Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Missed Connection with Identity: Internet Trolls and Feminism

Internet bullying is something I have been wanting to write about for some time. I first encountered internet bullying in the late 1990's as the "world wide web" was beginning to really take off. As a young adult, I would venture into discussion boards and chat rooms and would inevitably run into personas whose main purpose of online interaction seemed to be to get away with saying anonymously what they would never say to someone's face.

Flash forward a decade and this trend continues. I currently read various blogs covering many different topics. As you may have noticed by looking at the blogs on my blogroll, I like reading political, legal, and social blogs- I particularly like those from a feminist perspective.

What is disturbing to me, however, is that most of the blogs I read or link to have had some experience with internet coward/bullies who attack not the content of the blog, but rather they attack the blogger's gender, sexuality, race, intelligence, etc. in a vicious, aggressive, and shallow way. Blogs of all types have run-ins with internet bullies.

Yet, comments written by men and directed towards feminist women are particularly angsty, sexualized, and aggressive. In fact, women in general are targeted in a sexually aggressive way much more often than men are. This Washington Post article says it well:

"Men are harassed too, and lack of civility is an abiding problem on the Web. But women, who make up about half the online community, are singled out in more starkly sexually threatening terms -- a trend that was first evident in chat rooms in the early 1990s and is now moving to the blogosphere, experts and bloggers said. A 2006 University of Maryland study on chat rooms found that female participants received 25 times as many sexually explicit and malicious messages as males" [emphasis added]

Importantly, these findings reinforce how much feminism is still needed in our society, despite claims that feminism is now "pointless," "dead," or "unncessary."

On top of this aggression is the nature of internet communication itself. Internet communication is similar to the depersonalization that occurs when driving a car. Most drivers do not think of other cars on the road as being handled by a person (yes we all know that cars aren't Herbie the Love Bug, but stay with me here)- they think of driving in terms of "That stupid car just cut me off." Accordingly, people are more likely to act aggressively while driving than they would on foot. And at the same time, we lose a sense of personal identity when we drive- we turn from individuals into "cars."

The internet is similar in that we don't often see the people on the other end of the computer as human beings that are as nuanced and complex as we are. We see the facade that they present to us through their writings. And likewise, in our own writings, we present to the world whatever we want the world to see of us. And so, a man who may, in the real world, be a friendly enough person, turns into an anonymous harasser in the internet world- giving voice to thoughts he would probably never say in person to someone.

Social Psychologists call this "deindividuation"- the idea that if we reduce our own sense of identity, we are less likely to follow social norms, like not behaving aggressively. It is as though an anonymous troll does not associate his mean-spirited comments with his personal identity, and therefore he does not have to feel guilty about making the comments. Or, he knows that he probably won't get "caught" for saying what is really on his mind, and so he says whatever is on his mind.

Due to the nature of the internet, human beings, and a society that is largely resistant to feminism, I believe that trolling will probably always be an issue. Trolling is pretty much an expectation when you're a political blogger, especially a feminist one. That doesn't make it okay or right. And it certainly doesn't mean we have to tolerate it.

But today I want to look at some instances of trolling and how others have dealt with it.

1. Comment Moderation and Registration

The easiest and most obvious way to deal with a troll is to delete the trollish comments. Deleting comments and/or requiring approval before publishing comments is called "comment moderation." Easy enough.

The popular feminist blog Feministing, which trolls love to hate and harass, has devoted several articles to the issue of trolling and comment moderation. In 2005, due to a combination of spam and "asshole" commenters thinking it's "okay to appropriate feminist spaces for their own agendas," Feministing began requiring users to register. A registration requirement inhibits comments from both assholes and those who want to comment honestly. By reducing anonymity, commenters prone to trollish behavior will be less likely to engage in trollish behavior. Yet at the same time, those who do want to engage for valid reasons, may not want to go through the registration process. Feministing's writers also "moderate" comments that are directed at a person rather than an argument- a sometimes subjective call.

