In a virtual world, trolls are real

Pam Mandel

February 14, 2018

In 2008 I opened a Twitter account. I was driving from Seattle to Chicago with two friends for a social media conference; we used Twitter to communicate our location, to meet strangers along the way, to get ideas about where to stop and what to do once we’d stopped there. A friend joined Twitter while I was on the road. He’d been following my 140-character-count updates for much of the journey, but he really wanted to tweet back: It was essential I not miss a particular roadside attraction.

Said attraction was a giant cow, visible from miles around, and it amuses me to this day that my friend thought I could miss something so very obvious. But it’s fun, too — Twitter enabled him to point out the obvious in the silliest way. I loved it.

It didn’t take long until I was threatened. I questioned the motives behind a team who were scraping and republishing tweets for their profit — and was trolled for my opinions. One particularly aggressive voice repeatedly suggested I should be beaten up or run over. The people behind the project egged him on and reposted his threats. I reported and blocked the account; he’d open a new one and start over again. Twitter — the company — was silent. I finally contacted the people behind the project and asked them to stop encouraging the troll. To my surprise, they agreed, though I’m still angry that I had to ask.

I expressed an opinion in an open forum, I was threatened for doing so, and, after some minor action on my part, it stopped — the whole thing took a week or two to die out. I should not consider myself lucky that this is, for the most part, the worst of my experience with online harassment. As an early adopter of social media — I started my first blog in 1997 and was quick to hop on other social platforms, I was a highly visible figure in my space and a likely target — I do consider myself lucky. Aside from randos calling me stupid when I post about, say, gun control, I’ve got off easy. It’s crazy that I say that — one round of violent threats and intermittent insults counts as getting off easy? That’s insane.

Compare my experience with that of Zoë Quinn, successful game designer, famous Gamergate target, and author of Crash Override. Quinn was publicly and falsely accused of trading sex for good game reviews and became the target of a relentless harassment campaign that literally sent her in to hiding. She was repeatedly attacked, slandered, abused, and threatened via Twitter, Facebook, text messages — you name it. The campaign spread to colleagues, friends, and family. Her online existence was no longer a place of refuge, and her real-world work suffered because employers were scared they’d become targets if they chose to work with her. Mob justice ruled her daily existence, while her attackers claimed “free speech” as their justification.

It’s great that these companies aspire to the concept of free speech where anyone who thinks (incorrectly) that a hot dog is a sandwich can use their platform to express this totally incorrect opinion in relative peace.

But where do you draw the line for harassment?

Crash Override shows us that most platforms don’t. They don’t draw the line at all. And those of us who use those platforms to express our not-even-that-controversial opinions are on our own when the darker places of the web decide we should be punished for our views.

Quinn was an early adopter — like me — of the social web as a place to explore ideas. Her situation is more complicated than mine; she exists in gamer space, in queer space — terra incognita to me, a straight woman who writes about her dog, travel, and cake.

But I understand the absolutely reality and value of online communities. It is only a very small exaggeration to say that during my time as an expat — a West Coast Jewish woman in a tiny Austrian village — online interactions saved my life. They certainly kept the crippling isolation I felt at bay. Quinn’s experience mirrors my own, though again, the volume is much louder on both her connection to online voices and her isolation IRL — in real life. Quinn found the same solace in her online friendships that I found in mine — common ground, a safe place to explore ideas, a genuine sense of community. Unlike me, Quinn’s virtual neighborhood was destroyed by trolls, leaving her without the support system within which she’d built her friendships and her career.

Quinn must be made of steel and stone, though, because ultimately, she decided to fight not just for herself. Crash Override isn’t just the title of her book; it’s also the name for the support organization she’s established to help everyone who’s been a victim of online hate.

I bungeed in and out of the daily news during the course of reading Crash Override. It was exhausting and disheartening to see how little has changed since Quinn had been hiding out from her attackers.

In late December 2017, a Kansas man was killed by police as a result of a gamer-instigated “swatting”. Swatting is when the police are fraudulently called to a location on a violent crime report. This is a known tactic with gamers like those who attacked Quinn. I don’t even know what to say about the fact that the attacker called in the wrong address, because any victim in this scenario would have been innocent, but there’s something particularly distressing about the idea that the gamer behind the attack essentially called in a random hit.

Then, in January 2018, a rumor surfaced on the web that Harper's Magazine was going to out the woman behind the “Shitty Media Men” list. The list was a shared document that women in media used to warn each other about men in the industry who had a reputation for sexual assault and harassment. This anonymous research was a tool to warn women what they were potentially in for. Brave women decided to name names in the service of protecting future media workers from the harassment they’d already endured. The initiator of the list outed herself, but I wonder if it was only because she had no choice.

Not long after that Seattle writer Geraldine DeRuiter had her Twitter account hacked. The hacker changed her email address and then suggested that they would be willing, at some point, to sell the account back to her. DeRuiter currently has nearly sixty thousand followers on Twitter; the tool is her primary platform — you might compare this violation with locking her out of her own house. Not only was she locked out, but in spite of the fact that she’s a verified Twitter user — that means Twitter knows she’s who she says she is — Twitter support repeatedly refused to reset her password. (The issue has since been resolved — but it shouldn’t be this hard.)

That’s three major incidents in six weeks, and that doesn’t touch the countless cases of bullying, sexual harassment, threats of violence, doxxing (where personal information, like a home address, is widely publicized online), etc. etc. etc. I had to set Crash Override aside for a while after reading about how ineffective companies like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit have been in dealing with online abuse issues. I’ve watched as, one by one, outspoken figures shutter their social accounts as a last act of protest against a platform that fails its users over and over and over again. Goodbye, writers Lindy West and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Comedian and actor Leslie Jones dropped off after a spate of racist hate (we’re glad you’re back, Leslie). Actor Jim Carrey just called for us to all quit Facebook. And in my own circle, lesser-known writers and creators I respect peel off. “Too many Nazis,” they say, and where their wit once was is . . . nothing.

Quinn’s organization, Crash Override, continues to build resources to help those targeted by online abuse. The work is difficult and essential — convincing commercial platforms to care seems like a nobrainer but anyone who’s filed a harassment report knows exactly how frustrating this can be. If you’re connected or powerful, you might have a chance but if you’re just a weird kid in a lonely world, things get a lot harder.

It’s a damn shame, too. Quinn talks about the support she found online; my personal experience, and that of so many other people I’ve met IRL as a result of online interactions, is the same. Quinn’s story is terrible — she shines light on the very worst corners of the web — but she also issues a rallying call for us to participate in making this space, the one we’ve all built, better. Quinn has mostly rebuilt her life, gone back to work, done her mightiest to help others while setting the damage of the past behind her. But.

People can move on, but things need to get better for everyone. Ending online abuse can’t be the job solely of the people who have lived through it. It can’t be left up to the institutions and the people in power to fix their shit, because they won’t, not really, until it’s more expedient for them to change than it is to maintain the status quo. It can’t be left up to anyone but you, me, and everyone else online.

That’s us. It’s our web, and Quinn needs us to take care of it. For everyone.

Books in this review:
  • Crash Override
    by Zoë Quinn
    PublicAffairs
    September 05, 2017
    256 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Pam Mandel is a freelance writer from West Seattle. She plays super loud ukulele and really likes cake. Read her blog at www.nerdseyeview.com/blog.

Follow Pam Mandel on Twitter: @nerdseyeview

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