What Everyone Gets Wrong About Anti-Semitic Twitter Trolls

The words of trolls are hurtful, yes — but more than that, they can alter our perception of reality.
Mrs. Manningham: It’s strange that you can’t see how you hurt me. That girl laughs at me enough already…
Mr. Manningham: But, my dear — if she does that, doesn’t the fault lie with you?
Mrs Manningham: [Pause.] You mean that I’m a laughable person?
Mr. Manningham: I don’t mean anything. It’s you who read meanings into everything, Bella dear. I wish you weren’t such a perfect little silly.
— Angel Street/The Gas Light, Act 1

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, I was the unlucky recipient of several messages from an anti-Semitic troll. TASTE THE ZYKLON’s message, bearing the subject line “HAPPY SHOAH CELEBRATION DAY! LETS DO ANOTHER ONE!”, read “HOLOCAUST NEVER HAPPENED YOU FILTHY LYING KIKES.” Attached was a photoshopped image of my siblings’ faces on lampshades.

In an earlier, more innocent time, I would have been shocked and horrified by this missive. But after a month of similar tweets and emails, my capacity to feel any emotions about anti-Semitic hatred aside from sadness and exhaustion is significantly diminished. I felt merely baffled by the sender’s mixed message: If the Holocaust never happened, then how could we “do another one”?

Logical consistency is not, and never has been, the point of harassment. But if I’ve learned anything in the past month, it’s that the purpose of abuse by a group of hateful individuals isn’t exactly what I thought it was.

The purpose of abuse by a group of hateful individuals isn’t exactly what I thought it was.

I thought abuse was meant to frighten, wound, and silence its target. After my own experience with internet abuse, I’ve come to believe that while this can certainly be what trolls intend to do, there’s also often another insidious and less concrete effect: the solidification of a specific version of reality.

Internet harassment by racist, misogynist trolls may indeed frighten, wound, and silence you, but its purpose is actually to confuse you and make you doubt your reality. In the process, the trolls’ convictions are reinforced and confirmed. This effect is achieved through a mixture of false equivalences, double standards, and straight-up gaslighting.

We see this when the neo-Nazis of the so-called “alt-right” make joyful jokes about the Holocaust, an actual genocidal event — but also become infuriated when someone points out that “white genocide” is a completely fabricated concept with no basis in reality.

Internet harassment by racist, misogynist trolls is actually meant to confuse you and make you doubt your reality.

We see this when they become incoherent with rage about an obviously satiric poem that includes the lines “my legion of multiracial babies will be intersectional as fuck” and “These walls do not have genders and they all think you suck” — but also mock the oversensitive snowflakes who exhibit any sign of emotion at being barraged with Nazi memes.

Trolls once interpreted an essay I wrote that specifically called for nuanced discourse about race and gender in ancient Greece and Rome as a literal declaration of race war — but also claimed that my use of a Twitter blockbot means I’m not open to discourse, and shouldn’t be allowed to write a book about the alt-right. Their response to another article I wrote about the intersection of racism and sexism in the alt-right was to call me a fat, ugly (((Jewess))).

They send you words clearly meant to hurt you, and then tell you to toughen up, cupcake, because if words can hurt you, you don’t belong on the internet anyway. Besides, conservatives got plenty of hatred and death threats under the Obama administration, so liberals should just accept that it’s our turn and stop complaining.

It’s pretty easy to see why, taken alone, any one of these positions makes no sense. But when I was hit with all of them at once, the impact was enough to make me doubt whether I really understood the world as well as I thought I did. Is Twitter hatred actually an appropriate and commensurate response to the things I wrote? Is it whining to point out that I received abuse? Have I done something that I should apologize for?

Trolls send you words clearly meant to hurt you, and then tell you to toughen up, cupcake.

