Laurie Toby Edison

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Then You Win

Laurie and Debbie say:

We’ve been giving a lot of thought to Internet attacks. This post certainly stems from the WisCon events of three weeks ago, but the questions it raises are much more general.

One thing we are thinking about is the urge to respond when people are saying nasty and harmful things about you and yours. It seems to be a more-or-less instinctive response to want to hit back. In the recent unpleasantness, many if not most of the people with the strongest urge to hit back hard were male partners of people who had been attacked, but direct targets of attack and people who perceive themselves as part of an attacked community also often feel that way.

One kind of response is to attack back–a range that veers from “identify the attackers and make fun of them on the Internet” to death threats, with challenges to people’s blogs, livelihoods, etc. all being on that spectrum. While we really understand the motivation for these responses, they seem to be almost invariably counterproductive: they add fuel to the fires and encourage the trolls.

Another kind of response is to try to reach the attackers and explain, either to say, “You are just wrong and here’s why” or “Please don’t do this because you’re hurting people.” These are also both understandable and counterproductive: whatever else is going on in the minds of the attackers (see below for some speculation), it is clear that they are extremely well-defended against any logical or emotional argument, and providing them with facts revs up the feeding frenzy (calls for mercy rev it up even more). In this context, it’s interesting to note that the second round of attackers in the WisCon story had the following things to say to the original attacker when she asked them to lighten up because her boss was getting too many complaints. “If we could get that bitch fired/expelled it would be fucking riotous” and “You aren’t much higher on the social totem pole than the fat-positive omniqueer intergender pansexual transhumanists you were ridiculing” and “On the other hand, if you post tit pics we might reconsider” but “Only if you’re hot, like 8/10, 9/10 or 10/10, else we’ll make fun of you for being worthless as a woman and human being and troll you harder.” (In case you thought these aren’t body image issues, well, look at that.)

Also, much as it would be good if they were, trolls are not deterred by spamming their sites with irrelevant posts; it’s a waste of time and energy.

A constructive direct response, if it applies, is to get the offensive material taken down, and to use any methods at your disposal to take legal recourse. It won’t disappear (the web is archived) and it may not end the attacks, but at least it’s a concrete action with a useful result. Similarly, if you get your attacker(s) kicked off their ISP, they will find other email accounts, and it’s another concrete action with a useful result. Beyond that, Laurie evokes the response of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which was basically, “These people are ignorant, and we pray that God will give them wisdom.”

The responses that really matter, we believe, are not the responses to the attacker but the responses to the targets. This is a chance for a community to really pull together and use its power. The two goals that seem to be important are (first and always) direct support of people who are enraged and/or have been hurt. Especially when it’s the first time, people can be very vulnerable to direct attack: it can undermine our sense of reality, hurt us, enrage us, traumatize us, bring up old self-doubts, etc. (People experienced with receiving attacks from idiots, on the other hand, can often shrug them off as the garbage that they are.) The community can provide a place to use rage, soothe hurt, and shore up reality and self-image. Doing those things also gets the second goal moving: reinforcement of community values. Posting on your own blog about your own rage, why your community matters to you, and your support for people who were directly attacked may in fact feed the trolls, but not the same way going to their forums and interacting with them does. Lots of visible statements of the value of whatever the trolls are attacking will help as much as anything can. (Everyone should judge her own level of risk when inviting renewed attack, of course.) Since one effect of trolling is to distract the targets from their goals, using the trolls as ways to redouble efforts is powerful. What’s more, continuing to do what you’ve been doing, and what you believe in, always works better than anything else.

***

In the context of how to respond, Malcolm brought up a related issue. Trolls who get genuine responses that affect their Internet access or other aspects of their lives often say some variation of, “Hey! It was just the Internet! How can you be following me into my real life?” We love Malcolm’s answer, which includes:

If you are going to troll me here or in Real Life, keep in mind that here, the Internet, is already Real Life for me.

If I call your boss or your HR department or if I forward your crap you were stupid enough to put in writing and send to me over the Internet (thus violating interstate telecommunications laws), to the FBI or to your ISP, I will have done so because you used a Real Life communications device to send me a threatening or harassing message.

In my experience of the Internet, the Internet is not a playground. It is not a get out of jail free place where you can be a fucking idiot and expect to get off scot-free. There are no grace periods. There are no free shots. My Internet, which I grew up with, is a telecommunications device, just like a phone, just like a written letter, just like a telegram. It’s a communications medium whereby you and I talk to each other.

Who am I on the Internet? The same person as who I am in Real Life. That’s because the Internet, to me, is Real Life.

And I will treat it as such even if you may disagree. So consider this your fair warning.

***

Beyond direct response, the situations raise another kind of question. Trolling-for-trolling’s sake groups are not hard to find on the internet, not to mention Encyclopedia Dramatica, which is nominally a wiki devoted to undercutting political correctness, and effectively an exploration of the range between snarkiness and cruelty. Checking out the WisCon entry there will give you an excellent idea of what we’re talking about, and there are hundreds of other examples on that site. We’re very curious about who is doing real sociology/psychology work on this phenomenon and what they’re learning. Here are two key questions:

1) Do most of the people who participate in these forums express the same kind of sentiments in encounters that aren’t anonymous? Or are they more mild-mannered and polite when they expect to be identified (“in real life”) and save their vitriol for the net?

