Some people say the only way to stop online harassment is to stop going online. Well, we aren't going anywhere. Reclaim Your Domain is Refinery29's campaign to make the internet (and the world outside of it) a safer space for everyone — especially women.
The canon of things we’ve called “trolling” is as sweeping as the word is imprecise. There are Instagram comments that contain nothing but bee emoji, shade from Beyoncé fans. There’s that one hissing-cat photo that shape shifts into any meme; Facebook replies that point out a “your” that meant to be “you’re.” There are forum conversations full of alt-right code words, like “kek,” and tweets that call Leslie Jones an ape. And then there are rape threats, incitements to violence, and people who harass families in mourning. A recent Wall Street Journal report summed up trolling as the things we all do online when we’re grumpy.
But the idea that a bumble bee icon and a rape threat would exist on the same spectrum, that both could be dismissed as moodiness, is insane. How is all of that called the same name?
Here, an internet folklorist and an Ivy League linguist pick apart a variety of web-based bad behavior, so we can finally call a spade a spade — or, in this case, a troll. It turns out most online antagonism already a name: racism, misogyny, and rudeness among them.
Increasingly, as our lives are being lived online, it’s becoming harder and harder to demarcate what is just an “online” behavior in the first place. Increasingly, making that distinction doesn’t matter. For Whitney Phillips, internet folklorist at Mercer University and author of This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, the main problem she has with the "trolling" label, which she has all but stopped using, is that it suggests anything happens purely in web spaces anymore. As if what happens to us online isn't real.
“We have an online antagonism problem because we have a violence against women problem,” she says. These things exist on land. The anonymity and boundless reach the internet affords us only embolden our more abhorrent habits. Telling a woman who's being harassed to “just get off Twitter if it bothers you,” Phillips continues, utilizes the same exact victim-blaming logic that says she wore or drank or said something she shouldn't have — and that’s why violence happened to her.
In the earliest aughts, when the concept of trolling was being solidified, trolls, like the rest of the web, were a relatively harmless bunch of nerdy white guys hanging around in chat rooms, trading barbs. Light pranking and internetty colloquialisms were pretty much the meat of it.
If you’ve ever clicked on an interesting-sounding link only to find yourself eyeballs deep in a denim-clad Rick Astley — it was that kind of thing. If you've heard the term “butthurt” (or: "u mad bro?"), or been sent images of cats talking about hamburgers — that came from trolling. Trolls were a specific, self-identified group, according to Phillips. They used certain ungrammatical phrases and loped around 4chan trading “lulz,” just like schoolboys tapping “58008” into a calculator and turning it upside-down to reveal “BOOBS.” But it wasn’t all harmless fun, she hedges. “It always had a very antagonistic undertone. It was gendered, it was raced, it was classed.”
Using words that betray where we're from, our education level, or align us with a certain community is something we all do, consciously or not, says Robin Clark, linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s “signaling,” a kind of call-and-response to folks who'll get us. By using "fag" as if it meant nothing more than "dude," and using "rape" interchangeably with "take," that’s what trolls were doing online. They were in on the jokes, and the jokes were crude.
While many of us groom a sort of best life on social media — to borderline fantastical degrees — people on these seedy forums (especially Reddit with its anti-censorship libertarian ethos, but also 4chan's many "interest"-based boards) cultivated their worst. The cat memes were still there, but so were the anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, misogynist, and racist (and so on) ones. The joking went from inward to outward, targeted attacks. Meanwhile cyberbullying was going mainstream.
By 2013 there had been a youth exodus from Facebook because of the unmitigated harassment teens faced there. Twitter's been overrun by Nazis. (Now even Snapchat, that disappearing-ink of social media, isn't safe.) If there ever was a line between fun and not remotely okay, it’s been blurry since the start, and so it’s understandable that we went on calling anything that once came from those back-alley web forums “trolling.”
It's only gotten harder to separate the trolls from the chaff, and that's why it’s more urgent than ever that we do. Below are several ways people behave badly online. Let’s call it what it is — and watch it lose some of its edge.
This Is Word Salad
This appeared on a Refinery29 article about Planned Parenthood rallies. See how the commenter mixes sexist and crude words in a sentence that literally doesn’t make any sense?
