I’ve been thinking a lot lately about online harassment, given this whole GamerGate brouhaha… It seems systemic, unstoppable, and frequently dangerous, and it’s become a larger and larger part of the world as our social interactions (and public presences) migrate into online spaces.
The way I see it, online harassment generally comes from two places—trolling and actual hate/anger/fear.
The first type, trolling, is the act of saying/doing provocative things in order to get a reaction, which is considered humorous or at least entertaining. I really don’t get trolling, and find it pretty despicable, even as I’m surrounded by trolls in real life. How is making someone else feel hurt or angry or scared funny? Like, “Ha ha, I said this horrible thing and you got upset, so hilarious.”
I’ve only been trolled in real life by people “trying to get a rise out of me,” but I know being on the other end of trolling feels really frustrating. You react to something, try to argue your side and not get too emotional, and then the other person just laughs and diminishes your feelings by making a joke out of them. Ultimately, I think it’s a tactic to dismiss your argument—you’re “overreacting” to a “joke,” so of course what you’re upset about isn’t real. Your feelings aren’t real or worthwhile. It cuts any actual debate off at the knees, and leaves the troll feeling superior and satisfied.
It’s not a new form of humor, though—pranks are a classic form of trolling, meant to get a reaction which is somehow humorous because it’s to something not real. But in that moment, for that person, that reaction and those feelings are real. Trolling in the form of, “Oh, look a spider,”—fear—“Ha ha, it was fake,” is, for the most part, harmless—even though I still don’t get it; maybe I’m just a killjoy. But trolling in the form of, “[Horrible sexist statement]”—anger/hurt—“Ha ha, I didn’t mean it, just trolling,” is a lot more troubling. Because the sexist statement has sometimes been said with sincerity, it speaks to remaining issues and power dynamics in the real world, and it’s far more personal and emotional than a fake spider. It’s kind of like the difference between the spider prank and pranking someone to believe they have cancer—that’s far more emotional, more damaging, more real, than the threat of a spider.
I don’t know how to “fight” trolling—someone who gets entertainment out of your anger or upset can only get further amusement out of your attempts to stop them. But I think that if someone is truly trolling, and not just using trolling as an excuse once on the defensive, then they probably are overall harmless. They think it’s a joke, and they’d probably tell you they wouldn’t actually want to hurt anyone. They’re the types who’ll say something awful, but as soon as they’re called on it, say, “But I would never actually think or do that.” If we believe them, then online harassment by trolls is just obnoxious noise. [Noise which perpetuates harmful real world effects and can desensitize people to actual abuse, but still… noise.]
The second type of harassment, coming from genuine feelings, is far more dangerous. More on that next time…