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VIDEO: Fight the Trolls panel, #SkepchickCon

The Fight the Trolls panel at SkepchickCon last July was packed, and surprisingly, panelists and audience witnessed only one or two trolls in the wild. Or not surprisingly, really. SkepchickCon is a track at CONvergence, a sci-fi fantasy con with a well-earned and actively maintained reputation for being a safe and welcoming con for all. (The panel table banner is an anomaly, although one that really needs to go. It’s particularly ironic on this panel.)

The panelists share several great ideas for handling online harassment focused on women, and the discussion is frequently quite funny, considering the seriousness of the subject matter (such as rape and death threats). Well worth viewing (or reading the transcript) even if (especially if?) you’re not a target of trolls.

More videos to come this week! In case you missed them, here are the SkepchickCon videos and transcriptions we’ve posted so far:

Evolutionary Psychology
The Amazing Skepchick Cure-All
Climate Change & Superstorms
The Science and Art of Bioluminescence
Philosophy of the Golden Compass

Fight the Trolls video

Panelists L-R: RW: Rebecca Watson, ADR: Amy Davis Roth, SZ: Stephanie Zvan, NL: Nora Last, AM: Amanda Marcotte

Recorded by David McConnell
Transcribed by Chris Pederson
Titles by Jason Thibeault, with designs based on the work of Donna Mugavero.

Fight the Trolls transcription

[General talking over each other, crowd chatter 00:00-3:30]  

SZ: On that note, I think we’ll go ahead and get started. You are at the “Fighting the Trolls”’ panel. You probably already figured that out from the folks up here talking. I’m Stephanie Zvan. I blog at Almost Diamonds on the Freethought Blogs network. I occasionally blog about things like rape and sexual harassment and atheism, which at one point was what I would have expected would have gotten me the most trolls. That’s not how it works. So that’s what I’m doing here on this panel, and I’m going to ask the rest of our folks to introduce themselves and tell us why they’re here. Let’s start with you Amanda.

AM: I’m Amanda Marcotte. I’m a journalist who writes on the internet about feminism, so I am like a massive troll magnet.

NL: I’m Nora Last. I’m a feminist on Twitter who speaks her mind pretty frequently. I blogged at the now mostly defunct Another Feminist blog and actually got run off it by rape threats.

ADR: I am Amy Davis Roth, also known as Surly Amy. I write for the blog Skepchick.org. I have an online business called SurlyRamics. I am the managing editor for MadArtLab, and I’ve recently become a feminist because I didn’t even realize I was one until I started getting trolled and had things like my home address posted on MRA sites and interesting things like that.

RW: MRA means “men’s rights activists.” We’ll get to that later. I’m Rebecca Watson. I run Skepchick.org, and I’m on a podcast, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, and on Twitter and Facebook and all of that, so I also on occasion talk about feminism and women’s rights and how women are people, and that does tend to drive a certain segment of the internet completely batshit. And just to throw this out there, trigger warning, because I’m sure we’re all going to be talking about rape threats and gendered slurs and things like that, and so if you find that sort of thing very upsetting, this might not be a good panel for you.

SZ: And in order to fight trolls, we really need to know what it is they want, so we cannot give it to them. Does anyone here want to talk a little bit about what they think the goals of the trolls that have come after them are?

RW: Maybe I’ll start just by pointing out last year we had a panel similar to this called “Don’t Feed the Trolls,” and it was sort of an ironic title that I chose because people tell me that all the time whenever I respond to somebody who’s trying to bully me. Inevitably I’ll have someone watching on the sidelines say, “Don’t feed the trolls,” meaning that by giving the trolls attention, they’re only going to be worse. And that’s absolutely wrong.
I do think that there are some people who could fall into that category, people who just want any kind of attention, and when they get it, that makes them worse. I do think that person exists. But by and large the people who bully me online, bully other women online, I don’t think they necessarily want attention. I think what they want is silence. They want you to shut up and go away and stop talking about women’s rights. And so by not feeding the trolls, by not responding to them, by just hoping they go away and when they don’t go away, you just go away, as you can talk about more I’m sure, they win. They win because they get your silence.

NL: I think the goal is absolutely to make the cost-benefit analysis of “is it worth it to hit post on this blog entry, on this tweet,” or whatever, to drive that cost-benefit up so that you stop talking because the stress, or the triggers, or knowing what you’re going to hear, or risk having your address posted online ultimately becomes too much. It’s about driving up the costs of speaking about, and in this case, mostly feminism and oftentimes trolls and what we’re experiencing.

AM: I think it’s important to realize that you’ve never met somebody more self-righteous than a misogynist.

[Laughter]  

AM: It’s amazing how much they’ve convinced themselves that they are on the side of the angels. And so that kind of fervor just sort of makes them more dogged than a classic attention-seeking troll is.

ADR: And it’s also important to remember that even if they do manage to silence someone, like in Nora’s case, they will just go on to the next person. So, we really talk a lot about raising the social cost that they have to deal with, which is why it’s important I think to continue to speak up and speak out against them. So, feed them.

RW: And just to briefly mention one other thing that I think they want, it’s something that I feel people often confuse with attention, they want to feel as though they matter. They want to feel as though their voice matters. And so some people think that that’s just attention. It’s not. Because there is such a thing as bad attention. So whenever I interact with people who are actively bullying and harassing me, I make a special effort to only interact with them in a way that furthers their own marginalization. That makes it clear that they have no standpoint, that I find them laughable and everyone else should as well. So I turn them into a laughing stock, as opposed to inviting them to debate me on a public stage. I would never do that because that would give them that feeling that they deserve some sort of standing.

