Ladies and trolls of the Internet

The web is home to violently sexist commentary that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere


The Internet is sexist. Virulently so.

The everyday misogyny expressed on virtually every open forum is so common that it has become expected. It shouldn’t be though, and Helen Lewis-Hasteley of the New Statesman has done a fine thing by asking nine bloggers to write about the violent and hateful messages they receive daily, and how if affects them (spoiler: it’s not banal when you’re the target of it).

For readers, there’s something darkly exciting about a bunch of bloggers sharing the worst hate mail they’ve received with you—at first, that is. Reading the piece, any excitement dissolves pretty quickly: sexist trolls are repetitive, stupid, and boring. Their put-downs and sexual insults, even their threats of gang rape—all of them are terribly uncreative and tedious. The intended menace rarely registers—all that comes across is how pathetic the trolls are, how sad it is that their default reaction to disagreeing with a woman (about politics, video games, anything) is to attack her appearance and suggest that what she really needs is…

Some female bloggers ignore the comments, some read them compulsively, some even respond. All of the women who contributed to Lewis-Hasteley’s piece refuse to be dissuaded or silenced by them. This is admirable, as most of them report times when things have gone too far. The most common threat is a cowardly one—a troll will Google a blogger up and down, procure some personal information (her home address, her phone number) and then post it along with their bile. Even if they are merely posturing—and they almost always are—the information is now available to others who might not be. This is terrifying. Those who face it and continue to write what they believe (about politics, video games, whatever) while continuing to solicit feedback and commentary deserve to be called heroes.

Consider these words from blogger Caroline Farrow:

“What can be done to reduce it? Nothing, nor would I support any moves to legislate for trolls. It’s simply the flip side to freedom of speech, we cannot have a society whereby people are not allowed to say things that could be perceived as offensive, regardless of intention. What concerns me is whether or not people might ever carry these grudges and vendettas through to real life, which is what I have been threatened with in the past. With freedom comes great responsibility.”

It is worth noting that Farrow is a right-leaning, Catholic blogger. The abuse she routinely receives, from men who self-identify as liberal, is just as sexist and sexually threatening as the rest. The men who express their political differences with women like Farrow (or Ann Coulter, or Sarah Palin) in the form of rape-threats or sexual put-downs reveal that misogyny festers on all sides of the political spectrum.

As my friend Luke has pointed out on his blog, all this toxic content does serve a purpose. It exposes the ugliness that a surprising number of men hide just beneath the surface, and reveal just as soon as they are alone in their homes, protected by the illusion of anonymity. Luke points to 4Chan founder Moot, who says that “anonymity is authenticity.”

Unfortunately, this is true. Internet culture is authentically sexist, authentically out-of-whack with offline social norms, and authentically spoken in the same sweaty, ugly vernacular of early 90s BBSes. These voices need to be shamed, not censored. Those who experience women online only through porn need to learn that they are sharing space with actual human females, just as they do at work or in public.

Those of us who simply ignore their comments (which I usually do) can be seen as tolerant of them, perhaps even accepting or encouraging. That’s what needs to change- not “real names” policies, filters, or other forms of willful ignorance. Online communities need to self-police and shut these creeps up.

It’s time to feed the trolls, more than they can stomach.

Jesse Brown is the host of TVO.org’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown


Ladies and trolls of the Internet

  1. “insert sexist/ racist comment here to convey irony”

  2. Oh it’s sexist alright…venomously so.

    I’ve been threatened more times than I can remember, usually with a shotgun, and solely for having an opinion.

    • This comment was deleted.

      • I shall leave it to Macleans to take out the trash.

    • My gripes with you have nothing to do with gender, for what it’s worth.

  3. As wretched as their sexism may be – and it is wretched, in the extreme – I think it’s also important to note that these people are equal-opportunity haters. As a left-leaning former political blogger, I have received more than anyone’s fair share of male-rape and gun-in-the-back-of-the-head threats. Phone calls, too. It’s a sorry state of affairs when public discourse degrades to such a primal and antisocial level, as soon as the veil of anonymity is drawn. You can only wonder what other social conditions might permit this type of individual to indulge his (and, in many cases, her) ugliest instincts.