Critics often decry such comment moderation as "censorship" or "fascism," which is a fascinating pseudo-self-victimization. For, when the dominant ideology in all of society is that feminism is unnecessary and/or harmful, I don't believe that it is harmful for feminists to ask for a space of their own on the web to discuss and analyze feminist issues amongst themselves. Feminists, believe it or not, often have issues they want to work out and discuss amongst other feminists without being derailed by anti-feminist lines of questioning like "why do all feminists hate men"? As fun as that dead horse is to beat. Again. But more, many feminists do not want to deal with those who condescendingly try to save us from our feminism by enlightening us as to the "distate" with which every other person in society regards feminism.

As for the "censorship" cry, I don't recognize such comment moderation as "censorship" when in the US we each have the freedom to write our very own unmoderated blogs.

2. Public Ridicule and Humor

Another tactic some use for dealing with trolls is ridicule and the use of humor. Rather than trembling in fear at Scary and Mean Anonymous Troll, as some trolls want women to do, feminists laugh at trolls, write articles about the ridiculous lack of logic trolls use, and expose the type of misogynistic thinking that is still present.

You know you're striking a chord amongst some anti-feminists when the best they can do is call you shrill (oooh, I've been called that one!), hysterical (that too!), femi-nazi, lesbian (so?), whore, frigid* and man-hating.

*Basically, I've decided that anti-feminists will call a woman a "slut" or "frigid" if the anti-feminist believes that the woman would not have sex with him in real life. Which, in all honesty, she probably wouldn't. But it's an interesting dichotomous paradox nonetheless.

Anyway, the point is that these men cannot attack your arguments and are probably really threatened by them. So they want to threaten you. Or something fucked up like that.

I guess the upside of all this is that the exposure of hate-mail and trollish comments can, at times, be humorous and an effective way of showing that misogyny is alive and well in society. Because nothing says feminism isn't dead like "Corky Loomis'" comment to Feministing: "If you all weren't so young I'd try to have my way with you, but you'd never give me the time of day. Bitches."

Probably not. But thanks for proving our point, "Corky."

And more disturbing than shallow trolls are the trolls who threaten or encourage physical violence against women (and some men) who are feminists.

Some of my fellow bloggers and I had a creepy run-in of our own with an anti-gay misogynistic "anonymous" blogger awhile back who urged us all to put guns in our mouths and kill ourselves because we are lesbians. Yep, homophobia and misogyny is, like, so non-existent.

In these cases, it's probably best to ignore the trolls and, possibly, involve the authorities.

3. Treating Schoolboys Like Schoolboys

As alluded to earlier, some anti-feminist trolls are dead set on "saving" us or the world or men or something from feminism. And while they do not always make outright personal attacks, they do come into feminist blogs with the expectation that they will easily enlighten feminists as to the errors of feminist thinking. Such persons appear to be more interested in exhibiting their argumentative prowess than they are in having actual dialogue with feminists.

In one of the best articles ever written on such behavior, feminist blogger Dizzy says it well:

"It appears that my blog (and many like it) has become akin to an intro women’s studies class where a few tardy, unprepared, dialogue-dominating, self-righteous freshman boys, who are taking it in order to get what they think will be an easy A and to sharpen their debate skills, only listen to female voices in anticipation of finding a faulty theoretical argument to attack and use against them."

So true.

I have, in fact, had the experience of having one particular anti-feminist, anti-gay blogger tell me that my position on an issue was wrong BEFORE I had actually stated my position. He, being a man I suppose, already just knew that this little lady didn't know her stuff. I'm sure others can relate.

Anyway, Dizzy proposed that we call such men Freshmen. I think it's a fitting title for those who think that feminism (much like some believe gay rights advocacy) is just "a fun little academic exercise" that doesn't matter in the real world. Because I, for one, don't have much patience for people too busy denying that women face particular harms in society to have constructive dialogue with people who talk about the harms that women face in society.

Tactic: Call them out as the Freshmen they are, point them to the Feminism 101 blog, and send them on their merry fucking pedantic ways.

That's it for now. Does any have any other tips to offer?

And, before I end today, I'd like to say this- I think a main puprose of trollish behavior is to reduce the number of women, particular feminist, bloggers. If women are harassed, many of them will step down, reduce their internet participation, or censor their own feminist thoughts. I guess I don't know what the right thing to do is. No one should have to endure online harassment- especially threats, but it's also sort of inevitable and we have to continue blogging.

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