Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Are Internet Trolls Otherwise Ordinary People?

Trolls from a kinder, gentler era.
I used to think that people being horrible assholes on the internet were, generally speaking, people who were horrible assholes off the internet. I thought they were exceptional, unusual -- the kind of people that if you met them in real life you'd be like: "Oh my god, get me away from this person."

But I keep reading stories -- true ones -- where people got to know their trolls, and these stories share feature that is, to me, really disturbing. Namely: that trolls are otherwise ordinary people -- ordinary people who somehow feel entitled to act out wild murderous rage when they feel like it.

The first one that sticks in my mind is from 2012. This guy -- a writer and blogger in Ireland -- started getting relentless messages on Twitter calling him a "dirty fucking Jewish scumbag" and sending images of concentration camps and dismembered bodies. The abuse went on and on, his Facebook account was hacked, violent racist messages, etc etc. Eventually it escalated, with parcels of ashes arriving at his home with notes like "Say hello to your relatives from Auschwitz."

The writer was understandably freaked out. He hired a friend to try to figure out the IP address of his troll, and -- long story short, it ended up being the 17 year old son of an old friend of his. He talks to the friend. They decide to all go out to lunch, and toward the end they show the kid printouts of all the abusive and threatening messages. Kid bursts into tears. Pressed, he says "I don't know. I don't know. I'm sorry. It was like a game thing."

Then in 2014, there was this great piece about the classicist Mary Beard in the New Yorker. The story covers many topics: Beard's scholarly approach, the general misogyny she encounters whenever she does anything, her boundless energy for engaging with, and showing up, people who say hateful and stupid things to and about her on the internet. And there are a lot of hateful and stupid things. This, for example, from a university student: "You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting."

Instead of ignoring the trolls, Beard engages with them. She retweets, calls out, talks to the press. When she retweeted the university student, someone who knew him offered to tell his mom; he later apologized. To the BBC, she said, "I’d take him out for a drink and smack his bottom."

When she was on Question Time, commenters vilified her online, and one posted an image where a woman’s genitals was superimposed over Beard’s face. Later, she posted the image to her blog at the Times Literary Supplement website. The site was overwhelmed with traffic, and the story made international news.

Then, what happened was this: the man who ran the site where the image originally appeared contacted Beard to apologize, via a long and personal letter. He said he never should have done it. He said he was in difficult circumstances: he was married with kids; he wanted to move to Spain; he couldn't understand the bureaucracy. Mary Beard looked up the documents he needed and sent them along. Now, whenever she gets in "internet trouble," he gets in touch with her -- to make sure she is OK.

Understandably, Beard resists the interpretation of these stories as "happy endings" where a wise and maternal woman takes men to task and teaches them a lesson. What the attacks show, she says, is the persistence of misogyny and the way gender hierarchies persist. Still, she finds the outcomes emotionally satisfying. That university student who called her a slut with a disgusting vagina? After he apologized he took her out to lunch, and she's going to write him a letter of reference. After all, when you google his name, calling Beard a "filthy slut" is what comes up, and he is going to need all the help he can get.

The final story is from 2015. Lindy West is a writer who often deals with feminism and body size issues -- and so receives a ton of vitriol, abuse, and threats online. In this essay, she describes how she usually deals -- by deleting, by useless blocking, by trying to ignore. But then eventually, a troll set up something that reached a new level of awfulness, by setting up a Twitter account in the name of West's recently deceased father -- with a photo of him, and a username like "[Lindy's father] Donezo."

West found she couldn't ignore it. She wrote an essay on Jezebel about the issue and mentioned the account. Astonishingly, she then received an email from the troll, apologizing. He said he was wrong and he shouldn't have done it, and that his trolling hadn't been caused by something particular she said. He wrote in part, "I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self."

Later, West invited him to participate in an episode of This American Life, talking about what happened. He said he'd felt fat, unloved, passionless and purposeless." Though he was unable to explain why this made generalized rage at women seem like a good idea, he did say that he had changed. He'd become a teacher, and he took better care of his health. He apologized, again, for the hurt he'd caused: as a teacher, he could now see how hurt and sad his students were when other kids were mean to them.

There's so much to say about these stories -- and I agree with West and Beard when they call attention to the special role that misogyny plays. But among the other things, I'm still just astonished at the way these trolls all seem like ordinary people who got caught up in something even they don't really understand.

It's destabilizing to me to think that otherwise ordinary people who are sad, or bored, or self-hating can get something out of abusing and threatening other people on the internet. At the deepest possible level, I just don't get it. Even a playground bully at least gets status, or attention, or something. But these internet trolls are mostly anonymous. What motivates them to act this way? What positive feeling for them makes them do this?

It's like finding out I live among people of a completely different species.

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