Is Trolling Gendered?

Tuesday night, in classic style, Jenny Brockie hosted a discussion on internet trolling on SBS’ Insight program.  From poking fun, to social commentary, to political activism, to downright abuse and bullying: the full spectrum of behaviours broadly defined as ‘trolling’ were explored.

But contrary to the high moral ground of ‘Weev’ who described trolling as a way of “expressing working class discontent”, some research suggests that trolls often have a more privileged background. According to researcher and guest on the program Whitney Phillips many are male, white, and have the time and economic resources to spend hours baiting people online.

At the same time, women and women’s webspaces and forums appear often to be the targets of trolls. This raises the question: Is trolling gendered? And is it possible or useful to examine the cross-overs between trolling and gender-based harassment or hate speech online?

The motivations of the ‘trolls’
On Insight, ‘Jamie’ defines her trolling as: “basically evoking an emotional reaction out of someone…anyone who takes the bait.”  ‘Steven’ says it “is just a wind-up…it’s just about leading somebody up the garden path…”. ‘Weev’ describes it as ‘a dialogue’.

But all three Trolls agreed that threats of violence crossed the line.

“I don’t think that throwing out a threat of violence can in any way be construed as trolling – that’s just simple bullying. Threats of violence are against the law….that’s not trolling…. Trolling is about a debate. It is a style of confrontational rhetoric…” [Weev].

I tend to agree. Trolling can be sarcastic, annoying, frustrating, cause mass eye-rolling: sometimes it is even harmless fun that becomes a collective cultural phenomenon.  But as soon as the behaviours become targeted abuse at individuals and especially where there are threats of violence – that’s bullying. It is also often in violation of Australian Commonwealth law criminalising the use of a carrier service to menace, harass or cause offence.  But Police appear under-resourced or often unable to act on much of the harassment that occurs online. And who decides what is ‘menacing, harassing and offensive’ anyway?

Gender-based harassment and hate-speech
Facebook has already famously demonstrated that what is considered offensive is highly open to interpretation.  Yet surely there are a few things that as a society we can agree on? We already condemn any form of racial vilification or hate speech; and websites, forums and social media often ban such behaviours in their code of conduct.

So what about sex-based hate speech? Threatening to rape women; publicly posting sexual images or contact details of women without their consent; targeting individual women and women’s websites with pornographic imagery or insults such as ‘dirty whore’ – Should these behaviours be taken more seriously as hate speech?

Others have commented on what appears to be a rise in misogynistic trolling towards women.  Unfortunately, what women consider to be ‘menacing, harassing and offensive’ is not always taken seriously – and often met with the advice to:

“shut your Facebook page, make your Twitter private, don’t engage in a public discussion and you’ll never run into a conversation where I can say something that will hurt your feelings.” [‘Weev’].

Freedom of online speech?
Trolling, including those behaviours that could more accurately be described as online misogyny, is sometimes described as a freedom of speech issue – the practice of democracy – it is people exercising their right to say whatever they like. And any attempt to restrict that freedom is a civil rights infringement and unnecessary censorship. But is that the limit of our understanding of freedom of speech?

In fact, we widely recognise that in the public domain speech is ‘free’ to the extent that it does not impinge on the rights of others: including the right to be free from violence; discrimination on the basis of sex, sexuality, race or ability; and the right to full and equal civic participation.

But harassment, threats and hate speech directed towards anyone of the basis of sex (or sexuality, race, and ability for that matter) are the opposite of freedom of speech, as Professor Michael Fraser describes:

“This in fact is a direct attack on freedom of expression. To bully other people out of the forum so that they are intimidated, and threatened and in fear; so that they can’t express themselves, and if we agree to that only the bullies will be left…”

Indeed. And while there is no doubt that both men and women engage in offensive and inappropriate behaviours online – some research at least, suggests that the bullies that will be left online will be mostly male and privileged – unless we as a society take action to ensure that the freedom of their speech is not prioritised over everyone elses’ equal participation online.

Have you experienced sexist trolling or sex-based hate speech online?