Ideas

A Woman’s Guide to the Most Toxic Trolls on the Internet

One of the most surprising phenomena I’ve encountered since I began making television appearances in 2017 is the sudden proliferation of men in my Twitter mentions, my email inbox, my Instagram and Facebook followers, and my direct messages. The most innocuous (but still unsettling and creepy) ones simply follow you in droves on their social media platform of choice after an appearance. I get off the air, and within minutes, my Facebook or Instagram account is flooded with notifications of man after man after man staring at me from behind their avatars after quietly clicking the follow button. On Twitter, the platform most aligned with my work, where I have tens of thousands of anonymous followers, I would think nothing of it. But the idea that these men have sought out the personal platforms where I often share images of myself, and done so immediately after seeing me on television, makes my skin crawl. I can think of a single time when a young woman followed me on Instagram after a TV appearance; she sent me a message to tell me how inspiring she found my commentary. The men, on the other hand, mostly just lurk, sometimes liking long strings of my selfies in binges of scrolling and double-tapping.

Unfortunately there are many denizens of the internet who are much more vocal than the lurkers. It is helpful to be acquainted with their various incarnations before you encounter them so you do not mistake their initial approach as anything other than bad-faith. They burst violently into your mentions and your life like the Kool-aid man, demanding your attention, hawking opinions that they believe are unarguably, manifestly correct and indispensable. “PAY ATTENTION TO ME!” they bellow. “MY OPINION MATTERS!”

The trolls may write differently, or lash out differently, or become grotesquely fixated on different parts of your appearance or background, but ultimately, what motivates them is engagement with you. This, they hope, will encourage you to finally shut up and make room for their infinitely more worthy thoughts. Then they will get the blue check, the TV appearances, the bylines. They will curse and block and post hot takes with alacrity and abandon. And in their mind, the internet will praise them for it. Their motivations are undoubtedly repulsive, but I find that humor is a good antidote to troll-induced repulsion. Let’s explore the categories of creatures you might encounter in your online adventures.

First, we have a man I’ll call @ProfessorActuallyEsq, otherwise known as the reply guy. Every woman with a public presence online has at least one reply guy. Most women have several. If you are especially unlucky, or especially prominent, you might have tens or hundreds. (Groan!) @ProfessorActuallyEsq embodies them. He is a man who responds to what feels like every single earthly thing you post, be it a picture of your breakfast or your latest publication, always unearthing the most tenuous connection to make your content, your life, about him. “Actually, next time leave the toast in a little longer,” he lectures you about your bacon, egg, and cheese. “It should be golden brown.” You may have liked a reply of his, once, eons ago, encouraging his engagement boner. He is often a mansplainer, making sure to assert his pseudo-superiority by explaining the topics in which you have expertise. Sometimes he repeats your own points back to you, or better still, links you to the very articles you wrote in arguments with you. Sometimes these men are credentialed, and like @ProfessorActuallyEsq, they are not afraid to remind you of that. Professors of philosophy, law, and engineering; former high-ranking diplomats; and current businessmen all engage in behavior that we can only hope does not show up in their classrooms or offices. (Except it definitely does.)

Next up is @TrojanHorace, or the bait and switch guy. As a writer and commentator, I get a lot of engagement, leads, and opportunities through my direct messages on social media. Leaving my DMs open is a necessity for my work, though it does expose me to dick pics, romantic propositions, and other unwanted attention and abuse. Sometimes I receive positive messages expressing solidarity with me when I post about online harassment, thanking me for my work, or congratulating me on a recent publication. I thought these messages were a lovely antidote to the vitriol and sexism on the rest of the internet, until I encountered @TrojanHorace. His initial approach is one of allyship or admiration. When you reply with an off-the-cuff, “Thanks, I appreciate it!” @TrojanHorace understands this to mean that you are now equals or friends. Engagement boner activated. One thing he knows for sure: You are interested in having a longer conversation with him. Here, his tactics shift. He may err toward the behavior of his pal, @ProfessorActuallyEsq, offering to educate you. He may ask you unsettling questions about what you’re wearing or what you had for dinner. He may send you voice memos that you are too afraid to open because of what unspeakable sounds they might contain. If you attempt to gracefully bow out of the conversation after it takes this upsetting turn, @TrojanHorace becomes hostile, employing the same misogyny at which he was so recently aghast. Because of @TrojanHorace, I no longer answer kind messages from strangers. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Then there’s @LazyLogan, or the man who can’t seem to use Google. There are a lot of lazy people—mostly men—who seem to think women’s purpose on the internet is not to inform others about their expertise, analyze the news, or amplify their work, but to answer inane questions about basic concepts about which they could easily educate themselves. Instead, they seem to prefer to ask you to do it. While researching and writing this book and tweeting my related thoughts and updates, I’ve received questions like: What is SWATing? What is an anti-doxing service? These easily googled queries are a double whammy of subversion; if you answer, @LazyLogan’s engagement boner is rewarded, and you prove yourself to be a compliant and dutiful human encyclopedia. If only the men like @LazyLogan were aware how needy, infantile, and incapable they made themselves look in the process.

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