From Under the Troll Bridges
We’ve all heard the phrase “don’t feed the trolls,” urging online users to ignore bullies, harassers, and others spreading hatred and intolerance across various internet mediums. Doing battle with online trolls is difficult, uncomfortable, and often feels ineffective. We chose instead not to engage and hoped that by doing so, they would simply go away. But 2016 has been deemed the year of the troll. Arguably the trolls have won. Which begs the question: by not putting a fight, did we let them?
The Rise of the Trolls
The Internet brought us almost unlimited potential to see and experience the world and to understand one another’s point of view. Instead, many chose polarization and self-segregation, and within this context, points of view that would otherwise have been considered shameful or abhorrent can start to appear normal. At the same time as it increased self-segregation and polarization, the Internet also gave us the widespread ability to express our beliefs anonymously, with no personal responsibility and little fear of recourse.
Thus, came the rise of the Internet troll — creatures from the Internet underbelly whose sole purpose is to gain as much attention as possible by spewing the most vile, hateful, and immoral beliefs imaginable — bullies and harassers who pick their targets based on racism, sexism, and hatred. Trolls thrive off of drawing others into their illogical and baseless arguments, selfishly desiring the attention that comes from being the #1 comment on YouTube. Quickly, we began to ignore these commenters, believing that the people posting these comments only wanted attention and that by denying them that, we could starve them and make them go away. While we, the moral Internet collective, ignored the trolls, the only ones responding to them were others who shared their beliefs, thus increasing the polarization and feeding their abhorrent belief systems.
I did not question the idea of ignoring bullies and harassers until I myself was harassed. On a crowded train car during rush hour in Washington, D.C. a stranger attacked me. Terrified, I searched the eyes of those around me, looking for help but no one would meet my eyes. In that moment, I began to think that I deserved to be harassed, even though I’d done nothing to warrant it other than taking a seat on the train. Anyone could have spoken out against the harassment I was facing. But by saying nothing, everyone on that train allowed it to happen. Here is the importance of bystander intervention, not just online but also in person. Ignoring a harasser often also means ignoring the one being harassed.
We ignored the trolls partially because we believed it would make them go away, but also because it was so much easier than battling with detestable, illogical, personally offensive beliefs.
Across the Internet, while we steadfastly refused to feed trolls, they grew anyway. With every new Internet medium that became popular, the trolls were there as well. Instead of speaking out against harassment, we stayed silent, even as they targeted and attacked any perceived threat and anyone thought to undermine their radical points of view. The nature of the Internet made this easy to ignore even as trolls grew more pervasive, more aggressive, and more threatening. Instead of just commenting on something that displeased them, they would begin to direct message the original poster. They would spam the poster across multiple mediums — if you tweeted something that displeased a troll, they would not only would they tweet back at you, they would also find you on Facebook and flood your page, they would direct message you on Facebook and Twitter, they would find out where you lived and send death threats to your house. They would get their friends to join in and launch a targeted trolling campaign against you. Cyberbullying campaigns have targeted female video gamers, abortion clinics, female politicians, and female actresses who seek to remake male roles. All along, the faceless mass of the Internet watched, thinking we had done well for having not fed the trolls while their victims were being attacked on all fronts, spread out across multiple mediums and multiple people, where it was difficult to see the full brunt of the attack.
2016: The Year of the Troll
In November 2016, America learned that trolls vote. Behind the flickering, anonymous computer screens are real people who are not posting vile and disgusting comments simply for attention or click bait, but because they truly believe these points of view. What so many of us had been ignoring for years was a vocal, angry, ugly underside of America, motivated by hatred. And Donald Trump gave them their chance to have their hatred broadcast, recognized, and legitimized. And they won. Anyone who voted for him, implicitly or explicitly, supported the racism, sexism, and intolerance that he spewed during his campaign and has continued to embody as President.
Within the sacred anonymity, not of their computer screen, but of the voting booth, the trolls were able to take control of this country. They have won.
While we, the moral Internet collective, ignored the trolls, the only ones responding to them were others who shared their beliefs, thus increasing the polarization and feeding their abhorrent belief systems.