    • How do you know they are equal-opportunity haters? There are a lot of men who hate women, want to keep us subordinated and are threatened by any attempt to change that balance. They are willing to use fear to stop feminist ideas from spreading. I could be wrong, but I just don’t believe that you, as a man, are receiving the same number of rape threats as a feminist blogger. Have you read Sady Doyle’s piece about the hate mail she’s received: http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/11/10/but-how-do-you-know-its-sexist-the-mencallmethings-round-up/

      The hate is very much related to her appearance and her sexuality. This is something that happens more to women.

  4. I can honestly say that here on Macleans I have never read any overt threats of violence either with or without a sexual connotation but there is plenty of bullying.  People regularily question other people’s intelligence in an attempt to intimidate them from expressing any opinion that might differ from their own.  Some people also refer to others as “sweetie” and “honey” in the most condescending manner possible and “laugh out loud” at other peoples’ opinions…again, in an attempt to question the intelligence of their offerings and intimidate them from making any additional comments.  You are right, JimmyCritic when you say that “anonymity” contributes greatly to the “uglier instincts” of bloggers but would you give this people your name and have them harrassing you where you live?  At least when your blogging, you can chose to sign off.

    • There’s also a guy — is it Dennis F: I’m not sure? — on here regularly who really attempts to intimidate Emily (Original Emily now) — he says what her “real name” is, he is very demeaning and patronizing.  Also, not very bright — but I have seen comments here that are not violent, but threatening in other ways. 

  5. S’why I’m pseudonymous when commenting. I don’t need random idiots making up complaints to the Law Society just because I was mocking them. 

    (Also, not to diminish the point, but extend it: the hate-filled misogynistic trolls of the internet are also largely the virulently homophobic and casually racist ones too.)

    • Don’t you find it odd that the folks who post the items on this blog are all clearly identified whereas those who comment on those items are – primarily – anonymous? I’ve been commenting on the internet for more years than I’d like to admit and I’ve always done so under my own name. If using your own name inhibits you from saying what you want to say then you really ought to examine the basis of what you want to say, at least that’s my opinion.

      • It’s like this:

        1. I’m a lawyer.
        2. I have opinions that are irrelevant to my job.
        3. As a corollary to #2, these opinions are personal, and when acting professionally I ignore many of them.
        4. Spiteful trolls – identified with their real name or not – could easily harass me, my employer, my clients or my regulatory body simply because they don’t like what I’m saying, to the extent that my interests could unreasonably be harmed.
        5. I want to express my opinions.
        6. I don’t want to give those who would attempt retribution on a professional level merely for my expressing those personal opinions an easy way to do it.

        • Fair enough…

          I think people as a whole are entirely too paranoid but perhaps I am insufficiently so. I’ll continue to continue…

          • I don’t think people are “too paranoid”.  Did you hear about the students at the University of Calgary that complained about their profs on Facebook..result = discipline for the students.   Freedom of speech is a myth.   People have also been fired from jobs for using their own names and giving truthful accounts of happenings at their workplaces…..there is no whistleblowing legislation and now the people of the Province of Alberta are finding out how many doctors were intimated or fired because they spoke out on behalf of their patients (Health Quality Council of Alberta/Dr. John Cowell investigating allegations of intimidation of physicians who advocated for patients in province).

          • I didn’t hear about the students at the University of Calgary, so I looked them up only to find out that they won their court battle and their right to free speech was protected. I presume you are talking about this case?

            People can’t fight for their right to speak freely if, at the same time, they are censoring themselves by means of anonymity. Hiding behind an internet “handle” is voluntary surrender of your right to speak freely.  

          • No, it’s protecting myself from those consequences above. Without anonymity, I’d just say nothing; that would be voluntary surrender. Free expression is only meaningful – like the right to vote – if you can do it without the mob shouting you down or enforcing social punishment for the “wrong” opinion.

          • Good for the University of Calgary students…I was talking about that case.  However, I had friends at Alberta Health Services who were fired for talking about our workplace on Facebook so let’s not celebrate free speech yet.

          • People as a whole are entirely too paranoid…

            ..but that doesn’t make them wrong about it.