“You get this image of some nut in a tinfoil hat pounding at the keyboard,” Robin Clark of University of Pennsylvania says. “But they always seem to have some deliberate plan of action behind it.” That plan is the following: bypassing community moderators who are trained to look exclusively for personal attacks and getting a rise out of anyone with either a basic respect for the English language or a vested interest in the topic at hand. “I think it’s a deliberate attempt to derail the thread. What they want is that a lot of people will start commenting on it, [responding] to some lunatic assertion.” And there you are talking to nonsense, which then makes you look loony, too.
This Is Being Insufferable & Also Correct
Grammar-policing can be insufferable, obnoxious, and petty-seeming, but grammar is a system of rules in which certain things are correct and others are not. When a person points out the objective truth (where an apostrophe goes; how to spell Kirsten) it may piss you right off, but that might be your problem. “It’s not always clear who is really being an asshole about spelling or grammar and who is looking to cause trouble, even indirectly satirizing the impulse to correct grammar sarcastically, or even sincerely trying to help,” Phillips says. If you don't know that they're ribbing you, why bother calling this a troll? And more importantly: Who among us can’t stand to improve their grammar a touch?
This Is Unbridled Narcissism
Ah The Donald. Truly in a class of his own. So very alone. SAD!
Trump has a very distinctive Tweet style, Clark says. “It’s always ‘X is so negative adjective,’ [the] word ‘so,’ and the period. And then ‘sad.’ Period.” Using “so” amplifies or exaggerates whatever simple adjective the president’s using — whether that’s “great!” or “sick.” Following that with a period makes the judgment final, and this M.O. works, Clark explains.
While opponents on the left spent too long feeling confident that Donald Trump’s first-grade level vocabulary made him look foolish, what it really did was make his messages incredibly digestible.
And it’s still working for him: When he says something like “the failing New York Times,” his followers may actually believe The New York Times is failing (it’s not). What we can’t know is if he’s always lying, or if he himself believes things that are provably false. Probably the latter, because he considers himself a very reliable source. “When you’re a narcissistic individual,” Clark explains, “you come to believe in your own mythology. So I’m sure that Trump in his own mind is a legend, and godlike in that way.” And that, my friends, is sick and BAD!
This Is Being Popular — But Also A Total Instigator
Celebrities are able to enjoy online provocation without anonymity, and they don’t even have to say anything all that impressive to rally thousands. The power, in this case, is in the people (who follow them).
So when Chrissy Teigen taunts Donald Trump, which she’s been doing expertly since 2011, her four-and-a-half million followers amplify it, collectively laughing at his expense. “This can go both ways, of course,” Phillips warns. “The same reduced social risk that allows feminists and people of color to clap back [at antagonists like Donald Trump] also allows bigots to spew their hate online with less fear of embodied repercussions. The tools and affordances of digital media can be harnessed — sometimes simultaneously! — for positive and negative ends.”
This Is Basically Tour Merch
Once upon a time in a RollingStone interview, Kid Rock said he preferred "skinny white chicks with big tits" to Beyoncé, and her fans will never forget it. The comments illustrated here are anonymized, but are inspired by the 'hive coming for him...still. Certain sects of super fans assign icons to the object of their affection: bees for Beyoncé’s Beyhive, snakes to remind Taylor Swift that Kim Kardashian has all the receipts. Even Rob Kardashian has an emoji gang, which plastered four-leaf clovers all over Tyga’s Instagram, when Kardashian proposed to his ex, Blac Chyna; a marriage that would make Tyga the step-uncle to his own son. (It’s a whole thing.)
Phillips says spamming these emoji all over someone’s comments is “performing an identity and affinity with people who are like-minded,” which is something we do offline all the time, like wearing baseball hats. But people don’t wear baseball hats at each other. There is something specifically combative about these Stans.
Clark says, because we're all about image now, “a war of images and emojis is inevitable." He calls Bey's bees a nice example of "iconic symbolism, particularly the way that they’re presented in swarms (which is so simple as to be ingenious).” Some practical advice? Never doubt the genius of the Beyhive — and don’t bring a knife-emoji to a gun-emoji fight.
