When Leslie Jones was recently driven off Twitter by hate-filled, racist tweets, her travails attracted a wave of public support and the personal attention of the Twitter team. Media critic Anita Sarkeesian came under brutal attack as part of the Gamergate assault on feminist critiques of the video game industry. Gymnast Gabby Douglas was slammed online when she chose not to place her hand over her heart while the national anthem was played during the Olympic medal ceremony.
If these stories make online trolling and hostility sound like a hazard of public life, think again. You don’t have to be a celebrity, author or public figure in order to face brutal criticism or threats online. Trolls have targeted mommy bloggers and bereaved parents, vulnerable teens and adult TV fans. A 2014 study found that one in five Internet users have experienced trolling—and they can’t all be public figures.
Trolling—the deliberate harassment, baiting or targeting of fellow Internet users—affects all of us. In an online world, anyone who posts on Facebook or Twitter can be subject to the kind of scrutiny that was once confined to public figures. If you haven’t been trolled yourself, you know someone who has; and if you use the internet, you’re using a medium in which the widespread, pervasive problem of trolling leads to more and more fear and self-censorship.
But trolling is notoriously hard to stop. While some trolling crosses the line into hate speech and criminal behavior—and while some jurisdictions are taking steps to criminalize a wider range of online hostilities—most trolling still falls into the category of immoral or contemptible, rather than illegal. Many trolls are anonymous, and some go to great lengths to stay that way. Some websites have eliminated comments on posts, but that eliminates trolling at the price of eliminating community, too. Grassroots programs like Zero Trollerance try to tackle behavior at the source, and projects like TrollBusters offer support for women who are targeted by online harassment. While increasing attention to the problem of trolling—and its impact on people of color, women, and LGBT people in particular—may help to limit its frequency or impact, trolling is not going to disappear from the internet anytime soon.
That’s why we need to start thinking about how to live with trolls even while we look for ways to reduce or eliminating trolling. That means learning to stay safe and strong not only in the face of trolling and online harassment, but in the face of simple criticism—which often feels like trolling when it’s stripped of context and tone, as it tends to be online. Both trolling and harsh criticism can have the same net effect: discouraging or even silencing people who would otherwise be sharing their experiences, ideas, and insight online.
But talking about how to live with trolls is tough, not only because it is intrinsically a second-best solution, but also, because it comes a little too close to victim-blaming. Why should the problem of troll management fall to the troll-ees, rather than the troll-ers? The answer is that it shouldn’t—but too often, it does.
I’ve been on the receiving end of both trolling and criticism, and while it’s only rarely made me feel unsafe or even creeped out, it’s certainly reduced me to alcohol-laden tears on more than one occasion. Far more disturbing are the notes of condolence or support whenever I’ve been under attack, which invariably include notes from women friends who tell me that the online firestorm I’m enduring is exactly why they hesitate to share their thoughts online.
Until we find a way of putting those fires out—or at least, encouraging the online arsonists to tone down their flames—we need to find ways to resist the silence and self-doubt that are too often prompted by online trolling. For that, I turn to a recurring source of inspiration: the wisdom and experiences of those who have long toiled in fields that treat criticism—and even brutal criticism—as a fact of life.
And where better to start than with the process behind the journal articles you’ll find on JSTOR itself: academic peer review. In most academic journals, prospective articles are assessed by academic peers who review and comment on each submission and advise on whether it’s fit for publication.
As a friend said to me recently, “peer review is the original trolling.” Peer review has frequently been criticized for reasons that Richard Smith sums up neatly in the British Medical Journal: it is “expensive, slow, prone to bias, open to abuse, possibly anti-innovatory, and unable to detect fraud.”
Just like trolling victims, survivors of the academic peer process sometimes may brutalized by the review process. They may also be subject to the same kind of sexism, racism and homophobia we see online. In her analysis of peer review in sociology textbooks, Diana Kendall quotes a reviewer who wrote:
why pander to the further perversion of the language by reference to “women of color?” How long will this awkward twist of the language last? We know that white, WASP, etc. never change, but women of color, why not jeans of blue? Why date the text with such transitory expressions?
How do academics cope with that kind of feedback? Steven Pressman offers advice on surviving the review process:
to persevere in a crapshoot with the odds stacked against you means developing a tough skin….Rejection should not trigger a major psychological depression. You need to quickly pick yourself up off the ground, dust yourself off, and move on.
Pressman also points out that even brutal reviews may have something to offer:
Always try to learn something from the referee reports you get. Usually there is something of value in them—no matter how badly put or how hostile the tone. Make use of this! Just because you think that the referees are idiots, does not mean that you should be one also.
Lest academics think that they alone have suffered at the hands of cruel reviewers, Norman Mailer’s article on “The Hazards and Sources of Writing” reminds us that any writer also has to face the possibility of criticism, and of reviews that include such words as “dishonest, labored, loathsome, pedestrian, hopeless, disgusting, disappointing, raunchy, ill-wrought, boring.” In the face of these reviews, it’s up to the writer to toughen up:
His courage, if he has any, must learn to live with comments on his work. The spiritual skin may go slack or harden to leather, but the effort to live down bad reviews and write again has to be analogous to the unspoken, unremarked courage of people who dwell beneath the iron hand of a long illness and somehow resolve enough of their inmost contradictions to be able to get better.
The secret to that resolve lies in learning to return to the present, and setting down to write even though:
he or she could be hung over and full of the small shames of what was done yesterday, or what was done ten years ago. Old fiascoes wait like ghosts in the huge house of the empty middle-aged self. Consciously or unconsciously, writers must fashion a new peace with the past every day they attempt to write. They must rise above despising themselves.
How to fashion that peace is, of course, the challenge. The old fiascos no longer wait like ghosts: in an online world, you’re rarely more than a Google search away from the cruel comment or tweet that bruised you the last time you stuck your neck out. You have to resist the urge to search, and instead, treat the internet as fresh territory for which you are now somewhat more seasoned.
Whenever I’m tempted to hang back—to look at those past battles, to reopen the half-closed wounds—I find it helpful to remind myself of all the academics and writers and artists who are no strangers to criticism or quasi-public humiliation, and to reflect on how they have managed to fortify themselves. If George Clooney can survive the reviews for Batman & Robin, most of us will survive the horrors of the Internet’s trolls and critics.