Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Borderline Trolling on Feminist Blogs

Trolling is a particular use of commenting on blogs: commenting intended to stop the ongoing conversation or to turn it into a fight. A troll is someone who has no real desire to engage in the conversation but a considerable desire to stifle it or to make it into something troll-centered. Trolls apply several methods to achieve this, ranging from the posting of unrelated material, spam or repetitive strings of words and/or symbols to personal insults and the adoption of regular participants' identities. All types of blogs and websites can suffer from trolling, but feminist blogs are unusually susceptible, given the subject matter and the considerable number of misogynists and anti-feminists taking advantage of the apparent anonymity blogs can offer.

Anti-feminist trolling covers a wide dimension of behaviors. At one extreme, such trolling is indistinguishable from threats of violence. The recent Kathy Sierra case is an example of the severe kind of anti-women trolling albeit not in an explicitly feminist context. At a slightly less extreme level, comments such as the following examples can sometimes be found on feminist blogs (all examples in this post are from the comments at my own blog, Echidne of the snakes, unless otherwise identified):

Now after hearing a lot about you western feminists from our American brothers, I strongly believe that all of you feminists everywhere must be ass-fucked and gang-raped and then we will cut your boobs with our combat knives and empty whole magazines of 16 bullets into your vaginas. And we will post the digital videos of serial rape+executions on men's websites and video-game portals around the world for our wholesale XXX entertainment.



These types of comments are easy to spot as trolling, and so are the common obscenity-filled rants. What can be more difficult to identify as trolling are comments which do not use violence or obscenities but which nevertheless aim at stifling the ongoing conversation rather than contributing to it.

I call these comments borderline trolling. This term reflects the superficial validity of the comment in the discussion, because sometimes quite similar comments might indeed advance the debate. What distinguishes valid critical comments from borderline trolling ones is that the latter, if accepted, always end the debate or turn it into a general criticism of feminist discourse, and that is their sole intention.

Borderline trolling can achieve this by

1. questioning the authority of feminist bloggers to speak on the topic,

2. questioning the importance of the topic either in the abstract

3. or in comparison to other topics which the troll deems more important.

All this questioning takes place in short comments without any actual evidence to support the troll's arguments. Let us see how it is done:

Examples on questioning authority:

Re: Bitch PhD. When your first view of a web page is a picture of a what, five-year-old? throwing you the finger with a snarl and the word "bitch" screaming at you, I think one can be forgiven for not listening to what the person has to say.


Please do not waste good bandwidth and your immense talents of Salon's Broadsheet. It is to feminism what Bush is to compassionate and conservatism.
Neither that 'sculptor' nor the purported antics of TomKat need our attention.

These comments were responses to posts I wrote which used material from the criticized sites (Bitch, PhD and Broadsheet). By questioning the authority of my sources the comments also question the value of my posts. The latter comment also questions the importance of the topic I was writing on (and includes an additional and unusual form of borderline trolling: Implying that the blogger is too smart to write on feminism).

Examples on questioning the importance of the topic:

Again, why bother pointing out how insipid this is? Folks who take sustenance from this type of drivel are most likely beyond reason, especially when feeling anonymous online.
It's waste of time to even read it.


Complaining about poems and imagery (and supposed message) of a poem from the 1600's is probably one of the biggest signs that someone has absolutely nothing better to do.

(The poem referred to in the last comment was Andew Marvel's To His Coy Mistress, and the discussion addressed the very real reasons why Marvel's fictional mistress might not have wanted to have unprotected sex outside marriage in those days; reasons which had very little to do with his pleas about time running past and death approaching.)

In my experience any feminist topic can provoke this reaction. If I write about, say, Rush Limbaugh's anti-feminist screeds I am told that I give him more attention by writing about him. If I write about the media treatment of women's issues I am told that I should talk to the media, not on my blog. If I write about the problems of women in other countries I am told that those should be addressed in other countries. If I write about the problems of women here at home I am told that those problems are minor and that the real problems are abroad. Thus, while questioning the importance of a particular topic can indeed be a valid criticism in some cases, the ubiquitousness of this questioning makes me see it as borderline trolling.

