Multiple small broken window panes, through which greenery outside can be seen.

Online harassment as a daily hazard: when trolls feed themselves

Trigger warning for discussion of and graphic examples of threatening online harassment.

Seen s.e. smith’s post on blogging and harassment yet? You’re about to see it everywhere (on the social justice blogs) because it’s very powerful and true:

by the time I’d clocked around 20 threats, and was up to around 30 readers, I’d learned the art of triage. The quick skim to find out if there was any actually personal threatening information, like identifying details, or if it was just your garden variety threat with no teeth behind it. I kept them all in a little file in case I needed them later, and forwarded the worst to the police department, not in the belief they would actually do anything, but in the hopes that information would be there, somewhere, in case it was needed someday.

“I hope you get raped to death with a gorsebush,” one email memorably began. I gave the letter writer some style points for creativity, but quickly deducted them when I noted he’d sent it from his work email, at a progressive organisation. I helpfully forwarded it to his supervisor, since I thought she might be interested to know what he was doing on company time. “Thanks,” she wrote back, and I didn’t hear anything more about it. Several months later I attended a gala event the organisation was participating in and watched him sitting there on stage, confident and smug…

I was careful in all the ways they tell you to be, to make it difficult to find my house, for example, and most of the rape threats, and the death threats, the casual verbal abuse from people who disagreed with my stances on subjects like rape being bad and abortion being a personal matter, weren’t really that threatening in that they didn’t pose a personal danger to me, and I was rarely concerned for my safety. That wasn’t the point, though, which is what I told a friend when she got her first rape threat and called me, sobbing. I wished she’d been spared that particular blogging rite of passage, but unfortunately she hadn’t been.

“They want you to shut up,” I explained. “That’s the point of a rape threat. They want to silence you. They want you to shrink down very small inside a box where you think they can’t find you.”

And it works. I see it happening all the time; blogs go dark, or disappear entirely, or stop covering certain subjects. People hop pseudonyms and addresses, trusting that regular readers can find and follow them, trying to stay one step ahead. Very few people openly discuss it because they feel like it’s feeding the trolls, giving them the attention they want. Some prominent bloggers and members of the tech community have been bold enough; Kathy Sierra, for example, spoke out about the threats that made her afraid to leave her own home. She’s not the only blogger who’s been presented not just with vicious, hateful verbal abuse, but very real evidence that people want to physically hurt her, a double-edged silencing tactic, a sustained campaign of terrorism that is, often, highly effective.

[That is a relatively short excerpt, read the whole thing.]

I think it’s time to take a look at the reflexive “don’t feed the trolls” advice, frankly.

It was developed, I think, for Usenet (at least, the earliest known usage of the term ‘troll’ in this sense is from alt.folklore.urban in 1992, which suggests that that formulation probably originates similarly), and was adopted by email lists and blogs in due course. I’ve always been suspicious of it in the case of forums like email lists where messages can’t be recalled: some people implement it as just leaving the troll to continue sending messages into the void – except that it’s not a void. Experienced people may have blocked the troll, inexperienced people are there to be frightened either specifically by the troll or by the apparent unremarkableness of the troll’s behaviour. (This is one of the reasons I am less and less on-board with the free software community’s continued preference for public mailing lists. I like my email client a lot too, but I like spaces where harassment can be removed quickly from all reader’s view more.)

There’s certainly some wisdom in “don’t feed the trolls”. Consider for example Gavin de Becker’s advice in The Gift of Fear: if you, say, return harassing phone calls on the 50th time, you’ve only taught your harasser that they need to call 50 times to get a response. They need to learn that they cannot reach you, that there is nothing they can do to make you reply to them.

So far it seems sensible, but what it doesn’t account for is having multiple harassers, who either may not be aware of each other or who may be actively encouraging each other and coordinating attacks (via hate blogs or forums or the more wildcard ‘lulz’ variants thereof). It’s not so clear there that en masse silence is a useful strategy, it varies by case, and the off-hand use of the “everyone knows that you don’t feed the trolls!” wisdom that was (arguably) effective in the case of lone trolls is in effect a message to people being targeted for harassment by a coordinated group, or who have a number of individual harassers, that no one gives a shit. Don’t talk about it, we don’t care about your problems.

