Cyberhate: Internet 'trolls' are far more dangerous than you've imagined

Cyberhate is far more dangerous than you think
Cyberhate is far more dangerous than you think Photo credit: Getty

Warning: this story contains explicit content, which some readers may find distressing.

The first thing you learn when researching internet trolling is not to call it trolling. 

It sounds like something from a fairytale, but the reality of online harassment is more grim than Grimm Brothers. 

"Associating the word 'troll' with extreme behaviour online is really problematic," says social justice journalist and cyberhate expert Ginger Gorman. "In Scandanavian folklore, a troll was a dude who hung out under bridge irritating pedestrians. He's rude, but harmless."

Internet trolling is a different beast altogether. They are not just isolated actions of monsters under the bed. They are systemic, sometimes criminal acts.

"Some victims I've talked to have been so frightened for their safety and the safety of their children that they've moved house," says Ms Gorman. "This is the opposite of harmless. " 

Rachel Gee Bee, a New Zealand plus-size fashion blogger, is just one of numerous female influencers who are harassed online. She doesn't go a week without getting an unsolicited dick pic. 

In 2016, she documented her experiences with one such man, who repeatedly sent explicit photos and sexually threatening messages. Every time she blocked his account, he made a new one. Then he progressed to impersonating her on Instagram, asking for sex. 


"He was harassing me over a number of weeks and others over an even longer period of time," says Ms Gee Bee.

She became highly anxious when using social media, checking her email or even touching her phone. 

Not just a matter of mind, but money too

Ms Gee Bee's story is shocking but not surprising. Any woman who dares venture out of the kitchen onto social media knows they're diving into the internet's pool of misogyny. 

It's not just an emotional battle, but a financial struggle one too. The effects of cyberhate makes it difficult for influencers like Ms Gee Bee to do their jobs.

Cyberhate academic Dr Emma Jane calls it a form of economic vandalism because it stops women's ability to work, and maintain and build professional networks. 

It's even worse if you have the nerve to be famous.

"If we are outspoken or visible in any way," says Ms Gee Bee, "we should expect to become a target for harassment and bullying." 

Fellow plus size fashion influencer and blogger Meagan Kerr says that's akin to victim blaming. 

"For me that's the equivalent of saying you were drinking alcohol and short skirt you deserve to be raped." says Ms Kerr. 

Historian Mary Beard, herself a victim of cyberhate, points out that this behaviour dates back to ancient Greece. She writes in the London Review of Books that the West has a long history of telling women in the public eye to sit down and shut up. And when we don't, they get nasty.  


Is there a solution?

So what are you going to do if you're a troublesome, lippy little lady? Do you stop being so outspoken? Ms Kerr admits there are days when the cyberhate "makes me never want to blog again". 

Australian celebrity and TV personality Tracey Spicer spoke publically about "being silenced" by trolls, revealing that she toned down her opinions to protect her family against cyberhate. 

And as trolling gets worse, the risk is that we lose our prominent female voices. So what's being done?

In Ms Gee Bee's case, she tackled her attackers directly. She reached out to her community of online bloggers. Together they identified the man, and she contacted Netsafe. However because he was in the United States, Netsafe said they couldn't do anything. Instead, Gee Bee confronted him herself, saying she knew his name and his school. 

She also posted the explicit messages online, tagging him and his school in the posts and getting her followers to do the same. 

She contacted his school, his family and his girlfriend about the messages. Eventually she succeeded, when she said she would go to the police. 

However, she says the period before his arrest was "pretty terrible". More men harassed her for being overly sensitive to what they deemed 'harmless trolling', and tried to hack her accounts. It only stopped when her harasser was finally arrested. The ordeal lasted 13 months.


Australian author Clementine Ford took an even more gutsy approach. Ms Ford famously had a man fired after he called her a "slut" online and she notified his employer. 

She wrote, "There are basically no consequences for men who behave like this, so we have to start making consequences for them." The move triggered a deluge of further harassment, with men telling her she deserved "to be gang raped by a pack of AIDS infested n*****s". 

Despite the backlash, it was also a triumph for Ms Ford. The move similarly sparked an international wave of support for her, including the hashtag #stopviolenceagainstwomen. She gained a dedicated core of followers who defended her in her continuing battles with online harassment. 

Ms Ford told The Guardian getting personal "has so far proved an effective means of fighting back." She wants to show men "what other men do and also to show women they don't need to quietly tolerate it." 

You can also just get sassy on them. Susan Carland, lecturer at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University, is regularly harassed for being Muslim. She told Daily Life Australia, "I respond with that GIF from the movie Mean Girls where Regina George says 'Why are you so obsessed with me?'" 



Pictures of Clementine Ford's online harassment
Pictures of Clementine Ford's online harassment Photo credit: Facebook

Beware of getting too involved

But engaging with harassers is also far more dangerous than we assume. 

There are three types of aggressor, says Ms Gorman: "The garden variety trolls, political trolls and dangerous trolls." 

It's the last group that are the most threatening to public safety. But when Ms Gorman wanted to interview a vicious and dangerous troll, she was warned by an eminent Australian cyber security expert not to name him or his trolling gang, "because if he didn't like what I wrote and I pissed off him or his gang, they would come after me". 

The troll himself warned Ms Gorman against digital activism, saying it could put her actual safety at risk.

While most trolls are lone idiots, there are also trolling gangs, some with membership in the thousands.

"They aren't small and they are highly organised," Ms Gorman says. "At the moment there's nothing to stop them."

The psychology of 'dangerous trolls'

'Dangerous trolls' like to see people pain. Research has linked online harassment to narcissistic, Machiavellian and sadistic behaviour, even psychopathy. 

This is why silence can be an effective weapon, says Ms Gorman, because it's not giving them the reaction they desire. However, humour and GIFS can also have the same effect.



Clementine Ford's abuse online
Clementine Ford's abuse online Photo credit: Facebook

Even so, it's tiring just constantly blocking trolls. 

"I'm blocking at least a hundred guys a day in my DMs," says Ms Kerr.

Ms Gorman and and Ms Kerr agree that while silence is the best policy, victims should still be outspoken in the community about harassment. 

Despite the stories, people are still largely ignorant of the scale and severity of online harassment. 

"It's not just me as an influencer who gets it," says Ms Kerr. "If you're [any] woman on the internet you're going to get it." 

And talking about it both helps victims and alerts the world to the realities of 'just trolling'.

"You don't have to sit there and feel awful all by yourself."