Whenever I used to complain about abuse that I’d received online, everyone would tell me that if I didn’t want people to say shitty things about me, then I should get off the internet.
This wasn’t very helpful advice to be honest; in part because I was trying to forge a career for myself that literally would not be possible if not for the internet, but also because this was at a time at which everyone under the age of thirty, with the exception maybe of some non-ironic hipsters with non-ironic moustaches and non-ironic objections to the use of running water, was on Facebook.
It was an odd time and it set a bad precedent; by 2010 most “young people” were online; Instagram would soon be invented and we’d flock there in our millions, but in the meantime we were experimenting with Twitter, obsessed with Facebook and reminiscing about Bebo, MSN and MySpace. We inhabited a new and exciting land of which there was a Lord Of The Flies type feel; to try then and explain to my mum, or some random 55 year old chap from Inverness called Martin who felt the need to butt his nose in, that I was willingly offering myself up, like a lamb to the slaughter, to those intent on hurting me online, felt as difficult a task as trying to teach my dog calligraphy.
In lots of ways it’s easier now than it was then; although the relentless exposure is taking a well-documented toll on the mental health of young people, the fact that e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e (even the non-ironic hipsters) have an internet presence of some kind, means at least, that we are familiar now with the behaviours, both acceptable and not.
So much as to say, I can now talk about the abuse that I receive online and not be met with condescending cries of “well if you will insist on sharing your life on the internet…”. People finally seem to understand now, for the most part, that this is where we live and to suggest simply not using the internet would be like telling someone not to wee anymore.
Unfortunately though, it would seem that most people are still yet to work out what to say instead.
Internet trolling fascinates me. That it goes on so publicly, so relentlessly, and so, for the most part, un-commented on, blows my mind. I asked earlier today on my Instagram stories if anyone had ever been abused online and 83% of respondents said yes. I don’t know a person who works in a field like I do that hasn’t had someone say something shitty about them on the internet. I have never scrolled through the comments of a celebrities’ Instagram post and not found at least one shitty comment.
It’s something that I’ve talked a lot about in the past, I wrote a chapter about it in my book too; I have long since suspected that a dangerous combination of anonymity and a lack of accountability made people feel they could say whatever they wanted.
I didn’t used to get too much abuse on social media, the comments about me were almost exclusively found underneath articles about me on the Mail Online. Rich thought I looked like I had a stinky fanny, Sandra said I had a face only a mother could love, Tom, Gazza432, Cathy, BobCot and Wendy all think I’m fat. What possessed these people to go after an at-the-time-17 year old girl they’d never met? I honestly never knew, although I suppose they were miserable in their own lives, drunk on the power of zero accountability and probably unaware that I would ever read what they had to say.
As I have grown so too has the level of hate that I have received. For the most part the really shitty messages exist underneath articles that I am not tagged in, but from time to time I’ll receive abuse directly, either on Twitter or as a comment on a picture or, my personal favourite, as a direct message on Instagram. More often than not these comments will come from people with a private account, or very few followers and a vague username, but occasionally they’ll come from someone who is happy to publicly die on the Em-Is-A-Fat-Wanker hill.
Those are the actions of a new breed of troll, a by-product, I suspect, of the extraordinary speed at which the internet makes us move. Comments are fired off without a moment’s hesitation and often without enough thought for the consequences. Combine that with the righteous attitude that so many develop online and the desperation for us all to have as much “clout” as possible and before you know it you’ve got knobs everywhere, saying whatever they want, unafraid of the consequences.
There is a lot to say about internet trolling and I want to say it all, but I won’t do that here because there’s something more pressing that I want to tackle first, and that’s how people react to people reacting to internet trolling. People finally stopped telling us to “get off the internet if we hate it so much”, but have been, as of yet, unable to conjure up anything helpful to say instead, and I’m beginning to notice an alarming rhetoric surrounding internet trolling and it’s victims.
If you follow me on Instagram, you might remember a fairly spectacular rant that I went on a few weeks ago about “victim blaming” online (it’s pinned on my profile as a “highlighted story” if you want to catch up). A blogger that I have followed for a long time, HelloMissJordan, had turned to Twitter after a stranger uploaded a photo of her that they had taken, without her knowing or her consent, whilst she was on a photoshoot, onto their Instagram account. That annoyed me. Not least of all because the caption this woman had put with the photo she’d uploaded was not entirely kind. What annoyed me more though, was that when I went back onto Twitter the next day, I saw that there were a few people who felt that Jordan had been wrong for sharing the link to this woman’s picture (yes, the photo of her). By their reckoning, she should not have spoken out about this publicly because it had served as an invitation for her followers to, in turn, “troll” the woman who had uploaded the photo.