It also means that we are continually surprised by the size and scope of the problem. Death threats? With your address attached? Weekly? This is a problem not only because of the continuing coziness of the “yeah right, never happens to me” crowd, but because we often aren’t sharing information among targets.

It’s not just you.

It’s not just you.

Every single time, there is someone who has been hurt by thinking it’s just them.

I by no means advocate compulsory reporting of harassment, in fact I am very strongly committed to empowering survivors by allowing them a coercion-free space to do whatever the hell they please in terms of reporting or not. But “don’t feed the trolls” isn’t any more coercion-free than “stop hir hurting someone else! report now!” The coercion is this: thirty years of Internet are saying keep this to yourself, damn you (stop hir hurting someone else)!

Thirty years of Internet, per above, don’t have the whole story.

This scale of harassment of bloggers also brings us into a realm where people without the financial resources of celebrities to, eg, pay Gavin de Becker’s people to read their mail for them and alert them only to genuine immediate threats, have to deal with the same scale of harassment. This isn’t totally new to the Internet (being, eg, the family member of someone who has either committed or been the victim of a well-publicised unusual crime, has long attracted the same kind of attacks) but it is hard enough for rich powerful people to protect themselves mentally and physically from this level of hostile attention, let alone people with the typical resources of a social justice blogger (generally relatively privileged yes, able to afford state-of-the-art personal security, no).

On that, I’m honestly not sure what to do except that it scares me. There appears to be no known effective defence against sufficiently many motivated harassers. There doesn’t even appear to be a lot of giving a toss about it.

Update: Hey folks, on reflection I realise that my last paragraph kind of invites advice, but it’s probably safe to assume that if you’ve thought of doing X in response to trolls that so have people like s.e. smith, and either X is in their arsenal, it doesn’t work, or it isn’t reasonably possible for them (that is the cost-benefit trade-offs don’t favour it).

Responses from people with unusual expertise on personal security or on community management and similar areas giving facts advice or facts might be useful, but if your expertise is “average experienced netizen” please step back and give people affected a chance to talk.

36 thoughts on “Online harassment as a daily hazard: when trolls feed themselves

  1. PNH

    I’m curious about this subject, and if you don’t want to answer because I’m a complete outsider, that’s fine, I understand completely.

    Historically, has anyone ever tried reverse posting the troll’s address and info? Say for the purposes of sending copies of their vitriol to their mothers or significant others? This is not a suggestion, just a question about if it’s been done.

    1. Mary Post author

      I have quoted in the post to which you are replying, s.e. smith doing something of the kind:

      - he’d sent it from his work email, at a progressive organisation. I helpfully forwarded it to his supervisor, since I thought she might be interested to know what he was doing on company time. “Thanks,” she wrote back, and I didn’t hear anything more about it.

      So:
      1. please read the post.
      2. please assume that if you are able to think of a response to harassment within hours of reading this post, people being harassed have thought of it and tried it.

      You could still ask about it, but maybe try for more of a “I’m sure people have tried X approach, how does it work?” feel than “brainwave! has anyone ever tried X?”

      As an actually response to the suggestion aside from “yes, of course people have done it” is that escalating to make family, bosses and similar aware of trolling has substantial blowback potential: there are a great number of people who would be far less pleased to find out that their kin/employees are expressing social justice positions online (or are queer or trans, for example) than that they were attacking same. That’s aside from the potential ethical problems. So it’s a case-by-case thing.

      1. SA

        there are a great number of people who would be far less pleased to find out that their kin/employees are expressing social justice positions online (or are queer or trans, for example) than that they were attacking same

        Exactly. I once faxed a letter to the folks who own the wine company that makes “two buck Chuck” after a pregnant migrant worker died of heatstroke in their fields, asking them to please institute appropriate worker protection practices. The asshole CEO reverse-looked up my fax number, found me on my university’s website, and sent a letter to the Dean of my department trying to get me in trouble for faxing the letter from school.

