“Don't Feed the Trolls” and Other Stupid Advice

Back in the good old days of the Internet, when all this were geeks as far as the eye could see, there was a relatively harmless pastime called “Trolling”. Generally, this involved saying something outrageous in an attempt to get people arguing amongst themselves (a flamewar) while the troll ran off into the distance, giggling at their mischief. Typically, the topics were things like people's choice of operating system or programming language. Childish, but no-one really got hurt and typically those rising to the bait were frequently much worse than the original protagonist (because if there's one thing geeks love, it's to argue about inconsequential things). From this, the phrase “Don't feed the trolls” was born, suggesting that the best way to deal with people wanting to cause trouble was to ignore them as they'd soon get bored and go away. That phrase has now entered Internet lore as received wisdom. This is important. “Don't feed the trolls” became the easy reply to anyone who responded to antagonistic behaviour online.

Then the Internet got popular. All sorts of people were frequenting first newsgroups and forums and then, increasingly, social media networks. Normal, everyday people who were here for the content, not for the technology that made it work. And when everyone is on the Internet, the worst people are there too. People who hide behind the anonymity of their keyboard and spread their vile prejudices, hatred and intolerance with little to no fear of recrimination.

Recently, these people were thrust into the media limelight with abusive attacks on Caroline Criado-Perez (@CCriadoPerez), who campaigned to have the Bank of England feature women on UK banknotes. One would hope that most people would see this as a positive step, helping address the sexual inequality that is still so prevalent in our society, or at least something so inconsequential as to be not worthy of their attention. Instead, it resulted in a relentless, inhuman attack from literally hundreds of anonymous Twitter users, threatening rape, violent sexual assault and murder. An attack that is, while diminished from its height, continuing still. I recommend you read Caroline's August 2013 speech to Women's Aid (serious TW) to get an idea of how horrific this abuse was. At its height, hundreds of abusive and threatening tweets were being directed at Caroline per hour.

While there were many, many people offering support, responding to the abusers and calling upon Twitter to take more action to prevent the abuse (in line with their policies), there were an almost equally vocal number trying to explain that “ignore and block” was the way to go. That responding only encouraged them. To make her account private. And what was the phrase that kept cropping up? “Don't feed the trolls.”

Caroline has already done an incredible and much better job than I could ever do of explaining why ignore and block isn't a valid option when under an onslaught such as that she experienced. She also addressed why expecting the recipient of an attack to bear the responsibility of changing their behaviour is victim blaming and how ignoring or blocking doesn't prevent you from reading the abuse in the first place. The human brain doesn't erase the words retrospectively.

But there's another issue. Naming this behaviour as “trolling” implies that it isn't serious. That it's just “teenagers having fun”. (In actuality, the arrests made in the Criado-Perez case were men in their 20s and 30s, far from the “stupid teenagers” the apologists were so keen to label them.) It deflects from what this really is, misogynistic, obscene, and, in many cases, illegal abuse designed to cause fear, to perpetuate gender stereotypes and to silence people with the audacity to speak out against the status quo. This isn't trolling, this is abuse. This is a symptom of the violent, rape culture society that most people would rather not admit to existing.

They do this by claiming it's “not people like me”, that it's “only trolling”, that the Internet “isn't real life”. Anything to avoid the real problem or to have to take any responsibility in making this behaviour unacceptable. To ensure those who practise it are rightfully pilloried by society and their peers in the cases of “minor” infractions, or to demand that the appropriate legal action be taken (and taken seriously) when it reaches levels such as that experienced by Caroline.

Ignoring an uncomfortable truth is much easier than taking action. Enough is enough. A decent person will not stand idly by watching fellow humans be abused. We are all responsible to help stop it. It starts with basic empathy, recognising a problem exists and to stop telling people you know better than they how to deal with it.