Don’t Feed the Trolls 

Situations differ. The solution doesn’t.

Sixty angry Twitter responses in half an hour? I must have said something terrible. This was my advice to a trolling victim:

@CCriadoPerez that person was probably delighted when you sent out the screenshot. They’re clearly sociopathic, ignore & block them, no?

Caroline replied:

“@chrisbeach how about you fuck off with your advice and telling me how to behave?” —@CCriadoPerez

Earlier today, high-profile Twitter troll victim Caroline Criado-Perez posted a screenshot of a troll’s disgusting messages to her, which I won’t repost here. Suffice to say, they were graphic, threatening and criminal. Anyone would be appalled to receive them, and it’s understandable Caroline wants to shame the perpetrator and seek support from everyone around her. However, as a direct result of her action, she:

  • Revealed that the troll had successfully upset her. Most trolls exist only to hurt people, and this troll just got his fix.
  • Gave the troll the oxygen of high-profile publicity. It’s impossible to shame an anonymous online troll. It’s easy to feed them.

To be clear — I feel much sympathy for Caroline, and I am only interested in preventing similar things happening in the future.

The danger is that more trolls, or wannabe trolls, saw Caroline’s post and identified her as their next easy target.

Regarding my advice (“ignore the trolls”), I got astonishing responses from Twitter onlookers:

LOL! Telling us to ignore it just shows them that they’re winning. —@HistoryJenna

Yes, I’m suggesting some victims modify their behaviour. Because I don’t want trolls to win and multiply. I’ve been online for decades and seen generations of trolls. I’ve received unpleasant threats online (including death threats) for running my atheist website. When I blocked and ignored them they went away. I’m still here.

Don’t Punch Air

Never in life would I shut up if someone was being oppressive, not going to start doing so online either. —@lozzlemcfozzle

One classic solution to real-world bullies is to stand up to them, David and Goliath style. Punch them squarely in the jaw. It works because it shocks the bully into losing his/her domination of a formerly weak victim.

This doesn’t work online. In a war of words, sock puppets, mobs and anonymity, you can’t punch the perpetrator in the jaw. Online, your fists flail blindly and visibly to all. Strong language might feel bold, but it just bleeds further into shark infested water.

Twitter has a “report abuse” feature, and if the abuse is serious and targeted, the police are compelled to respond to complaints under the Protection from Harassment Act ‘97. Take my advice: report and complain privately, without spilling any blood in public. By going private, you’re not “capitulating” to oppressive trolls. You’re just delivering a more effective and deadly response to them. If trolls don’t see the police coming, they won’t know to delete the evidence.

What do Trolls Want?

I won’t claim to have experience that matches Caroline’s, but hear me out. An example of recent trolling I received: strangers emerging to mock and threaten several things including my family, my websites and.. my receding hairline.

“Are you seriously comparing being mocked for male pattern baldness with month-long torrents of graphic threats and hate speech?” —@SisterTrinity

Nope. I’m pointing out the methods of the troll. They were probing for emotional triggers. Turns out I am actually sensitive about my hairline, as some guys are. But of course these trolls weren’t actually making an observation about my hairline. They don’t care about it. They are just probing for weakness. Should I respond, then they’ve found a soft spot by which they can control my emotional state.These people are lonely and powerless in the real world, and they get off on remote-controlling people through their emotions.

Obviously the sustained campaign against Caroline is more serious, involving threats from people who have been criminally charged.

I’d like to see anyone stay emotionless in the face of that. —@Whatsername21

I’m not suggesting that we somehow control our emotions. We’re not always in charge, I get that. But we can control what we post online. Caroline’s response to me was immediate, it was angry and it demonstrated I’d riled her. For the record, that wasn’t my intention.

If I was a troll, I would have hit the goldmine.

The Anti-Female Trolls?

The response they are looking for is to abuse women until those women shut the fuck up & go back to the kitchen@SisterTrinity
Manslaining that someone should just shut up and ignore abuse is sickening really. “Take it like a woman!” — @KrispyLove
If you’re silent then they win. That’s what they want, they want women to shut up and have no opinions.—@Whatsername21

You might be right. These trolls might have a systematic anti-feminist agenda. Using Twitter to bring us back to the 1950's. Except I doubt the most stupid troll expects that to happen. Instead, I believe what these people are doing is probing, and discovering an anger within some feminists that they can exploit to get their kick. Let’s not beat around the bush. A lot of feminists will be the first to admit they’re angry. They have every right to be, given what women have gone through in recent history. However, don’t forget the sole motivation of the troll. To feed on emotions, and get a kick out of controlling them. We don’t need to renounce feminism, or anger. Just avoid it spilling into the greedy mouths of trolls.

“Don’t Blame the Victim”

He said she invited abuse by showing emotions. He is literally telling her just calm down and shut up — @SisterTrinity
Is there a good reason you’re trying to shift the blame for their disgusting and criminal behaviour to Caroline? — @lollypalolly
By telling Caroline how to respond, you are blaming her for not being a “good enough victim” —@LeStewpot

Firstly, let me reiterate — I have sympathy for Caroline, and I’m offering sincere advice. No one deserves abuse online. No one consciously invites it. No one can be expected to brush off serious threats.

However, we all have a weapon to use in response to trolls. Deny them oxygen. Block them upon their first message. It works for me. It’ll probably work for you too.

This method won’t address the horrendous real-life stalkers and criminals, but it will help avoid you being a target online. And who knows, perhaps some of these real-life criminals began their obsession with Caroline because they could control her easily online.

Why am I getting involved in this? Because I see worrying suggestions from well-meaning people who want us to:

  • Moderate all online exchanges — which is sufficiently burdensome to kill all but the largest web startups
  • Expand existing mechanisms to silence people that upset you — which will cripple the power of the internet to facilitate discussion with people that disagree.
  • Block certain forms of content — which has the potential for arbitrary blocking, and is undoubtedly government-controlled. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why this is a bad thing.

In summary, we shouldn’t forget that the victim already has tools, techniques and a lot of support online. Don’t let trolls define you through your own emotional response.