        Then there’s the student who got me fired because s/he objected to my (feminist, sex-positive) political activities outside of work (don’t know their gender because I was never given a chance to see the charges against me or confront my accuser).

      2. PNH

        [Publicly visible email redacted per your request. ~Mary]

        I was not suggesting anything. I said as much. I have no doubt that my suggestion has been at least considered. I want to know if such a practice had ever been implemented in a systemic way, so that I could go and see the example. I was asking you this since you appear to be well-read and knowledgeable in the field of trolling/anti-trolling. I hope that my comment can be seen as a sign of respect for you and your research and knowledge. I also hope that in the future you do not feel the need to infer casual insult from a question. I am not insulting you. I would genuinely like to know more about the subject, in the hope that I might help to do something about it, with more knowledge. Cheers.

        1. PNH

          Thanks Mary. I’m actually super interested in Danielle’s book… that was exactly the kind of info source I was looking for! I thought I might find something like that on this forum.

  2. Bruce Byfield

    Over the years, I’ve had my share of trolls and stalkers. If you’re outspoken on any topic, inevitably they come after you. Yet I’m always amazed at how much more vicious the abuse aimed at women writers is than most of what I receive.

    Even when I write on feminist subjects, the abuse I get is rarely as bad as what many women endure who say the same things. Apparently, what triggers the worst abuse is not just the topic or the opinions expressed, but also the fact that a woman is expressing herself publicly at all. The trolls react as though a women writing is intruding, as though she’s a trespasser who must be scared off at all costs.

    That being so, I suspect that I can only speak to lesser forms of abuse. But one response that works for me is keeping a list of memorable abuse on my web site, and loudly responding with delight at a comment, as though I’m a collector of kitsch who’s just found a particularly tacky knick-knack.

    Another successful tactic, I find, is one I learned from reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s responses to various issues over the years. I refuse to take the comment seriously — for instance, I respond congratulating the abuser for writing a parody, and suggest ways that it can be improved. The one response that my abusers seem unable to tolerate is being laughed at; after one or two further attempts, they drift away. Or possibly, they find my response too bizarre to know how to respond.

    I realize that laughing when you’re scared is hard to manage. And possibly the tactics only work for me because I’m male. But since most of the trolls are bluffing to intimidate you, making your own bluff may be worth trying.

    1. thewhatifgirl

      I’m a woman (though I’ve never been harassed on one of my own blogs – only in the comments on other blogs and in personal email) and I would agree. I call it “trolling the trolls”, and I consider it mentally healthy since it makes me less likely to hold onto it. In my brain, it is the equivalent of catching the snowball and throwing it right back with your best aim. And if nothing else, fighting back feels good.

    2. Liz Henry

      I also try to mock at and troll the trolls and much of the time it shuts them down after a while. I think that technique works a lot better for people who have relatively large amounts of privilege. It also carries a different emotional cost for different people depending on their backgrounds and histories.

  3. Longtime reader not posting with her name this time

    On my blog, I have received numerous ongoing threats, of a nature i cannot describe here, against my kids. That’s why i don’t blog anymore and comments are off on my existing languishing blogs.

    i want this shit to stop now please.

  4. SA

    [sigh] And I never thought I’d long for the days of alt.fan.karl.malden.nose and alt.syntax.tactical….

    I feel like the amount of really raw racism, sexism, fat hatred, etc. that I’ve been exposed to thanks to news/blog comments and reports of stalking and trolling from bloggers has made me feel more cynical, more afraid, and more willing to silence myself. It *works*, gallingly enough.

    1. Skud

      It *works*, gallingly enough.

      This. Even when we’re aware of it, and support each other through it. Like most feminist bloggers, I’ve had phases of burnout where I’ve needed to withdraw from blogging so regularly in order to preserve my mental (and, occasionally, physical) health.

