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We all know what trolling is. It’s when anonymous people on the internet, most of whom seem to be profoundly unhappy, post negative, unhelpful comments on forums and comments sections of websites. Often, they are so nonsensical and persistent that one can only assume their sole purpose in perusing the internet is to upset people. Indeed, this is how Urban Dictionary defines trolling: “Being a prick on the internet because you can. Typically unleashing one or more cynical or sarcastic remarks on an innocent by-stander, because it’s the internet and, hey, you can.”
The effects of trolling range from annoying to downright damaging. This is especially the case when trolling veers into hate speech, specifically racism. SNL and Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones experienced this firsthand over the summer, when she was bombarded with racial slurs and pictures of apes. The abuse was so strong that Jones “felt numb” and had to remove herself from Twitter. The next day, Twitter responded by banning Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, the man who allegedly started the abuse, from Twitter, saying, “‘People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter…But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online.’” Yiannopoulos responded by claiming that Twitter “‘has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.’”
The Twitter incident is a perfect example of the role that website moderators play in determining the environment of their website. But this is a role many moderators take up reluctantly, if at all. Moderators fear, not just angry backlash, but the Bill of Rights. Trolls love citing the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, and unfortunately, the amendment does little to stave off hate speech. According to First Amendment Scholar David L. Hudson Jr., “Unless online hate speech crosses the line into incitement to imminent lawless action or true threats, the speech receives protection under the First Amendment.” (In other words: when it comes to emotional or mental safety, you’re on your own.)
This hasn’t stopped some websites, like Twitter and Google, from setting up filters that block posts that contain certain inflammatory words. However, trolls have found a way to get around this by coming up with code words.
Unfortunately, it appears racist trolling will be around as long as racists are around. So how can members of the black community reap the benefits of being on the internet while minimizing the emotional damage we sustain?
The simplest answer is to just ignore the trolls. Like the Urban Dictionary says, trolls want to get a rise out of people. Most of the fun is engaging with people and making them increasingly upset. If they have no proof that their abuse is working, they are more likely to go elsewhere.
There are a few exceptions to this. Feminist writer Roxane Gay occasionally responds to trolls on her Twitter account. (Her Twitter bio includes the phrase “If you clap, I clap back.”) Social justice writer Ijeoma Oluo used Martin Luther King quotes to respond to one troll, who eventually broke down and admitted that he was a fourteen-year-old who had lost his mother in the previous year. While Oluo’s experience is heartening, black people should not feel that every time we go on the internet we should have to “educate” somebody. And honestly, most trolls can’t be worn down the way Oluo’s was.
One can always go through and block/remove comments personally, as many POC activists do, but that entails reading the comments to know they are harmful in the first place, so it’s not a perfect solution. If the abuse is persistent or especially strong, one could report the person to the moderator of the website. The moderator then may be willing to ban the offender. If they are not, it’s probably not be worthwhile to spend time on that site.
We can create and support safe spaces online. As Lyz Lenz of New York Magazine reports, newsletters published on platforms such as TinyLetter are an alternative form of blogging where writers can make their work available specifically to subscribers. This less public forum can be a great place to put express oneself on the internet without having to deal with the wider, angrier world.
While the internet is an important, and sometimes wonderful, place to be, it’s never a bad idea to walk away from the screen occasionally. Goodness knows the physical world has plenty of its own problems, but it can also aid in putting internet interactions in perspective.