Are we stuck with sexist trolls forever?

A candid Guardian story reveals the frustrations of online editors

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 11, 2014 2:55PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>GenNealPhoto</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(GenNealPhoto via iStock)

There's an axiom that the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism. It's a phenomenon that many of us who read – and write – about women's issues have observed up close: that incessant trolling that ranges from the more benign "not all men" mansplaining to vivid and explicit threats. And if you'd like this week's keenest example of what's known as Lewis' Law in action, look no further than Guardian readers editor Chris Elliott's Sunday essay on "the online abuse that follows any article on women's issues."

In it, he cited a Guardian story that had run a few days previously, one in which former Labour leader Charles Leadbeater spoke of "an Internet where women are regularly abused simply for appearing on television or appearing on Twitter," and called for a prize rewarding the work of those who try to make the Internet a more tolerable place. Unsurprising to anyone who's ever read a comments section, the piece spurred comments like "If men are so nasty generally, -- and many certainly are -- why do feminists want women to imitate them and take up masculine pursuits?" as well as, "And the hatred of men at sites like Jezebel? Or is that ok?" Elliott went on to write about the amount of time the Guardian's online monitors spend  "weeding out either off-topic or offensive comments in threads attached to any article loosely related to feminism or women's issues," and quoted one moderator who observed, "WATM (what about the men) is now something we look out for on any piece about women as standard." He also cited some examples of recently deleted comments that had followed female-centric stories, about body hair and women in the workplace, which include phrases like "feminist nonsense" and "petty feminist whinging… must be that time of the month."

Now imagine the job of those moderators, facing the "25,000 to 40,000 [comments] the Guardian receives each day," and you begin to appreciate why Elliott muses if "Perhaps it is time to assess whether anonymity should be an option rather than the default position." As Jemima Kiss, the Guardian's head of technology, explains, "It's well established that the quality and constructiveness of comments increases immediately with a real-name log in." Naturally, a story that expresses such sentiments is followed by a comment from a Lord Shrubbery noting, "So in essence go away white men with actual opines that don't agree with our narrow minded approach to delicate issues and leave us to our giant for lack of a better term circle-jerk." And ZimbaZumba will have you know that "Online trolling of comments is a smoke screen to institute the silencing of unpopular opinion and the real opinions of the people," while Jagara1 explains, "I can only imagine that there is something of a man-hating culture around the Guardian and that everyone, in the offices, gets infected by this meme. Does nobody have the guts to stand up for men?"

It's a complicated and messy business, dealing with the trolls. As one Guardian commenter astutely points out, maybe we need to consider that part of the problem lies in so much of modern journalism's troll-baiting, incendiary headlines. Is the issue one that requires change not just in the way the trolls are weeded but the material is presented? And where is the line between legitimate criticism – because it's not as if every story dealing with women's issues is above reproach – and just straight-up trolling anyway? Sometimes it's clear-cut, but not always. And does less anonymity even work? I don't know – all you have do is look at the comments under certain news and lifestyle stories posted on Facebook to see that plenty of people have zero problems putting their names and faces to some seriously repellent messages. I long ago gave up looking at the comments, but I get rape and violence threats via email on the regular from people who make no effort to conceal their identities. Yet I still believe in creating tools that make drive-by anonymous commentary harder, mostly because it's not uncommon for a story to be picked up in some online troll den somewhere, sparking an attempted deluge of abuse from its denizens.

But limiting anonymity will never stamp out the haters, and anonymity, especially in conversations around sensitive personal topics, is often a useful and even necessary thing. You want honest dialogue about something like abortion or sexual abuse, you need to create a space where people feel safe to talk without fear of offline retribution. The price of the freedom to speak anonymously is the way that the most dogged and determined jerks will abuse that freedom. I wish the means of combating them were easier. I do know that job one is to keep writing and talking about the things that scare the trolls – not just feminism but race and LGBT rights and everything else that pisses them off. Filters and moderators and sign-in requirements will only get us so far. Ultimately, the most important thing we need to remember is that we can't always silence them, but that they will never silence us.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Feminism Internet Culture Internet Trolls Journalism Trolls