Staring down the trolls: Mute, block or resort to 'digilantism'?

Australian women who are being attacked online have different ways of responding at different times: they may ignore, mute, block, report, use humour or fight back via "digilantism" – a combination of the words "digital" and "vigilantism".

Cyberhate expert Dr Emma A. Jane explains that digilantism "covers a spectrum of do-it-yourself attempts to secure justice online".

Although digilantism may have its problems – such as placing the onus back onto the victim, or even making the initial problem worse – Jane believes the lack of institutional solutions has driven many women to take matters into their own hands.

Here's some of the various ways Australian women who have high profiles on social media are dealing with trolls.

Clementine Ford, Daily Life columnist and author

Clementine Ford. Photo: Simon Schluter

Clementine Ford. Photo: Simon Schluter

"The most consistent form of trolling I get is from bored and aggrieved anti-feminist men who use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to send me daily reminders of how ugly and repulsive they find me. These are fairly easy to ignore, although I will occasionally make an example of someone.

"It [trolling] exists as a minor irritation – like an infestation of ants, or flies on a hot summer day. However, there have been one or two times that family members have been targeted. One particularly obsessed stalker type (he runs an anti-feminist website almost solely devoted to me) published photographs of my partner under the headline, 'Who is the father of Clementine Ford's baby?' It's a testament to how deeply sad and pathetic their lives are, but it can be a little frightening in that respect.

"There's no way to 'fight back' that is considered acceptable by everyone. Women especially are told to block and ignore, but when we do exactly that we are subjected to further abuse for 'censorship' and over-sensitivity. I have made it a point to broadcast abuse and name and shame, but even this draws bizarre critique. I have been told I'm 'just as bad if not worse' than the people who harass me, which is absurd but underpins the belief that men especially should be protected and coddled from the consequences of their actions.

"The reason I name and shame is to show men what other men do and also to show women they don't need to quietly tolerate it. It has so far proved an effective means of fighting back."

Susan Carland lecturer in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University

Susan Carland: 'My trolls says things like: 'You're disgusting, get out of our country'.

Susan Carland: 'My trolls says things like: 'You're disgusting, get out of our country'.

"I usually get trolled on Twitter. In terms of what they say to me, I think it's almost without fail people who have a problem with me because I'm Muslim. My trolls says things like: 'You're disgusting, get out of our country,' 'You're a terrorist,' 'Why do you dress that way?'

"They're all variations on these themes – criticising the way that I dress, criticising that I live in Australia, criticising what I have or haven't done. They love to criticise me if they feel that I haven't done enough condemning of things, such as a specific terrorist attack: 'Why have you not come out and condemned it?'

"I realised it literally does not matter what I say or even what I don't say. They just say the same stuff. I find it really difficult to take it seriously, because it is so generalised.

"Sometimes I respond by saying something quite sarcastic and patronising, such as: 'Oh, it sounds like you need a hug?'

"Or sometimes I respond with that GIF from the movie Mean Girls, where Regina George says: "Why are you so obsessed with me?"

"In 2015 I started sending one dollar to the charity UNICEF every time I got a nasty tweet. As it stands right now, I've sent about $5200 to UNICEF. It can be hard to keep track of though, because I get so many nasty tweets.

"The idea was to respond to something awful with something good, in a way that it doesn't really engage with what the trolls are doing. The message to the trolls is: 'What you're saying does not bother me at all. It's not upsetting me and it's not concerning me'."

Carly Findlay writer, speaker, appearance and disability activist

Carly Findlay: Writer, disability and appearance activist. Photo: Justin McManus

Carly Findlay: Writer, disability and appearance activist. Photo: Justin McManus

"I've been trolled quite a bit. Once my photo was misused on Reddit and shared in the 'What the Fuck?' forum. People posted comments saying I looked like something their dog vomited and that I should be killed with fire. Recently I was told I should get plastic surgery and take a better-looking photo.

"Behaviour like this can hurt, but I try to remember they've [the trolls] often got no context about why I look the way I do. And their lives must be empty to comment meanly on a stranger's appearance.