NL: That implies that you are on equal footing.

RW: Right. So I always encourage people to yes, feed the trolls, go after them, but don’t give them that equal footing.

SZ: And to go back and address the attention point. We don’t have to give them attention; they are actually organized. There are places online where they will go and say, “Hey look, here’s what I just did to this person over here,” and everybody around them there will go, “Yea, go you,” and “they’re never gonna figure out what to say to that.” So any time you tell us we’re feeding them, what we’re doing is basically the opposite of what they already have some place else.

AM: I think it’s important to let go of the illusion that you have, that there is some kind of magic bullet that you can fire. I think that there is this sort of myth online that there is a way to deal with everybody that will make them bend to your will. The fact of the matter is that’s just not true. You’re not going to convince them. You’re not going to persuade them. You’re not ever going to shut them up. You have no control over their actions, and nothing you do can get you that control. So letting go of that illusion, I think, is the first step towards sanity.

ADR: That’s a really good point. Responding only if it’s going to bring you joy. In Rebecca’s case, she does a really great job, I think, of making it funny for all of us because we really can’t control them. And I’m not sure if everyone in the audience understands what we say when we say that they are organized. There are groups on the internet that specifically troll for feminists. Even if it’s a new blogger, or a new writer, or someone comes on the scene and starts discussing women’s issues, these people have private and sometimes public groups online where they organize and they go after women for speaking out and then they bring prizes like screen shots back where they’re like, “Look at what we did to this specific person. Aren’t we great?” It’s something I don’t think everyone’s aware of but—

Audience: We all know about 4Chan.

SZ: Not even 4Chan.

RW: It’s not 4Chan. And that’s part of the problem. Often, I think, people think, “Oh these are just 12-year-olds in their mother’s basements.” No. “And they’re just anonymous.” No. Oftentimes I get, and to give you just a small idea of what sort of harassment I’m taking about, a rape threat a day. One rape threat every day from someone somewhere on the internet lands in my inbox; via email, the Skepchick messaging system, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. I block them. They create new accounts specifically to contact me and tell me that I’m too ugly to be raped, that I need to be raped, like that’s going to fix everything if only someone would just rape me. Every day. it’s hard to imagine unless it’s happening to you how difficult that can be for many people to deal with on a day-to-day basis. That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about harassment. Where did we start that point? I was gonna—

Audience: 4Chan

RW: 4Chan. So, sometimes these threats, and “jokes,” and slurs come through on, for instance, YouTube. Often I would click back and look at their profile, and I would find their ages right there. These are people in their 20s, their 30s, their 40s, 50s, 60s. These are people who, when I look at who they’re subscribed to, they’re subscribed to Tim Minchin’s channel, to George Hrab, friends of mine, people within my community of skeptics and science communicators. So these aren’t just angry homeopaths or fundamentalist Christians who are 12 years old and just trying to get a reaction. No, these are grown-ass people in my community who are attempting to silence me.

SZ: Fully employed. All that kind of stuff.

ADR: We know the actual people. I know the person. I haven’t ever shook his hand, but I know who posted my home address on the internet, who shared it all over the place. So these are actual people within our community, as well as groups online that remain anonymous.

AM: I think one thing, we should define one term here. I think one of the things here that is confusing when you’re a feminist online, you’re not dealing with traditional trolls. You’re dealing with men who have convinced themselves that they’re—and I just hate to even use the term—“men’s rights activists” is what they call themselves. They think of themselves as activists. They don’t know anything about activism, because their “activism” is harassing women online. I view the term “men’s right activism” IN the same light as I do “white power.” It’s a term that is a self-justifying rationalization for what is just fundamentally bigotry, just nasty unvarnished bigotry. And a lot of them are older; often they are divorced. [Laughs] A lot of them have histories of domestic violence or sexual assaults if you start digging around in their pasts. There’s a reason that they don’t want more people speaking out about these issues because it personally affects them. It affects the way they want to be in the world, which is, they want to be able to just mistreat women without a lot of blowback either from society or the justice system.

NL: One thing too, and the subject goes back to your slightly earlier point, is the notion that trolls are faceless, that they are always using pseudonyms. Like you commented, these are very often faces we can find, names we can find. I know the home address of a man who threatened to sue me for thousands of dollars for Storifying some Tweets that he had put out on the internet. Which was super weird. So, the notion that these people are afraid of hearing their name, that they are sometimes sock puppets certainly, but the notion that it’s just sort of these anonymous shadowy fingers in the background, for me that would be much easier to deal with than seeing the individual faces and names of the almost always men who seem to think that rape is just sort of a panacea. Honestly if rape were the panacea that I have been told that it is, I would have far fewer problems right now.

SZ: Did we still have a question in the back?

Audience: I was wondering, if you know some of these people, who they are, and they’re putting out your address, do you put out theirs? And if not, why not?

RW: The question was, “If we know their addresses, and they’re putting ours online, do we put out theirs?” And that’s an ongoing discussion amongst feminists.

SZ: We get a lot of pushback even for naming names.

NL: It’s creating drama.

SZ: Yes, yes. Creating drama. It’s somehow a double standard because them telling people where we live is the same thing as us saying, “This is a real person in this city over here, and by the way you might read this and be working with this person or be in a position to employ this person. This might be information you want to know.” So it’s not as simple as that. It’s the kind of thing where online there’s been a consensus for a long time that you just don’t do that. You protect everybody’s pseudonyms whether they are abusing them or not.

Audience: But they don’t protect yours though?

SZ: No. Not at all. Ever.

