The internet makes both the good and the bad aspects of life more accessible for us. Firmly into the latter category falls online harassment, and those harassing people treat it as if they were more a game than real life; for them, bullying has become a form of entertainment.
Rules of the Game
An obvious requirement for bullying someone online is anonymity, so almost all online bullying is done through anonymous accounts. In the void of this anonymity they need to create something (a username, at the very least), and this is their first step in creating an alternate persona. When we engage in a fantasy, whether playing a game, watching a movie, reading a book or just daydreaming, we become (in our imagination, at least) someone else. The same cognitive process occurs here. And, just like any game, the more people that are involved the more fully developed the fantasy becomes.
When there are multiple people, all having adopted an anonymous persona , this fosters engagement through a sense of community and encourages them to expand the persona they’ve created. In one sense it’s role play, no different to playing Call of Duty or LARPing (live action role playing). It wouldn’t cause a problem if it only involved those who were in character. But it doesn’t.
These personas are used to hurl abuse and sometimes threats at people who aren’t in on the game. They’re people just living their lives who suddenly find themselves the target of vitriol. To the anonymous harasser, however, their victim is reduced to little more than a character in their fantasy. This is the gamification of harassment, where the whole of the internet is viewed as an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) with no rules and no real life consequences.
Hate is not a new phenomena, of course. Hate mail existed before email. White sheets and pointy hats were the Klan’s preferred mode of anonymity rather than fake avatars and user names. Being online does mean it can intrude into someone’s life with alarming speed. It’s the online equivalent of evil clowns from a Halloween carnival bursting onto the streets but not breaking character. Perhaps these people know they’re in character and, if they sat down and thought about it, would not act upon any of the threats they make. But the people they’re threatening don’t know that. They don’t know were, for the harasser, reality ends and fantasy begins.
The Person Behind the Troll
In this Guardian article, Lindy West, who sadly receives various forms of hate and abuse online, recounts what happened when she confronted the man who hurled abuse at her under the guise of her recently deceased father. She responded with a piece on Jezebel which the man behind this fake account read. Surprisingly, he wrote to her with an apology, claiming it made him realize there was, “a living, breathing human being who is reading this shit” and saying, “I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self.” He made a donation to the Seattle cancer center where her dad had been treated. Lindy recounted these events on This American Life, and that show includes a fascinating conversation between Lindy and the man who had trolled her. He’s apologetic. He’s embarrassed. He says that, in researching her father to create the account he read his obituary. When Lindy tells him that she wrote the obituary you can hear his mortification in the silence.
The Pit and the Echo Chamber
Research has shown that people who create ‘extreme’ fantasies can devote an hour or two a day to developing them and living in them. Some can even spend entire weekends living in their world. The internet not only makes this fantasy persona available 24/7, but also creates an audience for it. On 4chan, 8chan and whatever site is the current popular cesspit of internet culture as you reading this, these actions are celebrated and encouraged. While these onlookers may not be directly engaging in any form of harassment, they are at least complicit in it. For the spectators, it seems, this is a modern freak show, encouraging wilder and more outlandish behavior to provide entertainment. If the anonymity and fantasy of an online persona allow the perpetrator to reduce their victims to characters in their fantasy, then the spectators are removed a step further so the whole thing becomes vaudeville. It’s online and people are making YouTube videos about it, so they can choose to believe that it’s not really real. That no one is really getting hurt or terrified or having to move out of their home because of persecution. And if they did, then it was probably all staged; all a part of the game as everyone involved tries to increase their own internet fame. They can justify the whole thing can be rendered harmless by viewing it as crowd-sourced reality television.
This type of behavior isn’t limited to dark corners of the internet, of course. To pick an example from 2011, think of how parts of the press and social media were celebrating and goading Charlie Sheen into even more outlandish public behavior during his meltdown, and that was merely a more public (and, let’s admit, publicly acceptable) example of this mob-hate. We see it every day when people smile flatly at a racist/sexist/prejudiced joke rather than say something. It happens when someone is bullied and, like herd animals, others turn to stand against them.
The Fantasy\Reality Collision
The individuals who persecute people create elaborate fantasies around their anonymous persona; they build a narrative around themselves that casts their actions as heroic. As an example, Brianna Wu (a game developer who’s suffered more, and more horrific, harassment than most) was recently threatened by someone who claimed they had crashed their car as they drove to her house to shoot her. The way he describes things they could be scenes from a video game or movie and it’s not clear if there’s an intentional element of self-parody (“I CANT GET BULLET HOLES IN MY MOMS CAR SHE ILL ME”) or if it’s just so bizarre as to read that way. Regardless, the death threats and sense of terror the instill are real, even if we want to write off the sender as a deluded crank.
Presumably these online fantasies are being created and acted out to fulfill some personal need. We all have these needs, psychologically, that we have to fulfill and that doesn’t make us flawed, it makes us human. But there are healthy and unhealthy ways of fulfilling them. Creating a persona to harass and stalk someone is clearly taking the unhealthy path.
Write Out The Troll
Conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t feed the trolls. You should just ignore them; let them cry and bray, as engaging with them is exactly the encouragement they want. For most people that’s probably good advice. If you can ignore them, of course. It’s not always possible, especially if they make death threats or place a fake 911 call that sends a SWAT team to your door. But there may be something we can do, collectively, to address this.
Comic books are perhaps one of the more inclusive forms of entertainment; our heroes are social outcasts, misfits and those who are just clearly different. If someone is building out a fantasy that result in harm to others, could we find a way to encourage them to build this fantasy in a more constructive way? Could we help then channel these fantasies into creating comic books?
Not comic books about harassing and stalking people, of course. But by giving their anger the structure of a story, an image or a series of panels maybe it would help them work through their issues. Maybe they could learn how to overcome what scares them. Without the outlet of writing, drawing, painting, photography and other creative pursuits, how many more of us would have misdirected anger toward some randomly selected demographic? These crafts give us a structure in which to deal with our emotions and work them toward a resolution. Once we’ve resolved things within the story, we can begin to resolve those same issues in our lives. Art as therapy is hardly a new idea; there are even apps for it.
Maybe these people aren’t trolls, after all. To give this a fairy tale ending, maybe their emotions, bottled up and twisted, have condensed inside to form of a troll. That troll bursts out from them, takes control for a few hours a day to vent malice and cause harm before allowing them to get back to their life. Maybe they’re not bad people. Or, more accurately, maybe they could be good people if they could find a less destructive way to deal with their emotions and negate their inner troll. That is, after all, what happened to the troll Lindy West encountered. Since realizing the results of his actions he’s training to be a teacher, he’s started a relationship and volunteers at a school. He faced the troll he had grown and turned his back on it.