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The politics of trolling

The politics of trolling July 4, 2014Leave a comment

Stories about online abuse and so-called trolling have become staples of the news media over the past year, as prominent women, including classicist Mary Beard became the targets of insults, aggressive threats and ridicule.

While Beard, secured an apology from a privately-educated “troll” by threatening to tell his mother about his behaviour, much of the coverage has tended to reinforce the idea that so-called trolls are “reclusive” and “sad” individuals. This was the case with the arrest and imprisonment of Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo, after they sent abusive, menacing tweets to banknote campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Labour MP Stella Creasy. Their case demonstrates that there are repercussions for those who cross the line of legality, but otherwise, debates about online abuse and trolling tend to lump a whole lot of activity together, including almost routine misogyny.

Australian academic Jessica Megarry believes that the use of trolling as the “current go-to term” to describe all instances of online abuse, from name calling to threats of sexual violence, can obscure, and potentially trivialise, women’s experiences of sexual and racial abuse:

“The problem is that trolling is commonly understood as a kind of internet game where users provoke inflammatory debate for their own enjoyment, and such a framework evades the possibility of conceptualising aggressive and threatening behaviour towards women online as perpetuating social inequality,” Megarry says.

Picking ones way through the media’s often sensationalist approach to online abuse is hard enough, but in yet another twist, The Nation published an article in January this year called Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars, that suggested that feminists “calling one another out for ideological offenses” was harming the movement.

Discussions about the issue of in-fighting are in danger of being a distraction from the “real issues” as much as in-fighting itself, and it has also become apparent that “sexist and racist trolls” thrive on disharmony, even acting as “agents provocateurs“, sending inflammatory tweets with the aim of provoking argument. 

Awareness of the potential for disagreements both to derail a movement and be exploited is important – and it’s an issue we will look at in future posts. It also has to be married to an awareness, particularly among white, middle class women, of how outlawing argument or insults in the name of harmony can serve to silence women’s voices.

Responding to The Nation article, Minna Salami, founder of the MsAfropolitan blog suggested that if the author of The Nation article Michelle Goldberg had “eschewed the stylish trickery to instead look equally into representation and visibility, it would have become clear that what often seems to be “online trashing” is in fact an outcry”.

Women of colour remain hurt by the negligence towards legacies that continue to affect black populations so widely. This is why The Nation piece is divisive. It is a four page article on a reaction with hardly any reference to the cause. It is not the rage and bitterness of racial exclusion that causes outcries but the lack of sympathy and outright ambivalence towards it.

A more recent addition to the “feminists behaving badly” narrative was an article by journalist Natasha Devon who was targeted after she refused to sign the No More Page Three petition and outlined her reasoning after she was criticised for not being a “Good Feminist”. Devon claimed that her experiences as the victim of “manipulative female trolls” debunked the stereotype of the Twitter troll as a “sexually aggressive male”.

While the insults she received demonstrate that yes, some women do resort to insults and abuse, it’s not clear what Devon hoped to contribute to the debate by claiming that “Twitter is actually an online playground, populated with those who want to do the 140 character equivalent of pulling your pigtails, stealing your crisps and calling you a ‘Poo Head'”.

It’s also a stretch to suggest that Devon’s experience at the hands of “relentlessly manipulative and snide” female users does, as she claims, undermine the “prevailing press rhetoric” that defines trolls as male Twitter users “overtly threatening sexual assault”.

All this confusion seems to arise from the fact that just about everything, from “snide” remarks and “toxic” insults, to threats of rape, murder, and sexual and racial abuse, are often discussed under the umbrella of “trolling” and online abuse. But the focus on the phenomenon can serve to obscure debate about the often misogynistic and racial nature of online abuse, Megarry argues:

“While there has been a general turn to incivility in public life (personal attacks and crude language against public figures where once frowned upon, for example), this shift does not account for the unbalanced levels of vitriol and hatred aimed at women in various public spheres, nor does it explain why misogynistic speech goes broadly unchallenged.”

Identifying this “vitriol and hatred” as sexual harassment would help us better understand the dynamics of what is happening online, argues Megarry who researched the #mencallmethings hashtag, through which women on Twitter re-posted examples of the harassment they received online from men. Megarry was surprised to find that during the hashtag conversation, or the wider media reporting the phenomenon, no one referred to the behaviour as sexual harassment.

“The language we use to describe certain behaviours carries a lot of political weight, and we therefore need to be very careful in regards to terminology,” she says. “Women have never been equal in the workplace or in the public sphere, and indeed the internet also emerged from the traditionally male dominated institutions of the military and academia. Yet when we talk about these issues there is a tendency to assume that we are starting from a level playing field where every voice is given equal weight. This is why it is important to make the distinction between sexual harassment and general incivility or abuse.”

Using the term sexual harassment not only allows for the scrutiny of the harassers’ motivations, it also highlights how it is used to as a mechanism of social control in both physical spaces and the online sphere because it shuts down female speech and movement in public spaces, Megarry argues.

“Sexual harassment excludes women from public domains because it constantly reminds them that their presence in certain spaces is dependent on male approval.”

By Julie Tomlin, co-founder of Digital Women UK.

Image credit: BBC Webwise

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