Audience:Report rape threats to the police?

AM: They will not do anything about it. I went that route when I first started blogging and someone was publishing my address and stuff. And I also want to note that there’s no equality there. A man publishes a woman’s address online, he’s basically inviting people to show up at her house and sexually assault her. How likely that is to happen? I don’t know, but that’s what the implication is. I don’t think publishing a man’s address is even remotely the same. And that happened to me when I first started blogging, and I learned really quick how to erase all my personal information online. Although it’s very hard to do, it turns out. And I called the police and they just were like “derpy derp.” They don’t even think of the internet as a real thing, I don’t think. The FBI’s a little bit better about it. But all they’ll do is file that information away so that if they commit a crime, they at least have more evidence against them.

RW: That’s been my experience as well. Two different police departments in two different states who agreed that the threat I got was credible, but that there was nothing they could do about it, but they would file a report. I said, “What does that mean? So if he kills me, you’ll know who did it?”

[Laughter]  

RW: He’s like “Yeah.” And yes, with the FBI, it was a similar thing. They started out really strongly—“That is definitely a hate crime and we will pursue this”—and I haven’t heard from them again in the last six months. The threat came from a man who, I hired a private investigator to find out who this man was and where he lived, and he had a history of domestic violence, and he lived in the city I was about to give a talk in. The FBI, I contacted them. “Are you going to do anything about this? What should I do?” And they said, “You should do whatever you feel you need to do to be safe.” Luckily I have a friend in the entertainment industry who’s familiar with these sort of things, and he hired me armed security at the talk. And that was that. So, when people say to us, “Just go to the police if you’re getting threats,” it’s unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that.

Audience: So sexual harassment’s not actually illegal.

SZ: Sexual harassment isn’t…yeah. We should maybe stop and talk about some of the layers of what we’re receiving. At the bottom of the pit there is the rape threats and the death threats, the ones that are very direct, so on and so forth. Then there are the ones that are less direct, the “You should be raped. I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but that’s what should happen to you.” Above that there are the people who are basically saying that “Something should be done about these people.” Somewhere above that are the people who are saying, “We shouldn’t really object because this isn’t all real.” And somewhere above that are the people who are saying, “Well, yes, there are terrible people out there, but you guys aren’t perfect.” And so there are lots of layers of reaction to what we get here.

ADR: And just to jump back to what Rebecca and everyone was saying about reporting it, there is an internet crime division of the internet that they have started but we have reported a lot of cases to that division, and it’s part of the FBI, but the LAPD told me to report to them, so I’ve had the exact same experience with rape threats, death threats, and having my home address published multiple places, and you go to your local police, and you file a report because it does sort of help in the sense that if something does happen to you, it is good to have a report, but again, nothing can really be done. And they will tell you to then go to the FBI division, the online FBI division, but I think they’re just really overwhelmed, and they, again, don’t really think of the internet as a real place. They don’t think of people online as real people yet.

SZ: They’re just words.

[agreement]  

ADR: It’s just a publication. It’s very strange, but—

NL: Related to that, talking about fighting the trolls, I now screen shot everything. It’s just sort of become this response because that’s evidence. It’s about creating a chain of evidence, because if something happens, then this is where I can point people to. Never mind they’re really good illustrative tools when someone doesn’t believe me that there are awful people on the internet. I wanted to talk really quickly about naming names, outing trolls or harassers online. It is my opinion that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The internet, this whole, this social contract of anonymity and pseudonyms, only holds if all parties are respecting and obeying that social contract. They’re the ones who broke this sort of agreed-upon, unspoken rule that we’re not going to out people, that we’re not going to post names and addresses. So at that point I don’t feel like my “internet social contract” extends to where it should protect them in any way.

AM: You know it’s interesting what you say, because I think that being angry at doxxing is part of a larger problem in our culture, where men who are violent towards women often get this sort of . . . society still thinks that women shouldn’t out them for this, I guess. It’s still considered somewhat tawdry or terrible for a woman to name the guy who raped her in public or the man who beat her in public. You’re supposed to just be quiet about it and not talk about it. And I think that one of the most important things that we can do to fight violence against women is to name names if somebody hits you, if somebody harasses you, if somebody rapes you. Don’t be afraid to just tell everybody that you know that he did it. For their safety too, a lot of abusive men just sort of walk around without facing any social punishment because the women that they harm are too ashamed to tell people, because they know that people are going to think there’s something dirty about them for saying something about it.

RW: We do have to acknowledge at the same time that we want to encourage everyone to not be afraid to name names, at the same time we do have to acknowledge that naming names does come with a cost. And every time I speak up, no matter how mildly, about the treatment I get, the treatment I get gets worse.

ADR: We’ve actually been doing a really great job of being private investigators on our own also since the police haven’t really been helping us. So what we’ve been doing is sharing information behind the scenes of who the harassers are. We actually know the names of a lot of the people that are pretending to be anonymous online, so if it does come down to where they actually bring the law, we have that information. So that’s something that we’re doing privately, and I encourage other people if you know of someone that is harassing someone, let them know who that really is because it can help them.

SZ: And one more thing about that before we answer more questions, because there are lots of people with hands up. The pushback that we get I think is in large part due to the fact that naming names is very effective. And whenever we do what is most effective, whether it’s Rebecca mocking the hell out of somebody—

RW: And making them cry.

[Laughter]  

SZ: Or going through and just documenting the hell out of what they do, we get pushback for that. But that’s because it’s effective. And that’s part of, I think, how we know when we’re being effective. But you had your hand up forever.