It wasn’t the hatred or the abuse that made me question my reality. It was the other messages, the ones that made little sense — like the messages telling me that I hadn’t really received death threats. Obviously, the people making that claim had absolutely no evidence for it whatsoever: Unless they were reading my emails, and seeing all of the tweets from accounts I’d reported to Twitter, how could they pass judgment on my experience with such absolute confidence? Or the messages telling me that I was coasting on the success of my famous family members, when all I’d done was write an article (for my own Medium publication!) on a topic I have a contract with a major university press to write a book about.

The point of messages like that can’t be to frighten, wound, and silence me, because they’re so obviously untrue, and it’s not particularly scary or painful to read obviously false words. It is, however, very confusing, especially when there’s an army of Twitter trolls loudly shouting their agreement with each other over statements that have no basis in our reality. At least, not in my reality. In the reality they were trying to assert — and may even actually believe in — I really was a dumb fat whiny bitch who needed to be destroyed by any means possible.

It’s not particularly scary or painful to read obviously false words. It is, however, very confusing.

This gaslighting is a feature, not a bug, of how communities like the alt-right use social media. As David Futrelle has tirelessly chronicled on his website We Hunted The Mammoth, the white supremacist, misogynistic movement that’s been branded “alt-right” is inextricable with other racist and sexist online communities, including the Red Pill subreddit, the so-called “manosphere,” and the pickup artist or “game” community. Even their memes are the same.

Some self-proclaimed mouthpieces for this movement, like Theodore “Vox Day” Beale and James “Roissy” Weidmann, dispense seduction advice and white supremacist rants interchangeably. So it is safe to assume that many of these trolls are, if not pickup artists themselves, at least aware of and sympathetic to the pickup artist worldview — a deeply and disturbingly misogynistic, cis-, and heteronormative ethos that I can’t possibly sum up better than this 2013 Boing Boing article did:

“The PUA world applies algorithms, testing and feedback, and gamification to human interaction, turning women into not just sexual objects but essentially treating that cisgendered biological configuration as a Turing-complete machine in which specifying the right sequence of inputs results in access to specific ports and protocols. In this case, the vagina is typically the desired port, with other orifices of interest as well. Working one’s way through various handshaking protocols and debugging the process of obtaining port access is part of the game.”

A crucial part of having “game” is what is sometimes known in the community as “frame theory,” or “frame control,” or “maintaining frame.” Simply put, a frame is a subject’s perception of reality. The job of a PUA when meeting an attractive woman is to maintain the frame “I’m a high-value man, and this woman would be lucky to sleep with me.” Ideally, that frame should be so solid that it can influence, even replace, the woman’s frame.

Maintaining frame, in its least toxic guise, could just be a way to theorize self-confidence — but as soon as it turns into manipulating other people’s frames, it becomes emotional abuse. How to control the frame of an encounter is a frequent topic of conversation on PUA message boards. These men literally aspire to be more skillful at gaslighting women. Their insistent need to control and manipulate women’s realities extends far outside of their interactions with women they’re sexually attracted to. It’s an intrinsic part of how these men communicate with women in every aspect of their lives.

These men literally aspire to be more skillful at gaslighting women.

Gaslighting is so invasive, so powerful, in the online world that no amount of awareness can truly protect you from it. I’ve been studying the “alt-right” and the manosphere for a year while I write a book on their use of ancient Greece and Rome, so I was entirely familiar with the concept of frame control, which draws on the principles of ancient Stoicism. That preparation helped me, but it didn’t keep me from questioning my reality. The truth is, my confidence didn’t entirely return until I read a particularly disgusting article claiming I’d been “publicly humiliated.” It was so absurd that it shook me out of my haze of self-doubt: Of course I wasn’t publicly humiliated. (To be humiliated, I’d need to actually care what any of those people thought of me — and I really, really don’t.)

Even now, as I write this, I find myself wondering how it’s going to be framed by “fans” like the one who sent all of those TASTE THE ZYKLON emails. As an admission of weakness, no doubt.

But I’d prefer to think that a willingness to be self-critical, to question my own assumptions, to consider the validity of criticism — in short, to not maintain frame — is actually a form of strength.

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