by Robyn Banks
A man overhears you saying something he doesn’t like, and yells abuse at you. You leave, but later on he looks up all of your personal information – your work address, home address, your parents’ home address – and sends it to you with a threat to come over to rape and/or kill you. How would you describe this kind of person? A stalker? Possible axe murderer? Would you contact the police? How would you feel if the police told you to just ignore it?
most importantly of all, trolling was funny.
Back when I was first indoctrinated to The Internet, when the net seemed less full of people who don’t know how to use it, the word ‘troll’ had a different meaning. To be called a troll was almost a badge of honour, and it certainly wasn’t something anyone could do with a keyboard and a connection. To troll effectively required time, patience and some degree of intelligence. It was elaborately planned pranks, web pages you couldn’t close and the dance of manipulating others to reveal holes in their own arguments. It was clever, curious, asked all the wrong questions and was almost always directed upwards. To be trolled was sometimes frustrating but usually did no harm. More often than not, it resulted in reassessing your arguments, upgrading your security or updating your knowledge. And most importantly of all, trolling was funny.
The past is always rosier than the present, but it seems there are very few places on the internet where that original troll spirit, the anti-authoritarian sentiment that led to a generation of hacktivists, pirates and darknet entrepreneurs, still lives. At some point in time the word troll expanded to include twelve-year-olds who comment in caps lock under YouTube videos, previously called flamers, and that was probably the beginning of the end, but the coffin was sealed shut when the first national journalist used the word ‘trolling’ to describe misogynist online abuse. Now all you have to do to be a troll is send somebody a rude message, which is a pitifully low standard. There’s a stark difference between the kind of trolling I used to see taking place on far-right fundamentalist forums and the stalker-esque behaviour now directed towards women online.
Not only does calling angry cry-babies online ‘trolls’ corrode the reputation of those who still take trolling seriously and the sites they frequent, but it does a lot of damage to the victims of this behaviour. Zoe Quinn, the catalyst of the infamous ‘gamergate’ scandal, described the blog about her as ‘domestic abuse gone viral’. It was an intimate rant of epic scale, including details about her sexual encounters and private life, which sparked an onslaught of rape and death threats from the online gaming community which continues to this day.
Caroline Criado-Perez, an outspoken feminist who launched a twitter campaign about something as benign as bank notes, also received death and rape threats, and Anita Sarkeesian, who runs a feminist youtube series, had to cancel an event due to a terror threat. She was recently quoted as saying that ‘trolling’ sounds too childish to describe what was happening to her, which is true. The word which used to mean internet fun and games now means the harassment, abuse and stalking of women who voice an opinion online. Feminists worry about men imitating what they see in porn, but apparently it’s horror films these socially maladjusted people have been inspired by.
Being told not to ‘feed the trolls’ in the face of a threat of rape rings eerily similar to women being blamed for provoking their attackers.
This minimisation of what is, in reality, criminal behaviour also feeds in to the police response. Women dealing with online harassment find themselves patiently explaining how Twitter works to authorities, and cases rarely come to court. The adage ‘don’t feed the trolls’ used to mean not wasting your time and intellectual energy arguing with those devils advocates who lurk in the depths of every forum. Thanks to our entirely inadequate response to online abuse, as women and other undesirables are forced in to hiding, it now appears to mean living the life of a fugitive and never going online again. Being told not to ‘feed the trolls’ in the face of a threat of rape rings eerily similar to women being blamed for provoking their attackers.
Authorities, and so-called internet ‘trolls’, need to understand that a death threat in your mailbox is as real as a death threat in your letter box, but the real culprits are those in the internet community who stood back and allowed these losers to poison the environment, to create hierarchies which simply mirror those in society instead of creating an escape from it, and who allowed the name troll to be tarnished. 4chan persuading hundreds of iPhone users to break their phones with the ‘bendy iPhone’ gag was real trolling, but it’s been years since anybody linked me to a Rick Astley video, let alone a page of three old naked men in a shower which I had to shut my whole computer down to get rid of.
I don’t want to see people being prosecuted for what they say online, but to keep it that way we need to foster an environment where telling a woman you want to rape and kill her makes you as many friends as it does offline. So for the sake of the internet, can we save the title of troll for those creative trouble makers who really deserve it and call people who stalk and harass women both online and off what they are – creeps.