Audience: So you’re talking about some of the tactics to fight the trolls, recording screen shots. How do those tactics compare to, what would you suggest to younger folks, school students for example, who are experiencing cyber-bullying?

AM: That’s a really good question. I definitely think it’s similar. I remember what it was like to be a young person, a teenager, in high school and junior high school. There was also that same kind of code of silence, that if you were a target of bullies, you weren’t supposed to tattle-tale. I think and believe our culture’s attitude about that is shifting. These anti-bullying campaigns, “It Gets Better” campaign, things like that are causing people to rethink why we think tattling on bullies is such a bad behavior. The fact that it’s online and documented, I think, also helps. I’m always surprised at all the people who seem to think that the problem with cyber-bullying is the cyber part. In my opinion cyber-bullying has been a very good thing in so far as it has revealed to adults the extent of bullying that is going on in our school systems that I think a lot of us maybe forget since we age and we grow old enough to have kids of our own. I would encourage young people to do the same thing and to take that at least to their parents and if not, to the school officials.

NL: I think a big part of bullying, much like trolling, is trying to create a sense of isolation, abandonment, that you don’t have a support network. I think much like we’re talking about up here, creating a network, sharing information, documenting, and then ultimately you end up with this web, and you’re not the only one, and there are other people who are going through this too. And that, to me, can be the most powerful, ultimately empowering part of that experience; building connections through this really, really awful thing.

Audience:: I wanted to actually talk to you because the guy who just had a question, the previous question. Hi, I’m a volunteer for Missing Children of Minnesota, and one of things that we teach as part of anti-bullying is a concept called engaged bystander, to be an engaged bystander. We do workshops and trainings with kids on different ways that they can safely be an engaged bystander. I also teach martial arts. So I teach all of my martial arts students how to be an engaged bystander safely. Everybody has their different strengths, so they role-play different ways to approach the same situation where you can help somebody. Maybe you’re not socially bold, but after the bullying is over, you can go up to the person and say, “You know what? I wasn’t with that.” Even something as small as that can give someone a sense of [inaudible].

AM: That’s a really good point, and I think another thing that makes the internet such a valuable place in terms of pushing back against sexual harassment and bullying and things like that is that it’s public. There’s a lot of people that are standing and looking. I think a lot of times in real life, bullying tends to be done out of view of witnesses. I think that it’s important that people train themselves, if you’re not the target of one but you see it happen, you should do that. You should speak up. I think that I’m seeing a lot more of that online attitude. Who here has seen Dan Cardamon’s videos making fun of misogynist bullies? That’s the sort of thing that I think is really effective, and if you’re not the target, you can still do things like make fun of them, engage them yourself, just generally show the targets that you’re with them.

RW: I want to briefly highlight the point you just made about how real-life bullying is often done out of sight. So is cyber-bullying. It’s only made public because we are “feeding the trolls.” If it were up to the trolls, it would by and large be a private experience and that’s what it was for me and for many other women for a very long time before you snap, and you start publishing the e-mails you get, re-tweeting the tweets you get. Your followers don’t see the trolls sending you tweets unless you’re pointing them out. And that’s what it means when you tell someone “Don’t feed the trolls.” It means, “I want you to suffer in silence so I don’t have to see the bullying that is happening.”

AM: And let’s be clear: there’s no doubt that it’s not easy to do this. I think a lot of people think when you publish your hate mail that you’re getting some kind of kick out of playing the victim. The one time I really did that was when I was a national scandal. When I resigned from the John Edwards campaign for president because I had written some jokes making fun of Catholics using birth control online, and the Catholic League went after me, and it was on all these cable news networks, and Fox News particularly went after me hard. My e-mail box absolutely flooded with Fox News viewers just writing the most vile shit. I was overwhelmed, and my site kept crashing, and so I had to take my blog down and just put up a splash page. And instead of just putting up a splash page that said “The site’s down. Too much traffic because of the TV,” I published all the hate mail I was getting. I had so many people reach out to me and say, “Oh my god, I support you. This is terrible. All those people are assholes,” and I hated every second of it. I didn’t want people to sympathize with me. I didn’t want their pity. I just wanted them to know that this is the kind of people that the Catholic League was catering to with this bullshit. I think that that’s the intention behind publishing hate mail a lot of the time. It’s not to get pity. It’s to reveal the truth of what’s going on.

SZ: Going to take one more in the back and then I want to get the folks up here talking about specific things that you do. We’ll take your question first.

Audience: Here’s the thing. Apparently these trolls, or what you call men’s activists, view these feminists as such [?negative?] because, no offense, but it seems like most of those feminists don’t practice what they preach. For example, not too long ago, when Bill Maher was actually insulting Sarah Palin, calling her all these horrible names, yet all these feminist groups didn’t say a word or, in fact—

SZ: Oh yeah they did.

AM: Oh yeah they did.

ADR: They did.

SZ: We just don’t get press.

AM: The National Organization of Women does it.

SZ: We do not get press.

Audience: Or even—

AM: I spoke out against it. We’re doubly quick to go after men who insult conservative women because we know this is exactly what people say. And it’s just not true. Bill Maher is a misogynist ass. So there, done.

Audience: Fine.

SZ: All right. What do we do such that we are not giving people what they want?

ADR: You want me to jump in?

SZ: Actually, yes.

ADR: I have a really weird outlook on this whole thing, and I am just motivated. Every time somebody tells me I should stop, every time they try to destroy my business online—I have trolls go after my customers, I have them try to shut me down for all these different reasons—and you know what? The best revenge is success. And being happy and continuing to do more projects that benefit women in our community. I raise money, and I send more women to science events, and I encourage more people to speak up. I honestly think the best thing you can do is to continue doing what you’re doing no matter what they do to you.

