What We Can Learn From a Reformed Troll

[Content note: online harassment & threats]

Many of us who have dealt with trolls online have spent a lot of time–to much, probably–wondering what motivated them, how they would justify their actions (or not), whether they would ever regret it or apologize.

Writer Lindy West actually got to find this out. After she publicly called out a troll who’d made a Twitter account impersonating her late father and used it to harass her (yes, that happened), he emailed her and apologized. He even donated money in her name to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which had treated her father before he died. On an episode of This American Life, West called him and talked to him more about why he did what he did.

The conversation was both amazingly honest and also painfully unsurprising, at least to those of us who have dealt with this sort of behavior. The ex-troll admitted that he’d been in a really bad mental place when he’d made multiple accounts just to harass West. In the email he’d originally sent to apologize, he wrote, “I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you. I think my anger from you stems from your happiness with your own being. It served to highlight my unhappiness with myself.” In the TAL episode, he explained that he was overweight and unhappy with his body, and West’s public satisfaction with (and celebration of) her own weight made him resentful. Gender played a role, too:

Women are being more forthright in their writing. There isn’t a sense of timidity to when they speak or when they write. They’re saying it loud. And I think that– and I think, for me, as well, it’s threatening at first. …I work with women all day, and I don’t have an issue with anyone. I could’ve told you back then if someone had said to me, oh, you’re a misogynist. You hate women. And I could say, nuh-uh, I love my mom. I love my sisters. I’ve loved my– the girlfriends that I’ve had in my life. But you can’t claim to be OK with women and then go online and insult them– seek them out to harm them emotionally.

West added:

In my experience, if you call a troll a misogynist, he’ll almost invariably say, oh, I don’t hate women. I just hate what you’re saying and what that other woman is saying and that woman and that one for totally unrelated reasons. So it was satisfying at least to hear him admit that, yeah, he hated women.

Indeed, that level of self-awareness is pretty rare in anyone, let alone in men who harass and threaten women.

Although none of my really-awful trolls have ever apologized, one who used to mildly troll my comments section did, and confessed that it had to do with his own mental health issues that he was taking out on me and my blog. I became his outlet, the lightning rod for all his grievances with himself and the world. From talking to other women with a presence on the internet, I know my experience (and West’s) is not unique.

There is a lot to learn from the TAL episode. Although trolls/online harassers probably have a variety of motivations, there clearly is a subset of them that troll because they can’t or won’t deal with their own personal issues. I want to be very careful here and not do the whole blaming mental illness thing, but I also want to trust people who have mental illnesses when they say that their mental illness is what prompted them to do something shitty. That’s part of humanizing mental illness, too–acknowledging that sometimes, especially when untreated/unmanaged, it can cause people to act in ways that aren’t really in accordance with who they actually want to be.

But also, you need not have a diagnosable mental illness to be in a bad place in your head at some point in time. You need not have a diagnosable mental illness to believe on some level that it’s okay to outsource emotional caretaking to someone else. The common thread here isn’t “mental illness” but “people avoiding dealing with their own issues and taking their pain out on others,” which, as I’ve been discussing a lot around here, is a gendered phenomenon.

In the episode, West concludes:

If what he said is true, that he just needed to find some meaning in his life, then what a heartbreaking diagnosis for all of the people who are still at it. I can’t give purpose and fulfillment to millions of anonymous strangers, but I can remember not to lose sight of their humanity the way that they lost sight of mine.

That is what horrified me most about this whole thing, aside from imagining what it must’ve been like for West pre-apology. How on earth could a random writer on the internet give these people what they need–partners, friends, self-love, satisfying jobs? It’s a frustration that I’ve felt before.

When the episode first aired, I saw a lot of people hailing it as some sort of sign that, see, trolls really are people too, and they’re redeemable, and maybe if we just remember not to lose sight of their humanity, then they’ll see the light and stop trolling! (Note that although I’m borrowing some of West’s wording here, I absolutely don’t think she’s this naive. Not after everything the internet has put her through.)

It’s a nice thought. It means that the solution to the revolting bullshit people (mostly women) deal with online is neither to “just ignore it” nor to lash back out or ridicule or petition social media platforms for better moderation. It’s just to talk to them and figure out what’s making them hurt so bad.

You can probably see why this is unacceptable as far as general advice goes. As West said, women can’t take responsibility for healing all these strangers’ hurts. People in my field get paid good money to do that, and I’m not about to do it for free for someone I’ve never met who just called me a fucking cunt.