Examples on questioning the importance of the topic in relation to other topics:

This seems to be the new PC distraction from real issues to irritate voters.


The Supremes just wiped out the damn Fourth Amendment and you're talking about blowjobs. No, I don't have much sense of humor about this -- Rome is burning and your fiddle playing will not do.


Weird, creepy, and sometimes physical shit happens to everybody. But not everybody develops a victim complex out of it and gets paranoid and claims it's a conspiracy of the other gender, and then starts embellishing the stories to make them even worse the way Graff does.

I've been mugged in the wrong place at the wrong time. I've had people hit on me physically in an unappreciated way, grabbing and groping, men and women. I've seen plenty of crazies on the streets and gotten dirty looks and rude comments form people, even seemingly normal business people downtown.

There are always a few assholes, and you have the same options as men: legal, self defense, and avoidance.

Get over yourself.

The first two examples here compare the importance of a feminist post to posts on other topics which the progressives or liberals support. These other topics are regarded as more important, and the feminist posting is viewed as taking the place of more urgent missives. The third example uses the borderline trolling trick of assuming that men's concerns about violence are no different from women's concerns and that feminists "whine" if they write about the additional concerns women face.

None of the borderline trolling tactics I have described are as frightening as the threats of violence or as annoying as the general obscenity-laden tirades. Neither are they as likely to cause an exodus of women from blogging. But feminist bloggers should be aware of these subtler efforts at silencing their voices.


scott said...

Weird, creepy, and physical shit happens to everybody, huh? That troll comment is a real beaut, and the STFU purpose behind it is very clear. I go to a variety of liberal and progressive blogs, but the troll crap on feminist sites is the worst. It's not even close, and I can't even think of who might be next. It's not even the positions on the merits that the bloggers take that are objected to - it's the fact that they're speaking at all! The level of panic, vitriol, and bile is just off-the-charts. I've only been a blog consumer for a couple of years, and the trolling on these sites that you describe has been a real eye-opener for me.

amandyman said...

I love the idea of this blog and this post is great, but the orange text on grey background is quite hard to read.

Anna! said...

Terrific analysis! I've often said I'd rather take on a blatant misogynist any day than a subversive one.

*e said...

And many of the techniques used by trolls that you describe here are also used offline in everyday interactions to undercut women's voices.

antijen said...

Great post, Echidne. There are a couple of examples of this going on right now at Thus Spake Zuska. I'm not sure about blog ettiquete - do you mind if I link to this post in the comments?

exelizabeth said...

I had never thought of this in this way before. I've noticed, of course, that women who talk about feminism get dismissed out of hand quite a lot, but I hadn't really thought about the tactics that people use to do this.

And that I've even done it (not usually in discussions of feminism, since I don't want to derail those). It's an extremely effective way to derail a conversation if you can get someone defending *their choice to talk about the topic* rather than the actual topic. However, it's a straw man; I will now be conscious if I use that tactic (and try to avoid it), and if someone else uses that tactic against me.

Sazz said...

Thanks for posting about this, it is so important. It is incredible the lengths patriarchs will go to in order to silence wimmin and maintain their supremacy.
My blog has not received anything as aggressive as some of the comments quoted in this blog, although once I did get a comment from a man (appropriately named "Dick") which stated that all wimmin are emotional and stupid and therefore it is only logical to ignore what they say because it is pure crap. I deleted it. He owns an anti-womun blog, and while he has no qualms about trolling on feminist blogs, his blog specifically states "No women allowed", so we're not even allowed to read, let alone comment!

I have noticed that a surprising number of men have commented on both my blogs, and while many of them have managed to engage in conversation, I wonder how much of that is genuine, and how much is about keeping the feminist in check. I ended up posting some rules about commenting, and have decided to favour wimmin's comments over men's.