Tackling the trolls: how women are fighting back against online bullies

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Refusing to be silent, women are leading research, campaigns and new strategies to stop trolls and create safer online spaces.

by Sian Norris, OpenDemocracy

Some of the abuse the author received on Facebook in 2012. Image: screenshot.

Back in 2012, I went to the police to report an incident of online harassment. A man had called me an obscene name, threatened to find out where I lived in order to post my details on 4Chan, and wrote “she must pay!!”. He accepted a caution.

This wasn’t my first incident of online abuse.

There was the rising academic and popular environmentalist who commented on everything I wrote, in a way that amounted to sustained harassment. When I wrote a piece on abortion rights, he called me a “fucking baby killer.”

In recent years, I’ve been told to drink floor polish and that I need to be raped. I’ve been repeatedly called a bitch and a cunt. People have responded to my articles with images of dead babies. Last month, I was told to “shut my libtard cock-holster’.

Feminist activists have received endless abuse leaving some with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms. I know of women who have received bomb threats; friends who have had their faces Photoshopped onto obscene images.

“When I wrote a piece on abortion rights, he called me a “fucking baby killer.”

Women, however, are refusing to be silent, striking back against online abuse and taking action to tackle the trolls. From governments to NGOs and grassroots activists, there is a growing effort to respond to online harassment.

One campaign is called Troll Busters. Founded in 2014, the project offers practical advice and support to journalists experiencing online abuse. It was set up with a clear message: “the trolls don’t have to win. We have your back!”

For founder Michelle Ferrier, this project is a chance to “create an anti-Gamergate”. Gamergate was the notorious and vicious online attacks co-ordinated by Men’s Rights Activists against women in the gaming industry.

Ferrier had been targeted by an increasingly violent stalker ten years previously, when a columnist for a Florida newspaper. She’s also experienced abuse online.

“I noticed that attacks on women online were increasing,” she told me recently, over Skype. “It wasn’t just me who was being attacked – it was other women, and other women of colour, journalists.”

“I wanted to try and stem the hate that I had seen happening online around the Gamergate movement,” Ferrier continued. “And to try and find some way of helping those women.”

“Our strategy is to find and address online attacks when they’re happening, so we can diminish the severity and the pile-on effect,” Ferrier told me.

“We do that in two ways. We have a reporting mechanism, so people can contact us and we can go and operate in their social media feed,” Ferrier said.

“And we use social media monitoring and machine learning to find instances where journalists are under attack, and get their consent to operate in their feed.”

Troll Busters helps journalists deal with attacks, but also offers “one-on-one support to help them gather evidence for law enforcement, and to deal with management so they can restore their reputations and be protected from further abuse,” Ferrier said.

The Troll Busters project website. Image: screenshot.

Recently, 50.50’s Lara Whyte experienced exactly the kind of pile-on that Troll Busters aims to tackle and diffuse. Following her report on a men’s rights conference in London, she was subject to a coordinated online attacks.

“I suddenly had loads of new followers who had done so for the explicit purpose of abusing me, or liking or commenting on others doing so,” Whyte told me. “I felt threatened because fringe elements of the MRA movement can be explicitly violent,”

“Online, there was a real pack mentality and none of the empathy or reasonableness that I had experienced in some of my offline interactions with individuals at the conference,” she added.

Comments ranged from “telling me how stupid I was, or how much of a liar I was, and lots of words and comments that were specifically targeted in order to upset me as much as possible,” she said.

One of the comments directed at Whyte. Image: screenshot.

“I felt that this group of men who feel disempowered and furious were taking revenge, collectively, in a space where they still have a disproportionate amount of power – the internet,” Whyte added.

In the UK, the Labour Women’s Network is currently putting together guidance on how to cope with trolling. This is, in part, a response to how during the 2017 election, women in all political parties were subject to torrents of online abuse.

One Labour MP received a staggering half of all abuse sent on social media – Diane Abbott. The abuse sent to her was a toxic mix of racism and misogyny.

The discovery that Abbott received half of all the abuse sent to women MPs during the 2017 election campaign was made by Amnesty International.

