Internet trolling – lessons learned the hard way

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 11 August 2013

The subject of internet trolls is once again back in the news, following the vile and horrific abuse including threats of sexual violence, received by Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist campaigner who successfully lobbied the Bank of England for the re-inclusion of a female figure on the back of a banknote. Any high profile female MPs or journalists who supported Ms Criado-Perez or her campaign, such as the MP Stella Creasy or the historian Mary Beard, also found themselves at the receiving end of seemingly sexually motivated threats of violence and death.

In other, related news, Melissa Porter, a BBC TV presenter told of how internet trolls had maliciously misinterpreted a perfectly innocent advertisement she had appeared in with her son, leading to a social services investigation which could potentially have seen him removed from her care. She was wholly exonerated, what the social workers were unable to tell her was that they were almost certain that this was a vexatious report, but needed to check out given the gravity of the allegations.

The most tragic case was that of 14 year-old schoolgirl Hannah Smith who was found having hanged herself, by her 16 year-old sister, after months of taunts and abuse on the popular website ask.fm. There are now calls for the website to be shut down, Hannah’s death being the latest in a string of teenage suicides linked to online bullying from this source.

As a parent, these tragedies increase my desire never to let my children anywhere near social media until they are well over the age of 18 and have the emotional maturity to deal with online interaction. While perhaps the abuse that I have received in my capacity as a Catholic blogger and tweeter, hasn’t quite reached the stage of alleged bomb threats, I have encountered more than my fair share and even at my ripe old age, I still have difficulty coping with it and summoning up the correct response, so I cannot begin to imagine what this would be like for a vulnerable teen.

When pregnant with my third daughter, a particularly vicious pro-choice advocate expressed a wish that I might be struck down by God and hopefully at the hands of an abortionist with rusty scissors and in my fourth pregnancy, I was subject to a violent sexual threat at the hands of a gay ‘marriage’ campaigner, who justified his call for me to hunted down and sexually violated, on the grounds that it was clearly a ‘joke’. In addition, another woman claimed that I secretly wished my unborn baby to die in order that I might profit from the attention and gleefully told shocked onlookers that I ought to stop snivelling. Backed up by a motley group of pro-choice activists and gay rights sympathisers, along with some disaffected members of the faith, they proceeded to make my online life a total misery with a very nasty personalised and directed campaign, in which every single element of my life including my appearance, my children, my husband and my mental health was publicly derided and mocked.

I dealt with it no better than the average teenager, tearfully imploring the attackers to stop, appealing to their better nature and hoping that whatever their grievances, could they not see that I was pregnant and vulnerable. Our daughter was delivered early at a significantly lower birthweight than the others, due to pre-eclampsia, the stress of online abuse thought to be a contributory factor.

The extremely painful lesson I learnt was the old adage – do not feed the trolls, which is so much easier said than done and feels counter-intuitive. The other option was of course, to ditch social media, which can prove to be something of a time-sink, it certainly wasn’t proving a constructive or pleasant experience at times, but given my online activity tends to predominantly promote Catholicism and the pro-life cause, I was reluctant to let myself be silenced by the bullies.

Being the target of a prolonged campaign of cyber-bullying (which continues to this day) has given me a certain insight into the potentially destructive nature of the internet which also has tremendous capacity for good. Perhaps this is why it has its darker side – evil wants to distort and destroy all that is beautiful and true. We can see what a potent tool the internet can be in the cause of the New Evangelisation, it cannot be a surprise that human sin has the potential to undo the good work that can be done.

Social media makes ‘stalkers’ and ‘obsessives’ of us all, if we are not careful. Whereas in real life we know that people may be talking about us and remain blissfully ignorant of that fact, social media enables us to check up on what others may be saying. It takes an enormous amount of self-restraint not to look, when one knows one is being referred to and even more not to hit back. It is dreadful to see lies, abuse and calumny writ large against you, your heart starts beating faster, you can feel your blood pumping, your stomach feels as though you have been punched as the nausea and bile rises into your throat.

