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.)