What the Internet's Most Infamous Trolls Tell Us About Online Feminism

4Chan spent months trolling feminists, and all they proved was that online feminism is more diverse, vibrant, and powerful than ever.

Jun 20 2014, 2:20pm

For almost a year now, male trolls have been masquerading as women of color online, in a concerted effort to discredit the entire online feminist movement, or at least make feminists look bad. Under the code name Operation: Lollipop, these young men—trolls that organize on 4chan’s /pol/ board and document their successes on Tumblr—pretended to be black and Asian activists spouting radical agenda as far back as August of 2013.

The 4chan ruse ended last Friday when media pointed out their hashtags #WhitesCantBeRaped and #EndFathersDay were hoaxes, and the actual Twitter feminist @sasycrass took the time to compile a list of the fake accounts under the #YourSlipIsShowing hashtag. The jig was officially up, the cloud of subterfuge dissipating, but not before a silver lining had revealed itself: Feminists of color had very publicly become such an integral part of the feminist movement that trolls thought they were the vehicle to end all feminism online.

This is a big deal because throughout the history of feminism, minority women have long felt they were not represented adequately in the overall feminist movement. Women of color were not “just being sensitive” about their voices not being heard, they actually weren’t: white Western feminists actively excluded women who weren’t like them, and ignored their concerns starting as far back as in the 1960s. It was this exclusion—nay, racism—in the early feminist movement that saw women of color develop their own organizations and their own brand of feminism.  

Fifty years later, and the young, mostly white males from that website affectionately known as “the asshole of the internets” (aka 4chan), are so convinced women of color are the leaders of the feminist movement—or at least play a pivotal role—that they research various feminist theories and spend good chunks of their day masquerading as feminists on Twitter. For months. One fake troll plant ended up with more than 9,000 Twitter followers, and quite a few duped a handful of real feminists and their allies (who will not be named here to save them from further embarrassment).

Trolls masquerading as women isn’t a new thing, but they more typically pretend to be teen girls on Twitter. Two notable campaigns of trolls in digital teen girl drag on Twitter from last year include #CutForBieber and the fake teen girl who threatened to kill her dog over the band One Direction. Both operations were huge successes in that associated hashtags trended and media coverage followed. Teen girls are a good mark because they’re constantly getting boy bands, YouTube celebrities, and whatever TV movie catches their interest on cable to trend on Twitter just by being on the platform. It’s like they don’t even have to try. Teens are powerful on the site, if only because they heavily influence top trending hashtags every single day.

Pretending to be a teen girl, however, wouldn’t disrupt “the feminist machine” over on Twitter. Impersonating a white women wouldn’t work either, the trolls decided. Only a woman of color would do. How did they arrive at this conclusion? Well, let’s look at the data:

In 2013, a lot of top feminist hashtags were started by, and carried out by, women of color. This includes #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen, #NotYourAsianSidekick, and #MyFeminismLooksLike. Hashtag Feminism site founder Tara Conley’s interactive infographic breaks down the top five hashtags of 2013, via data from Storify and Keyhole, and perfectly illustrates just how much sway women of color have on online feminist discourse. Each of the hashtags mentioned were also covered extensively by the media. Writes Conley, Mikki Kendall’s #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen might have been the most important hashtag of last year because it “not only sparked a national conversation but birthed a new generation of critical hashtags in 2013 that talked back to the status quo.” Kendall’s hashtag also caught the attention of trolls, who cite her hashtag as the impetus for Operation: Lollipop.

#SolidarityisforWhiteWomen is a turning point in the online feminist movement, and its hard not to call Kendall a leader of online feminism based on the amount of influence she exerts on Twitter (and on 4chan). Many white women expressed positive attitudes to her (admittedly divisive) hashtag, and as a whole the hashtag generated equally positive media coverage as well as articles critical of Kendall. Suey Park's #NotYourAsianSidekick and efforts by Native American feminists like Jacqueline Keller's #NotYourMascot of this year are continuations of this trend of political hashtags started by Kendall.

Even the amount of media attention given to Park's ill-conceived (and by some accounts embarrassing) Cancel Colbert hashtag shows a willingness by the overall feminist movement, and the media, to include the concerns of minority women. #BringBackOurGirls, which raised awareness of the kidnapping of hundreds of school girls in Nigeria and saw coverage in mainstream media, is an example from this year of the influence feminists of color have on Twitter, online feminism, and by extension, on media, both mainstream and new.

Looking at the data and the press coverage of feminist hashtags over the last few years, it’s not hard to see how 4chan trolls arrived at the conclusion that these women were leading lights of online feminism. Using 4chan and trolls as a barometer for who is popular, or a leader in an online movement, seems kind of strange until you remember the role 4chan has in generating internet culture, from the innocuous LOLCats to the protest and political party known as Anonymous. Dare to walk through the site’s filthy porn-laden walls, and you will occasionally catch glimpses of the digital zeitgeist.

If online feminism wasn’t important, young men wouldn’t have spent months trying to dismantle it via “deep cover,” and if Asian and black women weren’t important, these young men wouldn’t have pretended to be them. There is something absurdly triumphant (to me, a feminist) in knowing a group of white Western men spent months online pretending to be members of one of the most marginalized groups in Western society. Why? Because online feminism makes them mad? A movement that was started decades ago is simply being proven more pertinent than ever.

Or, as my Something Awful feminist friend, who wishes not to be named, told me in a conversation about this troll operation: You know you’re someone important when the trolls go after you.