            One more reason I’ll add for pseudonyms is that they eliminate preconceptions, hence prejudice.  For instance, folks who’ve been around here for a while may have an idea as to whether I’m male or female. Most, however, don’t.  Nor do they have any idea of my race or background. As such, that only leaves them the content of my posts to react to.

            Were I to use my real name, that would change, and they might treat  my posts with more or less respect than they deserve. And if my identity also happens to be one with some celebrity attached, that too could effect what people see — perhaps adding or subtracting authority not deserved by the text itself.

            That said, Igarvin isn’t a pseudonym? Huh. Who knew?

    • Actually, I wasn’t even thinking about you…hahahah….I was thinking about another blogger who always says things like “you need to get off the porch, Dearie”.  I was mocking her but I forgot you say “sweetie” all the time….can’t say you use LOL though…

      • I do, but I use it for either gender. I prefer to patronize people as individuals, not gendered stereotypes.

        • I don’t think it makes it any better. It lowers the tone of the debate, which encourages trolls.

        • Hint: If you’re using “sweetie” as a patronizing remark, you’re being misogynistic regardless of who you’re applying it to.

  6. I think Facebook and other social media sites have gone a step too far for my liking. My grandfather told me long ago that key to happiness in life was to limit the number of spastics that you have to deal with on daily basis. Fewer halfwits = more happiness and Facebook is opposite of how you achieve tranquility. 

    My missus, on other hand, thinks social media is great even tho it makes her crazy, anxious and scared. She has had a few people harass her online and she responded with similar comments while I suggested she ignore dullards. 

    I think proper trolls have mental issues and there is no right answer because they are unpredictable. To me, trolling seems passive way to express anger and aggression and if you irritate troll, maybe angry person sends even more anger your way. Or at least that’s what I told my missus. 

    There is no good answer for male misogyny. When no women are around, males can say some awful things, and I have no idea how we stop them. 

    • How to stop them: you tell them to stop, in person or online.  You don’t laugh or ignore and pretend there’s nothing wrong with their comment.  They are bullies, and like all bullies, they are actually cowards and back down when called on it.

  7. Is it sexist when its directed at everyone? Or just simple bullying.  The lack of creativity the trolls have just means that they have the same standard sexually charged insult for everyone.  That’s not sexist just pathetic.  To be sexist it would need to be reserved for one sex. 

    It doesn’t make it right or nice, but take comfort the world might not be as sexist as you read.  Just lacking imagination in the putdowns. 

  8. Sure, Jesse, so tell us how?

    Ban them? That goes against the whole free speech argument, not to mention that it’s entirely non-effective while the internet maintains any anonymity.

    Lose the anonymity? How? Unless you restrict people to a single internet account and have their IP constantly tracked.. and not even then considering the use of IP forgers and botnets.

    Get all upset and yell at them a whole bunch? Uh. You do understand what a troll is, yes? These personas exist to provoke rage, to create reactions, so getting upset at them is like dropping excrement  on a dandelion patch.  It might cover them up for a little bit, but it doesn’t look any better and they just get stronger from it. 

    The only thing that might work is reversal.  They post someone’s private information, send white-hats out to get their private information and respond in kind.

  9. You want to see some of the most virulent homophobic sludge on the internet, follow Andrew Breitbart on Twitter and see what kind of hate that is directed at him that he retweets on a daily basis. It’s an eye opener.

    • Similarily, Michelle Malkin gets a double dose of the sludge with racism on top of misogyny.

      • I would never defend the bloggers that send vile messages but people like Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter make a living off of saying provocative and outrageous things that regularly border on racism & bigotry.  I find it hard to buy that they even believe a fraction of the stuff that they spew but it sells books and gets them speaking engagements.  I am sure they include the nasting blogging is all part and parcel of their “stick”.

        • I don’t feel any need to tear down Ann Coulter as a woman or anything. I know some people like to attack her appearance. She is an abhorrent human being purely from an intellectual perspective. She says just remarkably awful things just to sell books. She is remarkably ignorant and arrogant. I was struck by the interview she did with the CBC where she insisted the Canadian reporter was wrong about whether Canada participated in Iraq.