RW: I 100 percent agree with that. And also when you’re dealing with these guys, you’ve got to play your own strengths. I think one of my strengths is using humor to diffuse whatever they think they’re trying to do. And I wanted to mention something that I brought up. I did a comedy panel yesterday and I mentioned something I’ve termed “agreement jujitsu.”

ADR: It’s one of the best things ever.

RW: I actually have an example in front of me now. I didn’t yesterday. What this is, it’s a new method I have of screwing with people that I find really entertaining and effective. When someone sends you a bit of hate mail—this works best if the piece of hate mail itself is slightly confusing, which normally it is, they’re usually very poor writers.

[Laughter]  

RW: It’s not a coincidence that they have a hard time organizing their thoughts. I’m often accused of playing the victim, as Amanda mentioned, which if you actually pay attention to the things I do, the word “victim” should never ever come to your mind. I got this tweet from someone, this is a woman, actually, who wrote, “Just about able to process world issues again after years of IRL abuse. This whining ‘victim’ bollocks is a disgrace.” So she’s trying to insult me, but it’s very confusing, so this is the perfect time to use agreement jujitsu. My response was “I agree. No one should brand people as victims against their consent.”

[Laughter]  

RW: Her response: “Harmed by action i.e. harassment. Consent does not change the definition. Internet trolls are vile irrespective of gender.” I respond, “Yep, I couldn’t agree more.”

[Laughter]  

RW: She responds, “But using a bunch of their ridiculous internet comments and non-events to sling mud at an entire movement is just awful. IMHO.” I respond, “I agree. MRAs need to stop slinging mud at the feminist movement over non-events.”

[Laughter]  

RW: She responds, “Really? I had to look that one up. I watched your videos and read your blogs. Not quotes, clips or partials.” I respond: “Exactly! I wish more people would.”

[Laughter]  

RW: She responds, “I think we have our wires crossed here. It’s probably the character limit.”

[Laughter]  

RW: And this was the last I ever heard from her. My immediate response to her, though, I felt like I was about to win, so I wanted to have one final conclusive tweet. So I wrote, “Well I def agree with you that harmful harassment, branding people as ‘victims,’ quote-mining & mud-slinging should be stopped.”

[Laughter/applause]  

RW: Never heard from her again.

AM: One thing that I think is really important to do, it’s the old trick of imagining the audience in their underwear when you’re public speaking. I think it’s even more effective online. I think one of the reasons that their words have a lot of power is because even if you know who they are, a lot of the time you don’t know much about them. You know that they can operate a keyboard.

[Laughter]  

AM: I think there’s a tendency when we’re online to be good faith actors, to assume the person on the other side of the keyboard is a competent, mentally sound, socially well-adjusted person, and I don’t think that that’s actually true of your average online misogynist. I found that assuming that they’re probably sleazy sexual harassers, the kind of guys who pinch your ass in public, is a better strategy to go because now you know what kind of man you’re working with. They become less threatening because when you have those interactions with men in real life, where they sexually harass you to your face usually, you can see what sort of inadequacies they’re trying to cover up by attacking women, and they love the internet because they can hide that. Just assume that they’re there and often it becomes a little easier to deal with them. I almost guarantee you every single time there is something deeply wrong with them.

NL: Speaking to what Amy said “the best revenge is success.” Put yourself first; never prioritize fighting or interacting with trolls when it’s going to be bad for your mental or physical health. No one’s going to get your rape threats, your death threats for you. That is just sort of the shitty truth of the internet. So don’t engage if you don’t have the energy, or the time, or the desire to. The other thing, build “Team You”: build a team of people who get it, of people who will know why you might need a hug, people who will have your back in internet fights. And the last thing that I have found that’s really, really effective is looking at these as educational opportunities. I have had some of the best conversations with people who weren’t really sold on feminism who didn’t quite get what many women deal with on the internet until I started showing them screen shots. Until I started writing about well, “Okay if you’re going to threaten me with a DMCA take-down notice and sue me for storifying your tweets, let’s actually break down why those legal threats are absurd.” Using trolls as a tool to debunk their own bullshit.

AM: I want to emphasize what you said. It’s just so important to feel your feelings about this. It is hard and I’m definitely, I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Texan or what, I end up falling into this trap a lot personally, of feeling like you just have to tough it out and just pretend it doesn’t get to you. My boyfriend is always scolding me for this. He’s like, “It’s okay if they hurt your feelings. You can feel hurt.” It’s impossible to get insulted hundreds of times a day and not let it get to you once in a while.

NL: They don’t win if you take a time out or if you start feeling shitty. I think this whole notion that the trolls win if you start crying is fundamentally flawed because, like you said, that’s blaming you for having emotions and reacting to some really vile things that are being said to you. I think that the trolls win when we start trying to shut down our emotions and shut down our responses in many ways because that’s ultimately going to burn you, and it burned me out a lot faster.

Audience: I wanted to mention this strategy that we found out about that people might enjoy using, especially on Twitter, it’s a Twitter thing. It’s called “kitten tweeting.” When you re-tweet someone manually, you say “RT,” or if you do modified tweet, you do an “MT.” This you do a “KT” to make it clear to people what you are doing, but you basically take what they say and you make it nice.

[Laughter]  

Audience: So if they say, “I hope you get raped in the face,” instead of… more like, “I hope you get whipped cream and sparkles and rainbow and sunshine in your face.”

[Laughter]  

RW: I love that.

ADR: This is great.

Audience: Completely, they go ape shit.

