The Charlotte Dawson case, which has now resulted in her hospitalisation, says a lot about the way that women are treated in social media spaces and the divergent tactics that are used to address the issue.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the equally complex issue of how social space has now conflated professional and private space to the extent that vitriolic thoughtless asides on “personal” accounts result in real world professional consequences. (Although, it does need further analysis: Tanya Heti, who is currently suspended with pay from her job at Monash University over her role in this case, is not the first and won’t be the last; Catherine Deveny was fired from her role at Fairfax in a similar situation of using a “personal” Twitter account to mock a celebrity, but apparently has not been a sufficiently salutary example that it stopped the rest of the trolls.)
Internet trolls have been around since MUDs and MOOs. In other words, since before the commercial Internet as you know it. The famous 1993 article, A Rape in Cyberspace, by Julian Dibbell, was the first time they’d been talked about publicly. And slowly, as an ethics of the Internet grew, learning as much as it could from the cyberworlds that had gone before it, we whispered the secret to each other: don’t feed the trolls.
Trolling is deliberately taunting someone in the hope of getting a rise out of them. In the beginning, it was a way of playing with newcomers, to see if they were wise to the tricks yet. And if you could spot the troll, the deliberate misinformation or insult, and not rise to the bait, you won somehow.
The issue is this: as more and more women got involved with the Internet, patterns started to emerge. Trolling women was different. It wasn’t about argument or smarts anymore. It was targeted, personal, about bodies and rape and death threats. And that’s when women decided to change their tactics.
It’s not that they decided, “Hey, let’s feed the trolls!” It’s more that they realised that “don’t feed the trolls” sounds very similar to, “Shhh, just keep quiet and it’ll be our little secret…” The tactic they moved to was about naming and shaming, calling out our attackers, describing their methods in order to disarm.
That’s what Charlotte Dawson was doing by retweeting her abusers, but she also gave them more airspace. The issue here is not that Dawson used this tactic. It’s possibly that she had insufficient social media training to know what to expect when she did. It’s definitely that she had too much training as a woman in our culture to take on blame and internalise insults that were not hers. She’s quoted in The Age (in big letters, just so you don’t miss that she’s taking responsibility for her own assault) “I always bite back, I know it’s my problem, but I can’t just let it go without having something to say.”
No, Charlotte, it’s not your problem. It’s all of ours. Because this has been going on for 20 years now and you’re just the latest victim.