Trolling Isn’t Benign, It’s Harassment

by: Mia Brett

Online bullying isn’t just bullying — it’s also harassment. As children our parents tell us to walk away from bullies, but how do we walk away from hundreds of twitter accounts? How do we ignore people doxxing us? How do we escape strangers calling our boss or leaving negative reviews on our business sites?

Avoidance result in silencing. True, we can choose to suspend our accounts, become private, delete tweets and posts, and stop posting articles. Twitter may even suspend the account of the person being harassed. But that only serves to remove our voices and let the bullies win.

The familiar advice to walk away from bullies does not apply to cyber-bullying. Online harassment is not benign and has the real world consequence of silencing women and even making public spaces unsafe for women and POC.

I have the same stories as other outspoken women: I’ve been called a cunt, received rape threats, and been told someone was naming their gun after me. There are even accounts I’ve blocked still retweeting screenshots of me, accounts with almost ten times the followers I have.

This particularly graphic comment was on Facebook. As you can see, it reveals extreme sexism, attacks on my intelligence, and makes an inappropriate sexual comment. These comments are routine.

Because I am a PhD candidate and a cofounder of the American Women’s Party, I don’t fear consequences to my career. I work in arenas that stand up for my right to express my political opinion. There isn’t much haters can do online to hurt my economic position but that isn’t usually true for most women and this form of harassment is usually much more harmful. One adversary mistook the place I work. He tweeted at SUNY Brockport to try to hurt me. I’ve never even been there. It’s also routine for trolls to resent my education and try to use it against me. They tell me that my degree is worthless and that my professors would be ashamed of me or that I will fail my orals because I’ve clearly never opened a history book.

Unfortunately, there are also ways for online harassers to force our silence and take the choice out of our hands. Mass reports can cause accounts to be suspended, even when they don’t violate site rules. This kind of suppression has far reaching implications beyond the lives of the individual people. Since more women and POC are silenced than white men, the public narrative is controlled by one experience and voice.

During the 2016 election journalists reported on “enthusiasm” and narratives they saw publicly represented. Unfortunately there was little examination of why certain people and groups were more public than others. Because of bullying the enthusiasm of women and people of color expressed itself in safe private spaces. Thus, the prevailing opinions were often from the groups that had controlled public space through online bullying. Their opponents were scared into silence.

Hillary Facebook groups are a good example of opinions that were forced underground. These groups have received bad press because people in them posted privately rather than speaking openly. However, isn’t this self-protection rational when faced with a continuous barrage of unpleasant and even threatening responses? Must women and POC subject themselves to harassment? In the underground group I created and moderated, we used our privacy to support each other, gather strength, and then emerge stronger to post publicly. The real issue should be the reasons women and people of color found this step necessary.

We must stop minimizing this online problem by calling the harassers trolls (annoying little elves we should ignore). On the contrary, online harassment has serious political consequences and is becoming a dominant form of propaganda to control public opinion and the outcome of elections. In June 2017, Kim Weaver, a Democratic candidate running against Republican Steve King for Iowa’s 4th congressional district, dropped out of the race due to death threats. The response of her opponent was to dismiss these threats and accuse the Democratic party of forcing her to drop out.

Female politicians are particularly vulnerable to propaganda and harassment, as are their supporters. Whereas Hillary was the target of most harassment and propaganda last year, Kamala Harris has begun to attract the newest round. This image uses lies about Harris’ record and the derogatory term “corn cob,” implying a person has been “owned” in an online argument.

Harassment of women can’t be easily eradicated, but it can be addressed on online platforms. One of my fellow cofounders at The American Women’s Party, Maya Contreras, has been tweeting to ask for stronger rules and the enforcement of guidelines to protect people using Twitter.

Studies show that online harassment can lead to real world violence. The purpose of doxxing is onerous: to bring about job terminations, harassing phone calls, and even physical harm. Online harassment can organize like minded haters looking for targets. Twitter and Facebook must protect women and POC so they are not silenced on these platforms. For example, Facebook it quicker to suspend a user for using the word “cracker” than for making rape threats. On Twitter a user can be suspended for repeating the harassing word someone else used against them.

Online platforms aren’t taking these issues seriously enough. Instead, the advice is to block the offending accounts. But blocking someone doesn’t stop them from mentioning someone or sharing screenshots of them. It also doesn’t stop that account from being harassing others.

We are learning that both Twitter and Facebook played central roles in the 2016 election. We need to insist that administrators of these platforms verify sources and remove false information. Similarly, both Twitter and Facebook must also examine hate speech on their platforms. They have a responsibility to ensure that harassment does not become accepted and that their platforms aren’t used to silence women and POC, driving them out of public life.

Mia Brett is the co-founder of the American Women’s Party. She is a PhD candidate in legal history, teaching the legal construction of race and sexuality in law, and fighting Trump. You can visit the party website And follow her on Twitter @QueenMab87