"It is frustrating though because if I do choose to respond, it's taking away from important things I need to be doing.

"Even so, I usually respond politely and humorously. But I will tell them to f*** off if I've tried to educate and they still troll.

"With the Reddit incident, I actually went onto the thread and introduced myself and gave them information about why my face looks this way. It had an interesting effect on some people, changing the conversation from hate speech to supportive comments. The original poster gave me a backhanded apology, and one person said they went to the thread to gawk but they'd learnt something. I guess it takes a real person to remind them the Internet is real life.

"Sometimes, when the trolling is subtle (like people tagging in their friends to come gawk and my photo), I ask if I can help them.

"Lately I've taken to outing trolls publicly, which often makes them panic and tell me what a nice guy they are and that they've never done this before. Then they apologise, telling me they didn't mean it. Of course they did!"

Tracey Spicer author, columnist and presentation trainer

Tracey Spicer. Photo: James Brickwood

Tracey Spicer. Photo: James Brickwood

"I usually get trolled via Twitter, or sometimes Facebook. It encompasses insults and threats. They usually question my intellect, with gendered comments like 'dumb blonde', or try to silence me for speaking out about issues pertaining to feminism or social justice.

"It makes me want to hide inside the house and never leave. My heart rate goes up. Sometimes, it makes me want to change careers.

I never troll back, as I don't believe in lowering myself to their level. If I'm feeling confident, I use humour. It's the most marvellous device to disarm someone. If it's obviously a serial misogynist, I ignore, mute or block. Usually, trolls like this are just trying to waste your time. If the person has a very civilised timeline, I'll try to educate them about the issue, with respect.

"I recommend using different strategies for each troll. And try not to waste too much time on them. If the situation becomes dangerous – as it did when trolls threatened to rape and kill my children and me several years ago – contact the police. Our Women in Media survey last year found 41 percent of female journalists had been trolled, bullied or harassed online, and several had left the industry. Media organisations need to do more to protect their employees from this type of treatment."

Mariam Veiszadeh lawyer, advocate, social commentator

Mariam Veiszadeh is Daily Life's 2016 Woman of the Year. Photo: Louie Douvis

Mariam Veiszadeh is Daily Life's 2016 Woman of the Year. Photo: Louie Douvis

"My 'troll base' (some have a fan base and I have a fairly committed 'troll base') has mastered the art of intersectional insults targeting my gender, race and faith.

"More recently, I've received a barrage of pornographic images taking the trolling to new low.

"I've received an image of me cuddling a decapitated pig's head, with a message that they'd behead my mother and me and bury us with pigs. Or I got another one that depicted me being stoned to death, along with a cropped image of me lying dead on the floor, with rocks surrounding me and photoshopped blood dripping down my cheeks.

"The first time you see images of your head cropped onto all sorts of objects, it makes your stomach turn. After you've seen hundreds of them, it gets easier and you find yourself critiquing the users' terrible photoshopping skills. I mean, sometimes you just have to laugh, because if you don't, you'd have to re-apply your makeup way too often.

"At times I have to remind myself that I am stronger than the sum of all of the hate directed at me, but I am also human, vulnerable, sensitive and not immune to the physiological effects and mental strain that cyber-bullying has placed on me.

"During the peak of the craziness, the experience was extremely harrowing and all-consuming. Its impact extended to my family, my friends and my job.

"I suffered from prolonged anxiety, forcing me to take time off work. I had periods of dizziness and vertigo. In that period, I went to five different doctors, including a neurologist. I had my ears, my heart and my brain all tested, and – in the end – it seemed the cause of my physical illness was ultimately anxiety.

"Reflecting back on it now, I can say it was one of the most difficult experiences that I've had to endure. It's difficult for me to reflect back on that period, without bursting into tears. What people don't realise is the long-lasting impact this has on you and how much it changes your life.

"I've narrowed my circle of trust and have found myself becoming overly cautious and less trusting of people around me.

"In response, I think I've probably tried every approach at some point in time. Over time, in order to actually survive, you have very little choice to but to just ignore."

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