In the age of the Internet troll, there's an unfortunately predictable cycle for what happens to women who talk about feminist issues online: They get barraged with rape threats and harassment. For examples: see here, here, here and most recently, here. The anonymous nature of Twitter and comment threads allows cowards to write hateful things to people without consequences, suggesting that this reaction is unique to the digital age. But it's not. The Twitter rape threat is just the 21st century incarnation of a centuries old reaction.
Just the other day we saw the modern-day cycle play out, with a "countercampaign of online harassment" lobbed at "several high profile women" who advocated for Jane Austen and other historical female figures on British bank notes. The announcement that Austen would grace the 10 pound bill resulted in Twitter rape threats by the minute against the blogger Caroline Criado-Perez because she both advocated and celebrated the "brilliant day for women."
The scope and nature of the hate is specific to the Internet, argues Dr. Whitney Phillips, a media studies and digital culture researcher, who is writing a book on trolls. "While the sort of violently sexist bile directed at Criado-Perez definitely has precedent (and not just precedent but precedents), it also has context," she told The Atlantic Wire. "Not only does Twitter allow for anonymous or pseudonymous communication, not only does it provide a forum for users to directly interface with public figures, its social functionality encourages the breakneck spread of information." In addition, because of the Internet, more people have exposure to people like Criado-Perez and her story, further amplifying the potential haters.
But, like Phillips said, the behavior has precedence. The sexism we see online is just a reflection of real world hatred, suggests University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron, who is writing a book about cyber harassment. "We have gendered harms that we see these nudged into cyberspace where it's much safer for perpetrators to demean," she told The Atlantic Wire. Before, you might see acceptable sexual harassment in the work-place, for example. And certainly journalists in particular saw these feelings manifest in letters to the editor and hate mail — the comment threads of the analog age.
What is turning so many young men into internet trolls?
There's misogyny, of course. But sometimes it's boredom, a need for attention, or a grievance against a world that is passing them by. An academic specialist in online behaviour asks, how should we treat these disparate kinds of abuser?
Two thousand, three hundred and ninety-three years ago, in 380BC, Plato wrote the myth of the Ring of Gyges, in which the shepherd, Gyges, discovers a ring that makes him invisible at will. He promptly uses the protection this offers to infiltrate the royal household, seduce the queen, assassinate the king and take the kingdom. Plato goes on: "If now there should be two such rings, and the just man should put on one and the unjust the other, no one could be found, it would seem, of such adamantine temper as to persevere in justice."
Plato felt that the protection of being unidentifiable could corrupt even the most morally upstanding person. After the week she has had, Caroline Criado-Perez might well sympathise with that bleak assessment. After she had successfully petitioned to have Jane Austen's image appear on the new £10 banknote, Twitter trolls used the anonymity of the internet to inundate her with threats of rape and violence.
It took another petition and a media storm to overcome the inertia that seems to exist when social networks and the police are asked to deal with online abuse. When MP Stella Creasy stepped in to support and defend Criado-Perez, the Twitter trolls began to target her too. And in the latest twist, several female journalists were sent bomb threats. So who are the trolls sending these messages? And what motivates them to behave like this?
The Gyges effect – the way that the internet can encourage a disinhibition people simply would not experience face to face – is only part of the explanation. Linked to that is the way the internet allows us to shut down our sense of empathy. In a nutshell, we are sending words through a screen, and seeing words come back. No tone of voice, facial expressions or body language. This makes it easy not only to pretend there isn't a real, emotional, possibly fragile human being at the other end, but also to play down any emotional reaction that they convey back as an exaggeration or a lie.