Who was responsible for the social media savaging that apparently prompted the hospitalisation of Charlotte Dawson last week?
Well, according to the mainstream media, the trolls, of course. There hasn’t been this much discussion of trolls since the Lord of the Rings movies. The media thinks they know who trolls are: people without a life railing and baiting from the comfort of their parent’s basement, presumably in between mouthfuls of pizza and the odd session of Call of Duty. News Ltd — whose websites are by far the biggest location for abusive comments in the Australian media and that employs several professional op-ed trollers itself — even tried to conduct a troll hunt.
Many of us have been trolled. Some of us, myself included, have even engaged in trolling ourselves on occasion in the past. I suspect few of us who’ve been online since the mid-1990s have never baited, flamed, abused, fallen to personal mockery or otherwise in some way failed to maintain the highest standards of public discourse.
But there’s trolling and, well, trolling. Serious trolling. A couple of Crikey tipsters have suggested that the disgusting assault on Dawson was part of a wider war between the ultimate trolls, the /b/ community at the 4chan site (do not click that link if you’re at work), and 9gag, another, newer, user-driven meme-swapping site. There’s been an operation at /b/ for some time to frame 9gag for anything likely to garner media attention, such as encouraging the Aurora shootings. As US site Jezebel pointed out, much of the trolling directed at Dawson came with proud #9gag hashtags. Dawson may thus have simply been another arbitrary victim of an ongoing online war, selected merely because of her media profile; many participants may have had no idea who she actually was.
But another suggested Dawson had drawn attention to herself by retweeting abuse, prompting some of her 33,000-strong followers to hit back. And some /b/ users indeed took responsibility for the attack. “This was a great success. Vapid bitch deserved the raid,” said one on Saturday. “She retweets something she doesn’t like and her 20,000+ fans start attacking that person as a troll. Looks like its all teens and young people … She was being (so called trolled) by young people trying to fight back before /b/ showed up.” Another: “D-list celebrity retweets her nay-sayers (HURRDURRTROLLS) and publicly calls for them to take her on, saying on national TV that it doesn’t faze her and ‘rolls off like water on a ducks back’.”
From this perspective, Dawson had declared war on the, well, trolling community, and as a matter of pride /b/ had to respond, while happily implicating 9gag along the way.
A lot of us retweet abuse we get on Twitter. Sometimes we receive stuff so crazy it simply begs to be shared with a wider audience. And while lots of people retweet praise they get (one of the great crimes of Twitter, in my view), some of us prefer to retweet abuse, as an arguably more valid form of feedback. And yes, it has the result of exposing the abuser to a far wider audience, some of whom take it upon themselves to attack the abuser. Depending on your followers, you might have some who are particularly enthusiastic about attacking any perceived enemies.
How much Dawson did this deliberately is unclear. But the perception, whether right or not, that Dawson was spurring her followers, stereotyped as young teen females, into responding to trolls is important: there is little calculated to draw the wrath of a community like /b/ more than the idea of young mainstream female teens berating any part of their own community.
4chan and particularly /b/ is highly transgressive: this is a community that delights in racism, sexism, and most other kinds of bigotry, as well as inflicting gross insensitivity and offence, not because it is composed of bigots and heartless buffoons but simply for the transgression implicit in such behaviour, and the knowledge that it will get a response from targets (and generate mainstream media coverage). But it has its own boundaries and sense of transgression, and much of it is directed towards mainstream internet users, particularly young women, who are perceived as a less legitimate online presence unless they share the community’s interests.
It’s at this point that we get into online misogyny. The fact is, women receive worse abuse, far worse abuse, than men online, often it seems because they are perceived as being there illegitimately, of lacking some essential characteristic of male users (beyond a penis). In particular, they are seen as guilty of having the “wrong” lifestyle and cultural interests (Twilight, say, is automatically less legitimate than Battlestar Galactica or Breaking Bad) and of being less IT-savvy. Women are stereotyped more than men, are more likely to be perceived as being female first, then online users second, rather than simply online users with intelligent or otherwise views regardless of their gender.
None of that will change via censorship, or the removal of online anonymity, which was mooted when news of Dawson’s hospitalisation broke, or any other unworkable ideas put forwarded by various outraged commentators, politicians and policemen. For one thing, is this hostility to women confined to the internet? Obviously not. The least internet-savvy section of the community, old white men, proudly displayed their views last week, with women called “cows”, accused of “destroying the joint” and told they must submit to “male headship”.
It will only change by more women getting online and occupying the public space there, thereby demonstrating the legitimacy of their presence in the face of those who don’t want women outside a specific stereotype/fantasy there at all. That’s the broader issue around trolling and the attack on Dawson. If there’s a joint that really needs destruction, it’s the male-dominated corners of the internet.