But to fight back, or even acknowledge the bullies, gives them a power that they do not deserve and validates their behaviour. Ultimately one has to accept that one is totally powerless, we have not yet got a grip on the internet, the police are often not inclined to help unless one is a high-profile celebrity victim and the bullies have developed very crafty mechanisms of hiding IP addresses and couching various threats in such a way that they skirt the line but don’t cross it.

We can fight for a politer more civilised discourse, we can encourage platforms like Twitter to clamp down on abuse and take swifter action against miscreants, but we have to accept that it is unlikely that we will be able to rid the internet of abusers. It is not the platforms  that are to blame, but the users themselves. We are all still getting used to the internet and thus codes of conduct and practice are still in their infancy but the best way of targeting abusers is to deny them of their power and platform.

The internet is an additional weapon in our enemies’ armory with which they can use to attack us. We cannot control the behaviour of others, but we all have the power to control our reactions. This is where true liberation from all calumny lies, whether it be online or in real-life. An invocatory psalm or two also helps. But better law enforcement in cases of serious and prolonged online harassment would certainly not go amiss either. And never forget Matthew 5: 11-16.

* Since the article was published, additional information has come to light about the case of Hannah Smith.

14 thoughts on “Internet trolling – lessons learned the hard way

  1. I can’t even touch on the threats of sexual violence thing really, because it makes me shake, but I hope these people have someone in their life who can sit them down and let them know how reprehensible and despicable it is to bandy those words about, whether they have any intention of actually wishing to carry them out or see them carried out by others. I was raped 20 years ago and the scars still are having an impact on my daily life, two decades later. It is so terrifying to me that this sort of rhetoric is employed by people who don’t see themselves as loathsome monsters but as campaigners for justice or liberty or freedom or equality. If they can use those words and threats, they are really just acting/writing//speaking like utter scum.

  2. Having followed this issue and, as you know, played some part in giving these bullies a taste of their own medicine in recent days,I have been astonished at the way that they instantly flip into ‘victim’ mode themselves and start whining to gain the sympathy of the fickle crowd.

    Bullies are often successful manipulators. They need to be in order to avoid detection by the authorities. The gathering of hard facts and the building up of a dossier is the only way to counter them, expose them, and hopefully charge them with specific offences. Having become involved on your behalf, I now find it quite an education to find my own email inbox is the target for obsessive communications now. This is a clear sign of very acute psychotic behaviour, and from a surprising office holder…

    Those who ignore the bullying, but take exception to those who take a strong line against the bullies and respond to the bullies’ cries of “Foul!” are a very big part of the problem. Give the bullies a good kicking and you just get the crowd on the bullies’ side: a sad lesson I have now learned the hard way!

    A slow and painstaking response is sadly the only remedy. Gather witnesses of these things and record the evidence. The more witnesses the better. I keep you in my prayers.

    1. Your support has been hugely appreciated so thank you.

      One of the tactics of bullies is to create a scorched earth policy around their targets, making others afraid to interact with them, in case they are also singled out for similar treatment.

      Another is to throw as much unsubstantiated mud as possible in the hope that some might stick.

      One defining feature of this deeply unedifying campaign is that people have been publicly accused of allsorts, with no supporting evidence, aside from a whim, motivated in part by professional and personal jealousy and expected to prove a negative.

      It has been, as you say, a deeply unholy spectacle, the most painful aspect of which being that many of these rumours were propagated by a man in holy orders whilst I was heavily pregnant.

      No apologies have been forthcoming when these rumours have been proven to be wholly without foundation. Only at the weekend was one detractor openly forwarding the theory that not only were you my secret sock puppet, but that I have clinically diagnosed schitzophrenia but am too vain to take the medication!

      The idea that I might have better things to do than set up a fake blog attesting to my life in Spain looking after donkeys, or tweeting on the day that I gave birth via c-section is beyond them. No it must all be a conspiracy. Any anonymous accounts with whom I interact are in fact my secret sock puppets whom I have set up myself to make myself seem more popular. Utterly potty and deranged.

