The purpose of trolls

Amanda Marcotte comments on the BBC Newsnight – Paul Mason – Twitter harassment campaign story to point out that misogynist harassers have an agenda.

But as awful as trolls are, they do serve a major purpose, if people are willing to accept that these are actual people expressing actual opinions, instead of imagining them, as too many people do, as almost a force of nature that the internet willed into existence and not people at all. That purpose is revealing that misogyny exists and it is widespread. Understanding that, I think, makes clear why so many other things exist: Rape culture, fundamentalist religions, the Republican Party’s guns-and-abortion obsession. There is a sea of boiling anger out there because men are taught from a young age that women are here to serve, and then they grow up and discover that women often elect not to do that.

Or because they’re taught from a young age that to be a boy is to be not a girl and that for a boy to be at all a girl is a profound disgrace and shame, deserving of beatings and wedgies and being dunked in toilets. Or because they’re taught from a young age that girls are kind of laughable and contemptible even if they are also highly desirable. Or because they’re taught from a young age that only men do things that matter, and then they grow up and find all these pesky women cluttering up the place and thinking they get to do things that matter too. Or because they’re taught from a young age that to be male is to be a bit brutal and obtuse, that fee-fees are for girrrrrrrrls (who are contemptible and Other Than boys, see above), that a boy or man who is at all good at paying attention to other people’s thoughts and feelings is a wimp and a pussy and doing the male thing all wrong. Or because they’re taught from a young age that women are dependent on men and they don’t want to have a woman depending on them.

Some misogynists—the Rick Perrys of the world—calmly react to this realization by deciding that women’s rebellion is a temporary, feminism-induced insanity, and that the proper legislative pressure plus a good dose of condescension can return them to their natural state of servitude. Some men get a sick pleasure out of stripping away the “illusion” that women are equal and violently showing them exactly how inferior they are. The online troll population has these kinds of characters in it, but the dominant class is men who don’t get the level of sexual attention they feel entitled to from women, and therefore have concocted elaborate, dogged theories about how women are broken, because they cannot ever allow that women have a right not to like them personally. (Or that if they started acting like decent people, maybe they would actually be more likeable.) All misogynists get upset when women are given attention for their talent or skills; it violates their core belief that women are here to serve. This is why writing on the internet while female means getting everything from laughably delusional men pretending to “critique” your writing while barely concealing their rage to rape and death threats. Particularly if your writing is not upholding the opinion that women are inferior servant class.

Ya. That one violates the “only men do things that matter” doctrine, and there clearly really is something special about it. Being a woman who writes on the internet has become like being a magnet with little bits of iron all over your environment. Wham, wham, wham, all day long as the bits of iron slam into you.

The seething rage on display from so many men (and their female supporters) all the time on the internet is educational; it makes it much harder to hand wave and pretend that rape and sexual harassment are a matter of miscommunication, that anti-choice sentiment is a result of some kind of affection for “life”, and that women’s failure to reach economic and social equality is a matter of women’s failures instead of widespread sentiment that women don’t deserve said equality. Seeing the livid rage of devoted Republican voters at the very existence of independent women sharing their thoughts and opinions online makes it very difficult indeed to see Republican policies that hurt women as being merely coincidental. So this shit matters.

That’s why it’s uncomfortable to have so many people insist that there’s an easy fix for troll targets, the “ignore the bullies and they’ll go away” fix, usually spouted by people who haven’t considered for a moment that the trolls may very well be actual people who are trying to protect and perpetuate sexism.

It is educational, but I get tired of being a textbook.

Trolls want to silence women. When they are allowed to shout at you without a response, they have created a microcosm of the world they want, where men are yelling at women who are sitting there and taking it. This is an interesting point, though as West points out, trolls also “win” when they get attention—particularly with the “women won’t fuck me like I deserve!” anger mobs, getting negative attention from women becomes a sort of revenge for them. So it’s tough, but like sexual harassers, trolls know how to create a situation where you can’t win: Either you endure their harassment or you are a “bitch” for pushing back. Cultural misogyny works in their favor.

I retweet trolls a lot (and then usually block them immediately, because I know that there is no potential for actual discourse here). I get a lot of shit for it, mostly from men. Every time a man condescendingly tells me, “You are giving them attention! Just ignore and block them!”, I hear, “Being exposed to the brutal misogyny you get aimed at you every day is uncomfortable. It would be so much better for me if I didn’t have to know this is what’s going on.” This phenomenon is not unique to the internet. Kids who get bullied get “don’t be a tattletale” from adults. Women who get street harassed end up having to apologize for making men in their lives uncomfortable by bringing it up. The intention is almost never to tell someone they are to suffer this in silence, but the effect is that you are telling them just that.

Yes. That. Kids do get it. Gay kids get it in triplicate.

[Lindy] West is right; it’s time to stop thinking of trolls as idiots who are just seeking attention, and see them for what they are: Misogynists with a political agenda. These are men that absolutely do not want to live in a society where women are treated equally, and they are obsessed with silencing the women online whose writings they rightfully fear are going to help push society in a more feminist direction. They want to harass feminists into silence. If we keep this understanding front and center and discard useless theories about “attention-seeking” or “lulz”, we can begin to have a more productive conversation about what the hell to do about the problem.

I’m doing my best.



  1. A Hermit says

    I see red whenever I hear that “its just for laughs” excuse. What kind of person other than an evil minded misogynist gets a laugh out of threatening to rape someone?

  2. rnilsson says

    I also tend to see red at that. Just yesterday, my kit&kin were the next car in a head-on collision, so first on scene. No immediate fatalities, but one shudders to imagine what had been the result for ME, PERSONALLY, if they had actually overtaken the car in front as they did contemplate shortly before impact. Fortunately, OUR driver had the presence of mind to avoid a Massen-Carambolage as they say it in German.

    Well, I feel, PERSONALLY, that if someone wants to end their life they should to it without implicating random 7-year-olds travelling in autos they happen to meet on the hiway. Next time, just go out in the shed, ok?

    Or stay in Mom’s basement. Like, forever, dude.

    Or, at the very least, stay off public roads. SRSLY.

    Not joking.

  3. Scr... Archivist says

    They want to harass feminists into silence.

    This has been more clear to me after the rear-guard retaliation against Caroline Criado-Perez’s banknote victory. The thugs’ attempted free-speech defense is so empty that I am becoming increasingly convinced that it is a Big Lie.

    Also, Ophelia, have you noticed that there is more currency now to the idea that this online abuse is anti-free-speech? It seems to me that people like Criado-Perez, MP Stella Creasy, and others are bringing that realization more attention, while at the same time dismantling the “don’t feed” approach.

    Meanwhile, have you heard about the unhappy menz in the audience at Comic-Con’s “Women Who Kick Ass” panel? It has not been a good week at the He-Man Women-Haters Club. Maybe if they just ignored the feminists, the latter would go away.


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