At the height of the age of chat rooms and online message boards—around the dawn of the new millennium—trolls looked a bit different than they do now. Rather than being people who use anonymous Twitter accounts to send death threats, trolls were people who would pose deliberately outrageous or derailing arguments just to make people mad.
Like when someone would come to liberal forums discussing the best way to implement marriage equality, trolls would show up to say that gay people should be rounded up and put on an island somewhere off the coast of Japan, so that no one else would “catch the gay.”
A successful troll could put on a convincing show of really believing this was reasonable and, with one or two posts, completely derail an entire conversation because everyone involved now had to stop and tell the bigot how much of a bigot he was. Then he would slink away to pop up again under a different name and different type of bigotry.
There was also another breed of trolls called “flamers”—people who would verbally abuse and harass others. They would single out one user at a time and throw slurs and various insults until their fingers got tired—without actually posing any kind of counter-argument, the way a standard troll would.
In those days, ignoring the trolls often worked. If no one “fed” them by getting angry at their posts, they would get bored and leave—except for the flamers. Flamers couldn’t be starved out because the venting of anger and hatred was its own reward, even if the flamers were universally reviled.
Or so they say. It’s hard to believe this when the hashtag appears to be associated with so much modern-day trolling.
Looking back on the history of trolls, I’ve come to realize that, much like a virus, they’ve mutated and evolved. They’ve taken on the relentless, hateful traits of the flamers but retained much of the organization and relative cleverness of the original troll. The result is an organized entity that can’t be ignored—like some kind of army of fire-breathing death trolls.
With #GamerGate, harassers hide behind seemingly legitimate complaints that gaming journalists buddy up with developers and exchange favors for good reviews, all while organizing abuse campaigns on 4chan (the forum and imageboard that showed up in the mainstream media last month for publishing stolen nude photos of female celebrities) against women in the industry—whether they’re journalists, developers, or anything in between.
And the primary targets are always women.
The mid-aughts’ vaccine of “don’t feed the trolls” is clearly ineffective against this new virulent strain. These trolls need to be slain.
Some say it can’t be done. But through direct confrontation, detective work, and even shaming them in front of their mothers, the following women have proven it’s possible.
Slayer #1: Mary Beard
Mary Beard, another Brit, is what you might call a troll-war veteran. She’s an intelligent 59-year-old woman—a Cambridge professor of classics, in fact—who often appears on TV to speak her mind without being conventionally attractive (the audacity!). This means she’s subject to a lot of misogynistic attacks.
Rather than be intimidated, Beard has turned her attention to how women have been silenced throughout history and used her social media presence to put the spotlight on the issue.
Beard’s calm in the face of her harassers comes from the knowledge that the only way to avoid it is complete silence, which she finds unacceptable.
“It doesn’t much matter what line of argument you take as a woman. If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it—it’s the fact that you are saying it,” Beard explained in a February lecture at the University of Cambridge.
No matter how much abuse she gets, she remains as publicly visible as she can be. She’s active on her Twitter account, writes a blog, and continues to appear on television. Instead of ignoring her trolls, she takes each abusive comment as further evidence of the systemic misogyny she’s trying to expose.
Then she creates more trollslayers by giving lectures and spreading her knowledge online.
At the same time, she rallies her many supporters to strike back at the more vicious trolls. When she discovered an image of herself that was altered to show genitals where her face should be, she featured the image on her blog and suggested her followers flood the message board it came from with Latin poetry. Said message board was shut down soon after.
On Twitter, she’ll sometimes retweet a vile comment to expose the harasser’s nasty behavior. Put into the spotlight—and occasionally shamed when Beard’s followers contact trolls’ mothers about their behavior—these men often end up apologizing, showing that the common troll is easily slain if you have the support of your own anti-troll army.
Troll-slaying Lesson #1: Build your own dedicated following and compassionate allies, and trolls become a lot less intimidating. Also, call their mothers.
Slayer #2: Charlotte Laws
This is a story of epic troll-slaying, in which a mild-mannered woman avenges her daughter by taking down one of the biggest trolls on the entire Internet. It’s beautiful.
Hunter Moore was (emphasis on was) the owner of a website called IsAnyoneUp.com—an online repository of revenge porn—the practice of spreading nude photos of an ex without their consent— and general nude pictures (or, in Moore’s words, “noodz”), also posted without the subject’s consent. Moore’s website and his brash defense of its practice earned him the notorious title of Most Hated Man on the Internet.
Hunter Moore is the kind of man who would do anything to get a rise out of people, and he did so because he knew it would earn him fame. He was known to send photos of his genitals to the lawyers of the women he victimized with his website. And he justified it all by saying that other people would do the same. “I just monetize people’s mistakes,” he told the BBC, among many other monstrous statements. “If it wasn’t me, somebody else was going to do it.”
Standing up to Moore meant enduring the wrath of a rising celebrity with a legion of trolls behind him.
Not only did he publish nude or otherwise sexual photos of unsuspecting victims, he encouraged fans of the website to seek out and post as much identifying information about the person in the photo as they could find: names, addresses, their boss’s phone number, and so on. This practice has literally ruined lives. And Moore was proud of it.
Though many of these photos are submitted by jilted exes, it turns out that Moore and his associates were also hacking into email and social media accounts to get photos that had never been sent to anyone—which is how Carlotte Laws’ daughter, Kayla, found her photo on IsAnyoneUp?
Laws immediately came to her daughter’s defense, and for two years dedicated herself to getting the photo taken down and having Moore arrested for violating copyright law and hacking activities.
The laws surrounding the use of pornographic photos online were murky at best, and few people had attempted to take on the system of trolls dedicated to punishing women (and sometimes men) for the crime of leaving a relationship.
“I’ve been called the ‘Erin Brockovitch’ of revenge porn,” Laws later wrote in XOJane.
Standing up to Moore meant bringing attention to the shame of having nude photos spread around online, and enduring the wrath of a rising celebrity with a whole lot of money and a legion of trolls behind him.
In spite of the risks, Laws took up the sword. She became the expert on revenge porn while tracking down and interviewing other victims, researching cases and current laws, and pushing to get the FBI involved. She built her daughter’s case largely on her own, from the ground up, with hard work and meticulous documentation of evidence. Plus, she had to research Hunter Moore and the seedy, troll-infested underbelly of the Internet. And the more she fought, the more pushback she got from Moore’s many dedicated followers.
After two years and much communication and work with FBI agents, Laws came out victorious. Hunter Moore was arrested and charged with multiple counts of conspiracy, unauthorized access to a protected computer to obtain information, and aggravated identity theft. His website was shut down.
And he’s awaiting trial, which is set to begin in November.
Today, Laws continues to fight similar trolls by pushing for legislation that expressly outlaws revenge porn and other gross spreading of nude images without consent.
Troll-slaying Lesson #2: Never give up.
Editor’s note: This article previously profiled three people, one of whom has been removed at the subject’s request.
Lindsey Weedston is a freelance writer and journalist. Her work can be found on her blog, Not Sorry Feminism, as well as The Fix and The God Show Podcast.