I still remember sitting in my bedroom just staring at my computer screen. I was 21. I had been writing for The Tab, a national student paper, for two years, and there I was, watching as a torrent of insults gathered about me online.
Of course, I wasn’t the first person to face an online backlash for something I had written – it happens to journalists who dare to have an opinion every day.
“I just want to punch her in the pussy.”
“2 out of 10 face.”
“She’s a Jew. Big fucking surprise.”
My article was about men who were obsessed with the gym, mocking their insecurity and claiming they were vulnerable. At the time, I concluded, I deserved the abuse. If you give it, you have to be able to take it, I thought.
And unfortunately, I was half right. In the era of internet trolls, you do have to be able to take it, whether you deserve it or not.
Last year, an anonymous survey of Time employees revealed that eight out of 10 journalists claimed they would reconsider writing an article on the basis that they might receive backlash. And a study conducted by UNESCO revealed that, for journalists, “cyber-bullying had a serious psychological impact that could result in self-censorship”.
This demonstrates a worrying trend: with social media providing a direct line of communication between the reader and the journalist, and comment sections opening up a channel for discussion and debate which often turns aggressive, the internet troll has become far more than just a guy behind a keyboard; and is now a legitimate threat to journalists, chasing them back into the shadows, and stopping them from voicing their opinions.
In the past few years, Reuters, The Daily Beast and The Week have all shut down their comment sections in a bid to silence nastiness. In December, they were followed by VICE, which summed up its issues with online trolls in one powerful article:
“While we always welcomed your thoughts on how we are actually a right-wing mouthpiece for the CIA, or how much better we were before we sold our dickless souls to Rupert Murdoch, or just how shitty we are in general, we had to ban countless commenters over the years for threatening our writers and subjects, doxxing private citizens, and engaging in hate speech against pretty much every group imaginable.”
And while VICE claims it’s attempting to resolve the “trolling” problem by deleting its comment sections, others argue that by doing so, websites are ultimately hindering their readers’ right to a democratic voice.
Roy Greenslade, Guardian journalist and professor of journalism at City, believes that deleting comment sections is a “denial of an essential conversation” between the journalist and the reader.
He explains: “At The Guardian, we quickly realised that often people weren’t even responding to the article – they were going off on detours, and we don’t mind that. People often come on the site to have an argument and we want them to … because people are then using our site as a forum, which is excellent.”
The Guardian has moderators who monitor a selection of its articles and in some cases, such as particularly controversial pieces, the comments are turned off. This, Greenslade claims, is an “understandable compromise” considering moderation costs money. The newspaper’s reputation is on the line when it fails to protect its publication from accusations of libel, insult and offence.
While some people turn their backs on trolls, some platforms are thinking of alternatives.
Last month, Norwegian broadcaster NRK’s website created a multiple choice quiz that readers had to take before they posted any response, in order to prove that they had actually read the article. The aim, it claimed, was to give “trolls” a chance to calm down before posting anything abusive and to deter people commenting without actually being informed.
Ståle Grut, a journalist at NRK, says the idea was to ensure that people at least read the story before lashing out, in order to create an environment for fair and informed debate.
“This is not a complete solution to the complex subject of user comments. But we want to do our part to help improve the experience of them,” he says.
While NRK has little data to say whether the operation is a success at such an early stage, it claims that the feedback has been resoundingly positive.
“Our regular readers have a lot of praise for it and the international attention shows that people really are keen on trying to solve problems with the comments section,” says Grut.
Journalists at NRK aren’t alone in looking for a new approach. Google has just developed a technology called Perspective, which uses API (or an application programming interface) in order to measure the toxicity of different comments against thousands of others across the internet, on a scale from 0-100.
After comparing comments to those previously analysed by human evaluators, the system is then able to determine how likely they are to be unpublishable, based on keywords and phrasing that they include.
While these solutions go some way in fighting the problem, they are ultimately time-consuming and expensive. Plus, when tackling trolls, the issue is much larger than comment sections alone.
In a digital age, it’s now so easy to find somebody on social media that if you want to hurl abuse at them for something they’ve written, then you almost certainly still can.
Caitlin Moran once claimed that she received “up to 50 violent rape messages in an hour” on Twitter. In a move that hit the headlines just last year, Jonathan Weisman, deputy Washington editor of The New York Times temporarily left the platform – and his 35,000 followers – after an onslaught of racist abuse.
Speaking about the incident, Weisman says: “In the spring of 2016, I tweeted out an opinion piece written by a scholar in Washington on how fascism could come to the United States.
“A responder tweeted back at me with my name in triple parentheses. Unbeknownst to me, those parentheses were actually signals – called echoes – to neo-Nazis, who could use software to hunt for Jewish targets for online assault.
“Once my name was ‘belled’, I received an onslaught of tweets, depicting me as a shiftless, hook-nosed Jew – classic Nazi iconography.”
Weisman was sent pictures of himself in a gas chamber and others of his face superimposed onto concentration camp survivors. He was also told he belonged in an oven, alongside several other offensive and racist tweets.
“I never felt threatened by the Twitter abuse. If it had jumped to phone calls or postal letters, I would have changed that assessment, but that never happened”, he adds.
However, in some cases, trolls do make the transition from online to real life threats.
In 2013, Grace Dent, Hadley Freeman and Emma Barnett were all messaged on Twitter and told that there was a bomb outside their homes. Surprisingly though, Barnett responded by going straight to the pub and Freeman was similarly unfazed.
Talking about the experience, Freeman says: “It really was not a big deal. I called the police and they found nothing. I wasn’t scared, just annoyed I’d now have to call the police and deal with this nonsense.”
But it can’t be denied that for many journalists, such a threat would be enough to deter them from writing – and to emotionally scar them.
Last November, Heidi Hemmat – an award-winning investigative reporter – left writing for good, after her life was threatened by one of the people she had written about. She told USA Today that despite getting a restraining order against the perpetrator, “my sense of safety was gone … and the way I viewed my job forever changed”.
She wasn’t the first – and she won’t be the last.
A week ago, a forthcoming report from the Home Affairs Select Committee argued that Google, Twitter and Facebook should “do a better job” to tackle cyber abuse.
Nick Pickles, head of public policy at Twitter, agreed that they were “not doing a good enough job”.
But Twitter is still trying to justify its failings. Its latest transparency report reveals that it has suspended 375,000 accounts in the last six months. This sounds impressive, until you consider that it receives around 350,000 tweets per minute.
In fairness, when disgruntled journalists are looking for somebody to blame, it might not be so simple as pointing the finger at social media platforms. The problem with monitoring trolls, Roy Greenslade claims, is that the internet is ever-changing and developing and “free speech is a messy business”.
So, what’s the solution?
Toughen up or give up, it seems.
“I think journalists have to take it,” says Greenslade. “It’s all about balancing freedom with responsibility – and ultimately in real life we face the same problem.”
A year after my online abuse, would I write an opinion piece if I knew it would offend? Probably not. But over time I’ve toughened up. I’m not letting my trolls scare me away from journalism for good.