Playwright, Podcaster, and Blogger | California
November 8, 2017
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How often does online harassment occur in your life?
At the moment, I’ve had a really nice week! But it’s very frequent. And unpredictable. Sometimes, I will be intentionally writing something that I know is controversial, and it won’t get any backlash. [Other] times, I’ll make an offhand Instagram post, and a random troll will come out of the woodwork and start harassing people I know in the comments. It’s not necessarily my most politically charged posts that are getting trolled. Sometimes, it’s just that I’m a lesbian or a woman or a feminist.
As a blogger, what kind of online abuse have you faced?
I was a music blogger for a couple years, for The Stranger in Seattle. [I wrote] about bands and local music and street style. I was young and didn’t really understand my voice yet or how to engage with an online audience, whether positive or negative. In general, I was harassed online just for being out. I’m queer [and] lesbian-identifying; I’m a woman and nonbinary and a feminist. These words cause knee-jerk reactions in some people. A lot of people, if they see the term “feminist,” they come after you. That’s a whole thing! I get attacked when it’s not even officially [my] writing. When I was at The Stranger, people would say horrible things in the comments, and sometimes they wouldn’t necessarily be about me but would be about the people I had interviewed or featured, which still felt really bad. It very much felt like I was responsible, like I had put someone in harm’s way.
I think many journalists are struggling with that same issue right now: how to profile certain individuals without turning them into targets for online abuse.
Right. When I was a blogger, anytime I wrote about a woman who trolls deemed “fat,” anytime there was a picture that defied their expectations of what women in media should look like, it was like the floodgates just opened, and men would have a field day. I felt really angry and guilty about it—that I had opened someone up to something like that. How horrible to be wanting to promote a band or an unknown musician, and then all of a sudden, they have hundreds of people on the internet criticizing their body and saying horrible things. It really shows that so much of the troll agenda is about silencing women. It wasn’t even targeted at me, but I felt terrible. I felt like: Should I not have written about them at all? What should I have done? How do I help defend this person from what they’re experiencing when I’m not really supposed to engage with the trolls as the writer? I think now I would probably engage way more than I did back then.
Another time, a guy who was harassing me [online] later started attacking teenagers I had worked with through a queer youth program. He was coming after them on social media, being like: “You’re so ugly. Are you a man or a woman? What are you?” Calling them “disgusting.” In that case, it was extra terrifying because these are young people that I worked with in a suicide-prevention capacity. And now, because they’re connected to me, they’re being targeted. I felt so bad and responsible, like I had brought it on them.
This is truly horrifying. Was there anything you could do to mitigate the abuse?
The [youth] had been tagged in a photo of mine, so I untagged them, reported the troll, deleted all the comments and made sure they were okay. Just the basic maintenance. But what do you do? That person is definitely still out there, and they probably target LGBT youth as a hobby. On my end, I have never tagged young people in any photos since.
What’s your strategy for dealing with harassers on social media when you’re the target?
Well, it’s different things. I’m a huge fan of reporting first, then blocking. I’m also a huge fan of—when you have the energy—taking them down gently. Really question why they’re doing what they’re doing, and point out to them how futile it is. That kind of thing.
If someone is completely anonymous and has a Pepe the Frog logo [an internet meme symbolizing white supremacy] and a fake name, then I just report and block. Sometimes you report and block someone and then immediately five accounts that look exactly the same start following you and harassing you and saying the same thing. So I start to think, okay, this person is not well, this person could be dangerous—or these are bots. [That’s when I start] finding ways to completely disengage.
How do you deal with online harassment in comments threads, especially for the blogs you’ve written?
Most of the time I have zero energy for trolls. I just want to run away and not deal with it. But a friend of mine has come up with a good tactic—and it works really well with younger trolls—where you tag team. You come in and jump on the thread, and you only talk to each other. You don’t address [the troll]. It’s extremely effective to ignore them this way, because they enjoy being engaged. And they very much dislike being talked about.
Have you ever succeeded in getting an online harasser to cease their harassment?
I’ve had a lot of successful experiences, actually. I have some friends who, after the [2016 presidential] election, were getting attacked by strangers on the internet. Just for existing. Just for being LGBT. All of the sudden, people were saying they were going to kill them. I don’t know what you want to call it, but that [part] of America felt so emboldened by [President] Trump’s victory that they started coming for my friends. And so we had a little bit of fun with that. There was one guy who was threatening and saying horrible things to an artist friend of mine, so—as opposed to their side, [which] would threaten murder—we started sending him care packages and glitter bombs. I sent a bunch of postcards that said, “The queer community loves you. For every comment you make, we’re making a donation in your name to this organization.” That felt helpful. We harnessed a community so that, at the very least, even if his mind never changes, he knows that there are real-world consequences for online actions. [Writer] Lindy West has been talking about this way longer than anybody. It’s tricky because we don’t want to create a world where everyone is tattling on everyone all the time. But in a lot of these cases, people should know who they’re hiring and who they’re married to. If trolls were outed to the people in their lives, they might get help.