For a long time I wasn’t sure where I stood on this; this idea of “outing” a bully. I remember the first time I received a rape threat on Instagram and uploading the screenshot to Twitter, but being careful to ensure that the guy’s name was blurred. Why? I don’t know. I guess I was protecting him. I realised that if I shared it to thousands of people on Twitter, the chances were that a few of them would go after him, and for some reason I didn’t seem to want that. This set a precedent for my behaviour going forwards; I would share shitty messages that I’d received, but I’d be careful not to show their names, conscious, always, that just because they’d bullied me, they probably didn’t deserve to be bullied in return.
That makes me sound really nice and thinking about it, I’m not sure that’s quite right. Maybe I am. Or maybe I was just scared. Scared of the confrontation. Scared of the reaction. Scared to show the world what people thought about me.
That last one, I know to be true.
For a long time I felt a great deal of shame about what people had to say about me. This, I suspect, happened because the comments more often than not highlighted the things I was insecure about and as a result, I’d often be scared to share them with the world, in case other people noticed in me things that were hateful, that they just hadn’t noticed yet. Maybe if I don’t tell everyone that this guy thinks I have a massive forehead, no one else will notice. Feelings of shame are all too common for victims of internet trolling. To realise that other people see things in you that they don’t like, it’s hard and it’s horrible and it’s not nice to admit to.
I don’t know when things changed for me, but at one point, I snapped. I woke up one morning and realised that there was no excuse for being a wanker on the internet. That no one had the right to anonymity. That if you were going to be a shit on the internet then you deserved everything that happened after that. I was done feeling embarrassed. I was done trying to protect people. I was done with being quiet.
So I started calling it out. Screengrabbing the messages. Putting them on Twitter, in my Instagram stories. I started talking about it, both online and in person. And I was surprised, and a bit disappointed, with the reaction.
Don’t read the comments Em!! People would say. People say this a lot.
Ah yes, because I’M the one in the wrong here. Me!!! The person reading all the messages about how stupid and ugly and useless and talentless I am. I’M THE FUCKING PROBLEM. BRILLIANT. THANKS FOR TELLING ME.
Jesus Christ don’t be moronic, of course I’m going to read the comments. They’re about me. I’m insecure and desperate for people to like me. What else am I going to do???
Don’t waste your energy! Is another popular one.
It’s not wasted, I’d think. Self-doubt is the jumping board for almost every career move I have made thus far, if anything, this is probably helping. Also, I’m insecure and desperate for people to like me, remember? It would use up more energy resisting the temptation to read them, it’s best just to know.
Sometimes people tell me that I’m attention seeking by sharing the comments, or that I’m boring for moaning about it all the time. I think I hate these comments the most; the implication here of course is that I should just be grinning and bearing it. That I shouldn’t be making a fuss. That this is jut part and parcel of the job that I do and I shouldn’t bore my followers with trivialities such as this. This reinforces a narrative that the bullied have known for all too long and that’s that they should suffer in silence.
And then, occasionally, people would say things to me like they’d said to Jordan. That by sharing what they said, I was no better than the troll. This doesn’t hurt me. But fuck it’s annoying.
The fact is, as the victim, I have the right to react in any way that I see fit.
To be the victim of abuse, whether online or in person, is utterly horrendous. I pray you never have to know quite how shit it can make you feel. It is totally isolating, the feelings of shame and fear and confusion are crippling, and all encompassing. It’s the fucking worst.
It shouldn’t be happening. God I wish it wasn’t. But it is.
And to imply that I, on the receiving end, am somehow in the wrong? It’s a load of fucking shit.
One of the things that I love the most about social media, in it’s current state, is the vigilantism often displayed when an injustice is observed. I adored watching streams of people heading to Jordan’s defence. I am desperately grateful when someone comes to mine. It redeems my faith in humanity. It fills up my heart with joy.
Women in particular are very often victims of abuse online. Some of it is ‘silly’, some of it is downright fucking traumatising. It’s not okay. It’s so fucking far from okay. But it’s happening an unprecedented amount because people have been unable to work out how to police it properly. My hope is, in time, that they will and there will be serious ramifications for anyone abusing or bullying on the internet.
But for now it is down to us.
Not just calling it out when it happens to us. But standing up in solidarity when it happens to others.
We need support. We need vigilantes. We need to be kind and nice and generous. We need to rally around people, stand up and fight for them, defend them when they can’t defend themselves. We need to integrate so much more empathy into social media than is here at the moment. And we need to do it now.