2) What draws people into these groups? When people leave, why do they leave and what do they say about it afterwards?

Finally, being the target of ridicule is often a sign that your power is growing. Remember what Gandhi said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

(Thanks to Steven S. for the tag line.)

13 Responses to “Then You Win”

  1. Malcolm says:

    Thanks for the shout-out.

    Obviously I’ve done a lot of thinking about this sort of thing as well. I get the idea that the Internet is a lot like any other apparently anonymous communications device for some folks. The kinds of folks who prank/crank call from payphones used to do it from their own houses, but now they’ve learned (albeit slowly in some cases) that those calls can be traced, so they have to use payphones.

    But I think the urge is still there, and the Internet, for all that it’s powered by computers, still seems to many folks to be so anonymous, so big a haystack that perhaps that the needles of their impulsive meanness won’t be tracked. I think the WisCon troller probably learned differently by pissing off a determined set of technologically accomplished people.

    I think in terms of social survival, and in terms of my own experience spending time with trollers (anecdotal though it may be), most trollers do find it necessary to moderate their tone and vitriol in real life and in any situation where they could potentially piss off someone close enough to do them real harm (in any way imaginable).

    One of the reasons I, in another post, spoke to the WisCon troller directly is that I used to belong to a group of one and I used to start fights and see them to some form of completion on the internet. Nevermind that I had rules/ethics and I tried to avoid doing it to innocents (I largely focused on other trollers). I eventually gave that practice up because of the splash effect – it was too hard on my friendships and it was too hard on my relationships to constantly be the one with the chip on his shoulder.

    I would expect to find out that if we did have academic study, folks leave those groups when either the group turns on them and they find they can’t muster the energy/strength to survive the turning or perhaps some simply get tired of it or find they have better things to do.

    I have seen a lot of bored, angry young people turn to trolling for some kind of stimulation. It’s such a pattern for me that I tend to associate non-trolling-anymore with growing up.

  2. Lynne Murray says:

    Laurie and Debbie, thanks for reminding me of the Ghandi post, this time I wrote it down and stuck it on my computer for future reference!

    Malcolm, the age-to-troll-behavior factor you pointed out reminded me of a conversation I had with my father (who was a psychologist) about sociopaths (whom I was interested in for purposes of writing mysteries). He said he had known many sociopaths (the vast majority not murderers, just people incapable of empathizing with or even considering fellow humans as real except as things to be used to meet their own needs).

    His theory, which touches on what you said about growing up, was that after age 30 there was a drastic drop-off in sociopathic activity. He used the example of a neighbor we knew in Alaska. They were talking when a moose suddenly walked into sight on the edge of this guy’s property. It wasn’t hunting season and would have been illegal to shoot it. This guy always had a rifle or two within handy reach. But he told my father, “You know, five years ago I would have shot that moose and never hesitated. But now I just can’t be bothered.” My father’s theory was that the hormonal drop off with age that made the impulses less strong.

    I’m not saying that the Wiscon troll lady or anyone who trolls or has trolled is sociopathic (although from a psychological point of view the Wiscon troll lady sounds closer to someone with histrionic disorder tendencies
    http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/histrionicpd.htm).

    However, I do think (and have also observed) that a great many behaviors from annoying to homicidal, happen less often as we get older. I hope that it really is growing up, getting wiser, realizing that getting that third strike really isn’t going to put you where you want to be. Or in some cases it might be slowing down.

    Lynne (definitely older, slower, mellower)

  3. I don’t think you made it clear that there were at least three sorts of response: attacks from people who’d been attacked and their associates, reasonable and/or empathic responses from the same, and attacks from her fellow trolls.

    As for attacks on the troll’s employment possibilities, see The No Asshole Rule about the importance of stopping workplace bullying. Employers have good reasons for not wanting employees who are emotional drains. There might be a karmic backlash to going after a troll that way– I’m interested in whatever you have to say about it. (There’s the obvious risk of getting the wrong person, either because the troll set someone else up or because of more than one person with the same name.)

    Also, if people’s feeling’s couldn’t really be hurt on the internet, there wouldn’t be any fun for the trolls in insulting people, so it’s disingenuous for them to claim that the internet doesn’t matter.

  4. Matthijs Krul says:

    “We are so much mature than the people making fun of us”

    *runs to FBI because someone called her fat on the internet*

    You know the FBI is going to laugh at you too, right? Saying one thing in a “discussion” you opened doesn’t constitute “harassment” so good luck with that. By the way, I’m in Utrecht, so even if the FBI wasn’t too busy laughing at you to investigate, it wouldn’t do any good.

  5. Ken Stumpf says:

    Nbd wld mk thrts twrds y nyw. Thnk bt th prcticlt f sch n prtn. Yr bd crtnl wldn’t ft n trnk nlss smn wr drvng dmp trck. thnk y cn slp s.