I had one situation where a guy was trolling some comments I had written, and he was threatening to run over student protesters with his car. Maybe he was kidding, but who jokes about running children over? That’s not funny to me. His Facebook profile [listed] his family members and his employer, so I reached out to his sister, and I called and left a message at his place of employment. No one responded to me, so I have no idea if it had any success, but it felt on my part like I couldn’t not do anything. Maybe I was overreacting, but I didn’t feel like I was. It felt like it was the right thing to do. There’s all this shock in the news when white males commit acts of violence, like “no one who knew them ever saw it coming,” and I feel like these are the red flags, right here.
Who are the trolls? Do you ever stop to wonder about them, or does that feel like energy that’s not worth spending on someone who’s causing you pain and anxiety?
Sometimes I say this online, and in the context it probably comes across as condescending, but honestly, I mean it from a place of empathy when I say: “Hey, I’m so sorry that you hate women this much. We are wonderful. You really should get help for this.” I’ve said that in so many different ways to so many different people. They probably just take it as me being condescending and mean-spirited, but a lot of the time I do genuinely feel like, “Hey buddy. Are you okay? Are you talking to anybody about this?” Trolls are people, mostly men, who need therapy. I’m in therapy; I’ve worked on my problems, and I try to deal with them in healthy ways—not harass people I don’t know anonymously and make them feel unsafe.
Has your online harassment changed how you think about your own online safety and security?
Everyone should know at this point that anything you’ve put online, be it a sexy picture or a racist comment, exists somewhere forever. Maybe someone screenshots it, maybe it’s saved on a server that the FBI can access. We should assume that employers are looking at our online presences, and we should assume that everything is public at this point.
So I’m extremely careful about what I put online. There are things that I say to my friends that I would never say online, just because I know that it’s permanent and could fall into the wrong hands. I don’t really acknowledge my family online. I don’t acknowledge the youth that I work with anymore, because I don’t want to open them up to any danger. I don’t want that to sound really negative and put fear into people. Think of it as a positive. Really know yourself. Know what you’re comfortable sharing, and make sure that you’re safe. I don’t think of myself as living in fear, but at the same time, I do think that I’m very strategic about everything that I do, because this is the world that we’re in.
So how do we fix online harassment? Who’s responsible?
I think that, at this point, it comes down to the platforms. Twitter is getting a little better. It used to be that I would report trolls to Twitter and they would reply, “We didn’t determine that this was hate speech.” And I’d be like, “Is a robot program reading this? Because anyone with a brain would read this and think that this was [hate speech].” Lately it’s been better. But the platforms need to do more. If someone wants to actually critically engage and they are attacking from a political viewpoint, fine, keep it. But if someone is coming on[line] to make threats, threats can just go. That kind of stuff cannot be tolerated.
Do you think internet companies know they’re not doing enough, that there’s a kind of “aw, shucks, we’re trying” attitude they’re putting forward to the public while, behind the scenes, real solutions languish?
I feel like the robots know everything. The algorithms on Facebook know when I’m trying to promote an event that I’m throwing, and they suppress it because they want me to pay for it. So surely they can recognize hate. The technology is there. I refuse to believe it’s not.
What about the institutions that employ writers and journalists? Do newsrooms and digital publishers have a responsibility to help their employees navigate online abuse?
There’s a lot of ways that they could help. Even just having social media interns be vigilant, going around and reporting stuff posted in comments threads. Just to provide an extra buffer, so that the writers don’t necessarily see all of it. Publications, journalistic organizations—there’s no reason why their websites need to allow bashing a woman for how she looks when she’s written about the environment. That’s on them. People are allowed to disagree, and people are allowed to say whatever they want on a topic, but if they start threatening a woman and calling her ugly, it’s not germane. We don’t have to tolerate that.
Did your online harassment ever interfere with your career or productivity as a writer?
In the beginning, when this was all very new to me, it just shut me down. I’m at a pretty good point now where very little that happens online can get me riled up, but in the beginning, it was huge. Something would happen, and it would be days of shaking and not knowing what to do, crafting the perfect response, and having to fight with people who responded. So it did lead to some self-censorship. But even more importantly, it completely shut down my ability to just be a writer and do the next thing. It led to this emotional spiral.
How did you get to a point where what happens online doesn’t hurt as much as it used to?
Sadly, it was just age and experience. I’m jaded now. Nothing surprises me. Anytime I post anything online, I assume that someone is probably going to say something horrible. I brace myself that way. And trolls are just so bad at what they do. Sometimes I give them a grade, like, “As far as trolling goes, this is pretty weak.” Sometimes I’ll say, “Hey, what if you tried putting something good into the world instead of being a troll?” I actually say that to people. I don’t know what they think about that.
Do you think attitudes about online harassment have evolved in the past few years, or do we still have a long way to go before society will agree to take this issue seriously?
In the beginning, it really seemed like, “Oh, if you can’t take it, get off the internet.” Or, “This is how it is, so deal with it or leave.” And I feel like that’s something that women and marginalized people are always coming up against. Allegedly, [tech companies] are starting to care more and do more, so hopefully it is getting better across the board. But we’ll see. At this point, I feel like we have to talk about it and be very open about it all the time to make it stop. There are people who don’t know about it. We have to be really, really vocal to make sure that people know that [this] happens.