      One of the things I like about GF, and one of the reasons I set up this group blog, was specifically so that I (and, by extension, the other bloggers) could do that. So we could step back when we needed and take a break, while other people kept writing, and then we could step back in when we were ready, without losing the overall continuity of the blog. Also so that it was easier for us to help moderate comments as a group, etc.

      I wonder what other practical measures we can take to reduce the cost of trolls on feminist bloggers?

  5. Dorothea

    So I can only imagine how difficult gathering such information would be, but… is anyone systematically studying this phenomenon and its perpetrators? Demographics, motivation, egging-on factors, and so forth?

    Because holy heck, do I ever want a useful way to deal with these maggots… but I feel like I don’t understand enough about them, individually or collectively, to even begin to imagine a way forward.

    1. Mary Post author

      I don’t know of existing resources.

      After finding that two friends were being harassed by the same person but that neither of them had gone public and it had taken a while to put it together, I’ve considered some kind of database of harassment at least: forward your threats to [somewhere] and perhaps get notification that this is a known harasser who has harassed N people. Such a thing could also form the basis of research inquiry.

      However, I haven’t had time to look into the legal or ethical framework for such a thing: issues like who gets access when and who gets told about it; what about impersonation or false reports (for a large enough project, this would happen occasionally) and similar. If access was closed except to a small group of researchers that would help with some ethical issues but hinder some of the possible uses of, for example, “OK, I am getting a mail from someone called X with NNN IP, is this a known harasser?”

      1. Skud

        I’ve often pondered this. I feel like GF works a bit in this way, unofficially, through our backchannels. I’ll happily identify myself as one of the people who Mary mentioned as having been harassed recently. We found out that the same person was harassing multiple people when I dropped a note to the GF backchannel and said “has anyone else heard from this guy?” I wish there was a way to make that process more accessible to everyone. I agree that there are serious ethical (and possibly legal) complications, though.

        One option I considered was some kind of one-way crypt… if we could build a hash of a harasser’s details somehow, we could store that. Imagine this flow:

        Go to website. Fill in harassment report. Name, email, and IP address of harasser are hashed (separately) in the browser, then sent to the server. Server says, “I have 6 reports matching on all 3 items, and 10 on name and email. This definitely looks like a known harasser.”

        Then you could fill in a report of what happened (eg. paste the content of the message, report what website(s) it was posted on, etc), and optionally leave your contact details eg. to assist law enforcement if it comes to that.

        This is only the vaguest of vague ideas but I feel like it’s something we could probably design if we worked at it properly. Wonder if anyone’s ever done anything else similar? (Like, is there prior art in actual law enforcement?)

        1. Vass

          Is there a way you could protect against abuse? I am picturing hordes of random misogynist trolls deliberately making the database unusable by lodging so many false accusations that it’d be impossible to sift through and find the true ones.

          Also, it’s not unusual for someone who’s been accused of rape or domestic violence to decide “Right then, she accused me? Well I’ll accuse her back, then!”

          I know there’d have to be multiple accusations from different people, but it’s not like that would be difficult to engineer either.

        2. Liz Henry

          I have also been thinking along these lines.

          Vass’s points below are a fairly big problem. When a harasser is reported, their target becomes more of a target.

        3. jon

          Great discussion. I don’t know if anybody’s done anything similar beyond the kinds of informal approaches that GF uses.

          The way I look at dealing with trolls in general is as community defense; this would be a powerful tool. There lots of hard technical questions as well as legal and ethical ones but I don’t think they’re unsolvable. For example, to deal with the report/counter-report dynamics, perhaps something where I’ve got the ability to zoom in on incidents that my friends have reported.

          So seems to me that it’s definitely worth fleshing this out and talking more about how to make it work.

        4. Terri

          I haven’t seen anything similar with the hashes, but I have definitely seen douchebag lists in other contexts (gaming and dating sites spring to mind). Might be worth looking at how they handle abuse if they do?

          It might be worth including troll commentary as well as the hashes, so that it can be searchable. And you could probably even allow space for commentary on the commentary if people wanted to attach mockery/refutation that would be displayed alongside.