          • It was Vietnam they were arguing about, not Iraq. Unless I’m thinking of a different interview. In any case, there were over 9000 Canadians who volunteered to fight in Vietnam (a figure I still have a hard time believing, but apparently it’s true) so she wasn’t totally wrong about that. There’s been some debate in recent years as to whether there should be a monument for them, as there is for the volunteers in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, another war we were not officially involved in. Coulter is a wingnut, but her point about Canadian involvement in Vietnam was not completely without basis. Of course she had almost certainly misunderstood that those Canadians were volunteers, and not sent by the Canadian government. 

  10. I’m embarrassed to say I had no idea of the scope of this issue. Kudos Macleans for posting the article. 

    Proud of anyone who sustains this kind of abuse and chooses to continue.

  11. LOL. Yes, and all these people being “threatened” are pure as the driven snow. Pull my other finger Jesse. Folks, if you are going to open up your hole and spout your opinion without regard to others’ feelings and sensitivities – they are going to tell you to shut up. The more offensive or stupid your opinion is, the more violently they will do it. I am not surprised some of you have received threats, nor am I particularly sympathetic.

    For some reason lefties want a society where they can say whatever they want without fear of reprisal – until somebody offends THEM – then they want censorship and thought control. Unfortunately the media goes along…and it is one of the major reasons the media is pretty much irrelevant today other than as glorified chat forums.

    Another hallmark of the political left is to torment their adversaries mercilessly, and then play the wounded victim when they are told where to go and how to get there. I am always happy to help the ladies, so it behooves me to point out something rather obvious to Jesse: all this hate you get isn’t hatred of women – it’s hatred of YOU personally. This is an important distinction especially for feminists. Feminists no longer speak for women, and the mainstream women are beginning to chafe at the thought of these cackling idiots being their ‘voice’. It’s just my opinion, but some of these stupid feminists should just shut up and go do something useful. Brining me a sammich and a beer would be a good start…and please be civil about it, we all must respect everyone’s opinion, right?

    • Careful, someone might cross your bridge while you’re away.

    • I believe the author went through great pains to point out this wasn’t a lefty and righty issue. It was an issue of bullying, intimidation and sexism, emanating from across the political spectrum. That you go on about lefties and righties in response to said article shows you either failed to read it or failed to comprehend it. 

      I am not above such antagonism, and even sexist antagonism. A well placed “sweetie” or “hon” can sometimes trigger a very rewarding response. (Goading Holly Stick into wishing she could beat my “teeny tiny little balls into a pulp” was one such instance.) I don’t use that sort of tactic against just anyone. I save it for those from whom I already sense a profound arrogance or hostility. There is a line that should not be crossed. 

      Threatening to rape or beat someone, or posting their real name and place of employment when they wish to remain anonymous, is way out of bounds. Anyone threatening any sort of physical violence online should be exposed and charged the same way they would if it was done in person. And any creep who stalks the Internet to find and expose people’s real names or places of employment, thereby potentially exposing them to further harassment and threats, and possibly physical danger or employment consequences, should be charged with stalking or criminal harassment. 

  12. Don’t blame the internet. It is like saying the world is evil – absurd when there are all kinds of people in it. Misogynist,abusive bigots are sexist.  However, any threat to someones life, real life or online should be followed up by police whether they need it or not.

  13. LOL Jesse :)

    If you think blogs are toxic, you should see the state of irc chat rooms.
     As you stated Jesse…”asking nine bloggers to write about the violent and hateful messages they receive daily, and how if affects them”.
    The bottom line is for any person it is not the given stimuli but their response to it that effects them.
    Should people have to put up with the garbage from trolls, NO, the solution is to choose not to use the medium, much like a TV, turn it off. If you choose to turn it on, know that as in life trolls exist on the internet, and much like a rabid crowd, they have a degree of anonymity.
    Do I approve of it, no, will I use some stupid cliche like “but I will fight to the death to defend their right to be trolls” no. Do I want ‘big brother’ editing and monitoring every line of script on the inernet to protect me, no.
    Personally, in chat rooms many of us treat trolls as a toy… something to play with, it can be fun! Always remember though, it is pointless to argue with an idiot, they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.

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