[Laughter]  

AM: Re-tweeting on Twitter has been one of those great, great things in fighting trolls. At blogs, they would just comment, and on Pandagon, my blog, we did something similar. If someone left some vile garbage in the comments, we would just delete it and replace it with a bunny video.

[Laughter]  

AM: GIFs are also fun to do that with, but retweeting is so great. I just put, “I get Tweets,” and just retweet, and suddenly all the people on Twitter who have nothing better to do will take up my fight for me.

[Laughter]  

AM: So I’m like, “Thanks, folks. I’m gonna go get a cup of coffee.”

[Laughter]  

RW: That’s one of the nice things about developing a posse is that I use the retweet/block method so often, I always compare it to just shoving someone into a pit of alligators and just walking away.

[Laughter]  

RW: It’s great. It’s very satisfying.

NL: It’s a really satisfying mental image. Every time I [?retweet?] someone now.

AM: I can’t recommend GIF’ing people enough. You’re the one who taught me that.

[Laughter]  

AM: Whenever people tweet garbage at me and I just don’t want to deal with it, they’re getting a RuPaul.

[Laughter]  

RW: I believe I have one of the world’s largest collections of animated GIF’s. One of my favorite things is when you re-tweet someone and you just comment with a link in front of their tweet, they’re going to click that link. They have to know. They’re going to click it, and when they click it, it’s going to be a shirtless man dancing back.

[Laughter]  

RW: And I’ve already blocked them, so I don’t know what their response is. But I know what their response is.

[Laughter]  

RW: Their response is to get mad.

[Laughter]  

RW: And it makes me laugh.

SZ: So my response is a lot like Nora’s, going at the more analytical level, because I’m really good at that when I’m pissed off. But one of the things I do is I actually take it one layer up. I take the people who are saying, “Oh this isn’t so bad. Oh you should be able to put up with this. Oh so on and so forth,” and I take that and I put it next to what actually we get. So that that person’s name and their defense of “just sit there and take it” is actually connected to the reality of what we get and that, at least in our community, has been fairly effective.

RW: Because we need those people. Those people are people who could be very helpful in what’s happening. I don’t think those people are actively misogynistic people. I think—

SZ: Not most of them.

RW: Some, you’re right; some are just awful people who are better at hiding how awful they are. But a significant portion I think are clueless, completely clueless, and it’s their fault that they’re clueless. All of the evidence is out there for them to find it. But that’s why love people like Stephanie. I don’t have the time in my day to deal with those people, and also I’m too mean.

[Laughter]  

RW: So I think it’s great to put it in their face and show them. I hear from people who say, “When all this first started going down with you a couple years ago, I didn’t get it. I get it now. And what can I do to help?” I talk to them about the things we mentioned: raising the social cost of online bullying, call it out when you see it, make fun of them, tell your friends to stop doing it. Be the one guy who speaks up when it’s just a couple of guys, even off-line, one guy says something horrible, be that one guy who’s just like “not cool.”

AM: It’s interesting, I do think those people are more infuriating sometimes than the trolls. There’s the urge to be mad at them. The people who are, “Well, you know the problem is you speak out about it and stuff.” I think part of the problem is that they don’t like that this is happening, and you are easier to talk to than the livid, screaming, misogynist troll. “That guy’s not going to listen but you seem reasonable,” so unfortunately you get their shit.

NL: There’s the response of “Well, what did you expect?” Well, I expect better of everyone every single day. I should not be criticized for expecting basic civility in discourse.

[Applause]  

SZ: And one more thing we haven’t mentioned: celebrate the victories. There’s been a lot of work in the sci-fi community and in the skeptic and secular communities that many of us up here are a part of, to do things like get anti-harassment policies in place. There are people suddenly, recently, big name people standing up and saying, “That’s not gonna fly. You take part in that, you don’t deal with me.” Appreciate those, celebrate those. Can I have a drink? Just relax, walk away from the internet for 20 minutes, because you won that one.

ADR: And Anita Sarkeesian is an example of that, how she was so horrifically trolled when she tried to do her Kickstarter, and the fact that it was overfunded by a zillion dollars basically, and she’s making these wonderful videos now, and that’s a victory for all women in the gaming community and feminism I think.

SZ: When you make them mad, celebrate that too.

RW: I celebrate that every day.

AM: One time I did that and it just sent them over the top because I was at a conference that had a harassment policy, and I came back and wrote this glowing report about how sexy it was, just how sexy. Everyone was flirting and having a good time and it almost seems like that harassment policy by making women feel safe made them more willing—

[Laughter]  

AM: —to flirt with them.

RW: And on that line, before this panel, a couple of us were talking. Recently the people who harass us are focusing on taking over the Twitter feeds of the conventions that we go to, particularly the Women in Secularism. If you looked at the Twitter feed for that back in May, I think, it was dominated by the people harassing us. Gendered slurs, there is no better example. “What are we here to talk about? Let’s look at the Twitter feed. Oh right.” But we were talking about how great CONvergence is because our harassers lose all their power because this is such a well set-up convention in that the entire atmosphere, I feel, of mutual respect for men and women and the “Costumes are not consent” campaign. A couple of years ago, we actually had a man grab one of our bartenders in the party room, and CONvergence staff responded immediately and worked with the hotel staff to kick him out and take away his badge. They respond immediately to these things. So if you look at the CONvergence hashtag, #CVG2013, you will see some of our harassers. One is called Elevatorgate. He’s probably the most vicious and long lasting.

AM: He really wants to harass women in elevators.

[Laughter]  

RW: He doesn’t have much else going on.

