My relationship with internet trolls is hard to articulate. I find them revolting yet fascinating, like those giant water lice that eat away and then replace the tongues of certain fish. They are simply, patently disgusting. Still, the disgust they inspire is tempered by compelling questions: How does a life form like that evolve? What does its existence suggest about the likelihood of a loving god? Where is the bug spray?
Unlike some women who have had the audacity to express opinions online, I haven’t experienced the tidal wave of threats and abuse that trolls are capable of generating. Ashley Judd accused a basketball team of unsportsmanlike conduct and received death and rape threats. Anita Sarkeesian pointed out misogyny in video games and was treated to rape and death threats, and threats to kill her parents. Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, who writes about education and labor from a perspective of black feminist theory, hears from trolls who are obsessed with physically, violently excising her brains from her body. Truly disgusting stuff.
I don’t attract trolls of that caliber. Instead my online presence draws quibblers who annoy more than they threaten. (Someone did call me a whore once, which cracked me up, because seriously, who calls a 47-year-old married mother of two a whore? Nathaniel fucking Hawthorne?)
Still, these lesser trolls are motivated by the same sense of entitlement that clogs online fora with death threats, vile language, and other troll bombast. We’re told to ignore them, and while that’s probably the best policy for preserving the general peace, I often feel compelled to engage with trolls. Trolling—whether it’s death threats or just persistent attempts to derail and control online conversations—is a form of interpersonal violence. I know a bit about interpersonal violence, and I’m always looking to widen my knowledge base. Thus I’m inclined to see trolls as a research opportunity. Plus I have ethical concerns with strict “don’t feed the trolls” policies. After all, it may be good manners to ignore rude bodily noises in public, but when it’s reached the point that people can’t hear each other over the flatulence, someone has to take action. It’s the same with trolls. Sometimes you have to open a window, or you’ll asphyxiate.
So now and then I’ll elect to engage with a troll. I try to enter these disputes the same way I’d enter any fight, with a clear sense of what I’m risking and what I stand to gain. With trolls—my trolls, anyway—the risks are usually low. Annoyance, exasperation; if it goes badly I might damage my keyboard by bashing it repeatedly against my forehead. It’s worth it though. You can learn some interesting things from trolls, if you have the stomach.
A trio of Canadian psychologists recently diagnosed trolls as “prototypical everyday sadists,” and I’m inclined to agree. My experience also tallies with the observations of researchers at Stanford and Cornell, who looked at literacy and clarity in trolls’ Disqus posts (spoiler alert: they score low on both traits) to predict which members of a forum will most quickly piss off their peers and be banned from the community. Unlike these professional researchers, I don’t study trolls from a safe distance. I prefer to climb into the ring with them for a few rounds. That’s the way I learn best, by absorbing damage. And while much of what I glean from these encounters pertains to the minutia of trolls’ fighting form—the rhetorical slips, feints, and sucker punches that mark their style—I’ve discovered that those little bits of data also provide clues about bigger questions: What motivates trolls? Where do they come from? How does that bug get into the fish’s mouth, and by what process does it turn a healthy organism into a monstrosity?
Trolls come in all genders, but I’m most interested in male trolls—specifically, those targeting women for perceived transgressions of conventional gender roles—because they are so numerous and aggressive. What I find fascinating about these trolls is that, while they’re keen to lecture about what women do, and ought to do, it’s self-evident that they haven’t had many meaningful interactions with women. One such troll I encountered recently was ablaze with righteous anger over the idea of subsidized birth control, and obsessed with branding women who advocated it whores and sluts. This was a person who had clearly only ever contemplated the act of baby-making in the most abstract terms. Sweeping, over-generalized claims about a phenomenon are a good indicator that the claims-maker has very little first-hand experience with it.
This lack of standing, an essential emptiness of position, typifies what I’ve come to think of as the false-tongue phenomenon in trolls. It’s a hallmark of the misogynist troll’s voice—and make no mistake, it is the voice that makes a troll a troll. Trolls’ power lies predominantly in the actions they threaten with words, not the actions they take. Many troll behaviors betray this fundamental emptiness: The use of avatars and anonymous accounts. The reliance on generic slurs like “whore” that convey no information beyond gender and hatred, as if the troll literally has no mental capacity to understand specific qualities of the person he’s targeting.
An eagerness to assert authority over areas in which they notably lack expertise is another attribute of the empty troll voice. Earlier this year a fellow blundered into my Twitter feed in the wake of a piece I wrote about groin shots. He was arguing heatedly that a woman’s ability to disable a man by kicking him in the balls was superseded by a man’s ability to kill a woman by hitting her in the head. I didn’t preserve his exact words, because I already have enough weird stuff on my hard drive, but they were something like, “Don’t bother telling women to kick a guy in the balls. If a man smashes a woman once in the head, it’s over.” He kept repeating this claim, always with a vivid description of the man-punching-woman-in-the-head business. He was really into the idea of punching women in the head, this guy, and he definitely wanted me to know that.