  6. Strokey McNeckbeard says:

    Remember what Gandhi said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

    He said that about non-violent social protest, not a bunch of fat women struggling for “acceptance” instead of taking a good look at themselves and realizing that they’re worthless and need to lose weight and start having a positive effect on society.

    We troll you because we want you to improve. And because it’s funny how seriously you take the internet. Please, report my German ass for INTRASTATE TELECOMMUNICATION FRAUD. I beg you.

  7. Here are two key questions:

    As a member of these hate groups I thought I could help you out with the answers to your questions.

    1) Do most of the people who participate in these forums express the same kind of sentiments in encounters that aren’t anonymous? Or are they more mild-mannered and polite when they expect to be identified (”in real life”) and save their vitriol for the net?

    There is no vitriol we just laugh at people who are dumb enough to put their innermost thougts on the internet, usually we don’t bother posting on blogs prefering to laugh at you in the privacy of our own forums. Usually if someone is posting stuff on your website it is just some hanger on trying to fit in.

    2) What draws people into these groups? When people leave, why do they leave and what do they say about it afterwards?

    Its funny, we leave when it ceases to be funny. Afterwards we never speak about it because it is the internet and we have lives to live, it is pretty pathetic to talk about the internet IRL.

    Finally, being the target of ridicule is often a sign that your power is growing. Remember what Gandhi said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

    May I suggest that the ‘fat acceptance’ movement (apologies if that is not the correct term) goes on a hunger strike untill you receive the respect you feel you deserve.

    Kisses
    Rich

  8. Crawdads Dad says:

    Being a target of ridicule means you’re important! Just ask William Hung about all the power he commands in society.

    Or Mitt Romney, Rosie O’Donell…being made fun of means you have something people are making fun of you for.

    Stay “Body Abundant” but not next to me on an airline,
    -C’s D

  9. cleon says:

    lol since you are a big Ghandi fan, maybe you should also go on a hunger strike.

  10. Genny says:

    “If you are going to troll me here or in Real Life, keep in mind that here, the Internet, is already Real Life for me.”

    That’s a rather scary comment on where our society is going.

    “If I call your boss or your HR department or if I forward your crap you were stupid enough to put in writing and send to me over the Internet (thus violating interstate telecommunications laws), to the FBI or to your ISP, I will have done so because you used a Real Life communications device to send me a threatening or harassing message.”

    If we’re talking about mocking messages posted on a hateful message board, I doubt the FBI would or should be bothering about that stuff. There are actual real threats to people’s lives and security that they should probably be spending their time on. It would also be pretty odd if an HR department cared, unless the stuff was being done on company time on company computers. What do you say, “Someone made fun of me on the internet – fire them/ put them on the terrorist watch list”? Wow.

    “Who am I on the Internet? The same person as who I am in Real Life. That’s because the Internet, to me, is Real Life.

    And I will treat it as such even if you may disagree. So consider this your fair warning.”

    I do appreciate such fair warning, and wish that other such people who actually believe the internet is their real life would also post these fair warnings, since I’d like to steer very clear of anyone who is ill enough to believe that. I wonder if they think they would cease to exist if the internet should suddenly go down. Would they disappear?

    I guess it was only a matter of time before people started confusing cyberspace with reality. That doesn’t make it any less tragic, though.

  11. janet says:

    Isn’t it pathetic how people spend so much time on something that they think isn’t real? Trollers, go get a life!

  12. SASSman says:

    Thought I should chime in and correct some things in this lovely fatosphere echo echo echo echo chamber.

    The person claiming to be the WisCon troll on our site was one of your people pretending to be her, not the real thing. We know who it was.

    We at SASS did nothing to the OP other than prod her a little bit and made fun of her for being a fucking wuss. The phone number they posted is not her (it’s not even in Madison!).

    YOU people (associated with WisCon) apparently broke into her office at work. Not SASS. You people were putting her unlisted address in WisCon groups. Not SASS. We found the original postings…they were not SASS, they were WisCon people! Why would we rat out the writer of one of the most awesome threads ever, even after she got chickenshit when WisCon people started getting involved in real-life fuckary.

    So get off your high horse and remember that you people can be horrible too. I’ve been here a long time, and I’ve never heard of SASS breaking into someone’s work place to harass them about a post on the internet.

  13. Malcolm says:

    Some of the trollers on this very post say, essentially, “We troll you for your own good”, they say they want us to be better, or stronger.

    Here’s my response. Prove it.

    When I was a troller, I had the same rationale, but really trolling was all about me. It was because I was bored, or feeling fighty, or whatever. I had lots of ways of rationalizing basically hostile, anti-social behavior. Bullying betters no one, and it makes the bullier look all the worse, however noble the intentions.

    Some of you say you’re from Germany. Act like it. Be socially responsible, careful and exacting about language. Go use your fine rhetorical skills to do something constructive. Pointing and laughing at fatties doesn’t count (and you know it). You grew up in a country that has a very good reason to make sure you know the difference between ethical right and wrong, so I’m sure you do know the dfiference.

    My advice? Grow up. Act like you grew up in Germany. Actually fix worldwide social problems. Spending your time on trolling is beneath you.

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