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How Do Internet Trolls Justify Their Nasty, Misogynist, Life-Ruining Behavior?

They diffuse responsibility by saying they were only a small part of the conduct. Such is the morality of the trollplex.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Mike Focus

The following is an excerpt from Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web by Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. (The MIT Press, 2015):

According to its founders, the now-defunct group blog Mean Kids was intended to be a forum for “art and criticism, pointed and insulting satire”; it considered itself to be a place of “purposeful anarchy” with a tradition of “you own your own words.” This forum for unmoderated insults soon led to misogynistic threats. In March 2007, Kathy Sierra, author of several Java programming books and a popular blog, wrote that she had canceled her workshop and keynote speech at a conference and instead was at home “with the doors locked, terrified”:

It began just over four weeks ago, when something shifted. It started with death threat blog comments left here (which some of you may have seen before I deleted them) including: “Comment: fuck off you boring slut.… i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.” We all have trolls—but until four weeks ago, none of mine had threatened death.… At first, it was the usual stuff—lots of slamming of people.… Nothing new. No big deal. Nothing they hadn’t done on their own blogs many times before. But when it was my turn, somebody crossed a line. They posted a photo of a noose next to my head, and one of their members (posting as “Joey”) commented “the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size.”

As the story received greater attention, the attacks escalated. In addition to being a (distressing) milestone of sorts, exposing this facet of online culture to a wide audience through CNN, the BBC, and the New York Times, it showed how trolling had metastasized. Trolls had always sought to provoke a response, but writing offensive and hateful comments had emerged as a creature of its own. Haters try to upset and belittle others by expressing extreme hostility and attacking any aspect of a person that is likely to cause distress (such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and appearance). The widespread use of the term hater likely began with the expression “Haters gonna hate” from hip-hop culture. Much like the warning “Don’t feed the trolls,” it implies that some kinds of negativity are best ignored.

But ignoring no longer seems sufficient when faced with a hater. One reason for this is that the labels of troll, hater, and bully have lost some of their descriptive potency. Today these terms are loosely bandied about in arguments, and some people use them for anyone who disagrees with them. More substantively, the hate expressed online today has a frighteningly sharp edge and long reach. For instance, hateful speech is magnified via disturbing images and videos. The manipulation and use of images, such as macros and animated GIFs, is common in Internet lolz culture. Although these GIFs are often funny, in the hater context they can be alarming. Sierra, for example, was pictured as muzzled with women’s underwear. Other targets of haters have received gruesome images. Also, privacy is often violated through the practice of “doxing,” or publicly documenting the target’s contact, financial, and health information. Haters cannot be ignored when they make threatening phone calls, including to family members, friends, and employers. The Mean Kids incident was more than a flame war in which teenagers bandied insults about one another’s mothers. Also, the fact that the threats began with the hostility of notable people made it all the more distressing. This is a feature of what I call a trollplex: an attack by people who come from varied backgrounds, exhibit varied behavior, but share a target, a culture, and venues.

In this case, the trollplex included well-known bloggers Chris Locke (who blogged under the name “rageboy”) and Frank Pynter. Locke and Pynter ran Mean Kids and contributed to its overall tone (Locke called Sierra “a hopeless dipshit”), but they made no threats. It also included Mean Kids contributor “Rev Ed,” who posted Photoshopped images of Sierra. (When the person behind the “Rev Ed” account was exposed, he claimed that his computer had been hacked and he had not posted the materials.) Others, whose identities were never publicly revealed, made explicit threats. The attacks on Sierra included insults, frightening threats, and harassment, but all melded into a single discourse that was rooted in the discussion at Mean Kids and other blogs. Some criticized Sierra for condemning all who contributed to the site, but she maintained that participants had a responsibility for creating an environment for this type of culture and speech.

The increasing attention that resulted from the story was unwelcome to many. Things were getting worse for Sierra as others joined in on the harassment, the identifiable Mean Kids contributors were embarrassed, and those who were not yet identified feared exposure. Mean Kids and the related blog Unclebobism were removed, and in a surreal attempt to end the incident, Sierra and Locke issued a joint statement and appeared in a televised meeting on CNN. In the joint statement, Sierra wrote that although she did not feel that the Mean Kids proprietors were responsible for the threats, they still had their differences:

However, Chris and I (and others) still strongly disagree about whether people who are respected and trusted in our industry … are giving tacit approval when they support (though ownership, authoring, and promoting) sites like meankids and unclebob. This is about trust and leadership in our community, and whether those who are looked up to have a (non-legal) responsibility to the community whose trust they’ve earned for the things they promote.