This Is Being Afraid, But Mostly Racist
Hate groups have been inventing secret lingo since well before the internet, which is why we can’t label anything the alt-right does as “trolling,” which still sounds like light teasing. Using coded language like “kek” or “cuck,” some of their current faves, is a wink to other white-nationalists out there looking for a friend. They do it hiding behind anonymous screen names and their own lingo, just as they first hid beneath bed sheets fashioned into hats. Bunch of hateful 'fraidy cats, these guys. (This example came from Twitter, but we've anonymized it further with a made-up screen name.)
“You’re going to find weird little turns of phrase that may mean nothing to you, but to them it is a signal of allegiance,” Clark says. He points to Dylann Roof, the white-nationalist terrorist who murdered nine Black congregants in a Charleston church in 2015. He used the code 1488 to allude to a 14-word nazi slogan and “heil Hitler,” double-eights, because H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. These digits mean nothing, unless you know what they mean.
Clark also points to bigots using the word “Skittles” to refer to Muslims. So when Donald Trump, Jr, tweeted that remark about refugees being like a bowl of Skittles, was it really just a blatantly racist analogy? (Or was it a blatantly racist analogy plus a nod and wink to literal nazis?) “The genius here is that it may be a signal to the alt-right or it may be coincidence. That’s the whole idea.” It can be “canceled,” he explains, as simply as saying you just meant candy. Simply knowing what these words mean can take the air out of them.
This Is Just Racist
This comment came in response to Riz Ahmed's remarks about the importance of representation on television, but that almost doesn't matter. Any time the concept of "back where you came from" is tossed into a conversation, at the heart it is just plain racism. And it's right out there in the open, like painting a swastika on a gravesite or hanging a scarecrow by a noose in your front yard. It is never anything less serious than that. It does not need to be decoded; it is obvious and needs to stop. But sometimes, instead, it makes people famous.
This Is Being SO Racist, It Makes You Rich
Sometimes people turn their ability to shout hurtful things into a career. Like Ann Coulter. Her message is the same as those secret bigots, but because she has a large following and the kind of physical attributes television executives like to pay for, she’s reached a vaunted position. From there, she can “drop a rhetorical bomb without any support or discussion,” Clark says, “entering whatever assertion is made into our store of common knowledge without being vetted or investigated.” (Also a Trump move.)
Why is it different when Coulter Tweets that immigrants rob the economy versus when your everyday scumbag with a Twitter says it? Because she’s famous, and has been afforded some level of authority by being taken seriously by her peers in the media (at least when she’s not at someone else’s roast). When all her followers hear, accept as truth, and repeat her missives, Clark adds, “it’s a kind of debate by brute force.” People like this cultivate outrage while clinging to some shred of deniability. (See also: Milo Yiannopoulos.) And in that way, it’s also cowardly.
This Is Gaslighting
Any commenter who takes the time to write “who cares” is trying to incept us, egging us into conversation to defend why this should be a conversation in the first place. “You dismiss the person as not having any particular expertise, or being in no position to know anything about anything,” Clark says. “This derails the thread by throwing out some ridiculous assertion that then just stops comments in some sense.” This is another perfect example of something commonly dismissed as “trolling” that happens to women constantly, in living color.
This Is Sexism (No Really. That's All.)
A “sandwich” has become shorthand for saying women belong in the kitchen, and attaching it to stories about women succeeding — or using it to respond to successful women’s tweets — simultaneously derails the conversation while weaving blatant sexism right into it. (This particular comment appeared on Refinery29's Facebook page in response to our coverage of A Day Without Women.) It takes us back to those second-phase trolls who were just joking around, but used the word “rape” any time they wanted to pack a punch. (A meme that went mainstream was “raped” from them; a person caught in a funny gotcha moment was “raped with logic.”) “The underlying issues are deep and they’re cultural,” Whitney Phillips says.
“Nothing that twitter does is ever going to fully address systemic racial injustice. These are things that are baked into the culture. How do you deal with online antagonism toward women? Um, educate boys about respect toward women. How do you deal with antagonistic behavior toward people of color on Twitter? Solve racism! Those are the solutions.”
Saying this, she begins to pull a knitted blanket she’s been fidgeting with up over her eyes, as if to hide from the reality of our times — a reaction that’s as valid and communicative as any all-caps reply.
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