What to do about trolling, beyond “just letting it go”
What happens when we tell subjects of trolling to “just let it go”
Trolling, death threats and rape threats have become a simple fact of my life as a writer.
Like so many women before me, nearly everything I write is met with some kind of threat. I write about seeing a doctor for the first time in years; a stranger tells me to kill myself. I write about not “feeling fat”; another stranger threatens to rape me. Yet another stranger sets up a dozen email accounts, so that he can keep threatening my life after I block each one.
But easily the most vitriolic comments have come in response to my piece about what it’s like to board a plane as a fat person. The essay was simple: I carefully and plainly catalogued my preparations for flying, the deep-seated fears that prompt my routine, and the real-life experiences of being the fat person on a plane that so many passengers vocally, theatrically dread. Still, two years later, responses find their way into my inbox, begging for my suicide, blaming me for what it seen as my inevitable and justified death.
Last month, a new threat cut especially deeply. A stranger sent me a series of emails, highlighting every time I had mentioned a location on twitter. We will find you, he wrote. And we’ll make sure you can’t write anymore. You won’t even be breathing. It felt cartoonish and chilling, laughable and terrifying all at once.
The emails arrived while I was with a friend. I confided in him: this time, the trolling was getting to me. I didn’t know how to proceed. A police report or restraining order would reveal my identity, when my anonymity was keeping me relatively safe. But failing to report this kind of direct threat could lead to complications if this proud avenger really did find his way to me.
He heaved a heavy sigh. “I mean, just let it go. What else are you going to do? People are a**holes.”
A familiar exhaustion crept into my bones. My life had been threatened — again — and it was my job to just let it go — again.
I have been fat since grade school. In childhood and adolescence, I became accustomed to backhanded compliments and open stares, street harassment and endless unsolicited lectures on calories in, calories out. As a fat queer woman, I came to expect that men, straight people and thin people would casually remind me of their idea of my place in the world, quietly and firmly reasserting their dominance. But none of that prepared me for the trolling I would face as a woman on the internet.
Trolling isn’t just an umbrella term for the kind of overstated disagreements that are so common online. Trolling is a constellation of practices that “deliberately tries to disrupt, attack, offend or generally cause trouble within the community.” It is a tried and true mechanism for silencing women, people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants and more. It can lead to doxxing — the practice of posting personal addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers, and more — and swatting — the practice of calling in fake emergency threats to law enforcement and providing the address of the otherwise innocent person you’re trying to harass. The horror stories go on and on.
Trolling is especially favored amongst the devotees of 4chan, Reddit and the alt-right, the proud provocateurs who find delight in the edginess of bigotry. But it certainly doesn’t stop there. The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the 2016 presidential election, and the rising popularity of Q-Anon conspiracy theories all feature prominent narratives of trolling. The rise and fall of Milo Yiannopolous revealed the first internet troll-turned-celebrity. And death and rape threats targeting women, people of color, and other historically marginalized people have become sadly commonplace.
Trolling is at once corporeal and ethereal, a shadowy specter and an imminent physical threat. But despite its very real, tangible consequences, trolling is often brushed off as harmless grousing of malcontents and resentful underachievers — gnats that the rest of us should just wave off.
But that’s cold comfort for those who are targeted by those cruel practices every day. The targets of trolling are left to shadowbox with flickering internet villains, unable to distinguish proud bluster from certain danger. Our friends can’t distinguish the real from the fake, either. So we’re left to just let it go.
But just let it go isn’t a solution, and it sends a troubling message. It tells women, people of color, people with disabilities, trans people, queer people, fat people, immigrants — anyone on the down side of power — that we are alone in this fight, and that we will stay alone in facing down the grim specters that threaten our bodies, our livelihoods, our privacy, our safety.
My friend’s just let it go told me that he had thrown up his hands, given up when I couldn’t. It told me I couldn’t count on his action or his support, only a limp and shapeless kind of sympathy. It told me he found those threats to be wrong, but not wrong enough to do anything about it. And it told me that despite his love for me, he expected me to simply swallow this violence, absorb the overt hatred of my body and myself, ad infinitum. Just let it go showed me that I was profoundly alone. And so, I became profoundly lonely.
Even with the best intentions, responding to trolling with just let it go renounces any responsibility to combat this troubling, pervasive phenomenon. It makes us complicit in the spread of trolling, tacitly allowing it by insisting that it has become a fact of life that simply cannot be helped.
And ultimately, just let it go puts the onus of bullying on the bullied, making it our responsibility to stay silent for fear of this inevitability, rather than a collective shouldering of the shared responsibility to end bullying altogether. It tells the most frequent targets of trolling — women, trans people, people of color, people with disabilities, fat people and more — that we are alone in this. That we will proceed unaided. That we can rely on your condolences, but not your action. That even when the demise of our bodies is prophesied, we will stand alone in fighting for our lives. That we should probably just stay silent.
Trolling isn’t some lone loudmouth that can be gagged, and it isn’t as distant as some basement-dwelling misanthropes. It is a cultural phenomenon, a rising tide of bad behavior with perpetrators we all know: neighbors and classmates, family and coworkers. Suddenly, after believing ourselves to live in a world of humans, we find that bogeymen are now in our midst. We don’t know how to fight them, because we never thought we needed to. And now we are tasked with building a whole new toolkit for combatting what is ultimately viewed as permissible, if unfortunate, cultural violence. What can we do but just let it go?
For those who aren’t the targets of trolling, and particularly for white people and men, there are plenty of actions to be taken:
- Call out trolling when you hear & see it, but don’t engage further. Don’t normalize trolling. Name threats & violence for what they are, even if they’re not targeted at you, then move on. Don’t give them a reason to continue.
- Stop assuming trolls are just a few bad actors. 1 in 4 Americans say they’ve taken part in internet trolling. Trolls aren’t some shadowy, isolated cabal. They are our neighbors, our coworkers, our cousins and acquaintances. We know trolls, and the relationships we have with them can help shift their mindset and reduce the harm they cause.
- Have proactive conversations with the people you know. If someone is a troll, and you share important identities, build relationships with them to move them along. Help them understand the impact of their actions, and help them put a human face to the damage they may cause. As Lindy West has shown, this can have unexpected and deeply meaningful impacts. Stay in relationship so you can chip away at their toxic actions, and continue to hold them accountable.
- Support those who face trolling with your actions, not just your sympathy. Support them in your deeds. Ask them how you can help when they’re facing trolling. Some like to take trolls head on; others prefer not to engage. Either way, take their lead.
- Commit to staying in it with the targets of trolling. Recognize that the toxic attitudes expressed online aren’t always just organic disagreements — increasingly, they materialize in personal harassment, organized hate groups, and acts of violence. Don’t numb yourself to the danger and harm facing marginalized people on the internet.
- Find your own complicity. This can be difficult to face, but it’s essential to think about how and why each of us normalize trolling. Is the despair too great for you to bear? Does the anger overwhelm you? What would it feel like if you were personally threatened, unable to distance yourself or disconnect? What would it mean to stop renouncing this casual violence?
Do any or all of these steps — just do something. And whatever you do, don’t just let it go.
Like this piece? There are more like it, including The Long Con: Womanhood, Fatness and Normalizing Abuse. You can also find Your Fat Friend on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.