[Laughter]  

RW: And he does spend a lot of time harassing people. But it’s very funny, if you look, he’s in that CONvergence feed, but he’s one little thing surrounded by all this “Everything’s awesome!” and then it’s him “feminazis mehhhh.”

[Laughter]  

RW: “We’re all dancing.”

ADR: “Amanda’s DJ’ing.”

[Laughter]  

AM: All this kind of reminds me what, I forget who coined it, but the rule of feminism is, on any article about feminism online, the comment thread proves the need for feminism.

[Laughter]  

RW: One other thing I want to mention about using the hashtag. One of our harassers who’s trying to spread this rumor that there was this big walkout on one of our panels. “Congratulations to all the brave heroes who stood up and walked out on PZ Myers and the feminazis” or whatever. That didn’t happen.

[Laughter]  

RW: We’re all having a really good time

[Laughter]  

RW: That person got a phone call and politely excused themselves.

[Laughter]  

ADR: I tried to get people out of PZ’s panel. I’m the brave hero. But no one would leave.

[Laughter]  

RW: That’s right. They actually took a vote whether or not to leave. And they decided to stay on PZ’s panel.

AM: I think one of my favorite, favorite parts of the trolls that you guys specifically get is that they nicknamed themselves the “brave heroes.”

[Laughter/talking over each other]  

AM: Anybody who names themselves a brave hero without a single iota of irony, what kind of person is that?

RW: The kind of person who calls themselves “a classy guy.”

[Laughter]  

RW: It’s like, I know one thing you are not.

[Laughter]  

SZ: We should maybe take a moment out of laughing at them to take a question here in the back.

Audience: I don’t have a question, I just wanted to comment on the Twitter, the tags getting flooded with [inaudible]. Actually what happened with the hash spamkiller specifically retweeting the stuff that isn’t crap and there’s currently five for CONvergence that they were [inaudible].

RW: That’s an awesome point. If you couldn’t hear that, there are Twitter accounts that will take a hashtag and just retweet everything except for the trolls. So instead of following the hashtag, you can follow their feed. So it’s hash spamkiller, I think is one.

SZ: And they’ve also got a grease monkey, a Twitter thing you can sign up for and it will basically block these people for you. When one of them pops up and gets too obnoxious, it just gets blocked, and then you are automatically blocked from them. They also have a grease monkey script or something so that if you’re looking at a Twitter feed for a hashtag on your computer, it will block everybody who is in that block bot list, which is getting kind of long, although it’s largely the same people over and over with multiple accounts.

ADR: They just keep making new accounts. They’re not as big as they make themselves out to be.

SZ: So there are tech tools for this. You had your hand up.

Audience: I was actually wondering if it would help to start campaigning for better legislation in relation to online harassment and stalking.

AM: I don’t know. It seems like there’s just, I mean you come up across, then you legitimately have free speech issues.

RW: The question was about whether or not it’s worth it to campaign for better legislation against harassment like this.

Audience: Even with hate crimes or sexual harassment?

NL: That feels super chicken and the egg to me. You’re not going to get real legislative change until attitudes about online harassment or until attitudes about what it’s okay to say to people, particularly women, minorities, queer people, whatever, until attitudes about that have changed.

AM: Right now I do think it’s true that if you actually have a straight-up restraining order against somebody, they can’t even contact you online.

RW: But, and this actually ties into what I was about to say, understand that one of the things that would prevent me from pursuing a course like that is simply because authority figures have failed me so completely. If the police won’t do something about an actual death threat that they agree is credible, then what is Congress going to do for me? And so, to speak briefly about restraining orders, the guy that I had to deal with at the FBI, the absolute scariest person I’ve had to deal with in the last 10 years, the private investigator I had was offering courses of action, and he said “One thing you can do is get a restraining order, but to do that the police will go to his house and serve him, and he will know that you have filed that, and he will know what city you live in.”

AM: That’s a really good point.

RW: And what that private investigator said to me is something that I find, while it may be truthful, it was one of the most infuriating things I’ve ever heard. It was this, “You need to decide if this is something that you want to escalate.”

[Agreement]  

RW: By protecting myself, he’s right, by protecting myself I am escalating the situation, and in a way I am making it more likely that this person will come and attack me.

AM: You know, I think the book that everyone who’s got these problems should read is The Gift of Fear. I don’t like that title, but it’s written by Gavin de Becker. It’s basically a book on security. He’s a security expert, and he is really smart about thinking about what this kind of abuse and obsession and stalkery kind of behavior looks like from the point of view of the person who’s doing it. And yes, from the victim’s point of view, target, whatever, the non-victim, from the target’s point of view, a restraining order doesn’t seem like escalation. It’s not; you’re actually saying “Leave me alone.” But if you put yourself in the shoes of somebody who’s obsessed with you and is not thinking clearly already, it seems provocative. Gavin de Becker hates restraining orders. He’s just against them. Often there’s the evidence, because most of the people who get restraining orders are women who are dealing with domestic abusers. In some states getting a restraining order actually is correlated with higher rates of being murdered because the abuser is “Oh I’ll show you restraining order. I’ll walk through that piece of paper.”

RW: That’s the thing the private investigator said to me. A restraining order is not a magical circle around you. It’s a piece of paper, and they obviously already do not care what the law has to say.

Audience: With the metric shit ton of crap that you people get, what, do you think, percentage of that is credible?

RW: That’s a good question. Of the metric shit ton of crap that we get, what percentage is credible? For me, personally, an extraordinarily small percentage. I’ve only been to the police now three times over the course of seven years. I might have a foolhardy outlook on these things. I generally tend to always feel safe and confident in everything I do. So I don’t know, do you guys feel safe?

