Detail from Hercules and the Hydra of Lerna, by Nicolo Van Aelst and Antonio Tempesta.
“Fatties Gonna Fat.”
That’s the first message I ever received from an internet troll. I had two immediate thoughts: What does this even mean, and who has enough free time to send this kind of nonsense to strangers?
Now, over six years later, I’ve become an expert in online harassment the hard way. There are forums devoted specifically to hating me, and the largest has over 4,000 members. Websites exist with the sole purpose of ruining my reputation, and there are coordinated efforts to convince people to cancel bookings and abandon partnerships with me. Map routes from my home to the places I work out have been published online, along with my home address and telephone number. Trolls have shown up at events I attend, including at speaking engagements and triathlons. They’ve taken pictures and videos and harassed me, the event organizers, and other participants. Once they even tripped the fire alarm during a speaking gig.
It’s one thing to have to deal with the trolls who inevitably show up in every comment section and social media platform, but the stakes are raised even higher when you become personally targeted for harassment. Here is what I’ve learned about trolls and harassers, and how to deal with them.
Who are these people?
I’m certainly not alone — a 2016 poll of over 1000 Americans found that 25% of respondents were victims of online harassment or knew someone who was. Of the victims, 20% were scared about ramifications professionally, 20% were scared to leave their homes, and 29% were scared for their lives. Experts believe that it’s going to get worse.
The first step to mounting a defense is understanding who is harassing you. That starts with the troll archetypes, and there are three.
These are few and far between, but they are absolutely critical to the mechanism of organized online abuse. They choose the targets, twist the facts, and fabricate the stories. They also provide, for those who require it, the justification (however questionable) that what they are doing is not only justified, but righteous.
The Zombie Army
They aren’t the best and brightest, but they have wifi, plenty of free time, and a desire to hate and hurt someone. They will go where they are pointed and repeat what they are told by the Thinkers. If you find yourself astonished that so many people believe the same outrageous lie about you, you have these trolls to thank.
This person crosses the line from trolling to obsession. They might create an entire website devoted to hating you, show up at your events, Facebook message your mom, or even send a false performance complaint to your boss. Online abuse via an employer is so prevalent that Crash Override — an advocacy group for victims of online abuse – has a one-sheet that you can give to your employer to help them understand.
Why do they do it?
The subject of how functioning humans devolve into internet trolls is complicated — especially because you can’t trust them to tell you the truth. Some of them sound like teenage boys, because they are. Others are adults whose bodies made it out of junior high, but whose maturity was tragically left behind. Some justify their behavior with rhetoric that would be at home at a neo-nazi rally.
Yes, a few are pathological. Australian researchers found that “when high on trait psychopathy, trolls employ an empathic strategy of predicting and recognising the emotional suffering of their victims, while abstaining from the experience of these negative emotions.”
But it should be clear that people dealing with mental illness are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators. Putting trolls under the umbrella of mental illness is both ableist and enabling. And research from Stanford and Cornell found that trolls can be made, not born, noting that “trolling stems from both innate and situational factors … both mood and discussion context affect trolling behavior.” Ultimately, trolls must be held responsible for their behavior.
Once we have a sense of who the players are, it’s time to look at the tactics they employ.
Refusing to back down on known fallacies
In my experience, the most common tactic is a sort of “lying about lying”. The Zombie Army trolls will generally believe other trolls no matter how outlandish the claim, and so when one troll tells a lie (either directly or through the use of hyperbole, omission, or twisting facts), many will repeat it—even if it can be easily disproved.
This is a common tactic of trolls who are trying to harm you professionally. They will simply continue to state the falsehoods with an air of authority, regardless of the facts. As York College professor and researcher Erec S. Smith pointed out, “intelligent trolls know they are wrong but continue to push their fallacious arguments to tally a victory — even if the victory is empty and wrought with falsities. A troll’s goal is not virtuous in a traditional sense. A troll’s goal is the acquisition of power and the dismissal of truth and ethics. Add this attitude to the universality and anonymity of the internet and you get the rise of alternative facts and the demonization of empirically based facts.”
This works like the childhood game where you stand in a line and the first person whispers a phrase to the second person, who whispers it to the next, and on down the line until it’s hilariously distorted by the time it reaches the last person in line.
In this case a troll in one forum says something flip, and another troll takes it as truth and repeats in another forum. Then it becomes a lie that gets told over and over again.
In my case, someone glibly posting “I’ll bet she did her whole marathon on a scooter” eventually became an email to a school where I was booked to speak, insisting that “she calls herself a marathoner but she did the whole thing on a scooter! What else is she lying about?”
