Why the behaviours of male trolls are increasingly normalised
1st April 2017
Words by Kate Noble-Judge
Cover image by Benjamin Voros via Unsplash
Recently, during the “Nasty Women” panel at the All About Women festival in Sydney, all three female panelists explained how they receive frequent death and rape threats, mass campaigns to get them fired, and online stalking on a regular basis. They also spoke of the knowledge that their male peers did not share most of these experiences. The grudging ‘acceptance’ these women showed seemed like an all too familiar female survival tool, akin to shrugging off sexist remarks in public, or dutifully arranging our keys between our knuckles when walking home late at night.
However, I found myself thinking about this online harassment from a linguistic perspective. Online harassment, or “Trolling” is marked by a flouting of conversational norms, enabled by the removal of social consequences that is unique to online environments. So, why doesn’t this freedom go both ways? Why are women not, en masse, taking out their anger on men who speak online in equally extreme ways?
Trolling creates conflict online by posting inflammatory and off-topic messages with the specific intention of disrupting and interrupting normal, on-topic discussion and antagonizing fellow participants. Of course, it is tempting to assume the trolls who resort to the extreme types of harassment are deviant, sociopathic monsters, or as feminist columnist and author Clementine Ford puts it: “deeply unhappy people who get off on (abusive behaviour)”. That said, a recent Stanford study showed that trolling isn’t just carried out by sociopaths and perverts; on the contrary, most of us will at some point succumb to our inner troll. These circumstances typically boil down to simply being cranky and tired, and being online. Obviously, IRL (In Real Life) being cranky and tired doesn’t usually translate to average people doing anything more offensive than a bit of scowling. So the question arises, what is it about being online that turns your average Joe into a belligerent keyboard warrior lobbing offensive memes at bewildered women?
"Online harassment, or “Trolling” is marked by a flouting of conversational norms, enabled by the removal of social consequences that is unique to online environments. So, why doesn’t this freedom go both ways? Why are women not, en masse, taking out their anger on men who speak online in equally extreme ways?"
One of the shared assumptions of most (real life) conversational contexts is that the participants are negotiating and updating a shared “common ground”. Doing this successfully means that conversational norms (such as not threatening people with rape and murder) need to be observed. However, online discussions are anonymous and asynchronous, meaning a fluid “back and forth” conversation can’t happen, because when participants are total strangers and dislocated in time and/or space, this common ground is difficult to identify. This means online conversations usually form around a temporary common ground, such as an article or tweet about a given topic, yet the aims of the participants are not necessarily shared. The aim of a troll is not to share and discuss information, but to antagonise others and harvest their reactions with tone-deaf, adversarial tactics. To sum up: online discourse offers the troll attention, without the usual negative social consequences.
A Hobbesian explanation of this would be that once the thin veneer of social conditioning is removed, our true nasty and brutish selves emerge. Oddly enough, sometimes waiving anonymity doesn’t quell trolling behaviour. Moreover, trolling behaviour appears to pattern along decidedly socially conditioned lines: particularly in regard to gender. Although the (usually) anonymous nature of trolling means that gathering reliable data on the gender of internet users is fraught with difficulty, it is generally understood that while both men and women troll, it seems to be more often men who use the creepier weapons of death and rape threats and stalking, and women who are on the receiving end. Of course, there is a familiar, ready-made explanation here: men are just naturally more aggressive and beastly than women. From this it also follows that the online jungle of abuse is an inevitable phenomenon, and women who venture in do so at their own risk.
Intuitively, one might pause for a moment to consider just how plausible it is that a man taking a break from online gaming to post a Pepe the Frog meme on twitter at 1am, is doing so due to his Tarzan-style chromosomal hardwiring. One might also observe that trolling behaviour is in fact relatively easy to replicate in “bots”; who really can’t blame their behaviour on cave man DNA. The idea that “Mars and Venus” differences in temperament and behaviour are biologically pre-determined percolates throughout discussions of gender and society. However, as Cordelia Fine argues, this is a myth, which erroneously identifies the consequences of social conditioning as proof of innate characteristics.
This myth also extends to language: if men are naturally assertive and domineering, then ipso facto they naturally dominate conversation with forthright assertions. Meanwhile women are naturally timid, nurturing creatures who just instinctively want to support and facilitate whatever other people say. This view is most famously associated with Deborah Tannen’s 1990 book, which also implied that because that men and women spoke such different languages, they were constantly misunderstanding each other (echoes of this may be heard in the insistence that online sexist abuse is in fact a joke that women “just don’t understand”). Linguist Deborah Cameron roundly dismissed such a view of language; observing that there is just as much difference in linguistic behaviour within the genders as between them. Men and women talk differently, but in response to a myriad of socio-cultural influences, not biological prompts. For example: research on gender in discourse shows that shows women in mixed gender discourse situations talk considerably less than men, and that this disparity increases as the proportion of female participants decreases. Moreover, for both men and women, when women only talk a little bit the conversation appears “equally balanced”, but if women approach actually equal time they’re seen as “dominating the conversation”. Again, women who do talk more than the “norm” are viewed negatively (whereas men that talk a lot are viewed as competent). Thus social consequences for talking, let alone interrupting others, are very different for men vs. women.
"Moreover, for both men and women, when women only talk a little bit the conversation appears “equally balanced”, but if women approach actually equal time they’re seen as “dominating the conversation”. Again, women who do talk more than the “norm” are viewed negatively."
This crucial disconnect from reality is doubtless behind the ubiquitous phenomenon of men’s interrupting, (“manterrupting”), mansplaining, ignoring women’s contributions and generally “hogging the conversation”. On an unconscious level, all these familiar tactics are a way of keeping things “normal” and “fair”— where the status quo doesn’t include women’s voices having equal space. To “hog the conversation” online, however, requires more than just talking longer, louder and interrupting. It is hard to interrupt an asynchronous dialogue, and if you ignore a woman’s online contribution, she might not even notice. You can of course mansplain, but without the sociocultural scaffolding that in-person conversations provide to keep a woman listening, how will you know she heard you? So gendered trolling resorts to the discourse tactics of men everywhere who wish to silence women who refuse to adhere to their discourse expectations: belittle, insult, humiliate, degrade. As TIME magazine put it: “For girls and women, harassment is not just about “un-pleasantries.” It’s often about men asserting dominance, silencing, and frequently, scaring and punishing them.” A woman online can expect every shade and type of harassment from being name-called, to being stalked and receiving rape and death threats. The effect in all these cases is on the same spectrum as interrupting, ignoring and mansplaining elsewhere: to disrupt and negate whatever it is she is trying to say. The difficult truth seems to be similar to the story of so much gendered violence and abuse: rather than deviant behaviour, carried out by a few “monsters”, trolling is simply the extreme manifestation of the standard dynamics of gender in discourse and society today.