In Airplane, Lloyd Bridges declared in exasperation: “It looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.” A few days ago I returned from a brief family holiday to find the media ablaze with the issue of misogynistic trolling, threats and intimidation, and the first thought that popped into my head was “looks like I picked the wrong week to quit blogging about male anger.”
I’ve spent a couple of days catching up on opinion pieces from all perspectives, ranging from the insightful and profound to the downright dumb, checking whether there could be anything left that has yet to be said. There is. For all the discussion about how we police and moderate abusive messages; for all the potential problems with solutions such as a Report Abuse button; all the debates about freedom of speech versus protection from intimidation and bullying; alleged hypocrisy of those advocating stronger constraints and everything else, there is one question which nobody seems prepared to ask, and it is, I think, the most important of them all. What motivates people – mostly but not entirely men – to attack others online using the most extremely violent, threatening and offensive terms at their disposal?
I’ve often heard it said when discussing the cases of Anita Sarkeesian, Rebecca Watson, Lindy West or the recent clutch of targets that what appears to be misogyny isn’t really misogyny because it is “just trolling.” I don’t buy that. I’ll willingly admit I’ve trolled the internet occasionally. I’ve used disingenuous arguments to get a rise out of those I think deserve it. I’ve used throwaway nyms to make mischief on occasion. I’ve been bloody rude to people on many occasions, out of anger, frustration or malice. However the thought of sending someone a rape threat, like the thought of sending someone racist or homophobic abuse, makes me feel literally sick in the pit of my stomach. I honestly cannot imagine ever hating anyone enough to do that. I don’t believe for a moment that makes me somehow saintly, I firmly believe that the great majority of internet users feel the same and it is obvious that the proportion of men online who behave like this is very small.
Late last year Anita Sarkeesian gave a TED talk, discussed by Helen Lewis here where she discussed the abuse that she had famously received. She describes the phenomenon, insightfully, as a game. There is a Big Boss enemy (Sarkeesian) who must be defeated, and a supportive team of players who turn the entire internet into a battlefield. They have home bases where they co-ordinate their attacks, boast of their exploits, and congratulate each other on their hits, gain status or (in gaming terms) experience points for successful attacks. They see themselves not as the villains, but as the heroes.
Over the past week or two we have seen something similar happen with Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy, Mary Beard and others have been thrust into the role of level bosses. I find it fascinating that the spark which ignited this inferno was so randomly trivial. Criado-Perez was targeted because she’s been involved in a successful campaign to get a woman featured on a banknote. I’ll admit this never struck me as the most pressing social justice campaign on the table at present, but by the same token, nor did it strike me as something that anyone could get especially upset about. But it was enough to rile one or two people sufficiently to begin sending hate messages and rape threats. When Criado-Perez and her supporters refused to accept this in silence, it was as if the broad community of online warrior-gamers pricked up their collective ears and declared “game on.” The players reached for whatever weapons were available in their arsenal, and for many the heavy duty cannon was the rape allusion or direct threat.
To these people, making a rape threat, a death threat, even a hoax bomb threat is a perfectly legitimate tactic within the game. It is no more real or serious than running over a pedestrian on GTA – just a tactic to get to the end of the level. However in this case the pedestrian being run over is not treating it as a game, but a very real part of her life.
This, I think, largely explains what we have seen these past couple of weeks, but it is inadequate. Psychologists researching online behaviour have come up with concepts such as deindividuation and self-awareness, which shed light on how the internet can disinhibit aggressive behaviours, but they do not explain why the aggression is there in the first place.
It seems apparent to me that at the heart of this behaviour is at least some element of desire to hurt women. Not physically but emotionally and psychologically, nonetheless inflicting the most discomfort, fear and distress they can. The fact that they so quickly and so commonly resort to sexualised and gendered attacks suggests to me that underneath the game mentality, there is genuine misogyny at play.
A debate has raged prominently over the past week, but it has largely been the wrong debate. The ugly truth is that if we want to end the extremes of hateful behaviour on the internet (by which I don’t mean the day to day ballyhoo, but overtly criminal, threatening and intimidatory behaviour) we will not do it with a report abuse button or a few more moderators on social media sites, or even yet more criminalization of online behaviour, all of which will be easily circumvented by all but the most stupid and immature of trolls. We need to look deeper, into where the misogyny originates, where the aggression originates, where the desire to cause hurt originates, then work to resolve them. That is an overwhelmingly challenging proposition, but the only one which will, ultimately, bring solutions.