The Chilling Effect of Misogynistic Trolls
Women, in case you'd forgotten: You're not welcome online.
This is the first column in this new series I've started to focus on issues of sex and gender in the world of science and tech, and it seems as good a time to start as any. Or perhaps I should say it's a bad time to start, because today's topic of discussion is an issue that has long hounded women with even the slightest interest in going near a computer, and which has been fantastically demonstrated by a few recent events: Women aren't welcome on the internet.
I'm by no means the first to say it; Amanda Hess wrote a brilliant and excruciating piece on women's experiences of online harassment, including her own, in Pacific Standard earlier this year, and really, it's blatantly obvious to anyone whose internet use takes them past the Google homepage. It happens every day, from Reddit threads that seem to inevitably descend into misogynistic rants, to Tumblrs that shame women for having disgusting habits like eating food, right through to actual death and rape threats targeted at prominent female figures.
In the past fortnight, a couple of episodes have highlighted the extent to which large swathes of the internet has become a pit of misogynistic abuse, and how far it has spread. Last week, the staff of Gawker-owned women's interest site Jezebel called attention to the violent and pornographic content frequently left in comments on their articles, calling out their own higher-ups in an article brazenly entitled "We Have a Rape Gif Problem and Gawker Media Won't Do Anything About It."
The people who stampede over other voices are the first to cry foul when they feel that their speech—their freedom to bully and insult—is threatened.
The Jezebel scenario strikes a particular chord of rage because as a specifically women-oriented site it represents one of the relatively few places on the web where women really should be hospitably received. It's often made clear that women aren't welcome—or at least aren't as welcome as men—on more general social sites and comment sections. But on top of not being invited to share those platforms on an equal footing, it seems we're not allowed to carve out our own, separate space either.
That's also true of abusive trolling targeted directly at individual women trying to manage their own space online, and there has been plenty of that in the past week. One aggressive campaign that spilled over into comments on Motherboard's own pages was targeted at games developer Zoe Quinn, who found herself the prey of commenters who felt it necessary to comment on her sexual exploits as well as sharing her personal information and naked pictures across various platforms.
I won't bother to get into the details of the story behind this ridiculous hate campaign, but the recent furore started with a blog post by her obviously bitter ex-boyfriend and hinged on some relationship Quinn allegedly had with games journalist Nathan Grayson.
It might sound like high school, but part of the internet (#NotAllMen) has somehow tried to portray this as one of the worst examples of corruption in the gaming and media worlds separately and combined. And of course, as the woman in the incident, Quinn was the main target of attacks—despite the fact that journalists, not games developers, are responsible for the journalistic ethics most commenters insisted were the justified cause of their fury (though many were unabashed in their slut-shaming).
In reality, the editors of the gaming publications in question found no wrongdoing. On Wednesday, Kotaku's editor in chief Stephen Totilo wrote a post to explain his site's stance, saying that "our leadership team finds no compelling evidence that any of that is true."
Ultimately, the subject of the controversy isn't really important. Enabling actual discussion on any topic is one of the modern internet's greatest assets, and it's exactly what comment sections were made for. But this kind of aggression is not discussion. It's a campaign of abuse, and it has a chilling effect that undermines that free discussion.
Responding to the violent gifs littering their comments, Jezebel's staff wrote that, "This has been going on for months, and it's impacting our ability to do our jobs." For now, comments on the site are not automatically shown unless they're posted by a trusted user.
This difficulty for Jezebel writers and readers to enjoy the site freely is presumably precisely what the pseudonymous commenters are aiming for. They want to make life difficult for users interested in the kind of content Jezebel specialises in and reassert that the internet isn't for them.
In the same way that street harassment claims public spaces as somehow belonging to men, so online harassment of this explicitly gendered variety undermines the freedom of expression on the web by attempting to forcibly exclude communities and individuals belonging to those communities from participating.
It's a silencing tactic, and it's powerful. All too often, people suggest that victims of this kind of trolling should just ignore it; delete the comments, block the accounts, forget it ever happened. But that places the onus of policing this behaviour on the victim while giving repeat offenders carte blanche to spam targets faster than they have chance to respond, and undermines the real disruption this behaviour can cause.
The "ignore it" strategy essentially tells women to just shut up—which is exactly the underlying attitude of their attackers, and the cause of the problem in the first place.
This week has, however, seen a notable attempt to really tackle the issue. Web community fark.com took the no-nonsense approach of officially banning misogyny from their comments, though how successful it will be at enforcing the rule remains to be seen.
Of course, the move saw a predictable outcry from some parts: the same people who limit discussion by stampeding over dissenting voices are the first to cry foul when they feel that their freedom of speech—their freedom to bully and insult—is threatened.
It's a positive step in that it at least takes the issue of pervasive online misogyny seriously, though it's kind of sad we should have to seek a technical solution to a social problem. And as long as the underlying power struggle exists, blocking a few comments on one site won't have any impact on the broader issue of misogynistic trolling.
As those who make a habit of belittling women's complaints so infuriatingly like to repeat, "This is the internet." What they fail to acknowledge is that they're the ones making it the way it is.
xx is a new column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting developments in the Motherboard world that have a sex or gender angle.