Moreover, though, I’m not sure that most trolls are “redeemable.” Buzzfeed writer Tabatha Leggett, who got rape and death threats after writing about watching The Simpsons (yes, really), recently described her experience contacting her trolls, and seems to have had a rather different one than West did:

The first guy was a stand-up comedian from Chicago. He’d left a meme that said “kill yourself” in the comments section. He insisted that leaving a meme was different to typing out the words “kill yourself”. “Anyone who knows the meme wouldn’t take it seriously,” he told me. “I just wanted to tell you to shut the fuck up.”

I told him that his comment, underneath the hundreds of other abusive ones I’d received, came across as threatening. He told me I was an idiot for feeling that way. I asked him why he felt the need to comment at all. Why not just avoid reading my stuff in the future?

“You might have other really good stuff that you write about,” he replied. “I just didn’t want you to write about The Simpsons again. I was like, shut up.”

Another man that she spoke to did apologize, but it’s unclear which of these reactions is more typical. Point is, sometimes no amount of emotional labor will extract an apology (let alone genuine regret). And even if it did, what difference does it make? The damage has been done, and there always seem to be more trolls willing to take the place of those who realize the error of their ways.

If there’s anything to take away from Lindy West’s interview with her troll, it’s that trolling is more about the troll than the target. However, note that many people are miserable and full of self-hatred and do not make accounts impersonating a writer’s dead father that they use to harass her. The ex-troll’s misogyny and our society’s tolerance of it probably played as big a role in his behavior as did his personal problems.

Unfortunately, we can’t magically heal everyone’s misery. We can stop blaming victims of harassment for that harassment, and we can institute some better social norms and institutional policies that help prevent harassment. People like Lindy West are part of the reason we’re finally having that conversation on any sort of scale, but it’s embarrassing how much we had to put up with before that conversation finally got started.

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What We Can Learn From a Reformed Troll

5 thoughts on “What We Can Learn From a Reformed Troll

  1. 1

    A sudden thought I had: have you watched the “Why Are You So Angry?” series? The author’s supplement to the last part includes a link to a Storify he had with Zoe Quinn, Lindsay Ellis, and a couple other people in which Zoe Quinn talked about her experience with how trolls reform. In her words: “either the person wakes up by realizing their targets are human which is complicated/difficult to induce OR someone they already hold in high respect like a friend or boss or hero tells them to knock it off”.

    I don’t know if Lindy West’s example fits that pattern, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Because the thing about that pattern is that the targets of trolls are nearly powerless to affect the trolls – if someone is willing to attack you the way this person attacked Lindy West, then they probably don’t hold you in enough respect to listen to you.

  2. 2

    I’m curious as to what happened to that woman who discovered her husband was a troll. Just a few months before they were to have their first child, in fact.
    I didn’t hold out much hope at the time for hubby to reform, unfortunately. Because as he put it, he trolled for “stress relief” and “fun” and that was more important to him than making his wife feel safe.

  3. 3

    Although trolls/online harassers probably have a variety of motivations, there clearly is a subset of them that troll because they can’t or won’t deal with their own personal issues.

    That explains a lot of things in bigotries and positions like the sociopolitical far right. “Someone has something I don’t, or I think they are trying to get it, and they don’t deserve it, didn’t earn it like me, will take something away from me… and they are lesser than I!”

    These sorts of things are definitely mental (and cultural) issues (or bad places, or whatever), but no, I would not always categorize them for purposes of discussion as mental illness. Not to say that only the currently Medically Approved List necessarily defines only and all mental illness, or that there are not potential problem areas in the humanizing mental illness / distancing and othering via outside claims of mental illness, or excusing one’s own behaviors solely on grounds of mental illness / using mental illness as a method of stigmatization. That’s a difficult field to play without a lot more dialog and definite specifics of any mental illness actually involved. — I don’t know if the trolls discussed here had an actual mental illness and the extent to which this was discussed in the places mentioned, I’m more generalizing this. I appreciate what you are saying about mental illness here (and i think you are rather wise about these things), but i think what i am getting at is the verbal transformation from things like “personal problems” or “mental health issues” into “mental illness” — which may have been the case from the start, that a mental illness is involved, but verbally it looks like that sort of “upgrade” less conscientious people like to make simply due to the order in which these phrases appear.

    And, this might be a chaotically unclear mess. If you think it is – i am not in a good state to tell for sure — please just blackhole it.

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