  6. G

    The recent Mabus case, where the harasser sent incredible numbers of threatening messages to many people, both prominent and little-known, was eventually addressed by the police. However the police only got involved after they were sent numerous complaints in a short amount of time and got to feeling a bit harassed themselves. At least two of Mabus’ victims had gone to a lot of trouble to document his threats and make formal complaints to the police but those were apparently ignored until it became inconvenient for the police themselves.

    I don’t know what the lesson is from this. What worked in this case doesn’t seem like a really good model to follow.

  7. Kevin

    Not feeding the trolls doesn’t force them to go away. It’s just almost always worse to feed the trolls than to not feed them. “Don’t feed the trolls” is still good advice. Sorry there’s no silver bullet.

    1. Mary Post author

      So there’s two separate-ish concerns: one is to avoid receiving troll comments in the first place, the other is reducing the impact on people who are trolled.

      In terms of the second at least “don’t feed the trolls” is definitely at best a mixed blessing, because it asks the people who receive abuse to not acknowledge it, share their experiences, receive support from others and so on, jointly try and ameliorate the threat presented by the minority of trolls who pose a physical threat, because (at least by some people, if not you) it counts as feeding. Unless you are lucky enough to have access to private networks of supportive people at the time, you need to go public in order to get this help.

    2. G

      I think it was Joel Spolsky who once suggested that the way to deal with trolls in comments was to display the troll comments only to the troll and hide them from everyone else, so that the troll would see hir messages apparently ignored and the messages would not be displayed for everyone else to read without refutation.

      This might work well for the attention trolls but probably not for the threatening ones.

      1. Mary Post author

        There’s Jeff Atwood’s Suspension, Ban or Hellban?

        The threatening ones have quite a different MO: they usually attempt to contact their target privately via things like PM or email.

        One of the biggest problems in general is when the trolls decide to attack the moderators. This is almost the usual case in trolling feminist blogs, because the moderators and writers are the same people so the troll knows that the bloggers who are speaking their mind are exactly the same people who have taken on the responsibility of maintaining comment safe space (give or take, obviously it’s possible to use volunteer moderators). So they don’t aim for visibility or a fight in the comments, or even a reply, just for the bloggers who spoke their mind to know exactly what the price is.

      2. Liz Henry

        It doesn’t work well for the classes of people harassed developing group political consciousness and solidarity, though.

  8. loo

    One other comment: in my time online, I’ve mostly communicated with females, and believe me, they are just as capable of being vicious trolls as any male.

    1. Mary Post author

      I’m not quite sure I understand your point: the post uses gender neutral pronouns to refer to trolls.

      1. loo

        Sorry! Reading this too early in the morning! From the example given of being harassed by a male, I guess I derived the impression this was focussing on abuse of feminists by males. Is there a sense that as many of these abusers are female as well as male? What does that say about women who do such things, I wonder. Anonymity certainly gives people who are otherwise repressed cowards a lot of courage. Answer them in kind and they will generally go away. I encountered a degree of hassle for generally having a caring disposition online – this can make people think you are easy to bully and abuse. I’m no pushover in real life, so in the end I guess I’ve toughened up my persona online to match.

        1. Mary Post author

          Certainly we pay a fair bit of attention to attacks on feminists. I get the sense that most anti-feminist trolls are either men (most likely) or would like us to believe they are men (almost certainly I happens, I would think it’s the less common case though). Of actively abusive trolls there seem to be very few who want to be identified as women, although there are plenty of women who don’t like feminism and who engage in anti-feminist debate, for sure. I don’t have firm gender data even on anti-feminist trolls and I have less strong intuitions about trolls in other spaces.

          I don’t know what their trolling especially says about women trolls, in particular, above what trolling says about any troll. Consider it fully acknowledged (per my choice of gender pronouns) in the post that there are trolls with all gender ids. A lengthy abstract discussion about what motivates women trolls in particular would, I think, be a derail of this thread and likely will not be allowed.

