I once saw ‘below the line’ discourse on a piece I wrote about feminism descend into all-out chaos
This is for you. Yes, you – the people who lurk in the comments section online, waiting to say something (anything) snarky; the ones at the very end of this article if you scroll down a bit; the ones who contribute to the 60-comments-and-most-of-them-are-abusive section of the website.
The “reply guys”, the misogynists. The people who would be welcome to engage thoughtfully with the point made in a piece, and offer up their own opinion, life story or alternate point of view – but instead lean in, full-tilt, to personal attack.
Some do engage properly, of course. The majority of our readers – however strident – disagree with consideration, offering up angles we might not have thought about before, reminding us that we should all listen to others and that it is foolish to exist in an echo chamber of assent.
But then there are the trolls. The ones who fall back on nothing cleverer than playground taunts, the ones who register their names and their email addresses only to write “stupid bitch” or “slut” or “whore” or to brand a writer “ugly”; to call them “self-serving” and “sanctimonious”; to dismiss them as a “drama queen” or to accuse them of being “self-obsessed”. To attempt to throw them into existential crisis, by writing, Sartre-esque: “WHO IS THIS WOMAN?” in incandescent caps lock. “WHO IS SHE?”
I’ve experienced all of these, as well as some darker direct threats, such as the guy who posted a comment (which was obviously moderated and reported) on a piece I’d written to say: “Someone should rape her, teach her a lesson.” Another told me on Twitter that he knew where I lived, was “watching me” and was waiting to “run me over”.
I even once saw “below the line” discourse on a piece I wrote about feminism descend into all-out chaos, as 96 commenters argued over whether I was attractive enough to take to bed or not. One wrote: “Are you joking? You’d have to wear beer goggles to f**k that.” Does this happen to male writers, too? Because that’s the truth about trolling: it happens disproportionately to women.
Men also get abused online, but the nature of it seems subtly different: less sexual, less personal, less overt and less threatening. I recently had a chat with a male writer who asked me if I always read the comments (and responded). He said that – as with Twitter – he finds them useful in pointing out something he hadn’t thought of.
A good point – but it just doesn’t work so simply for women. If only it did. As a woman sharing your “voice” online, you’re far, far more likely to encounter an anonymous man telling you you’re “stupid” or “an airhead” to demean you – rather than engaging with the subject of your writing. It’s misogyny, pure and simple.
And it can be overwhelming to have your appearance or professional abilities so savagely dissected; not to mention being personally threatened and abused – which is par for the course for so many women online. I don’t think it matters what we’re writing. In attacking us, you forget our humanity: we are writers, yes; but we are also mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, friends.
One colleague found a comment beneath a piece she had written on Eurovision that said, simply: “886 words of drivel” – which only made her wonder if they had painstakingly counted them, or taken the time to copy and paste them into Word, before commenting at all.
It’s the ultimate irony, isn’t it – telling a writer you “don’t see the purpose” of their piece, that it’s “rubbish” or a “waste of time” and “shouldn’t be a story”, when you’ve personally chosen to take the time to read it, log in and comment – showing a pretty hefty level of engagement with the piece you protest is so “pointless” in the first place.
Maybe those who troll are missing the point. Maybe they don’t understand the point in the first place, and should ask themselves: what is the comments section on an online newspaper or magazine for? What is Twitter? I’ll offer one view: it’s to listen to a diverse range of voices we might not otherwise find a forum to listen to; because journalists – just like everyone else – should always strive to seek out the views of others.
Sometimes they can actually be fairly amusing – even the worst levels of petty snark can have a sort of dark, wry humour. I found myself cackling wickedly at the person who left a comment online, lamenting: “Another day, another piece by Victoria Richards” like we’ve been married for 30 years.
But the thing that gets my goat is the missed opportunity of it all. Instead of engaging in an interesting debate about a topic that matters, most trolls reduce themselves to petty name-calling; wrangling amongst themselves in the space below the line like it’s a sort of gladiatorial arena; trying to outdo each other by being mean, nasty or crude.
I’d love to know more about them. The same few names that pop up continually, from piece to piece; the particularly nasty ones with some sort of personal vendetta who probably go home and kiss their daughters goodnight; tuck them in and narrowly avoid hitting their heads on the princess mobiles hanging from the ceiling; the very same people booking family lunches at rustic pubs on Sundays.
Those men (because it does appear, in my experience, to be mostly men) who think nothing of their own split existences; who likely hold down jobs, maybe something public-facing, maybe even something they are proud of; who chat to their neighbour while they’re putting the bins out; who are looking forward to celebrating the end of lockdown with a cracking bottle of wine in a posh bar or hotel – before tiptoeing upstairs to their computer to pull the metaphorical ponytail of a woman they’ve never met.
Still, maybe we can have the last laugh. After all, we can simply turn the comments… off (or never read them in the first place) – but then we’re arguably missing out, too. We want to hear what you’ve got to say. That’s the whole point of having a “Voices” section in the first place – but you’ve got to play fair.
I don’t expect you to agree with me all of the time, and neither do my colleagues, but we do expect some degree of decorum. When you see misogyny and personal abuse in the comments section, call it out. I issue those who like to troll Independent writers a challenge: don’t prove my point by commenting in the exact same vein in this piece as all the rest; and to the rest of you: don’t let the playground bullies win.
It’s time we turned away from trolling and towards coherent conversation. We’re all adults. Some of us should start acting like them.