ADR: I would agree. I’ve been to the police twice and daily get abuse online. But only twice have I thought it was serious enough to file some sort of report.

AM: It’s one of those things where it’s, maybe this is just because one of my research areas is following terrorists in this country, Christian terrorists, and they are so few in number outside it. In the anti-abortion movement there is just so much violent sentiment and so many people that are so full of hate, and yet the ones who actually work up the courage to actually attack somebody are very few in number. And that is a much larger, much more dedicated, actually activist group of people. I don’t think it’s dangerous, just more that it’s more demoralizing.

The only people I’m actually afraid of are anti-choicers, who are a very different group of people, similar motivations, it just comes out differently. This one blogger, Jill Stanek, suggested that—she’s one that publishes the home addresses and frequently the pictures of abortion providers—and she suggested that they branch out to “picketing,” that’s the way she puts it, aka stalking, obsessing over, and hoping that someone will shoot feminist activists and that scared me. I was like, I’m just glad I live in a very big city where there are so many people around that it would be almost literally just physically impossible to do that.

NL: For me it’s sort of a question of what are they calling credible. The number of people who will actually act on the threat and come to my house and try to break in or when I’m going to the gym or whatever, probably very, very low, as people have said. But I will document all of them like they are credible threats. My volume is somewhat lower than what you people are dealing with. But I will document each and every rape threat like it’s a credible threat because I don’t know which one it is. The other part is, regardless if it is credible or not, as a rape survivor, as someone who has triggers, they’re doing harm to me no matter what.

AM: Words are kind of a form of violence.

NL: So, credible as in that they might actually break into my house, probably a very small percent, but credible enough that they are still doing violence to me? 100 percent.

RW: I think that’s a very good point, to point out that these people are contributing to a rape culture, and that does have a very real, very dangerous effect.

SZ: I don’t doubt that any of them would hurt me any way they could. The idea that most of it would be physical, no. There are a couple of dozen people out there really trying hard to destroy my reputation. Luckily their incompetent and kind of annoying, so they’re not getting through. But they’re all trying to hurt me.

Audience: I feel like it’s all credible in the sense that it does change the way you are able to look at things. Think about walking over to here from the Sofitel at night. If you receive these kind of threats, that takes on a whole new perspective, because it’s not just “Oh I’m walking over to the Sofitel,” it’s “Can I go alone or is it possible someone who made one of these threats is out there?”

RW: That’s a really good point. She’s pointing out that all of them in a way are credible because they change the way you’re viewing the world, like walking to the Sofitel late at night. I think that’s a great point especially because I do a lot of these conferences and these threats come from within my community. I go to these conferences with several hundred to a thousand people, and I know that there is a chance that somebody in there is one of these people that is sending me this stuff. I love meeting new people. I love it. But now in the last two years, every time I meet a new person, there’s always that thought in the back of my head: “Who is this? Where am I right now? Who’s around?” It’s a much more security-focused way of thinking.

ADR: I didn’t know who Nora was before this panel so the thought literally went through my head, since I did not know who she was, that maybe she was someone coming to troll the trolling panel.

[Laughing] ADR: That literally went through my head.

NL: It turns up the hypervigilance dial even further.

AM: I agree with that, but we are skeptics too. I do think that there is one silver lining in all this, which is, I’m always, always, always in my work trying to get people to understand that the sexist, the racist, the homo-bigot is not the other, that they’re not a monster lurking in a closet, that they’re people, and they’re everywhere. It seems almost ridiculous to have to remind people of this, but it’s again that good faith assumption that we just walk around, that most people are basically good and decent. And unfortunately, I do think most people are good and decent, but unfortunately there’s a lot of not good, not decent people out there, and they have a lot of political power. They vote, they pay taxes, they have jobs, they have authority in the world, and have money, and they wield that power, so it’s incredibly important to expose to the world that this is how they think and they are there, they are at this conference, they are walking down the street. They’re your neighbors.

NL: Your co-workers, your friends, your forum buddies.

AM: And exposing that truth, I think, is so critically important to being able to be effective with our work in the world and so there’s that. Yes, it makes you more hypervigilant. Yes, that’s a bummer. On the other hand, now you know the truth.

SZ: I’ll give a slightly different perspective because I come from actually a very insecure background in some ways, never been somebody growing up who felt like I was in a safe place. So I think that’s part of the reason that I’m a little more okay dealing with some of this than a lot of people I know. Since it’s started, I actually have way more people in my life who have my back than I have ever had because that community is there too.

RW: It’s good to end on a positive note. Are we out of time?

SZ: Yeah, we’re out of time.

[Applause]

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer who just moved to a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband and two young kids. When not counting how often the words "pride," "liberty," and "freedom" are used in local business, road, and pet names, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and raising her two kids to be critical thinkers. She is the managing editor of Skepchick Events, a Grounded Parents admin, and a Skepchick contributor. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Google+

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  1. Middle-of-nowhere, Quebec. It’s conceivable that I’d make it to Montreal to hear a Skepchick speaker, though. I know Rebecca spoke there once a few years ago (but I didn’t manage to get to it). To be honest, there’s a real need for some sane skeptics to come and talk about the so-called “charte des valeurs québécoises”, but unfortunately it would be entirely useless unless done in French by quebecois speakers.

    1. We probably can’t manage that specific task, but we’ll keep Quebec events on the radar. If you know of any events far enough in advance for us to look into, shoot us an email, using the contact form or my events address: skepchickevents [at] gmail.com.

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