If a nonsensical lie about you starts making the rounds, it’s probably the result of Troll Telephone.
Aggressively poor reading comprehension
You write or say something, your trolls claim that you wrote or said something else, and then they use it against you. For example, you might say that you worked at Google. Your employer receives an email saying that “she was never an executive at Google, what else is she lying about?” But — you never said that you were an executive at Google.
This is similar to Troll Telephone, but they’re using your own words as a starting point for the distortion.
These first three tactics—refusing to back down on known fallacies, troll telephone, and poor reading comprehension—can be used by trolls in combination to try to discredit you. The goal is to use the sheer volume of assertions to convince people who fail to apply their own critical thinking or research.
Threats and doxxing
It’s not an accident that so many people who were polled lived in fear. Trolls often combine sending threats with with “doxxing,” the practice of posting people’s personal information online.
When #GamerGate victim Brianna Wu retweeted a meme someone had made of her tweets poking fun at her trolls, the trolls responded by posting her address online and sending her graphic, violent threats until she was forced to flee her home. Predictably, the trolls then claimed that she made the whole thing up. Which bring us to…
It wasn’t me
The final troll tactic we’ll talk about here is a form of gaslighting. It typically happens when you go public about the trolling you are experiencing. Suddenly the trolls are shocked — shocked I tell you! — that their actions are interpreted as harassment. They’ll claim that you just can’t take a joke, or that you are scared of an “open debate.”
If it is remotely possible, they’ll deny it happened at all — they’ll claim you faked the picture, doctored the email, sent the death threat to yourself, etc. They may engage in blame-the-victim tactics, claiming that they wouldn’t have kept going if you had responded. Or, that they wouldn’t have kept going if you hadn’t responded. Or that it’s your own fault because if you would just think, speak, and act exactly like they want you to, they would leave you alone.
How to deal
Now that we know who and what we’re dealing with, let’s talk about how to deal with them.
Don’t feed the trolls
This rehashing of the “ignore your bullies and they’ll go away” advice that many of us got in junior high is by far the most common advice that you’ll hear for dealing with online harassment, and it can be a solid strategy.
As Dana Boyd, a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society puts it, “in a world of blogging and pagerank, critiquing trolls gives them both literal and figurative capital.” Trolls are rewarded when you respond to them, so don’t.
That definitely makes sense, but it’s also predicated on the idea that the trolls are looking for the attention of their victim and their victim’s allies, which isn’t always the case. All too often, the trolls—especially those who are organized in dedicated troll forums—are looking for approval from each other.
I realized this when I was trying to figure out why, despite not approving a troll comment in years, they continue to leave comments in the moderation queues of my blog and YouTube videos every single day. I was ignoring them, why weren’t they going away?
Then I learned that they leave the comments, take a screenshot of the draft, and post that in the forums to get attaboys from the other trolls. No amount of ignoring will make these harassers go away, because it’s not about my attention. I’m not just a victim of their daily harassment, on a deeper level I’m a victim of their desperate need for attention and approval from other trolls.
Do feed the trolls
Some people choose engagement. They get involved in debates with their trolls, they try to reason with the trolls, and provide evidence that proves them wrong. While I’ve found that sometimes this is helpful — trolls who show up at speaking gigs and try to take over the Q&A inevitably help me prove my points — when it comes to online trolling, I rarely engage. These are trolls, not truth seekers, and every minute I spend engaging with them is a minute I can’t spend creating content and supporting people who aren’t abusing me.
In (admittedly rare) cases, victims have been able to turn a troll around. When fat feminist writer Lindy West was confronted by a troll who created a Twitter account with a picture of her recently deceased father, with a bio that read “Embarrassed father of an idiot,” and location marked as “Dirt hole in Seattle,” she decided to reach out to him. He ended up apologizing and donating to the cancer center where her dad was treated.
Recently Sarah Silverman did some digging into the background of a troll and ended up connecting with him and paying for his medical care.
These cases tend to get a lot of attention, and far too much of that attention suggests that this is how “good victims” handle trolling. I want to point out how dangerously mistaken this is.
First, because it highlights an extremely rare occurrence without mentioning that this tactic can also give the troll additional power, since if they don’t suddenly locate their humanity they tend to use any overture of kindness to increase their cruelty.
More importantly, the person in the wrong here is the person doing the harassing, and whatever the victim chooses to do in response is valid. An abuse victim is never obligated to accommodate or befriend their abuser.
So there are strategies of ignoring and strategies of engaging—but there are no guarantees that either will work.
Moreover, I’m more concerned with the person being trolled than with the feelings of the trolls, so my advice is to adopt whatever tactics get you through the situation. Here are some options for coping:
Talk it out
You don’t have to go through this alone. You can talk about the fact that you are being targeted for abuse, and you can specify the kind of feedback you want (or don’t want). If I get a comment that is particularly egregious, I often post it to social media, and make it clear that I’m looking for support and not advice.
Since I’m aware that my trolls will reach out to anyone I partner with, or anyone who books me as a speaker, I make sure to prepare those people ahead of time.
While it’s not my fault that this happens, it’s also not the fault of the people who work with me, and I don’t want them to be blindsided by the troll phenomenon. It also ensures that we have a plan in place.
I used to be really nervous about doing this — afraid that partners would cancel the engagement or choose not to work with me. So far that’s never happened, and typically they are extremely understanding. Sadly, many have been through it before.
When I had this conversation with Tony from Better Humans about this very article, he replied, “Will they email me saying they just happened to google who you were, and Google showed them pages of distressing information about you and they wanted to do me a favor so that I didn’t end up being duped by you again in the future? And worse?”
This told me immediately that this wasn’t his first troll rodeo, because that is exactly what will happen. I also now realize that if someone ever chooses not to work with me because of my trolls, they are likely doing me a favor since they aren’t someone I would want to work with.
I used to buy into the mistaken belief that I had to allow troll comments in my spaces or I was engaging in unfair censorship. I’ve learned that is simply not true.
We create our online spaces, we attract our audiences, and we are under no obligation to turn them over to anyone who manages to figure out the comment feature. While I can’t stop trolls from leaving comments, I can utilize the moderation feature to make sure that their drivel never sees the light of day in my spaces, and I do.
While we’re at it, don’t forget the ‘block’ and ‘report’ features. Every day on social media, ambitious online harassers who have three followers of their own try to leverage my followers to abuse me, or get attention for the websites they create to try to ruin my good name. Blocking and reporting them makes a difference.
If blocking and reporting were an Olympic sport, I’d be podium-bound.
Sometimes laughter really is the best medicine. Consider trying to find the funny in your trolls behavior. I created a page where I offered my cathartic responses to my trolls. Walker Hayes wrote a song about it. If you can find a way to laugh at your trolls, you can take some of the sting away.
Use your trolls wisely
When Lindsey Averill set out to create Fattitude, a movie exposing the mistreatment of fat people, she was trolled, doxxed, and received death threats. She used these incidents of trolling not only to prove how necessary her movie was, but also to get publicity which, in turn, helped her raise the funds she needed to produce the film.
You might consider ways that you could leverage your trolls to support your work.
For pity’s sake
You are never required to find compassion for the trolls who are trying to hurt you personally and professionally, but it may be helpful to try to find some pity. Imagine if the vibrant life you’re leading now somehow disintegrated into you sitting at your computer, typing hate messages at a blogger who an anonymous person in a forum told you not to like.
Certainly nothing could be more pitiful.
As Lindy West pointed out, while her experience doesn’t mean that she’ll be compassionate toward her trolls, “It’s hard to feel hurt or frightened when you’re flooded with pity. And that, in turn, has made it easier for me to keep talking in the face of a mob roaring for my silence.”
When it goes beyond online
Online harassment is harmful, make no mistake, but the danger moves to another level when your trolls leave the computer behind and engage in real-world stalking and abuse.
A tactic that these types of trolls often use is to engage in behaviors that are legitimately terrifying, but insist that being scared is ridiculous since obviously they would never make good on the violent rape and death threats they sent after publishing your address online, or that just because they showed up at your race doesn’t mean they’ve crossed a very serious line.
In case you have any doubt, it’s absolutely reasonable to be scared, and it’s absolutely reasonable to take whatever precautions make you feel safe.
A great place to start is the Crash Override Network — an exhaustive resource for victims of online harassment founded by Zoe Quinn, victim zero of #Gamergate, and her boyfriend and fellow victim Alex Lifschitz. As Quinn explains, “When [online abuse] gets to a certain point, it changes your life irrevocably in a way people don’t understand.”
There are lots of options for fighting back, but the truth is that you may reach a point where you no longer feel that’s the best option.
If trolls discover something that will stop you, then that’s exactly what they’ll do.
So if you cancel a talk due to death threats, then expect death threats every time you plan to take the stage.
You’ll either have to reconcile yourself to the fact that they could make good on their threat someday, or decide to make some changes. Either choice is valid.
There’s no shame in changing your habits, deleting your Twitter account, even making a major life change. Your safety is more important than whether or not the trolls get a win.
Nobody should ever have to deal with online harassment, and regardless of what you choose, always remember that they are anonymous cowards, and they are trolling you because you made name for yourself.