His Tweets were, I felt, deliberately intended to make me envision myself being punched in the head by a man (him, I presume). I guess he hoped I’d be afraid of being hit, and offended or angry at his tacit threat to punch me. A lot of women would be, and it would be completely reasonable for them to feel that way. I, however, was not his target audience. What I told him in reply was, “Actually, I’ve been hit in the head by men lots of times, and it didn’t incapacitate me.”
And you know what? I never heard from him again.
Maybe it was just coincidence; maybe at that exact moment in our conversation his mom finally made it down to the basement with the waffles he’d been yelling for. But I think there was something else going on—that he was expecting me to be terrified, to get angry about the violence of his remarks, to react in a way that would affirm his claim that a man, like him, could hit a woman, like me, and disable her. He thought that merely describing such a devastating power relationship would put him in a position of dominance over me. The fact that I not only wasn’t alarmed by the violence he depicted, but in fact had experienced it electively quite a bit, and considered it a fairly normal occurrence that I could walk away from without significant harm—that left him unmoored. I had more experience with his little fantasy scenario than he did. He wasn’t expecting that. I think it kind of freaked him out. It shut him up, anyway.
It’s as if trolls can’t conceive that they couldn’t be qualified to comment, to judge, to decide, and to enforce. At some point, deep behind the screen of cartoon avatars and superhero-themed user names, they seem to stop pretending to be something they’re not, and start believing they really are experts and authorities. In some ways the online environment is the ultimate in wish-fulfillment for trolls. Online, they can present themselves as the men they yearn to be: Powerful. Feared. Respected. When they speak, people hear them, and tremble. Or so they hope.
Another set of behaviors I’ve observed among trolls appears to be linked to gaming culture. Gamers voluntarily spend a great deal of time in two-dimensional realities where simple actions like clicking a mouse produce immediate, quantifiable benefits: points, levels, weapon power-ups. Trolls like this environment; the structure is comforting and it rewards them reliably. When you interact with these trolls, you notice that their arguments mirror their conditioning. They privilege arguments from authority (dictionary definitions are a favorite), and exhibit a tendency to repeat claims over and over in lieu of developing a particular line of thought into something more complex. They employ ad hominem attacks but are equally likely to accuse their opponents of similar attacks. They adore pointing out spelling and grammar errors (one of the few traits they exhibit that makes them seem human). Rules are very important to trolls, but only as parameters in the game. If the rules hinder their progress, they look for a cheat code.
I believe it’s game conditioning that inclines trolls to switch frequently among rhetorical tactics, changing their accusations in mid-stream, even mid-sentence. It’s comparable to a game-player toggling between weapons: If the gravity gun doesn’t work, switch to the plasma grenade. The weapon chosen doesn’t really matter, because all the troll is going to do is point it at the enemy and push the button. It’s all he really knows how to do.
This is irritating when you’re trying to have a conversation, but again, there’s more going on here than just operant conditioning. Not long ago, on someone else’s Twitter feed, I stepped into a spat with a men’s rights activist (or “asshole”). He kept trying to force me to admit I was a racist, for reasons I cannot recall, and which probably didn’t make much sense in the first place (he was, like so many trolls, a white dude). “Do you disagree with the dictionary?” he demanded at one point. “Either they’re all wrong or you’re a racist, which is it?”
The truly skeevy thing about this troll’s approach—something common to male trolls—was the way he was trying to maneuver his female interlocutors into submissive postures. Trolls love to insist they are “educating” you; they spout definitions that make huge swaths of ideas off limits; they set up false dilemmas and insist their opponent must choose one damning option or the other. They will pick out one statement from their intended “victim” and then attempt some quasi-legal cross-examining to try to make them “admit” something—"You hate men," or “You’re the racist, not me.”
In other words, even when trolls aren’t making overt rape threats, they’re often making very similar attempts to forcibly impose their power on women. I pointed this out to my “you’re a racist” troll, telling him to put his dictionary down and put his dick back in his pants. “You don’t make the rules,” I explained. “You think you can back women into corners and force them to accept your judgment or your penis. You don’t get to do that.” I see guys working so hard to force women to accept unpalatable ideas, unwanted sexual advances. You have to wonder: Why don’t they have any ideas or body parts that a woman would actually want?
Another falsity you notice when you’re immersed in one of these exchanges is that the actual position being argued is irrelevant to the troll. That’s obvious from the alacrity with which he will abandon one line of argument for another. The men’s rights activists who claim (wrongly) that “women assault men as often, or more often, than men assault women” don’t really give a shit about reducing violence against men. They want to justify violence towards women. That’s what they’re invested in, that’s what they enjoy—and you can tell because they’re trying to do it right there, in your feed, looking for a corner, any corner, to back their victim into.
Trolls consistently use language about moral judgment, ethics, rightness, logic, fairness, and consistency, but the words are empty. At some point in their life cycle, trolls stop caring about being right. They want to be wrong, to do wrong, and still have the privileges rightness confers.
The troll voice, with its blind rage, its superficiality, its banging, howling, slobbering entitlement, is so loud that it seems to speak for all men. And in that way it is a threat to men as well as women. Fish don’t talk. A fish with a parasite in place of a tongue can still function. It doesn’t need to have authentic conversations about gender and power. Humans do. And it’s very difficult to do that when the conversation is dominated by a voice that is something less than human.