Talking about Trolls: Activists share their experiences of online abuse

How do activists cope with facing abuse online? I spoke to two members of the Bootcamp community who have been trolled relentlessly for their work as campaigners. Here are 5 things I learned.

The psychological impact of trolls can depend on where they’re coming from

Ceri:

“When my research (about how trans-women come to identify as feminists after they transition) got turned into a couple of articles, that brought out a lot of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). After that, I got diagnosed with stage-4 cancer and had to undergo 5 months of intense chemo. That wore me down physically, at a time when I was mentally worn down by all of this. 

Interestingly the TERFs were parrotting the same things as the far-right. Some told me that I deserved cancer. That my feminism is a cancer, and it’s ironic that I got it. I expect hateful trolling from the far-right. I don’t want their respect because if I had it, I’d be doing something wrong. If my troll is Joe Bloggs from down the pub wearing a Nigel Farage t-shirt, who gives a toss? But when my trolls are other people who identify as feminists saying, ‘you’re a gender-traitor’… that hurts.”

Aisha:

“I get loads of backlash from people I don’t know in my life. It is easier to say ‘I don’t know them, I don’t care’. It’s harder when it is closer to home. I’ve fallen out with family, friends, people I’ve known all my life, because they don’t agree with my standpoint on something. That makes you think ‘god, am I doing the right thing?’”

It can be really hard to switch-off and ignore the trolls

Ceri:

“One of my closest friends used to take my phone off of me when I felt too anxious. I didn’t want to miss something. It’s so weird… like FOMO of abuse. I was scared of not being heard, and of appearing too weak to be involved with the cause. I was worried about what other activists thought of me.”

Aisha:

“About 10 years ago, I worked with the West Yorkshire police in schools on internet safety: grooming, trolling etc. One thing we didn’t talk enough about with students was how to switch off completely. My son was bullied online 4 years ago. I told him ‘bloody switch it off, get rid of it’. But his fear was ‘if I do that, then I don’t know what’s happening’. There wasn’t any balance.”

This photo shows different icons of social media companies, including: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Phoster, and Yelp.
Social media icons. Photo credit: Pexels.

There are glimpses of humanity and connection

Ceri:

“Once there was an MRA (Men’s Rights Activist) who was having a go at me for being a feminist. Then his friends jumped in and started sending me awful messages, insinuating rape. I get rape threats so often, it’s ridiculous. It is the easy tool of power that lots of people, particularly men, go to in these kinds of situations. 

Then one guy started making fun of my bald head. I was like ‘nah, that’s not happening’. I like my bald head. I posted something back to him on private message, saying ‘my baldness is a sign of my fight with cancer. I’m damn proud of the way that I look’.

It turns out that his mum had died from cancer. He started apologising profusely and opened up to me. We ended up in a conversation for a couple of hours, where he told me he felt very isolated. 

That provides a bit of a false hope to me. One person turning out to be alright doesn’t mean that when I speak to any troll, they’ll have any ounce of empathy. But it does give me some hope, I suppose.”

Anticipating abuse can lead to self-censorship

Ceri:

“During my masters, I looked at how trans women come to identify as feminists after they transition. It was really affirming to talk to trans women about their experiences.

Around 60% of the women I interviewed said they wished they didn’t have to spend all their time defending their right to be in feminist circles. They told me they had seen things from the ‘other’ side, and held many valuable insights into fighting misogyny. They were so scared of being attacked and having their own lived experience used against them. They should be absolutely welcomed with open arms to have their inputs.” 

Aisha:

“I wrote out a positive tweet about Zac Goldsmith. He has done a lot of work and I’ve known him for about 12 years. I wrote it out, and must have deleted and rewritten it 10 times. I was thinking: people are going to be annoyed… there’s gonna be a backlash.

There’s been loads of times where I’ve written things out and then thought: I’m not going to. I just can’t be dealing with what comes afterwards. The other part of me thinks: this is how trolls work. This is how people who want to shut me down win.”

Activists remain positive about the benefits of the internet for their campaigns

Aisha:

“In some countries, speaking out as a woman used to be unimaginable. Now with social media, it is more possible. Someone like Mona Elthahawy, who wrote Hymen and Headscarves, could not have made the impact she has made without social media. Social media is essential to campaigning in today’s day and age.”

Ceri:

“I put a lot of my ramblings onto a personal website. Trolls were using the contact form on there, but I didn’t want to shut it off because a lot of people reach out to me there, especially since I started writing about cancer. I’ve had lots of people who were recently diagnosed reaching out. Helping one of them makes up for the rubbish that you get from 10 others.”

This photo shows a laptop on a table, and a sign that says 'You got this' in capital letters.There is a window in the background.
‘You got this’. Photo credit: Prateek Katyal from Pexels

 

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Esther Leighton

Esther is a disability justice campaigner who uses the law to fight for social change and accessibility on the high street. 

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