What Happens When You Track Down Your Online Trolls?
The Debrief: Is there any restorative justice whatsoever in confronting those who send abuse on the internet IRL?
My name is Jo, and I’m a journalist. In my spare time, I enjoy cooking, long walks in the park and tracking down people who have sent me abuse online so I can ask them what the fu*k their problem is.
The first thing that has worked against me is simply that I am a woman online. Secondly, I am a woman who occasionally covers contentious subjects, from abortions to immigration to, umm, gaming. I have a modest following and am, to some, a pretty jarring person. So, the volume of harassment I get, while not a stream of perpetual shit, is a gentle, babbling brook. Over the past five years I’ve had death threats for being pro-choice, (which seemed kind of counterproductive to the sender’s thinking in my view, but whatever). One gentleman hoped I was gang-raped after I suggested that humans shutting themselves off from the real world to live with sex robots was maybe not a good idea. I’ve also been bemused at how even innocuous comments can provoke abuse, like the person who hoped I'd die because I'd written an article on clubbing or was a Lil’ bit mean to Lil Wayne in a review.
For a long time, I brushed most comments off, they were mere water off a woman in the public sphere’s back. That changed just over a year ago when someone sent me a screengrab of my home on Google street-view. What had begun as a polite back and forth online exchange turned into needless pedantry, then progressively snarkier replies and, once I stopped responding, morphed into all out harassment. The final screen-grab and accompanying message triumphantly detailing what a silly little girl I was for ‘having a big mouth’ but apparently being sloppy with my online security, was such a carefully crafted attempt to display dominance over me that the sender became my Keyser Soze.
Except, instead of a tracking down a murderer, I was zoning in on some guy who was probably from Clapham who, for reasons unbeknownst to me, felt compelled to call me a ‘cum dumpster’ from a series of burner accounts, the anonymity of which was preserved by the cyberspace from whence they came.
Since starting my personal campaign of restorative justice, I’ve received a written apology from the workplace of a particularly vicious alt-right bro. I tracked him down via essay-long entries he’d written on a bodybuilding forum. I’ve spoken to the university of a Ched Evans apologist student, after tracing him back to some cringe student magazine articles. I’ve been blocked on every platform by the CEO of a ‘positive and friendly’ startup for staycations after I found his number on Companies House and proceeded to ring his office every weekday at 9 am after he said I was a wetback that should be deported (despite being born in Barnet). The easiest task in all of this was settling in to investigate a guy who felt it was important to tell me I was too ugly to be raped, only to find he’d gifted me with frantic Tweets to Domino’s customer service about his missing Pepperoni Passion, with his full name and town. Invading my trolls real life spaces just as they’d invaded my online space has brought me some satisfaction, but it hasn’t exactly been totally gratifying.
The US think-tank Pew Research Center’s latest study into online harassment showed 41% of respondents had experienced some form of harassment, with women twice as likely as men to report being subjected to online abuse. The harassment reported by these women was overwhelmingly gendered-slurs and, at the most extreme end of the spectrum, threats of sexual violence. Notably, the study also found that men valued free speech far more than safety and believed people take online abuse too seriously, whereas women felt feeling safe online was of paramount importance. And there lies the rub. Men do not receive online harassment for simply existing whereas we women do.
In short, if you are a woman online the abuse you receive is gendered in order to put you firmly back in your proverbial place, and intimidate you into being quieter, thinner, whiter, straighter and so on presumably until you shrink and disappear. This month alone, plus-sized blogger, Callie Thorpe, has spoken out about being sent over 1000 abusive messages for just appearing in a Vogue article. Diane Abbott has, in excruciating detail, described the race and gender fuelled abuse she’s received for just doing her job and Gina Miller who was subjected to nothing short of an online witch hunt for challenging the government’s Brexit ruling, finally jailed the Viscount who offered £5000 to have her run over.
While social media platforms have noticeably upped the capabilities for users to filter out the abuse, a lot of the onus is still on us to protect ourselves. Like a lot of women, I know which online bears not to poke for my own sanity and ignore self-proclaimed trolls whose entire internet presence is dedicated to replying to people who don’t follow them, under usernames like @MeninistOverlord or @NotAllMenDave. But, unless you decide to opt out of the internet altogether, abuse will always get through, and the power of that initial jolt you feel when it lands in your inbox or your mentions does not diminish, it doesn’t become any less upsetting with time.
A weary acceptance that threats of rape and sexual violence are just part of the territory of being a woman online and lumping all cyber abuse under the umbrella term of ‘trolling’ is frustrating in itself. The Guardian’s ‘The Internet Warriors’ documentary, released earlier this year, made some headway towards dispelling that, by showing the real people behind what is all too often painted as an uncontrollable and inevitable sentient cloud of anime profile pictures, to reveal individuals whose online hate was borne out of a mixture of loneliness and social exclusion. Noticeably, however, the card-carrying misogynist troll had eluded the filmmaker.
When I eventually tracked down my Keyser Soze, I was even angrier to find out he was a ‘normal’ person. An adult man who holidays with his girlfriend in Italy, shares videos about dogs being saved from floods on Facebook and, apparently, has an alter ego for sending women they’ve never met ‘I know where you live’ messages. After finally keeping him on the phone long enough to read what he'd sent to me back to him, I was taken aback by how distraught he was and yet completely unsympathetic. When he first answered, he was confident and well-spoken. This took a nosedive when he realised he’d been rumbled and at one point it kind of sounded like he’d run into a stationery cupboard to breathlessly apologise. If I’d confronted him over email he’d have had the option to remain defiant or be eloquent about his reasons for abusing me. On the phone, at his work, surrounded by real life colleagues who’d no doubt think he was a prick for what he’d done he had no armour. And it was his explanation for emailing me in the first place that killed any empathy: he just didn’t think he’d be found out. Here was a person horrified that I was returning the turd he thought he’d shot out safely into the online ether, and would never dream of doing such a thing in ‘real life’. But that’s not good enough and that’s the problem, why is online behaviour somehow lesser than real life behaviour?
My own internet presence isn’t always sweetness and light, and sometimes I gross myself out at how disproportionately unkind I can be from the safety of my laptop. It would be easy to get lost down a rabbit hole of analysing the gulf between our real and online selves, and how our behaviour on social media differs from in real life but, surely, today we spend so much time online that this is a false distinction anyway?
What my year-long experiment has taught me is that the men behind some of the vilest messages I’ve received – and it has only and always been men – have been ostensibly ‘normal’ people. People that should know better and are far from the monsters sat in a windowless-bedsits thrashing away at a computer keyboard thick with navel fluff I’d pictured.
Trolls are real people, with real social responsibility and real friends and colleagues who’d probably be horrified to find out what they got up to online. And that, in itself, is terrifying.
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At work? With your gran?
You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating