What compels the internet troll to target women in media?
In recent days, Leslie Jones’ website became a target of hackers who, in addition to exposing her driver’s license and passport photos, juxtaposed nude images of the Saturday Night Live star with photos of Harambe, the silverback gorilla who was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo this summer. The cyber-attack on Jones brings to mind the memorable words of her Ghostbusters character: “I don’t know if it was a race thing or a lady thing, but I’m mad as hell.” In this case, it appears to be both. Author Celeste Ng tweeted, “What’s happening to Leslie Jones is sickening & incontrovertibly wrong. It’s rooted in…racism & misogyny & we need to root [it] out of society.”
Research indicates that the internet troll does, in fact, disproportionately aim at women in general and women in media in particular.
Heidi Stevens has worked at the Chicago Tribune since 1998 and has been a columnist there since 2013, but it’s her hair — not her writing — that seems to have gotten the most attention.
Chin-length and wavy with blonde highlights, Stevens’ hair has been the subject of dozens, perhaps even hundreds or thousands, of emails, tweets and Facebook comments. The topic of her hair has landed her in the NY Daily News and it’s even brought her onto NBC’s Today Show.
The reason? Stevens’ readers simply don’t like her hair. They want her to comb her hair; they want her to change her hairstyle; they want her to simply do something more with her hair.
She’s one of many women in media who’ve been criticized for their appearance.
Heidi Stevens reads her ‘fan’ mail, Chicago Tribune.
When Stevens spoke with Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Mary Schmich, Stevens discovered that Schmich also has been fielding similar complaints.
Part of it, Stevens says, is that many people think the worst thing you can do to a woman is to tell her she’s unattractive. “Fortunately, I’m looking for a lot more out of life than to be beautiful,” says Stevens, whose columns often emphasize getting the most out of life and being present at all times. Many of her columns also advocate equal rights for women, and for that she receives at least one nasty email a day. Some days she gets floods of hate mail, depending on the topic of her column.
“We are still living in a time in which a lot of people — men and women — aren’t used to, and aren’t comfortable with, hearing and reading female voices with an opinion,” Stevens says of attitudes toward women in media. “Often, this is perceived or heard as whining, nagging, bitching and moaning, because I think we sort of got used to having opinions and insights and advice on big and important matters doled out by men.” So when she says something important, someone usually tells her to “quit whining,” Stevens says.
Women in media throughout the country — and around the world — are challenged with increasingly vile harassment via an array of online outlets: comment sections of their articles, emails and social media.
Two forces collided to produce the internet troll: the online disinhibition effect and anger.
Psychologists have started to study who internet trolls are and why they are trolling. A recent study by Canadian researchers found that nearly 6 percent of people online self-identify as trolls, and these trolls display dark psychological traits including psychopathy and sadism. Additional research out of Stanford University and Cornell College examined more than 40 million online posts to study antisocial behavior, and they learned that trolls make more comments per day and post more times on each thread than those exhibiting normal online conduct. So an internet troll exhibits hyperactive behavior.
Another study found that the people making the negative comments have a high expectation of what it means to be successful, and this expectation is higher than what they’re able to achieve. They resent those who think they’re successful but fall below their standards.
Two forces collided to produce the internet troll, says John Suler, professor of clinical psychology and author of Psychology of the Digital Age.
First, there’s the online disinhibition effect. Online, people tend to say and do things they probably wouldn’t have the nerve to do in person. “It’s because they have the ability to hide and disguise their identities,” Suler says. “When they think others do not know who they are, when they feel invisible, when they can pretend to be someone they are not, they use that opportunity to act out hostilely on the people they choose as their victims.”
The second force is anger. This anger isn’t safe to express in the real world, but online it’s not usually met with real consequences. “They torment other people online with that anger — people they don’t have to look in the eye, people they don’t know, or people they think they know but they actually don’t,” Suler says.
The sadistic internet troll is the one who doesn’t simply vent his anger onto another but actually enjoys seeing someone in pain.
Many of the trolls fit a specific category, says David Auerbach, Slate magazine’s technology columnist and a New America fellow. “A lot of trolls are adolescent or post-adolescent men who react to women in predictably crude and sexist ways,” Auerbach says. “Since there are no consequences for this behavior, there’s little to stop them from expressing whatever impulses they have.”
While newspapers may not be able to stop trolls from tweeting nasty 140-character diatribes or sending vile emails, some newspapers are taking a step to prevent further abusive behavior. Reuters, USA Today, The Chicago Sun-Times and Popular Science, among other publications, recently disabled their online comment sections, urging readers to post on social media if they had something to say. Among other reasons, the negative comments had become too argumentative.
Paywalls have also helped to discourage the trolls, even if this wasn’t their prime intent, and they have contributed to the decline of the nasty comments, Auerbach says. Media trolling peaked around 2014-2015, but it’s finally started to die down, Auerbach says, attributing this to the increased paywalls in many internet and private media destinations. “So I suspect that being public on the internet will become increasingly rare, because people are realizing it is simply not worth the hassle,” he says. “Many people who continue to participate on the open internet will probably do so pseudonymously.”
Pseudonymously or anonymously, the internet troll will find a way to get their messages across, regardless of the forum. Lindy West, a writer and author of Shrill whose work focuses on feminism and body image, wrote in one column that she has been sought out at least once a day to be called a “fat bitch.” And recently, the podcast Just Not Sports highlighted men reading real tweets sent to Julie DiCaro, a Sports Illustrated reporter and to Sarah Spain, an ESPNW reporter and radio host. “I hope your boyfriend beats you,” one tweet says. “I hope you get raped again,” another tweet says to DiCaro, who had shared her story about her sexual assault.
For her part, Stevens stopped reading the comment section of her columns because, she says, she lacks the skill of not taking all those constant criticisms personally, which started affecting her work. “I tried for a while reading them and not taking them to heart, and I found that I don’t have that skill,” Stevens says. “They sting a little bit, and they become predictable.”
She knows they’re still there, staying put in the comment section like poisonous snakes waiting to pounce. But for now, she’s not giving them a second of her time.