But Words Will Never Hurt Me?

Image  of a man with a fist coming from his mouth and punching a woman in the jaw
Words Can Hurt

It’s probably just as well Darren Burton whose online identity is Nimrod Severen, has been hiding under a web cloak of anominity, until he was flushed out, that is! Panorama:Hunting Out The Bullies is a BBC program where journalist, Declan Lawn, tracks down and tries to interview these ‘Internet Trolls’, as they have become known. How can one person who, as Warren Jones point out, is “just a poor nobody who has greasy habits, bad hygiene, and little or no creativity or talent[,]”cause so much distress? Just a nobody sitting on a pile of hatred that needs to be released. When cornered, Darren seems ready to demonstrate his abusive spiel for the camera as well as point out that Facebook is an open forum and he can say what he likes?

This type of online name-calling seems to be predominantly directed at women especially those who are outspoken about feminist issues.  The name-calling can become abusive and threatening, to the point where some women stop posting  for fear of being attacked.  These Internet trolls, usually hiding behind an online identity, are fueled by a feeling of empowerment that is gained from public expression of their personal opinion. This is heightened by readers of a similar viewpoint showing their approval by posting positive comments, and  by ‘liking’ these hostile and demeaning attacks on women.

There are some women, however, who will not be intimidated into silence such as Sady Doyle who says in her blog post On Blogging, Threats, and Silence:

I don’t shut up for all the people who have been silenced, who did throw in the towel because they just couldn’t take it anymore. Not because they were weak or not committed to the cause, but because they, and their families, were in danger.

I’m not sure that I had an opinion either way about internet filtering of ‘hate mail’ until I read Sady’s story which made me feel incredibly vulnerable, not only as a ‘noobie’ blogger, but also as a woman and a mother.  Sady Doyle writes about highly controversial feminist issues which has made her a  target  of the hard boiled misogynists, however she  has continued to put  her opinion up on the world wide web even though she receives a plethora of digitalised hate mail  on a daily basis. She has had to change the way in which she lives and is constantly on alert and concerned for her personal safety and that of her family. She speaks of other bloggers who have given up and ‘gone silent’ intimidated by the sheer volume and intensity of Internet threats.

It’s a good week, these days, if I only get 15-20 emails from people telling me how much they think I should die, or how much they hope I get raped, or how much they hope my cat dies or I lose my job or fall in a hole or get shot by police or any number of things people seem to think it’s urgently important to tell me in their quest to get me to shut up.

Sady is responsible for the formation of the Twitter group #mencallmethings  which is intended as an arena for women to further discuss and draw attention to abusive and misogynistic attitudes and behavior of men towards women.

An interesting quote on the topic of threats and insults, comes from Anna North who writes for Jezebel.  She says that she is less likely to encounter the same level of abuse in real life as she receives on the web.

There’s a semi-hopeful way to interpret this: that people actually do recognize one another as human beings when confronted in person, and only forget about this shared humanity when separated by a computer screen and miles of fiber-optic cable. And then there’s a darker interpretation: lots of people are walking around filled with barely contained rage — against women, against people of color, against anyone who disagrees with them — and are eager to take advantage of consequence-free ways to let it out. 

This brings us back to the Internet which may be responsible for cultivating an environment where ‘Internet Trolls’ are stimulated through supposed anonymity to unleash their hatred without restraint.  If we are to believe the children’s nursery rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names may never hurt me” there is nothing to be concerned about. “They are just words.” However it doesn’t seem right that cyber bullies should be allowed to get their kicks off the backs of social networks.  The more people who speak out against these Internet bullies, the greater the chance that they will be silenced by the  collaborative power of network media.


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