*Warning: Contains strong language.
I am many things: a musician, a columnist for the New Zealand Herald, the editor here at Villainesse, and, among other things, a feminist woman of Māori descent who dares to have an opinion on the internet. Online abuse has been a part of my life for years now. Thankfully, and somewhat surprisingly, it has gradually become a low drone, the static noise that buzzes quietly in the background as I switch between the different facets of my identity.
As relieved as I am that the constant barrage of digital faeces hurled in my direction has somehow become dulled in my consciousness in a kind of miracle of self-preservation, I’m also well aware that for many people it is near impossible to just ‘ignore it’, no matter how many times you’re told not to read the comments. Online abuse is a very real danger that has claimed lives, and it shows no signs of disappearing any time soon.
Our contributing editor Ben suggested that I should write about what it’s like to live with a relentless stream of trolling and online hate and yet keep soldiering on. At first, I had some reservations. I’m not an expert. My methods are not informed by any empirical research. I’m just a person thrust into a difficult situation doing her best not to be scared by comments like, “someone please shoot this stupid bitch. NZ fucking hates her.”
But then I thought about how I’ve gradually learnt to shut the haters out, and I realised that Ben had a point. I’m not quite sure how I got here, but I’ve come to a place where my sanity is relatively intact despite the frequent insults, snide remarks, condescension and threats thrown in my direction, and there might be something in that baffling journey that could help others.
And then there’s the fact that in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, I’ve noticed that the usual online abuse I receive has become nastier and more frequent. It’s almost as if the viciousness of the campaign has legitimised online spite and malice. I fear it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
So here goes. Like I said, I’m not a professional troll-slayer, so take my ideas with a grain of salt. I want to state up front that trolling and online hate are systemic problems, and the best outcome would be for the system of oppression to be dismantled, but in the meantime I hope that some of these observations may be helpful if you ever find yourself the target of a pack of rabid internet warriors.
An important first weapon against online abuse is to spend a moment thinking about what it is that motivates trolls and haters. Like any bully, insecurity plays a significant role. When someone is motivated to take time out of their day (sometimes a lot of time) to write horrible comments about people they may never have even met, you can be pretty well assured that they feel deeply unsatisfied with their own lives.
Sure, you’ll get the odd weirdo/psychopath who simply derives great enjoyment from being nasty, but the many online haters are dealing with self-loathing, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority and are simply looking for a way to try to make themselves feel better by dragging someone else down.
Once I realised that most of my abusers were deeply unhappy within themselves it became apparent to me that their cruel words were simply masking their own hurt. And, whether they were sad people lashing out or psychopaths, I found that I began to pity them.
TL;DR? Online bullies are usually motivated by their own dissatisfaction. What they say is much more about them than it is about you.
I’ve found that the times when the trolls really fuck with me are when I’m feeling vulnerable. If I’m already feeling bad about myself, online nastiness is just going to reinforce the negativity. The best way to combat this is to practice some form of self-care.
It sounds airy-fairy, sure, but the best advice I ever received was to treat myself as I would treat my best friend. If someone ever called my best friend an emotional, precious petal slut who was basically asking to be raped and/or murdered I’d tell them, in no uncertain terms, to go and fuck themselves. I’d then shower my best friend with love and make sure she knew that she was an amazing human. Over time I’ve learnt to treat myself the same way. It’s not that I have an overly high opinion of myself, it’s that I objectively know that no one has the right to make someone else feel awful. Treating myself with kindness helps me to deal with the shit others lob at me.
And alongside self-kindness are a number of other coping mechanisms I’ve found to be helpful. Reaching out and speaking to friends and family in person or on the phone helps me to remember that true human connections are the ones that really matter, and that I am deserving of love. It helps immensely to know that I don’t have to suffer in silence. Going for a walk or a run or getting active in some other way blows the cobwebs out of my brain when I’ve had a particularly hard time online. Sharing my experiences with others who experience the same thing helps me to remember that I’m not the only one with a digital target upon her back, and gives me a sense of solidarity. Figuring out what makes me feel better has been endlessly helpful.
To engage, or not to engage…
The conventional wisdom is about as helpful as it is profound, which is to say, not particularly. “Don’t feed the trolls” is the default position when it comes to online abuse, the digital equivalent of “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.” In my humble opinion, telling someone to just ignore bullies is pretty fucking unhelpful. In theory, it’s a good idea, but in practice it’s like telling someone with a stubbed toe not to feel the pain.
