Why trolls should stay in fairy stories: sometimes what passes for banter, can just be the ugly face of sexism

misogynistic-lyricsThe piece today is inspired from a NewStatesman lecture that I attended in London over the summer with Helen Lewis, Mary Beard and Laurie Penny entitled ‘Why are we so afraid of outspoken women?’

Some of you have heard of the internet site Don’t Start Me Off, or DSMO and if you haven’t then it’s probably a good thing. DSMO was a site that encouraged users to rant and fume at targets chosen by the online administrators. I say ‘was’ because thankfully it was taken down after the events that I’m about to relate. In the right hands and executed well DSMO could have been an attempted online version of Private Eye where users post satirical rants about the awful state of the world today. What it turned out to be however, was a mouthpiece for some of the most horrific misogynistic, discriminatory and sexist attacks I’ve ever seen and heard of on the internet. In particular Mary Beard was targeted heavily by DSMO after her appearance on BBC’s Question Time in January 2013 and her views on immigration. Firstly she was named ‘twat of the week’ and then other such posts were written about her. For example ‘Mary, Mary, quite C****e hairy, how does your lady garden grow?’ a picture of her face was superimposed onto a set of female pudenda, a web post discussed her pubic hair and if she brushed the floor with it, derogatory comments were made about her appearance and death threats were wished upon her, including some about bombing her home.

Let me make it clear. Online abuse happens to all variations of people, black and white, male and non-male, straight and not straight. Women are not the sole targets of online abuse. The nuance however is that many women are attacked online and harassed for the fact that they are women. Men are attacked for their beliefs and/or opinions such as Russell Brand and Nigel Farage, but it is extremely rare for an online user to attack a man saying he can’t or shouldn’t speak in public because he’s a man. This line of thought however is prevalent on the female side of online abuse. The vast majority of vile and misogynistic comments towards Mary Beard were made about her being a woman and it is here that the distinction is made between male and female online abuse. It is very rare for the insults about a man to be his male defining features, such as his genitalia, facial hair or other physiological factors.

So what you may ask? Most people would agree that what was done to Mary was totally wrong, the site was shut down and the people behind the abuse were called out. Case closed it would seem. I disagree. We need to look deeper, at the motive of this clear abuse. Why did the users of DSMO and the thousands of Twitter users who targeted her with abuse in a similar fashion do it in the first place? What motivates these people to such awful acts? It seems that there are some people out there who genuinely do not want women to be in the public sphere and to have a voice worth hearing. Perhaps they are angry, or frightened or prefer the traditional way in which society functions and these people to me are very worrying. I’m not going to spend time on the argument that it’s all ‘just banter’ and they need to grow up and just ignore it because frankly it is ridiculous and instead we need to look at the reasons behind why such ordinary people act in such deplorable ways.

There is an extremely nefarious consequence of such abuse going unnoticed or not being dealt with strongly enough. Women might decide that they do not want to enter the public sphere and give a public opinion for fear of the response they might get from the misogynistic corners of the public and the internet. We live in a time in which we are encouraging the strengths of feminism to become more commonplace such as economic equality in job seeking and hiring to positions of greater importance in companies, and where role models such as Emma Watson are speaking out in favour of the feminism that should be advocated. The recent general election saw the number of women representatives rise in parliament to around 25% which is a great step forward for women in the public sphere. We need to be clamping down hard on those who believe that a women should be insulted and verbally attacked in such foul manners simply because of her assigned sex at birth.

Anita Sarkeesian, the feminist media critic and blogger came under huge wave of sexist abuse in 2012 after she spoke out against the lack of women in video games and the way in which women are depicted. This had its inception when Anita began a Kickstarter campaign for a series of videos that examined gender roles and depictions in video games. This was at a time when female protagonists were being left out of games due to the complication of making them alongside the male protagonists which was ‘too much effort’. Sarkeesian was, like Mary subject to some vile abuse including the game called ‘Punch Anita Sarkeesian’ in which a picture of her face is on a screen and when you click the mouse you punch her and bruise and cut marks appear on her face. She decided to close a lecture she was holding in an Iowan college due to the law allowing the open carrying of guns in lecture halls, another debate for another day. Her career was put on hold and threatened because people in the safe corners of the internet could not stand that she was fighting for women to become more integrated into video games.

Having been to a NewStatesman lecture in London about women on twitter and sexism in general it became clear that social media outlets such as twitter allow for people to hurl abuse at other people from the safety of their computers and/or hand held devices. The anonymity available on the internet is one of the biggest reasons why online trolls exist in the first place. It is surprisingly easy to set up fake email addresses, fake usernames, fake pictures and fake identities. I can imagine that sitting behind a computer screen using an account on any social media outlet with a fake account can make one feel secure and free to harass, bully, discriminate and abuse anyone they wish. Because these trolls are not speaking to their target face to face they feel more confident that they won’t get caught abusing someone, although the police do sometimes get involved and catch people. Laurie Penny and Mary Beard are fairly different ages and what they both laughed about was that they were both told to shut up. Not merely because they were women but also because one was ‘too old’ and the other was ‘too young’. Other such insults were that they are ‘too ugly’. Penny then joked and said there must be some day in your life when you are of a particular age and particular beauty to be able to speak! This clearly shows the ridiculousness of twitter trolls.

I’m not portraying these people as morally reprehensible monsters who are out to get women and abuse them on a sociopathic level. In many cases the trolls are very ordinary people who would not act at in a similar way in a social or public situation and have since retracted many of their attacks. Beard told a great story about how she called out one of her abuses who realised his mistake, came all the way to Cambridge and apologised in person to her for being such an idiot and they keep in touch by email. What worries me chiefly though is the fact that trolls are in many cases ordinary people and the question I ask is how can the internet can turn people into such vile monsters. Self-gratification? The anonymity that the internet provides? And these people’s actions have had fatal consequences.

People are dying because of cyber-bullying. Hannah Smith, a girl called Nadia from Italy, Josh Unsworth, Ciara Pugsley. These are all young teenagers who didn’t have the strength of Anita Sarkeesian and Mary Beard and committed suicide due to online bullying. Families’ lives have been ruined by the whims and cruel desires of anonymous internet trolls. Brenda Leyland, one of the McCann family was found hanged in her home after a Sky News interview. Virtual abuse has real world consequences.

There is light at the end of the tunnel however. As I was writing this a bill to amend the Criminal Justice and Courts Act was passed in the House of Commons which in essence said that the ‘baying cyber-mob’, if caught online abusing, being malevolent to people online to a dangerous extent, can expect the current sentence of six months to quadruple up to two years. This is a great step forward in dealing with the “Cyber-mobs poisoning Britain” to quote the Daily Mail. We all still have a part to play; to be aware of subjugation and oppression where we see it and make a difference.


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