While 2016 tested all of our limits, it also tested the limits of free speech online. We have elected a troll-in-chief who’s known for slinging insults across social media for political gain. Alongside him rose a gang of “Pepes” who enjoy attacking journalists, celebrities, and run-of-the-mill posters with a combination of anime, frog cartoons, and Nazi iconography.
The problem isn’t simply limited to alt-right neo-Nazis and the reality show strongman who will disappoint them in a month’s time. On the Left, the Bernie v. Hillary feud was played out in proxy flame wars on social media. One such back and forth in which Hillary and Bernie partisan trolled each other ended with a high-level Hillary staffer making moves to get a Leftist writer fired from his job while his wife was pregnant.
Of course, trolling isn’t always political. As a writer, I have seen time and again, that commenters and people on social media with invariably harass female writers for sharing the same sentiments that I do. While I only get trolled when I touch controversial topics like beauty pageants and the douchiest bars in Philadelphia (both earned me threats on my personal Facebook page), women receive threats and harassment when they do things like review movies.
Every online community, from Reddit to IMDb, struggles with trolls. Trolling has become so prevalent in the culture that it was a centerpiece of last year’s 20th season of South Park. So, what are we going to do about them? Here are some methods that you can use to combat trolls, so your life doesn’t devolve into an endless cycle of rage and sadness.
Find Better Platforms
Though many prominent websites have fallen short when it comes to limiting trolling, others have stepped up in a big way. GitHub, for example, has implemented a clear strategy for reducing trolling on the open-source site for programmers. The company hired staff to prioritize inclusion and diversity, and then implemented oversight aimed at feedback and accountability. By encouraging people to speak out against harassment and having a process in place to deal with harassment, the culture changed.
A strategy like this seems like a natural fit for a community like GitHub, or any other place where professionals gather. There is incentive to behave well because your professional reputation is at stake and belonging to the network is important for your career. Also, professional communities generally aren’t anonymous. Some non-professional platforms are better than others. Instagram has been an industry leader in fighting trolling as of late, while Facebook and Twitter have fallen publicly, embarrassingly behind. So, what do you do if you want to—or have to—be on platforms that aren’t effective at fighting trolls?
If users have no incentive to not behave like assholes, and the websites have little incentive to stop them from behaving like assholes, what’s to be done? Twitter’s response, historically, has been “not much.” Representatives from Twitter have called the site the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” and staunch free speech proponents at the site long resisted efforts to change their corporate priorities. A recent longform piece by BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel documented the deeply-flawed attempts at fighting trolling at the company dating back to 2008. He makes a compelling case that these issues can be traced directly back to the founders of the company and their philosophy.
This culture is finally starting to change because this laissez-faire attitude toward trolling has started to cost social media giants. Last fall, news broke that several suitors for a Twitter buyout backed out due to the site’s harassment problem. Reddit garnered a ton of negative publicity due to racially-charged controversy surrounding ex-CEO Ellen Pao, and launched a plan to ban subreddits classified as hate speech and place offensive content behind a NSFW-style wall. Many websites have moderated or shut down comments sections after readers and writers complained.
These PR and bottom-line losses happened in no small part thanks to people who have spoken out. Writers and comedians like Lindy West, Jessica Valenti, Leslie Jones, and Anita Sarkeesian spoke out vocally against the harassment they endured, and these complaints gained traction in the zeitgeist. Websites like Jezebel, the Daily Dot, and the Guardian have provided a continuous platform for dialogue around these issues and how they affect lesser-known users. Last February, Twitter launched a Trust and Safety Council. We haven’t arrived at an ironclad solution, but we have at least reached a point where companies are taking action.
Use Existing Anti-harassment Tools
Almost all social media websites have a mechanism for reporting harassment and blocking users. While many of them are notoriously ineffective, start there. At least you will have a record of going through the “proper channels” when you call a social media site to task for their failure.
Draw Attention to the Stupidity
If you’re up for it, you can make fun of your trolls. Deadspin’s Ashley Feinberg has made laughing at her trolls a regular part of her Twitter feed. If comedy isn’t your weapon of choice, sharing abuse with your larger community or responding with fact-based responses can potentially cool trolls and remind you that you there are supportive people around you. Personally, I have had rare instances where trolls actually want to engage in conversation, but they start from an insulting or heated place.
Of course, you also aren’t obliged to feed the trolls. Sometimes the best response is no response at all. It’s OK if you decide to leave the conversation, the thread, or even step off of the Internet for the rest of the week. For better or worse, the Web will be waiting for you when you decide to come back. And a troll who fails to get a rise out of you is a sad, failed troll indeed.
It would be great to say that an end is on the horizon for Internet harassment. The reality is that the battle between free speech and a harassment-free Internet will wage as long as computers have wi-fi signal. While more prominent voices like Leslie Jones get results, the average woman, POC, or LGBQT person is often left with the choice of quitting or enduring harassment.
Chuck Jones, who is President of United Steelworkers 1999, has done a terrible job representing workers. No wonder companies flee country!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 8, 2016
In December, our President-elect harassed unknown union leader Chuck Jones, who at that time didn’t even have Twitter, and the future POTUS likely won’t be banned any time soon. With that in mind, you have to develop strategies for self-care. Whether that means surrounding yourself with comfortable things or getting a better night’s sleep, treat yourself right. Trolls want to ruin your day, but if you look after yourself you can ensure that they won’t.