  9. regis

    It predates the 90’s: I don’t think we used the exact phrase “don’t feed the trolls”, but this sort of thing was an issue back in the early/mid 1980’s on USENET in soc.women.

  10. Danielle Citron

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m a law professor writing a book on cyber harassment, online bigotry, and online mobs (forthcoming Harvard University Press). The post and comments are so wise, and show how bewildering online harassment can be for targeted individuals and their supporters. On the one hand, it feels empowering to respond but, on the other hand, the blow back from harassers can be even harder than the initial harassment (and from trolls that have nothing to do with the initial attacks). Supporters can engage in Google bombs to help victims, as we saw with Jill Filipovic, but they can also be targeted with harassment, see Lena Chen’s experience. I would love to hear from people who have been harassed and learn about their experiences. I can be reached at dcitron@law.umaryland.edu. Thank you for this entry and this wiki.

    1. Mary Post author

      Hi Danielle, since this is a sensitive topic, can you say a little more about what will happen if you are contacted? Are you conducting preliminary studies, are your informants kept anonymous, how are you storing their emails?

    2. PNH

      Looking forward to the book! Do you have a publication date? I will confess that although I am a total neophyte in this subject area, it is something that fascinates me. While I certainly can see some benefits in the anonymity of perusal that the internet affords, I find anonymity in direct personal communication results in an ethical cesspool. If you have any other recommended reading on trolls in the law or soc disciplines, please advise!

  11. Apple Cider

    I can’t go immediately into what happened to me regarding online harassment (as I don’t want to give myself away.) I’ve started blogging again after having to take a break because of vicious stalking and harassment on my social media accounts and blogs by one person in particular, but there’s always been trolls and harassers in my life, especially as a fairly well-known gaming woman and feminist.

    I wish it would stop and after my long protracted communications with the law, most people in the position to stop it or care are either mis-informed or downright ignorant about internet harassment or just don’t care because the person isn’t at my door with a knife (despite making valid rape and death threats.

  12. Isaac Z. Schlueter

    As one of the moderators of an online community of software developers, I’m very interested in this subject. Three features seem to add up to make geek communities a “perfect storm” of bad behavior:

    1. Mostly male.

    2. Particularly lacking in social graces.

    3. Characterized by a “censorship is bad” ethic.

    As groups approach the dunbar threshold, and stop treating each other nicely, what’s the best way to handle the situation to avoid serious trolling as much as possible?

    For the most part, today, Node.js is a really nice community, and I’d love to keep it that way.

    Clearly, this is not anywhere *near* the same level of shit that I expect one gets as an author of a feminist blog. I’m describing mostly well-meaning people in a pretty small corner of the web, talking mostly about something other than politics, sex, or gender. But, I have found, the “don’t feed the trolls” message *is* often worse than useless advice, and you’re absolutely right to call it out as such.

    What would you suggest geek group moderators can do to better keep things from getting out of hand?

  13. Yael Tiferet

    A very good friend of mine who is a published science fiction/urban fantasy writer has had a lot of this sort of thing happen to her, including someone who claimed to be an animal rights person threatening to torture her cats to death (because she didn’t adopt them from a shelter).

    I was the project leader for a shared-universe digital fiction project (a transformative work) with which Mary is well-acquainted; it was set in an alternate universe during WWII. At one point nearly all of the moderators were Jewish women and we were repeatedly trolled by people posting neo-Nazi trash in our blog comments after they had failed to gain access to the project multiple times. Eventually I did work out that most (though probably not all) of the trolling was the work of one person (a woman, ironically) who had a hatecrush of epic proportions on me and was taking photoshopped pictures of me and posting them on the internet on parody blogs purporting to be mine. I got rid of those by sending a DMCA notice as the owner of the photos, which is something I’d rather not have done as I’m fond of the copyleft movement, but sheesh, what can you do in a situation like that? I don’t want to be job hunting and have a prospective employer see that kind of crap.

    Frankly this is small change compared to some of the other stuff I’m hearing here, but in this case there was a lot of frustration because it was impossible to figure out who this person was and as soon as you banned one identity she’d come back with ten more.

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