That said, I often do try to ignore trolls. I have a psychology degree, so I learnt a bit about patterns of learning and reinforcement at university. In a nutshell, if you reinforce something by engaging with it, it’s pretty likely that it will continue. Over the past year I’ve also noticed myself thinking things like, “you are so utterly unimportant and insignificant to me that I’m not going to waste my energy affirming your existence,” when I’ve decided to ignore some hater’s latest piece of bile. It’s been surprisingly refreshing. No one is allowed to demand your attention or your engagement. Refusing to play the game by figuratively starving the shitheads of oxygen is a protest in itself.
Sometimes, however, I do engage. Sometimes I’m interested in finding out what makes someone feel a certain way. Sometimes I want to point out that I’m a human being. Sometimes I just like to play with my food before I eat it. When I make the decision to engage, however, I first of all have a conversation with myself about how I’m feeling. I have to be feeling strong to want to wade in. If I’m feeling vulnerable or upset, I generally try to disengage from the online world to go and enact some self-care.
But if I’m feeling strong, watch out. My general rule is to engage politely, but if someone is being vile I have no qualms with telling them to fuck off. I’m often tone policed, but I’m an adult who can make her own language selections. If someone has a problem with the manner in which I tell a hateful shithead who is attacking me to fuck off, they can unfollow me. It’ll probably be best for both of us.
Blocking, muting and banning
I am very block-happy these days. I used to try my best to keep blocking and banning to a minimum (why? God knows…) but then I realised that I was being a masochist. Why on earth would I choose to endure abuse when I didn’t have to? If a stranger came to your front door and called you a bitch, would you let them into your house? Hell no. Your social media accounts are like your online living room. You are under no obligation whatsoever to invite the racist, sexist, homophobic bigots over for tea.
If someone is draining your energy online, ban the motherfucker.
It’s no secret that the reporting functions on most social networks need improvement. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that a racist, sexist, xenophobic post “doesn’t violate community standards”. That said, if you see something horrendous, and you have the energy to report it, you should. Online abuse is a systemic problem, but one way that we can help to affect systemic change is through reporting, or so I tell myself. I just wish that it was: a) less tedious, b) more effective and c) automated. I can’t wait for the day when the social networks develop an algorithm to identify likely abusive posts that can then be moderated without the victim having to report them. A girl can dream, right?
Often, trolls will hunt in packs. They’ll follow each other around online, ganging up on lone victims and egging each other on. I wouldn’t presume for a moment to understand what goes on inside a troll’s head, but I’m guessing that gang-trolling is some kind of perverse bonding experience that helps trolls to feel emboldened and important.
Fielding a wave of abuse is stressful, whether it’s a pile-on or a random troll attack. All of a sudden your notifications are blowing up, threads are getting out of hand – the conversation may be about you, but it’s happening without you, whether you like it or not. You’re lost in the cacophony of insults with no hope of keeping up.
In this scenario, the most important thing is your mental health. If you feel overwhelmed, the best thing you can do, as agonisingly difficult as it is, is to turn your device off and try to do something else to take your mind off the whole thing until you feel like you’re ready to deal with it. Talk to a friend or loved one if you can. But this is where the ‘just ignore it’ argument goes awry. Even if you turn your phone off, a stinking pile of garbage will still be waiting to greet you when you sign back in.
If you do decide to engage, I’ve found that the best thing is to craft a well-thought out response and post it generally. Don’t reply directly to anyone, it’ll just fuel the fire. If there’s something you want to clarify, go for it, but keep it brief and then get the hell out of there. Think of it like this: if you were sitting in a room in which everyone was yelling at you, why would you stay there?
If you have the option to message someone privately, and you feel that you want to reach out to them, it’s often a good idea to take the conversation out of the public eye. A public confrontation can quickly become something of a spectator sport, which minimises the opportunity for meaningful discussion and resolution.
The most important thing to remember about pack-mentality, however, is that it doesn’t only go one way. Trolls favour packs because it gives them strength and power in numbers, but there’s no reason why we can’t (broadly speaking) employ their tactics. When you see friends or acquaintances being unfairly attacked on social media, rally a group and stand up for them. Consider creating a group of friends that can act like a kind of guard for each member. Online abuse is much easier to deal with when your friends have your back.
When all is said and done…
I’ve found that surviving social media has become easier as I’ve come to know myself better. After a year of near constant abuse, I now know my limits. For the most part, I know what I can handle, what I can’t, and what to do when I’m struggling. There’s really no right or wrong answer when it comes to dealing with people whose goal it is to make you feel miserable. You figure out what works for you, and you stick to it.
We often speak about developing a ‘thick skin’ in order to tolerate online abuse, and I’ve certainly witnessed my own hardening over the past year particularly. Resilience is a wonderful thing, but it also hurts my soul to think that vulnerability and openness are so thoroughly punished on social media.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly idealistic, I dream of a time when our social media space won’t be so weaponised. What an incredible tool it would be if only we could remember to be kind to each other.
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