It’s fashionable, this hobby of bullying women. Kelly Diels explores the fashion in Salon.
When Rebecca Meredith took the stage in March at the Glasgow Ancients, an annual university debate tournament, she and her debate partner, Marlena Valles, were prepared for a little heckling. After all, Meredith is ranked the third top university debater in Europe in 2012 and Valles won best speaker in Scotland’s 2013 national championship, so between the two of them they’ve “beaten men in debates hundreds of times” and “can deal with heckles,” writes Meredith in the Huffington Post. But even before the two debaters started speaking, a cadre of men in the audience began to boo, continued to boo throughout the debate, shouted “Shame, woman!” and “analysed their sexual attractiveness.” When a woman judge intervened, reports Lucy Sheriff, the men called the judge “a frigid bitch.”
That’s no good.
There are resources for bullying that I wasn’t aware of.
Encyclopedia Dramatica, a deliberately offensive wiki outlining the worldview and language of some of the people congregating in the forums and chat rooms of 4chan.org, defines “trolling” as “Internet Eugenics.” Trolling is designed to enrage and traumatize targets – especially women and minorities – so that they’ll go ahead and “leave the internet.”
That’s no good.
Online campaigns designed to punish particular people are called “lulz,” the phonetic version of the acronym “LOL,” meaning laugh out loud, which describes both the systematic process for chasing people off the Internet as well as the result (maximum amusement!). Lulz has “standard operating procedures” and the first of those procedures is trolling, or leaving a large volume of offensive comments on a person’s blog and tweeting hateful messages to them. Trolling is both a signal and a threat. Shut up and get off the Internet, is the message, or there will be further consequences – such as the publication of your personal details (called “doxing”) so you can be harassed not just online but by phone and at your home, followed by denial of service (dos) attacks on your website or, if you’ve really infuriated them, distributed denial of service attacks (Ddos) against your host provider (which will crash not just your site but thousands of other sites also hosted by those servers).
To recap: 1) trolling, 2) doxing, 3) dos or Ddos attacks. Lather, rinse, repeat.
And repeat they do. Set up only nine years ago, in 2004, Encyclopedia Dramatica contains hundreds of entries documenting past and future victims of a “lollercoaster.” Writer Melissa McEwan, owner of Shakesville, a multi-author blog about feminism and intersectionality, is one of the targets. Her address and phone number are published and so are suggestions about how to troll her, ranging from emailing her penis pictures, to “revenge-raping her,” to targeting a Shakesville audience member who also owns a blog by extracting “their info from whois database, Facebook, or a phone book then proceed to raep.” (Rape, deliberately misspelled as “raep,” can mean a dos or Ddos attack.) In 2007, the Shakesville website, along with several other feminist blogs, was the subject of Ddos attacks – but the primary tool used to harass McEwan, year after year, is threats of sexual violence and death. At one point, McEwan says, Encyclopedia Dramatica “used to feature a campaign offering a financial reward to anyone who could offer proof of raping and/or murdering me.”
That’s no good.
That’s a system in which the only people who can be genuinely free to participate are psychopaths. What the hell good is a system like that? Who wants to hear from no one but psychopaths (apart from other psychopaths)? Who wants to live in PsycopathWorld? Who wants online intellectual life handed over to psychopaths?
So the first and most easily sustained method in the lulz process is the online hate storm – like the one directed at McEwan for the last several years, or the most recent one directed at Caroline Criado-Perez for her successful petition to have Jane Austen’s face put on the back of the UK’s £10 note. After the Bank of England announced that, yes, Jane Austen’s visage would grace the new bank note, Criado-Perez began receiving rape threats and death threats via Twitter – sometimes as many as 50 an hour. Criado-Perez told the BBC UK that she had “stumbled into a nest of men who co-ordinate attacks on women.”
“This is a systemic issue, the people doing this, this is their hobby, they just move from target to target, they’re like a roaming gang of some kind,” explains developer and consultant Adria Richards. She has “screen shots and screen captures of places where they were organizing these attacks,” Richards says, and sure enough, “they have scripts, templates.”
No good, no good, no good.
With legal recourse either unavailable or unenforceable, does the speech of trolls – online hecklers actively seeking to silence their targets – constitute a Heckler’s Veto? [Wendy] Kaminer says no. Trolling doesn’t interfere with articles and blog posts published online in the same way that a speaker can be silenced at a live event. Online, even when websites are bombarded with offensive comments or speakers are sent volumes of frightening messages, those communications don’t interfere with a person’s ability to publish a text or with an audience’s ability to read it. The words remain.
I’m sorry, I like much of what Kaminer writes, but that’s just obtuse. The words don’t remain – they never appear if the people who would write them have been bullied into leaving the internet (see above). In PsychopathWorld, most words are filtered out by the psychopaths.
As Diels says.
Except the words might not remain. In 2007, after receiving rape threats and death threats, tech blogger Kathy Sierra canceled her speaking engagements, moved house (her address had been published and messages and packages were being sent to her home), and stopped writing and blogging for six years. (One of Sierra’s tormentors was later revealed to be “Weev,” an online identity of Andrew Auernheimer, who was later arrested and sentenced to 41 months in prison for hacking AT&T’s customer data.) Writer Linda Grant told journalists Vanessa Thorpe and Richard Rogers she quit writing her column for the Guardian because of “violent hate speech” that included anti-Semitism and misogyny. And just a few months ago, in June, Ms. Magazine canceled a series of blog posts by Heidi Yewman because it was unable to adequately moderate a trolling backlash that included attempts to publish Yewman’s home address. Ms. later reversed its position and reinstated the series, but the magazine’s first reaction is revealing. If a politically seasoned and professionally staffed organization with decades of experience confronting controversial issues can be destabilized by a trolling and lulz campaign, it’s not surprising that individual women quit, too.
“I’ve spoken to many women who simply stopped engaging,” says feminist activist and author Soraya Chemaly. “They don’t support other people online because they don’t want to be targeted, they’ve stopped writing about certain topics, they silence themselves – which is of course the issue.” She adds, “I’m happy to talk about free speech, it’s very dear to me [...] but the free speech we have to take care of first is the speech that is already lost,” because women are being intimidated off the Internet, out of public life and into silence.
I’ve spoken to many such women too. I’ve also spoken to many women who say they would have stopped engaging if it weren’t for women who refuse to get off the Internet, out of public life and into silence. Kaminer would apparently read that as “See? The system works, those women stay.” That would be a fatuous and callous mistake. Yes, some of us stay, but we pay a price that we should not have to pay. Yes, others stay because we stay, but they too pay a price that they should not have to pay. It’s not a stable system and it sure as hell is not a fair system.