Treated like subhuman garbage

Lindy West, like many observers, points out that a report abuse button on Twitter could be used for just more of the same abuse.

The thought of having my Twitter account potentially suspended by abusers in retaliation for fighting back against my own abuse is profoundly enraging. On the other hand, though, this week someone created a parody account of my dead father to harass me because of my stance on rape jokes (still going on, because COOOMEDYYYYY). And you better fucking believe I wanted a “report abuse” button for that. I can see both sides—though mostly what I see right now is how hard the entire system is rigged to fuck women over.

I used personal examples there, because I happen to have those on hand (so, so many of those), but this isn’t actually about how I, Lindy West, am treated on the internet. This is about how people—particularly women—are treated on the internet when we challenge entrenched power structures.

We are treated like subhuman garbage, and that’s because internet trolling is not random—it is a sentient, directed, strong-armed goon of the status quo. And the more we can hammer that truth through the public consciousness, the sooner we can affect the widespread cultural change we need to begin tamping down online hate speech.

Yes. A technical fix, if it worked, would be good, but not nearly as good as a widespread cultural change which makes it be the case that people don’t want to treat anyone like that.

One of the pillars of conventional wisdom about internet trolling is that internet trolling just happens. You hear this all the time, from even the most progressive allies: Oh, well, it’s the internet. There are trolls. Trolls troll the internet. Rape threats are like oxygen. Whatareyagonnadooooo. So, I’m just supposed to accept that psychological abuse is built into my job and I’m some thin-skinned rube if I complain about it? Easy for you to say, Señor Rando. Not only is that framework supremely unsatisfying for me personally, I’d go so far as to say that it’s a dangerous and patently false myth. Internet trolling does not “just happen.” It is not some mysterious, ambient inevitability that affects all internet users indiscriminately.

Internet trolling is a force with a political agenda.

Hmmmmmmyes and no. Much of the “political agenda” is just trolling itself. It’s how some people socialize with their friends. That’s a sick, depressing fact, but there it is. It has to be fun for them, because if it weren’t, they would stop after a few hours or days. We know they don’t: they keep at it for years.

…when we ignore the issue—leaving trolls to twist in the wind—not only does it not fix anything, it actively hurts us. It poisons healthy conversations. And, more specifically, it actively drives women off the internet and out of the conversation and back into our “safe spaces”—which is exactly what the trolls want. They want us to shut up. They want us out of their territory.

But engaging with the issue is exactly what trolls want too. They revel in attention. So that’s the conundrum: As soon as we acknowledge them, they win. But if we never acknowledge them, they also win, plus discourse shuts down and we all get dumber. So what are we going to do? Well, in light of that idiotic Catch 22, I know what I’m going to do. Whatever I fucking feel like doing. I’m sick of being told that I’m navigating my own abuse wrong.

I’ve been sick of it all along.

Cumulatively, the sheer volume of hate that we’re expected to shoulder, in silence, every day, is wearing a lot of people out and shutting down rational discourse. Female bloggers are being hounded off the internet. Teenage girls are being hounded off the earth. There’s no good solution, but we have to do what we can to stop these people—unmask them, shame them, mock them, cement their status as social pariahs—for our own sanity and for those whose armor isn’t so thick (upgrade yo greaves, son).

We’re doing our best.


  1. Jean says

    The NSA has all the needed information to unmask them. If this were to be considered terrorism (which it is in a sense) then that could be combated in some way (even if just through public exposure of the trolls/harassers). Of course, there will never be the political will to do anything about this but one can dream…

  2. carlie says

    Internet trolling does not “just happen.” It is not some mysterious, ambient inevitability that affects all internet users indiscriminately.

    That is the attitude that bugs me the most. It isn’t a force of nature. It’s people. It’s people who can, theoretically, be made to change their behavior. It’s not unstoppable, it’s not something we ought to expect to happen. We can expect people to act better than that, and we can set societal standards that people who act like that are socially punished for it.

  3. Alverant says

    Another thing about trolls is that it the threat of them can keep people from expressing themselves online. Someone reads what happened to Lindy West and decide not to risk the insults by telling their own story on the internet. It’s the double edged sword of being anonymous; sure it emboldens the trolls but it can also limit how much the trolls can harass you. If they don’t know your real name, they can’t get your real phone number (at least I hope not).

    Carlie is right, we have to expect better of people because that’s the only way things will change.

  4. penn says

    I agree with you that a lot of trolls are consciously pushing an agenda, but that’s not how I took Lindy’s comment. When she said “Internet trolling is a force with a political agenda,” I took it to mean that trolling in general has an emergent political agenda to perpetuate the status quo by silencing voices that speak out. The individual trolls may be no more aware of that agenda than my circulatory system is aware of my career goals.

  5. says

    I think using the word “troll” to describe either the people or what they’re doing feeds into the idea that it’s jocular and harmless. Even “bullying”* (as in cyberbullying) isn’t serious enough a term. It’s so easy to dismiss people who are just trollin’ fer kicks, or bullying cuz that’s what kids do. We should call it what it is, what we’d call it if the same people were slipping those messages under your door instead of into your twitter stream: criminal harassment, stalking, hate speech, and illegal threats. Why is it that it makes the evening news when someone spray paints a swastika on a person’s house, but a dozen swastika tweets sent every week over the course of months to the same person and “that’s horrible but it’s just the way the Internet is”? And if it’s rape threats and threats of violence against women? Then it’s their own fault for being women in public and they should just grow a pair or shut up.

    *I also feel the same about the word bullying. It’s a way of minimizing and dismissing the behaviour as a sign of immaturity rather than as a sign of cruelty and antisocial psychology.

  6. says

    The persistent theme of the “whaddayagonnado” crowd is that the internet is somehow “not real”. It’s “only” the internet.

    No. The internet is very real. Cyberstalking and cyberharrassment are also very real crimes. It’s not immature idiots being immature idiots (ie, #bravehero). It’s criminals engaging in criminal behavior. Criminal assault, pure and simple.

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