Trolling the depths: Charlotte Dawson and the consequences of cyber bullying
Yesterday, Australian television personality and panelist on Australia’s Next Top Model Charlotte Dawson was hospitalised following a rapid and sustained onslaught of cyber abuse. Today, three of my friends and professional peers have written wonderful things reflecting on their own experiences of the anonymous bullies, reminding me yet again that the world of digital journalism can be a dark and rabid place.
You can - and should - read them here:
Clem Bastow, on being the target of a vile campaign of hate from anonymous snark site The Spin Starts Here: Trolling Charlotte Dawson
Marieke Hardy, who receives frequent threats of rape and who is probably one of the strongest women on the internet I know: Trolling, a response
Helen Razer, former radio host and current internet scythe, whose caustic wit gets me out of bed in the morning and who, despite having been famous prior to social media, was not immune to an ongoing campaign of harassment, stalking and revolting mail: Trolls, fame and blame
Bastow, Hardy and Razer have covered this topic amply, as have many other women before them. I’m not sure I can say anything ‘new’ about it. But I think it’s important to add my voice to the chorus regardless because it is exactly that action that incites the rage and wrath of anonymous trolls - particularly those who consider your greatest crime to be Writing While Female. Trolls do not attack en masse because they think you’re too submissive. The people abused the most on the internet are the loudmouthed ladies who refuse to keep their place and keep silent. Their most vehement bullies are the ones who don’t just dislike what they have to say, but despise the audacity they show in thinking they have the right to say it.
As the recipient of my own share of online abuse, I’ve often reflected that the saddest part is how immune you become to it. Granted, I have the hide of a rhinoceros and an ego that could apply for its own postcode. But no matter how strong you are, no matter how much you can shake the acidic bile from your shoulders and keep on moving forward, laughing with your friends over the appalling grammar and imagination on display, there are moments when you cannot help but pause to contemplate the reality of your daily grind - that a life in which you have found happiness, professional satisfaction and a general sense of accomplishment seems to be necessarily accompanied by the tradeoff of anonymous messages such as ‘I hope you get raped by a hiv carrier’, ‘you sound fat’, ‘your as ugly as a dead dog on the side of the road’, and the cut-and-paste job favoured by discerning misogynists and sent to every woman with a voice on the internet at one time or another: ‘your to ugly to rape’.
There are two issues going on with the sad affair of Dawson’s hospitalisation, and the lead up to it. Firstly, that the internet is a breeding ground for horrible people to exercise the most terrifying parts of their personalities under the Kevlar strong safety of anonymity. The lack of responsibility needed when engaging on the internet is a drug for some people - hell, I know what it’s like to hate-read something, and write snarky things about the people and things that I dislike. But as Hardy says, “I don’t give a shit about the odd times visible women on the internet have pushed the boundaries of satire or abuse. I have never, ever, carried on a relentless mission simply to ensure another human being is emotionally destroyed on my behalf. There is a difference.” Unfortunately, the distance between people’s perception of reality and life on the internet often prevents them from behaving with the kind of decency that defines civilised human behaviour. I must, for my own sanity, believe that the majority of people encouraging others on the internet to kill themselves would find such a demonstration of behaviour abhorrent if it took place in the real world. On the other hand, I find it difficult to believe that these online basilisks, intent as they are on spewing venom at those who incite their jealousy and rage, could possibly cope with even a tenth of the level of daily vitriol endured by those with even the most cursory of public profiles.
The sexual element of internet abuse cannot be ignored, because it goes part and parcel with being a woman on the internet. I have no doubt that male commentators from both sides of the political fence receive their fair share of abuse. Some of it will be comical. Some of it will pack about as much punch as being flogged with a calisthenics ribbon. And some of it may be so sustained, so belittling and so inexhaustible that they too find themselves going home one afternoon weighed down by a heavy heart and a seeping listlessness whose cause is difficult to pinpoint - the kind of weariness that can’t quite be cured, but can perhaps be dulled by a couple of cheap bottles of wine, a Fawlty Towers marathon and a little bit of a cry in the shower.
But what they are unlikely to get is the kind of abuse that seeks to shut them up through graphic descriptions of sexual violence, or cruelties about their lack of sexual appeal and therefore relevancy to the world at all. They won’t confront the confusing dreidel of abuse that tells them in an endlessly dizzy loop that they deserve to be raped by a shovel, that they are so repulsive that no one would even rape them, that rape is too good for them and that, finally, someone is actually going to come round to their house with the specific intent of torturing them, raping them and shutting their fucking bitchslutcuntwhore mouths up for good - that their mouths are only good for one thing, and that’s sucking cock, and they’ll stick a cock in their for good measure, and one up their arse and fuck them til they bleed. They will not, as Anita Sarkeesian found recently, have these kinds of threats made to them AND committed to illustration AND turned into video games so that angry young men can practice punching her in the face until she bleeds.
It’s easy to write these kinds of things off as the ravings of the mentally unwell; to say that the best approach is to ignore it, to disengage, to stop fanning the flames of abuse until the trolls get bored and go away. But mentally unwell people - even those stable enough to have partners, children, jobs, mortgages and an unhealthy appetite for calling women whores on the internet - have found a playground in the dystopian sprawl of cyberspace. The only thing they need to feed on is the thrill that comes with imagining a two sided relationship (even one of hatred) is being enacted. As a victim of their unwanted attention, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Ignoring them makes them think they’ve gotten to you, that you’ve collapsed in a fetal position in the corner of your study, snot running down your face as you confront the reality of your broken, useless, unrapeable self. But choosing to respond or retaliate only furthers their sense of relevance. ‘Don’t feed the trolls’ might sound very nice in theory, but the reality is that trolls are messy, ugly, brutal creatures who breed in unquantifiable numbers and never, ever retreat. Even those who do get bored come back eventually, emerging after months of radio silence to resume discussing your saggy tits as if a conversational break had never occurred.
Charlotte Dawson is just one of many women who’ve been - temporarily, I hope - bullied out of the public eye. Sadly, many women hesitate to even enter it for fear that they too will be subjected to the kind of commentary that reminds them their greatest assets are not their brains, their wit or their talent but their ability to not only cause an erection, but behave in a way that doesn’t threaten the masculine power of its bearer. And this is the real consequence of online bullying - that if, by virtue of the fact that society still does not hold men and women to be equal and does not demand a greater standard of behaviour from its citizens, women are afraid of what faces them in the arid wilderness of cyberspace, then we will not have the benefit of their input, their experience or their counterpoints. We will continue as we always have, with men at the helm and the only women brazen enough to dare to join them labeled shrill at best or ugly whores whose insolence needs to be cured through the systematic adminstration of a million penises.
And then, the trolls really will have won.