposed a bill that would’ve made it illegal for a woman to fail to report a miscarriage to the police within 12 hours. But citing Internet backlash, he later withdrew the bill.

But I think that’s rare. Most of the time you will not see huge changes from your blogging, though you may occasionally see small ones. They still matter.

4. You get to decide how to blog. Not your commenters. You.

I have a pretty detailed and specific comment policy. Some of it’s the usual stuff, but some of it is pretty specific to my style of blogging and moderating. For instance, if you use a nasty tone, I get to respond to you with a nasty tone. If you disagree and don’t back up your disagreement with any evidence or reasoning, you’ll get deleted. If you’re a bigot, you get deleted. Plenty of people dislike my style of moderation, and I frankly don’t care.

I decided early on that what would be up for debate on this blog would be ideas, not how I choose to blog. Nobody gets to tell me they don’t like my tone. Nobody gets to tell me not to feed the trolls if that’s what I want to do. Nobody gets to tell me to write about something other than what I want to write about. Nobody gets to tell me that FREEZE PEEEEACH.

My blog, my rules!

5. People will assume that who you are when you’re blogging is Who You Are.

This is one I’ve had a lot of trouble with. To some extent, my blog is a good approximation of who I am and what I care about. But to some extent it’s not. My response to commenters prattling on about false rape accusations is not the same as my response to people in meatspace prattling on about false rape accusations. My argumentation online is not the same as my argumentation in meatspace. Having now met many bloggers I follow offline, I know I’m far from alone in this.

But people don’t always know or consider this, so I think people often assume I’m really snarky and argumentative in meatspace, too. I’m actually not. I much prefer listening to talking, and in fact, I read a lot more than I write. I read dozens of articles a day and dozens of books a year. What I write is a fraction of what I think about as I read all these things.

Sometimes this means I make an effort to be extra friendly, smiley, and easy-going in public. But I think the most important thing for me is to remember that my personality, like everyone else’s, has multiple facets, and that I make good decisions about which sides to deploy in given situations.

Actually, I have a lot more to say about things I’ve learned from blogging, so I’ll probably have to write a follow-up post since this one’s super-long. Stay tuned!

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"Don't Feed the Trolls": Reexamining a Tired Maxim

Allow me to get meta here for a moment.

I’ve noticed that a very common response to nasty internet comments is to repeat the mantra, “Don’t feel the trolls.” It’s become “common knowledge” that you should ignore mean-spirited (as opposed to simply critical) comments on the internet, especially if you’re the one they’re addressed to, because people who leave such comments are only looking for a reaction from you.

Unfortunately, one side effect of this is that when someone complains about a nasty comment left on their blog or whatever, they often get a response like, “Oh, that’s not even worth thinking about. They’re just a troll. Don’t pay any attention to them.”

This response is certainly well-intentioned, and people who make it are generally trying to reassure the targeted person that the nasty comment doesn’t mean anything. However, there are several problems with it, and with the whole “Don’t feed the trolls” concept in general.

First of all, if someone’s upset about getting a nasty comment, don’t delegitimize their emotions. Feeling crappy when someone says something mean to you is a completely “normal” human thing, trust me. When someone does this in a public place (i.e. the internet) and in response to something you’ve worked hard on (a blog post, a YouTube video), it’s even more understandable that you’d feel crappy about it.

“Delegitimization” in this case refers to making people feel like their emotions aren’t legitimate–that they shouldn’t have them, or that they should just “get over” them rather than letting them run their course. That’s rarely what anyone means to do when they say things like “That’s not a big deal” and “That’s not even worth being upset over,” but that’s the effect such statements tend to have.

Furthermore, I’m no longer sure that “Don’t feed the trolls” is always the best response. True, you’re probably not going to change the person’s mind if you respond to their nasty comment. But something I’ve heard from many fellow activists is that when you write–and especially when you argue in a public forum–you’re not necessarily trying to change the mind of someone who holds the opposite position as you. Rather, you’re hoping to grab the attention of the onlooker who hasn’t really made up their mind yet, and who can definitely be swayed by a well-articulated argument.

And that’s assuming that people never change their minds once they’ve made them up, which, sometimes, they do. I’ve changed plenty of minds, and I’m really just starting to find my groove as an activist/writer.

I’ve also heard the argument that responding to nasty comments (or allowing them out of moderation, period) somehow “legitimizes” what they’re saying. First of all, I disagree that the mere act of responding to a comment makes that comment more “legitimate” regardless of the nature of your response. I don’t believe in turning the other cheek, so for me, responding to an attack is what comes naturally.

This attitude also presupposes that trolling comments are completely arbitrary, and that there’s nothing behind them other than a single person’s desire to be an asshole. That’s rarely the case. For instance, take the trolliest comment of all: “tits or gtfo,” which is often directed by men at women posting on the internet. If you dig a big deeper, you can use that meme to understand the culture that pervades certain male-dominated spaces on the internet. In these spaces–Reddit and 4chan are two noteworthy examples–men often view women as good for only one thing.

In these cases, deleting nasty comments rather than leaving them up and responding can be counterproductive. For instance, take this example, which some of my friends and I actually watched unfold yesterday. A female volunteer for the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) offered her help to one of the organization’s affiliates and was met with vile sexism. Publicizing this helps explain how sexism continues to be a problem in the secular community and leads us into a discussion of what can be done about it. (Sidenote: see the comments thread of that blog post for a great conversation about how to deal with nasty comments.)

And the upside in this situation is that people jumped into the original thread and challenged the guy who was being an asshole, and he ultimately apologized. That never would’ve happened if the people who challenged him had just shrugged and thought, “Don’t feed the trolls.”

All that said, there are certainly right and wrong ways to respond to nasty comments on the internet. Responding with anger (or, worse, hurt feelings) is exactly the kind of “feeding” that trolls actually do thrive on. The best responses are confident, snappy, and/or humorous, and show that the troll can’t get to you. One of the best comebacks I’ve ever seen was made by Alex Gabriel of the Heresy Club; someone commented, “i was searching google for circle jerk and ended up here,” and Alex responded, “Oh dear, that’s unfortunate. I can link you to some excellent porn if you’d prefer.”

Or, as my friend Kate, another badass writer and activist, says, “No, I will not feed the trolls. I will fucking trounce them and make them look like public idiots.”

None of this is to say that you should respond to nasty comments. Everyone has their own way of dealing with this sort of thing, and methodically demolishing mean-spirited arguments takes patience and energy that not everyone has all of the time. I’m merely suggesting that we should reexamine the cliche that one should never respond to trolls, not that everyone should do so all of the time.

Blogging (and other creative internet pursuits) can be exhausting and thankless. Do what feels right to you. And try not to end up like this infamous guy from xkcd: