Look at the comments on a Youtube page or a Twitter thread and you are likely to find one. They’re all over the internet and perhaps you’ve run into one before. I’m of course talking about trolls, and I’m going to explain their behavior National-Geographic-style.
Reader discretion advised. I’m about to discuss some truly horrific behavior.
The word “troll” as applied to a person on the internet arose in the 1990s. People who target other online users to try to make them feel bad is the basic definition, but that description is much too tame to convey just how disturbing it is.
Equally disturbing is what began to happen by the end of the nineties. A lot of men began proudly self-identifying as trolls and building troll communities on unmoderated online forums.
These websites, which I refuse to say the names of, create memes, discuss trends, and are largely misogynistic in nature.
Self-identifying trolls describe trolling as a game of eliciting strong emotional reactions from their targets by engaging in the most outrageous and offensive behavior as possible.
Lest anyone think that just ignoring these people will solve the problem, let me tell you about “RIP trolling,” in which guys harass grieving people. Those trolls routinely deface the memorial pages of dead children and teens with graphic violent imagery and remarks that make light of the tragedies. You may remember that Zelda Williams had gone through this after the death of her father comedian Robin Williams.
There was a moving interview on National Public Radio’s This American Life between a woman named Lindy West and her troll. After West publicly condemned rape jokes, an anonymous internet user began RIP trolling her by pretending to be her deceased father in his Twitter bio, which read, “Embarrased father of an idiot – other two kids are fine, though,” and his location read, “Dirt hole in Seattle.” After West wrote publicly how hurtful that was, the troll e-mailed her to apologize, saying, “When you included it in your latest Jezebel article, it finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who’s reading this shit. I’m attacking someone who never harmed me in any way and for no reason whatsoever.”
In This American Life, he revealed that he trolled people because he was unhappy with his own life and resentful of people like West who appeared happy and content.
I love that story, but it’s still disappointing how long it took for him to recognize his victim’s humanity.
Trolls are also known to violate people’s privacy (such as in 2014 when they leaked the private photos of several celebrities), hack websites, and create revenge porn by leaking the private photos of an ex.
The first time trolls came to my attention was after gamer and media critic Anita Sarkeesian created a series of videos called Feminist Frequency in 2012 and asked the public for help funding a series called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games on Kickstarter, which would explore the largely sexist portrayals of women in games, who are often represented as damsels in distress or sexy eye candy.
This was a noble goal, but JEEZ! The amount of online harassment from male gamers who felt “threatened” by Sarkeesian’s views was vicious. Amidst the threats of rape and violence, the antifeminist statements and the name-calling, the message from many immature gamers was “Leave our beloved video games alone,” which was basically a defense of sexism in video games.
In addition to the venom aimed at Sarkeesian, one Twitter user calling himself Kevin Dobson not only threatened to harm her, but threatened to harm her family, and Sarkeesian’s home address was included in the tweet!
The people typing these hurtful things were treating themselves like victims, but as gaming editor Andrew Todd says, “They have no actual issue. It’s all percieved persecution at the hands of political correctness.”
The conflict between gamers and feminists known as Gamergate exploded when other women in the gaming industry started being threatened as well.
The Gamergate issue was so huge that Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter campaign was successful because of the publicity it gave her, and the backlash against her only proved what she had been trying to say in the first place: video game culture has a sexist mentality.
Since then I have seen celebrities who I love get trolled (Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham), I have seen my own friends get trolled, and I have been trolled myself, but seeing as how the main purpose of trolling is to make people feel bad, I never show that it bothers me. I always try to be nice to everyone who tweets me or messages me, including strangers, but if that person is a troll (and they are easy to spot) those are the only people who interact with me that I completely ignore.
I know I say that from a place of privelage since I mostly manage to avoid conflict (not easy to do – I have a short temper), women are targeted more often than men, and I’ve never endured the horror of someone threatening me or posting my address online, but I can tell you this: whether you’re a troll or a terrorist, my response will be the same: I know what you are trying to do and it is not going to work.
Intimidation works both ways.