      It’s symptomatic of a severe narcissism. Anyone who may ideologically disagree with them, can only come from one source and any friends are figments of my own imagination!

      Prayers needed all round.

  3. God bless you, Caroline. You are a very brave young woman. I think people who viciously criticize other people should have the gumption to use their real names.

    It is very cowardly for them to hide behind made up names. I agree
    that they have unresolved issues in their lives.

    I remember when I attended secondary school in Ireland from 1967- 1972 our civics teacher saying these words which everyone using social media should bear in mind:

    ‘I hate like hell the things you say but I’ll fight like hell for your right to say them.’

    I don’t know where she got the phrase from but I still remember it.

    1. Renee – that phrase is usually attributed to Voltaire, but was apparently coined by his biographer Evelyn Hall, to describe his mindset. Some of us don’t use our names because we have been stalked in the past, or have unusual names, or work in sensitive jobs. In fact I would advise anyone outside the public sphere to use a name which is consistent, but not necessarily that on their birth cert. Sockpuppetry and pseudonyms are not the same. sockpuppets are false ids created by someone to puff up their experience, and recommend or applaud their own posts. Oddly, one of the worst of these posed as a priest on a famous newspaper blog and was unmasked by a real priest. He now posts under two identities, each one “bigging up” the other’s posts. Hilarious and sad simultaneously.

  4. (Trying this again, after a WordPress error…)
    Caroline, it’s good that you have made some of your story public. As you know, I was also targetted with harassment and stalking (and even mild threats) by some of your bullies, once it was clear that I was supporting you; in the end, I had to change my e-mail address to avoid the worst nuisances. The main offenders do it because they are pathetic individuals with unfulfilled lives, jealous of your richly-deserved professional and personal success. Prayers for you, as always.

  5. One ought to be very judicious about what communication fora one engages in. Just because a particular one has become available, and many people are using it, it has been hyped by the MSM, etc., does not mean it would be good for one to use it. Many Internet fora are inherently bad means of communicating with others, and most are wholly wrong for non-adults. All children’s interaction with others requires supervision and guidance.

    1. Lynda, Twitter is designed for short, promotional, informative messages and as such is used by journalists and professional media communicators.

      The methods that Caroline’s detractors employ seeks to deny her the proper and legitimate use of this medium to promote her work, which is authentically in line with the Magisterium, and which is a response to the call for a New Evangelisation. .

      The evil tactics used to disrupt this, are based on the Alinsky principles – taken from a book that the author dedicated to Satan.

  6. This is an awesome post Caroline. There’s one who violently has abused you, me, Supertradmum, Fr. Z, and other traditional Catholics when we push a hot-button issue too far for him, but he flipped instantly this past week on his blog and Twitter to supporting the victims of Twitter abuse. I was mortified.
    Also, one of the main opponents of sock puppets-or those he in his paranoia deems to be sock puppets- has friends that use pseudonyms. I got blocked, which is a symptom of sock-puppetry because as he said, the sock puppet can’t prove he’s real. I was stunned. I did, however, nearly die laughing when an friend who tweets under a pseudonym told me this man thinks he’s you!

  7. …and dont’ forget, if somebody has so much time on their hands that they can go online and act evil towards total strangers, they can’t have much going on in real life.

    They are to be pitied (and not fed!)

  8. I think they feel threatened by you Caroline. They think that your ideas will ‘drag us back into medieval times’ when women all died in childbirth and gays were burnt at the stake. In their heads this justifies all the personal attacks.

  9. The internet is not a place where people ‘listen’ to one another. There is something about the medium that encourages people to become entrenched in their own views rather than engaging with real people. Some of these people might be rude and bullying, even aggressive and threatening face to face but I think it is less likely.Of course it might be that abuse on the internet makes it more likely these people will behave badly in public, if their abusive approach becomes a habit.

    We do need the prayers of the Saints when we, virtually, venture forth.

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