If US First Lady Melania Trump wants to change the culture around cyberbullying, she’ll need to change her understanding of what constitutes online abuse first.
“As adults, many of us are able to handle mean words, even lies. Children and teenagers can be fragile. They are hurt when they are made fun of or made to feel less in looks or intelligence. This makes their life hard and can force them to hide and retreat. Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough, especially to children and teenagers.”
These are the spectacularly misguided words of the US First Lady Melania Trump as she thrashed out her thoughts about the “bad side” of social media in a campaign speech last November.
Beyond this bleedingly obvious point is something that bothers me far more. It’s the assumption children are vulnerable to Internet trolling and yet somehow, when we turn 18, we are miraculously able to “handle” it.
— Hercules Mulligan (@johnvmoore) November 3, 2016
My TEDx talk last year told the story of how my family became the targets of an orchestrated online hate campaign. As my husband and I lay in bed late at night with our two children asleep in the next room, there was terror in our hearts.
Amid the torrent of hate, we found a photo of our family posted to a fascist website. At around the same time a separate tweet arrived that stated: Your life is over.
Like so many others who have been through this before and since, we wondered: “Is someone really coming for us?”
There was no way to gauge the nature of the threat. Unlike a face-to-face confrontation, this threat was omnipresent and followed us into our private spaces.
Despite making sympathetic noises, the police didn’t know how to help me and neither did my workplace.
As you may suspect, I did not feel able to “handle” this situation. If my story was unique, perhaps we could all sleep better at night. The problem is that it’s not.
Dr Emma Jane is Senior Research Fellow in the School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales. She’s been examining the issue of online abuse for more than 18 years.
Her interest in the area cropped up during her previous career as a print media columnist. All of a sudden in the early 1990s Dr Jane began receiving and archiving sexualised online threats. (She describes this as “Rapelish.”)
“I was fascinated by the marked change in the type of correspondence I received when I first began including my email address at the end of my newspaper columns.
“This was when the hate mail I was receiving suddenly switched from letters accusing me of not knowing ‘about the subjunctive conditional’ to letters saying ‘…all feminists should be gang raped to set them right’,” she says.
To date, Dr Jane has interviewed more than 50 women about their experiences of online abuse. In a yet-to-be published book chapter titled Feminist Flight and Fight Responses to Gendered Cyberhate, Dr Jane outlines the “many layers of suffering” experienced by targets of online abuse. Some of these include: victims contemplating, threatening or attempting suicide, career derailment, financial losses, long-term psychological impacts and real-life bodily harm.
Unlike a face-to-face confrontation, this threat was omnipresent and followed us into our private spaces.
One of the women featured in Dr Jane’s book chapter is journalist Tracey Spicer. A few years ago Ms Spicer became the target of a vile online attack because of a column she’d written about her children. (It’s safer not to link to the column in question.)
The important thing to know is simply that at the time the article was published, Ms Spicer was on holiday with her family. She received messages such as: “You deserve to be raped but you’re too ugly. I wouldn’t want to f*** your children anyway.”
“I was actually frightened to return to my own home…because the threats were so horrific – not only to me, but to my children,” Ms Spicer told Dr Jane during their interview. “I’ve really eased off on writing edgy columns because it scared the shit out of me.”
This brings us to the second glaring problem with Melania Trump’s views on cyberbullying. Internet trolls aren’t just “mean” online. Trolls are sadists and they want to hurt you. Some of them are downright dangerous. The trolls I spoke to operated in gangs and they would “pile on” when they found a victim.
Some of these gangs were extremely organised and even documented the hounding of their victims online. One of them confessed to actively seeking out and trying to incite vulnerable people to self-harm and suicide.
Dr Jane acknowledges this practice and explains “attackers tend to do if a target is known to be struggling with mental illness.
“This is language at its most vitriolic, hateful, abusive, threatening and misogynist,” she says, adding: “Much of it constitutes plausible threats of violence.”
The same troll who tried to push people to suicide told me he was involved in swatting. This is a practice where trolls attempt to deceive emergency responders into thinking something terrible is happening, like a hostage situation or murder. If the hoax succeeds, a victim’s door might be kicked in in the middle of the night by police with guns.
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Reflecting on her own experience and the experience of other public figures, Ms Spicer says: “Increasingly, digital pile-ons are aimed at outspoken women, telling them to STFU. Many of us develop thick skins, but it still erodes our mental health and quality of life.
“Our research, conducted by iSentia and Women in Media, found many women had left journalism because of cyberbullying. How are you supposed to do your job if you can’t safely use the tools of your trade?” she asks.
For her part, Dr Jane believes “any solution to this problem will need to be multifaceted.”
She notes that legislation, law enforcement, tech companies, schools and societal norms all have a role to play in ending online abuse.
“I suspect that gendered cyberhate is offering us a window into the sorts of conversations men have been having about women in private for a very long time. Men need to call each other out on this sort of attitude and discourse,” she says.
Let’s go back to US First Lady Melania Trump. It’s certainly good news she – a powerful woman in the public eye – wants to tackle the scourge of trolling.
In the aforementioned speech, she committed to this by saying: “It will be one of the main focuses of my work if I’m privileged enough to become your First Lady.”
However before Ms Trump opens her mouth about this subject again, I’d give her one piece of advice: educate yourself about the vast scope of this problem, its perpetrators and victims.
As the ancient Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu wrote:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
If you or Ms Trump want more in-depth information about trolling, try Dr Jane’s sobering book, Misogyny Online.