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Leslie Jones (far right) is the Ghostbusters star subjected to vicious abuse on Twitter

How trolling took over the internet

Anti-trans vitriol and anger are routine in my online experience – but these behaviours are not exclusive to the WWW and strengthened by a shaky definition of ‘free speech’

“KILL YOURSELF FAGGOT”

It’s 9am and, opening my laptop as I do every day to check my emails, this is the first thing I see. My first thought as I sip my morning coffee is “‘faggot’ – that’s weird, why not ‘tranny?’” Ever since I began my transition and presented more openly as a transgender person in my work and on social media, it’s more common for me to be abused with reference to my gender than with generic homophobia.

It should probably be surprising that I’m taken aback by the particular wording of this abuse than its existence at all but, sadly, that’s not the case. I am often confronted with comments such as “sad narcissist deluding himself he [sic] is a woman – better off dead” or a picture of me which reads “this autogynephile is a grotesque parody of a woman” on Twitter.  To any readers who are far too cool to know what an ‘autogynephile’ is, it’s a pseudo-scientific term which says trans people are just men who like to put on dresses and wank in front of a mirror. I don’t do this – for what it’s worth, I tend to put on dresses then go out and get pissed like normal people.

When I read abuse like this, my reaction depends on the volume of nasty many tweets or emails I am actually getting and my underlying mood. Sometimes I will ‘clapback’ with something vaguely witty, and if it’s in a public forum people will ‘like’ my tart replies and performance of being unfazed. At other times, if I am feeling more vulnerable, I will sit, incandescent with rage, wondering what I could have possibly done to deserve this. I find myself asking friends if they ever get abuse, and how often, in order to gauge if the gods of the internet have particularly chosen to punish me or if this truly is normal.

“I can’t quite remember when abuse became so routine in my online experience but I believe it crept up gradually with my followers and retweets”

I can’t quite remember when abuse became so routine in my online experience but I believe it crept up gradually with my followers and retweets. Working in the media, I know how common this is. I was sadly unsurprised to learn of the cascade of racist misogyny directed at Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones recently. The campaign of harassment was in part marshalled by the blogger, Milo Yiannopoulos, and later led to Yiannopoulos being permanently banned from the site. Jones’ high profile drew attention to her terrible experience, but I am regularly on panels or in groups with journalists, artists and writers who are women of colour with a much smaller following. They will always report similar experiences – one article, one exhibition video, even one Facebook comment can spark a tirade of racialised sexism that does not stop for days.

Indeed, almost all women, queer people and people of colour in many different areas of the internet – from gamer communities to zine culture and YouTube videos – will have learned that some degree of abuse is part of the ‘payoff’ for the greater platform the web has given marginalised voices. I believe the reason for this not only lies in various platforms’ appalling failure to tackle abuse (as was highlighted in the case of Twitter by users’ outraged reaction to Jones’ harassment) but also in a highly damaging fetish for ‘free speech’ and a misrepresentation of what occurs online as somehow divorced from real life.

This is commonly demonstrated when marginalised women and minorities try and discuss the abuse we receive. Occasionally, exasperated, I will show people screenshots of the most viciously transphobic abuse I have been sent. What will follow are some messages of support followed by sentiments such as “keep doing what you’re doing” or “fuck the haters”.

While such comments are well-intentioned and gratefully received, they somewhat miss the point: to call those who abuse me my ‘haters’ suggests those who abuse me dislike me as a person. There are, of course, some people who dislike me as a person but this is fundamentally different: when someone calls me a ‘tranny’ or a ‘faggot’ or mentions my genitals they are calling upon a language used to abuse and scare trans people across society. They haven’t dropped an artfully worded diss-track ripping my article or my tweets to shreds – they’ve just called me a disgusting freak. They haven’t decided to come for me as a person, they don’t see me as a person at all.

“When someone calls me a ‘tranny’ or a ‘faggot’ or mentions my genitals they are calling upon a language used to abuse and scare trans people across society”

The word ‘trolling’, like ‘hipster’ before it, has become one of those nuisance words so widely applied and varying in meaning as to be rendered useless. I say I am ‘trolling’ my friend when I send him really weird sexts in the middle of the day so that they will flash up on his phone in front of his colleagues. Mainstream politicians being passionately criticised for policy decisions they have voted for will now regularly complain of being ‘trolled’. Leslie Jones’ abuse has also been minimised as the work of cowardly, anonymous ‘trolls’ who have nothing to do with right-thinking people, who are never racist or sexist. These definitions are radically different and the first two muddy the waters as to the seriousness of the third example.

Abuse is not some kind of online rhetorical device. This is how systemic oppressions like misogyny, racism and transphobia work. If a person – especially a woman – is fat or black or trans you can tweet them telling them they’re fat, black or trans and therefore disgusting. This doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it calls upon the sort of abuse they will also have heard offline, in the street or on the bus, in attempts to intimidate them into shamed silence.

Often, the advice given to those who are abused is simply to log off. Again, while this can be well-meaning (I myself have suggested it to people I know in order to preserve their mental health), it also perpetuates the same damaging message: it’s always women and minorities who must leave online spaces first. As the trans writer and activist Tyler Ford tweeted about being told to “just log off”: “when people harass me online, I’m the one who should leave the platform, not the folks spewing racist, anti-LGBTQ slurs?” Ford added in another tweet: ‘ignore/block the trolls!’ implies that we’re not facing the same violence offline, that it’s ‘better’ or safer anywhere/everywhere else.” The idea that ‘trolls’ are hateful just because the internet is like a virtual, lawless Wild West is a collective myth that comforts those who never encounter harassment that exists all around us in the offline sphere, too.

After Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter last week, there was the usual hand-wringing about ‘free speech’, a phrase people often use without questioning the many people whose ‘speech’ is not free from the threat of violence. In many cases, the silencing effect of abuse works and people just deactivate their accounts – because victims of online abuse cannot always be strong in the face of language which calls upon every past experience of real humiliation and violence they’ve experienced away from their keyboard. To ask them to do this, or to shrug it off while telling them to ‘stay strong’ – as if the internet is simply a virtual reality game or a debating chamber with some rough-and-tumble slanging matches – is implicitly saying you just don’t care about the ways in which the internet upholds the same racist and sexist power dynamics found across society. Ones in which some voices get to enact violence with impunity, and others are suppressed.