Beyond the history of animosity that people at the Mean Kids blog felt toward Sierra and others, she suspected that the trigger was her support for bloggers who delete inappropriate comments from their own blogs. This might seem commonsensical today (although it still prompts anger in some), but it was a more controversial position then. Also, the conflagration was likely related to her admission of fear and her style of writing, which differed from a stereotypically masculine norm. The reason that the advice to “Ignore the trolls” has currency is because a panicked or fearful response to negative comments encourages more trolling. Fishing metaphors abound. Reactions to trolls and threats are said to be like “chum in the water.” One of the sharks that was attracted by Sierra’s distress was the infamous Internet troll “weev,” who, among other things, revealed Sierra’s social security number and home address and invited others to “send them gifts that properly express your sentiments.” Sierra later noted that “People did. We moved.” weev explained the harassment by writing, “Kathy hollers like a stuck pig as she wonders why the trolls escalated to magnitudes which she could no longer control. The answer is obvious: she fought the LOL. The LOL won.” Although those who left snarky comments saw themselves as distinct from those who left threats (which can be direct or indirect), such nuances are understandably lost on the frightened person at the center of a trollplex.

There is also the issue of gender. Susan Herring’s study of trolling was preceded by work on the gender dimensions of flaming. In 1993, she reported that on the lists that she studied, only about 5 percent of the posters, nearly all of whom were men, were responsible for most of the adversarial rhetoric. (They also tended to dominate in the number of words written.) This led her in the following year to ask, why do “women thank and men flame?” Given that flaming is usually the behavior of a minority of (mostly) men, she discounted simple disinhibition. Her original hypothesis was that perhaps men and women felt differently about politeness; however, both groups reported valuing politeness and disliking rudeness. She concluded that men had an overlapping but dominant value system: men assigned “greater importance to freedom of expression and firmness of verbal action than to possible consequences to the addressee’s face needs.” These men flamed to “regulate the social order” in accordance with these values “as self-appointed vigilantes on the ‘virtual frontier.’”

Locke’s handle of “rageboy” certainly evokes the persona of an angry (juvenile) male. Moreover, in the joint statement, while he condemned the “offensive words and images,” his main concern seemingly was about free expression. He concluded his statement with a warning that the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment protects speech “that many find noxious” and we must be wary of forces in the world “that would leap at any opportunity to limit speech or even abolish certain forms of it. Crucial as is the current debate about hate speech directed at women, it would be tragic if this incident were used as a weapon by those who would limit free and open exchange.” However, the first amendment prohibits the U.S. Congress from abridging speech (which was not suggested in this case) and says nothing about what individuals, organizations, and communities can condone or condemn. Nonetheless, noxious speech is often justified by way of anarchic and libertarian rhetoric about freedom. As Andrea Weckerle, author of Civility in the Digital Age, has noted, this focus on freedom often makes “innocent victims appear as though they are opposed to freedom of speech, when actually they are opposed to lies and injury.” This is reflected in Sierra’s statement in which she was obliged to qualify that her “desire is for much more open debate on this issue, not legislated limits.” Amusingly, “freedom of speech” is so frequently invoked in defense of offensive and harassing speech that it is now popularly parodied by the exclamation “FREEZE PEACH!” This phrase is used to describe “whiny, entitled behavior” from those “misogynists who think that FREEZE PEACH! means their right to pester women in any way they choose or use any kind of misogynist language they see fit is sacrosanct.”

One Mean Kid contributor maintained that Sierra’s style invited abuse, to which she then overreacted, exemplifying Herring’s findings about the gendered regulation of speech. He wrote that Sierra “mixes a type of newage rhetorical spirituality with computer science.” He believed that her aphorisms of “code like a girl” and “beauty drives the computer industry” deserved ridicule. Sierra’s pretense of technical chops was belied by her alleged ignorance of Internet meme culture, as when she overreacted to the comment “IMMA KILL YOU,” which was “borne of Japanese anime and for those who know, it is also hilarious.” (This particular meme was featured in a 2010 Judd Apatow film in which the character played by Jonah Hill receives a threatening text message: “Where the fuck are you? Imma kill you. Smiley Face.”) The whole incident “was a strange collection of odd synergies mixed up with childishness and, frankly, fun between people I was enjoying interacting with.” Finally, “I must add this: authors who write with less childlike magical thinking might also find they receive less childish criticism of their works.”

Such justifications for abusive behavior often show what psychologist Albert Bandura has identified as “moral disengagement.” People try to lessen the cognitive dissonance of seeing themselves as decent people who do indecent things by using justification (“she deserved it”), euphemistic language (just “trolling” or “having fun”), and advantageous comparisons (“I never threatened her”). They dehumanize the target (“a stuck pig”) and disregard or misrepresent the injurious consequences of their actions (“she needs to toughen up”). And they displace or diffuse responsibility by saying they were only a small part of the conduct. Such is the morality of the trollplex. Yet as Bandura noted, “People suffer from the wrongs done to them, regardless of how perpetrators might justify their inhumane actions.”

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