Traditionally, the term “troll” was used to designate a tiny, angry creature that lurked under a bridge. More recently, it has come to refer to social media users who lurk on the Internet, posting deliberately inflammatory comments on platforms like Twitter and YouTube. Sometimes, trolls are harmless, more to be pitied than feared. But “Taming the Trolls,” a panel at the Women in the World Summit, addressed a more pernicious brand of trolling—a variety that is vicious, violent, and flagrantly sexist.
The panel featured four speakers who are all too familiar with online harassment: Ashley Judd, an actress who most recently appeared in the Divergent film series; Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic and founder of the website Feminist Frequency; Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy; and Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General of California. The panel was moderated by Katie Couric, Yahoo’s Global News Anchor.
Sarkeesian has become one of the most prominent targets of Internet abuse, and she is also one of the most outspoken critics of misogynistic online harassment. In 2011, she launched a video series called Tropes vs. Women, which examined problematic depictions of women in sci-fi and, later, in video games. For pointing out sexism in popular games, Sarkeesian became the target of vicious and incessant online harassment by (largely male) gamers.
“It’s been going on for three years non-stop,” Sarkeesian said during the panel. “It’s everything from sexist and racist slurs all over social media accounts… There are bomb threats and death threats … You become hyper-vigilant. I don’t like to use the word ‘paranoid’ because there’s a sense of irrationality to that word. But there is nothing irrational about that fear.”
Earlier this year, Judd experienced what she referred to during the panel as a “tsunami of gender and sexualized violence.” A University of Kentucky Wildcats fan, Judd was watching a March Madness game when she took to Twitter and wrote that the opposing team was “playing dirty & can kiss my team’s free throw making a—.” This tweet— relatively mild for a sports fan—sparked a barrage of sexist harassment on social media. Judd was called a “whore,” a “bitch,” and a slew of other names too crude to mention. She was threatened with sexual assault and rape. Her social media accounts were flooded with pornographic images of her own likeness.
Judd was hurt, and she was angry. She has started logging tweets that could be considered criminal (“Saying that you want to F-U-C-K me to death is actionable”). But during the panel, the actress made sure to emphasize that marginalizing the so-called “trolls” does little to mitigate hatred.
“Part of what’s really important to me about this conversation is that we’re talking about human beings,” Judd said. “I am a human being and so are the people who commit the abuse … I do not like the behavior. It is abusive and at times, to me, seems sociopathic. But I want to love the other.”
What, then, is the correct way to respond to the phenomenon of online harassment? It’s a tremendous problem because the offense is so terribly easy to commit. Hiding under the anonymity of the Internet, a person can set up shadow accounts, blast targets with abuse, and then delete the accounts. Another problem is stigma and shame: women
who are abused online very rarely speak out.
“The obstacle is having the victim come forward,” Harris said. “It causes the people around her to judge her.”
Harris also explained that it is important for law enforcement to receive appropriate technology training, so they can adequately understand complaints of online abuse—a point that was made all the more clear when Sarkeesian noted that she has “definitely had to explain what Twitter is and how it works to law enforcement on state
and federal levels.”
Couric then asked Bazelon, who has reported in depth on online bullying, what companies like Twitter and Facebook are doing to better handle abusive commenters.
“[It varies] company by company,” Bazelon answered. “There has to be a price for these companies. They have to be worried in some way about their bottom line. Twitter … is just a cesspit of misogyny, and that will turn off users. They have changed their definitions of threats … And they’re trying an algorithm … to actually monitor [abuse].”
Though Twitter’s CEO recently admitted “we suck at dealing with abuse,” Sarkeesian agreed with Bazelon’s assertions that the company is trying to make its space safer for women.
“I reported a threat a week ago, and I got response in 20 minutes,” Sarkeesian said, as the audience began to applaud.
“No, don’t clap for Twitter,” she interjected. “They’re actually starting to do their job. They don’t need a cookie for that.”
There are other causes for optimism. Harris recently prosecuted Kevin Bollaert, the founder of a site called “U Got Posted,” which uploaded photos of naked women online (known as “revenge pornography,” those pictures were usually intended to be seen by one specific male viewer). Bollaert was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
And as Judd pointed out, the Internet can also be a place for kindness. When the actress was being assailed by a daily barrage of vitriol and threats, one woman tweeted three simple words at Judd: “Poignant. Courageous. Valuable.”
“I wrote it on my mirror,” Judd said, her voice breaking.
Couric ended the panel by urging the audience to take to Twitter with the hashtag #stopthetrolls, in honor of Judd and Sakreesian’s honesty and courage in the face of intense hatred.
“I think we should inundate their social media feeds with positive comments,” Couric said. “Maybe everyone watching this… will applaud the fact that you’re so willing to discuss this.”