The charity commissioned research to better understand the treatment of women on Twitter (declaration: I was interviewed about my own experience as part of this research). Their report, Toxic Twitter, was a damning indictment of the social media giant’s failure to protect women users.

Diana Abbott speaking at Corbyn leadership rally, 2016. Photo: Paul NUK. CC 2.0.

Amnesty researcher Azmina Dhrodia said they approached online abuse from a human rights perspective to “ask what are the government’s obligations to protect women from violence online, and what responsibilities social media companies have to make sure women aren’t experiencing abuse on their platforms.”

“We wanted to understand any patterns or trends of how women experience abuse online,” she told me, “in order to use human rights standards to look at solutions.”

Their research warned that online abuse can have a “chilling effect on women speaking out online”.

The report warned that the “silencing and censoring impact of violence and abuse against women on Twitter can have far-reaching and harmful repercussions on how younger women, women from marginalised communities, and future generations fully exercise their right to participate in public life.”

“When women experience abuse online,” Azmina told me, “it can negate the future of women and girls engaging in civic and political spaces. We don’t want women forced into silence, we want to see women able to express themselves in a free and equal way.”

Amnesty is now campaigning to get Twitter to improve its recording of women’s reports of abuse, and be more transparent about how they moderate these reports.

“We don’t want women forced into silence, we want to see women able to express themselves in a free and equal way”

In March, a UK government report on Intimidation In Public Life said: “the intimidation experienced by Parliamentary candidates, and others in public life, has become a threat to the diversity, integrity, and vibrancy of representative democracy in the UK”.

The report reviewed the “intimidation of parliamentary candidates in July 2017” when it said that “a significant proportion of candidates… experienced harassment, abuse and intimidation.”

Its authors argued “that our political culture can be protected from further damage if action is taken now” at this “watershed moment in our political history.”

Social media companies, it said, should “implement tools to tackle online intimidation through user options”; “do more to prevent users being inundated with hostile messages on their platforms; and “support users who become victims of this behaviour.”

Some magazines and newspapers have taken their own steps to reduce the abuse sent to their writers.

In the UK, the New Statesman was one of the first publications to remove comments from their website. Associate editor Helen Lewis explained the decision to me over email, saying that “in 2012, I argued that unfiltered, un-moderated comments were ruining news sites. I stand by that analysis.”

Lewis found that “topics such as feminism, race, identity politics and immigration all attracted big reactions, and it wasn’t clear whether that was an authentic expression of the feelings of regular [New Statesman] readers, or whether some topics attract ‘drive by’ comments from a handful of people across all the major news sites.”

She’s introduced other avenues for reader feedback, including a digital letters page.

I’ve spoken publicly about the abuse I’ve experienced online, here and elsewhere. Sometimes I tweet about it as and when it happens. This can bring solidarity into your timeline at a time when you are enduring a pile on or being targeted.

Because social media companies and the authorities often fail to deal with online abuse, there’s a lack of trust from women that reporting will be effective. Beyond reporting to the police, I’ve never contacted Twitter about the abuse I’ve received.

Sharing our experiences can be a powerful antidote to that distrust of these platforms. It helps to feel heard, believed, and listened to – especially when those hosting the abuse, or responsible for prosecuting the abuse, aren’t paying attention.

But it is exhausting to disclose over and over again what happens to you, as a woman online. Worse, it can be triggering for women who have experienced more severe abuse than me.

Research, campaigns, one-on-one support and government-led recommendations are all part of the fight against online abuse. But fundamentally, online abuse doesn’t exist because of the internet. It exists because of misogyny.

The visceral hatred of women experienced by me and other women online is an expression of the deep-seated misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism and transphobia that permeates our societies.

Social media has given that hatred a platform, but Twitter didn’t invent sexism.

If we are to end online abuse, then we have to tackle the anger some men feel against women who speak up, and take up public space. Until we tackle the misogyny that brews offline, we won’t succeed in combating it in the digital sphere.


This article was originally published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence by OpenDemocracy on 15 August 2018. 

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