Our President is Racist
Racist trolls have crawled out from under their bridges, away from the protective anonymity of their computer screens, to literally march through the streets, not 3 hours from where I live in our nation’s capital. They felt comfortable openly declaring their messages of sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism, their hatred of certain groups of people based on their skin color, nationality, or religion for all to see. They were either confident that they would face no significant negative consequences for doing this, or they felt so strongly about their cause — this hatred — that they were willing to risk whatever negative consequences that might come, willing to be a martyr for racism.
Ku Klux Klan Members in Charlottesville, VA | Source: © WJLA/Fox23Maine
Our President, Donald Trump, King of the Trolls, could not even be bothered to put out a statement condemning white supremacists and yet, in the weeks and months that have followed, has been able to rant and rail against football players protesting racism and police brutality.
San Francisco 49ers players Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick, and Eric Reid kneel before a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 7, 2016 | Source: © Kirby Lee/The Nation
Colin Kaepernick has said that he was inspired by the idea of the flag being half-mast when there is a tragedy. Not rising fully during the National Anthem was Kaepernick’s response to the tragedy that is police brutality. Our flag would not be half-mast, so Kaepernick decided to be. He responded to a situation that he deemed tragic, by using his platform, his celebrity, the status that comes with it, and his skill at his life’s work, football, to protest this injustice.
But many do not see the tragedy at all. Rather than face the problem and work to resolve it, many would rather turn a blind eye. They would rather blame Kaepernick for calling attention to the problem, than work to find its solution. His protest is deemed ugly and unfit. And there are those, like Trump, who feel he should be punished for it.
The response from Trump on both Charlottesville and his subsequent response to the athletes kneeling during the national anthem speaks volumes. On the topic of protesting during the national anthem, Trump has issued dozens of tweets condemning the players and those associated with the protest and saying that those involved deserve the harshest censure. But Trump issued no such statements around Charlottesville. What else is to be assumed, then, but that on some level the President of the United States supports white supremacy?
Be Better than Trump
In this case, by not showing explicit dissent after the white nationalist march, the president has implicitly consented to the displays of hatred. In these trying times, when it feels like white supremacy, hatred, and ignorance are on the rise in our country, many Americans who experience marginalization are looking to their family, friends, and peers to openly and explicitly resist this rise, for fear that those who did not explicitly and vocally do so are actually in support of it.
It is clear that not “feeding the trolls” didn’t work. The trolls have come out into the open and are making their presence known. The same violent and hateful rhetoric that has been present online in the comment sections for years has increasingly come bubbling up to the surface, and into our everyday lives. Hate crimes are on the rise with symbols of white supremacy and hatred becoming ever more prevalent.
Fight Trolls & Everything They Represent
We ignored the trolls partially because we believed it would make them go away, but also because it was so much easier than battling with detestable, illogical, personally offensive beliefs. Similarly, not being racist should be the easy part. Most of us were taught that racism is wrong, that is immoral to hate someone because of their skin color, and that to express such a view is shameful.
But each of us must do more than simply not being racist. We must work against racism. We must consciously, constantly, and explicitly work to dismantle our already very racist systems and to disrupt a status quo that allows people to express racist points of view without consequence. We must act because to not do so is to condone the activity and to allow it to continue. As the incidents of displays of white supremacy rise, so too does the need to actively show dissent with that point of view. We must speak out against harassment when we see it, we must call out racism and bias when we come across it, we must the face the trolls in person and online.
Counter-rally against white supremacists in Charlottesville | Source: © Reuters/ABC News
That is the hard part! But it’s worth doing. It won’t be simple, easy, or comfortable, but we have to do it anyway. Because the stakes are too high if we don’t. What is at stake is the very soul of our country and the quality of life for those living in it. For me, white supremacy is not only morally detestable, it is genuinely and totally terrifying. White supremacists conjure up not so distant nationally held memories of Jim Crow laws and mass lynchings. White supremacists are a threat to my safety, my person, my freedom, and my ability to choose how I live my life. To do nothing in the face of all that, to choose the easy way and ignore the problem instead is cowardice. Ignoring white supremacy only feeds white supremacy and is as immoral. When no one speaks up, it is the victims who feel shamed, and perpetrators like Donald Trump only gain power.
If we want racist trolls to go back into hiding or better still, to be silent, there must be swift and resounding consequences for expressing racist points of view. If you do not want our not-so-distant history to repeat itself, if you stand against these amoral terrorists, I need to hear from you. Do you think that your discomfort is worth more than my safety? Or when that song comes on, will you take a knee with me?