“Don’t feed the trolls.”
So tenacious is this mantra’s grip on our collective conscious that any deviation from the one true anti-trolling path results in a barrage of advice which basically amounts to two words: “shut up”. The theory, like that strange childhood belief in the invisibility of those who close their eyes, being that if you don’t react, the troll can’t hurt you – or at least the troll will get bored and go away.
Now, this is all very well – and perhaps it works in those cases of trolling when the sole intent of the troll is to disrupt conversation and, this time like a naughty child, gain attention. But what if, like other sectors of the human race, trolls aren’t a monolithic mass? What if, rather than wanting to disrupt conversations, they just want to stop them permanently? What then?
Recently, the sadistic and sexual nature of abuse directed at women who dare to contribute to public discourse again hit the news: after appearing on BBC’s Question Time, Mary Beard was subjected to a wave of comments and images intended to degrade her and reduce her to nothing but a vagina. Indeed even her soi-disant admirers, such as Cristina Odone, joined in the free-for-all over Beard’s physical attractions. The message was clear: women will be judged on their looks for it is meet and right so to do.
Odone questioned Beard’s actions in shining a light on the misogyny thrown her way; Odone noted that “[a] woman who sticks her head above the parapet...is asking for brickbats”, before rather patronisingly suggesting that if Beard didn’t “have the stomach for it, she should stick to lecturing undergraduates.” To illustrate the fallacious nature of Odone’s logic it is only necessary to quote a refrain of women’s shelters everywhere: “instead of asking why she stayed, why not ask why he doesn’t stop?”
Odone’s reasoning seems even more bizarre considering she goes on to highlight the number of women (in inverse proportion to men) who turn down media opportunities for fear of attracting exactly this type of abuse. In my opinion, Odone’s figures seem a bit too neat to be correct, but there is little doubt that many women think twice before making themselves publicly heard, so familiar are we with this gender-specific “occupational hazard”. And judging by how long this problem has been going on, it doesn’t seem that the standard internet response of “ignore it and it will go away” is working very well.
In solidarity with Beard’s stance, and in recognition of the damage online abuse does to women’s willingness to contribute to public discourse, I started the #silentnomore hashtag from The Women’s Room Twitter account. Within half an hour the tag was attracting its own “trolls”. Women sharing stories of having their addresses and contact details posted online alongside threats of rape were told in various permutations, some more aggressive than others, to get back to the kitchen. The popular gagging order of shoving dicks in our mouths was issued. Pictures of domestic abuse, one with the memorable tag-line of “because sometimes you have to tell her more than once” were posted. One charmer was pretty direct about his reason for being on the tag: “just shut up bitches”. Another went one further, writing, “are they still whinging about online abuse on #silentnomore? if so, the best way to stop it is log off”.
To some perhaps, this response proves the adage; by talking about abuse we were “feeding” the trolls, so we got what we deserved. This was certainly the interpretation of some tweeters, who described the tag as “a red rag to a bull”, a “liability to women”. The women on it were “seeking victimhood” (whatever that means), and “attracting” a “backlash” by being so mouthy.
These people are wrong. Not only because they’re putting the blame on the victims rather than the perpetrators; not only because the trolls on the tag needed no direct interaction as encouragement – they got that by high-fiving each other; not only because of the women who got in touch with me to say they wanted to add to the tag but were scared off it because of abuse they had received in the past. No. They are wrong because these men (and they were all men) didn’t want to derail the tag. They didn’t want to make it about them. They just wanted the “whining bitches”, the “ugly cunts”, the “fucking dykes” to “shut the fuck up”. To “log off”.
The received wisdom online about trolls is that all they want is to provoke a reaction. In this case the received wisdom has got it right: these men were indeed trying to provoke a reaction. The thing is, the reaction they wanted was silence. They wanted these women to disappear. And the obsession with “don’t feed the trolls” is helping them achieve this – I was told by more than one woman that she didn’t dare post on the tag.
Failing to challenge misogynistic trolls doesn’t make them disappear. Instead, by letting them roam free, we are ensuring the internet remains such a deeply unpleasant place for women, that many do just “shut up” and “log off”.
Let’s stop giving them what they want. Let’s be loud and highlight and condemn abuse whenever it arises. Let’s be #silentnomore.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies