Is there a tech solution for hatred of women?

Quinn Norton US tech journalist Quinn Norton has spent years studying internet trolls

Since I've been on the trail of the people threatening high-profile women with rape on Twitter I've learned a lot. I get a fair amount of grief on social media, usually from the kind of people who get driven to using the F-word about Keynesianism, or the Laffer curve.

Now my timeline's been flooded with abuse - and its alter ego, gentle condescension laden with malice - from all kinds of trolls, griefers and flamers (the latter, one of the trolls explained, are not serious, adding that it is they, the trolls, who are the kings when it comes to ruining people's lives online).

Proposed solutions range from forcing Twitter to suspend the account of anybody reported for threats or violent abuse, to forcing all users to sign up with a verifiable e-mail address. But who are the "trolls" and can anything be done to stop them?

I spoke to US tech journalist Quinn Norton, who has worked with the hacker community for 20 years, reporting on the Anonymous group, and studying - sometime too closely for comfort - the trolls. She doesn't think the automatic blocking of abusers will work.

"Fundamentally, you can't solve social problems with technology. They don't address the fundamental problem of men who attack women. And the problem with a report button is that it turns abuse into spam. And spam doesn't go away because there's more spam reported.

"It is enough with a fairly basic understanding of programming to auto-generate tons of accounts, endlessly, and there isn't really a good way of stopping that. There are so many tools for getting around all the ways you can stop that, that the best thing to do is to let them have that account and to block that account so that you don't see it. Because if you remove that account they are motivated to come back ten-thousand fold."

So what can we do about it. Ms Norton believes it needs "a lot more social engagement":

"There are certain things that technology can help with. One of the best proposals I've heard is shareable block lists. In the same way that there might be lists of people that you can follow on Twitter, having lists of people that you never hear from on Twitter."

"There's a certain amount of the internet that needs to develop a sense of what we have in cities which is civil inattention - the ability to just not pay attention to the people around us when we're not supposed to. And to some degree we need to learn how to not Google things we don't want to see and not look at the trolls on the internet."

Since I did this report I've been flamed by a particular community. I put it to Ms Norton that if I sanitise my own experience by blocking individuals and - unlike with Stella Creasy MP or Caroline Criado-Perez - they do go away, this just leaves me trapped in a sanitised reality while a "dirty" reality goes on around me.

From Monday's Newsnight - Mike Smith and Paul Mason try to track down the Twitter trolls behind rape threats

She says "Throwing that 'dirty' conversation off Twitter doesn't end it. And actually knowing where it is, I think that's helpful. I thinking knowing that those dirty conversations are out there, that we can choose to engage with them or choose to ignore them depending on the time and energy and motivations that we have."

If it's a social problem and not a technological one, what is the root of it? Ms Norton, believes it is stark:

"The social problem is that men are raised to hate women and technology is not going to fix that. What's going to fix that is a societal conversation about why that is and why it shouldn't be, and why women aren't a threat to men. And the technology gives us the opportunity to have that conversation. It's not always a pleasant conversation, but we need to have it. Just shutting down the voices we don't like doesn't make the sentiments go away."

Her strategy for dealing with threats - and she has had many - is to ignore them and make fun of them:

"Typically if you ignore them they go away. There are people who are genuinely threatening, there are people who are genuinely dangerous. There are stalkers - they don't go away when you ignore them. That's how you know they are dangerous."

Today I engaged one of the "trolls" in a brief discussion on Twitter. He had contacted me to say I was "getting it all wrong" about why he and his coterie had been publishing jokes about the rape of men, women and children. Here's how it went. (I won't publish his name because I did not want to get into any form of requesting consent, and in any case it is un-publishable, but makes reference to Nazism):

Me: What is the motivation?

Troll: Laughs.

Me: I've been on here since year dot and never been seriously griefed - so why so many women targeted?

Troll: Because women are easy. They get butthurt so easy and react. If they don't react no body flames. It's that simple. People target femi-nazi's because they're incredibly hypocritical and full of b******t.

Me: Is there a political agenda?

Troll: It's for laughs not for political cause. If the bitch had of just blocked and moved on nobody would of cared. But she reacted so [sic] further her BS beliefs. Now she wants to censor twitter for being a dumb bitch. Lol.

There's more but you get the picture. The same sentiments, much more politely put, have been expressed in various right-of-centre newspapers today.

I put it to Quinn Norton that it is a strange kind of person who gets off on belittling and targeting women. Ms Norton, who has both studied and been attacked by the trolls, says:

"They are people who don't feel empowered in the world. They don't feel that when they walk out of the house they have power to affect the world that they are part of. The internet gives them the power to influence people, it gives them the power to say things to people, it gives them access. And it doesn't necessarily mean that they are people who don't have jobs, they could be people, in some cases, that have fairly high status jobs, but those roles attached to those jobs require them to be a person they don't feel like they are."

Stella Creasy MP and Caroline Criado-Perez have been targeted now for days, together with other high profile women. They've been criticised for re-tweeting the abuse, instead of the strategy of ignore and block. Ms Norton says:

"I think there's a good space for the re-tweet. I think there's a really, really good space for saying 'This is what I'm dealing with and this is what is happening.' I think that it's not something to be used in isolation, and it needs to involve critique as opposed to attack."

But she says: "I think there's a point - and I've done this with my own trolls, because I get this too, especially with the communities I work with, to say "You know, I don't think you actually mean that. I think you're frustrated", and sometimes at the end of that there's a great conversation."

Personally, as I get enough great conversations from the people who are prepared to debate ideas without abuse, I've resorted to the "shared block list" strategy. This focuses the wisdom of the Twitter crowd onto the most notorious idiots and enables those who sign up to engage in a collective block, without necessarily banning the perpetrators from the internet.

I've installed The Block Bot and I'll be talking to the man who coded it tonight about the strange online community that revels in the belittling of women. Though I've been aware of trolls, sexism and the flaming of fellow women journalists for years now, what this has taught me is that violent misogyny is probably the defining fault line of the internet, and is what has a better chance of killing the social media than Ayatollah Khamenei and Kim Jong-un ever could.

You can already feel cyberspace divided into a world that hates women and one that does not. Fortunately the former is small, but incredibly powerful - and underestimated at its peril.

Update from Newsnight on Wednesday 31st July 2013 - an exchange in which Paul Mason discusses complaints about the way the programme characterised The Block Bot application on Tuesday 30th July

Paul Mason Article written by Paul Mason Paul Mason Former economics editor, Newsnight

End of an era

After 12 years on Newsnight, Economics editor Paul Mason has moved on to pastures new and this blog is now closed.

Read full article


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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Shame on BBC for promoting The BlockBot and treating it's author as a credible source. BB is largely *not* a list of abusers and misogynists, and is mainly an ideologically-based "enemies list" put together by the internet "social justice warrior" contingent. They can block whomever they want, but to suggest that BB should be generalized to all of Twitter is nothing short of neo-McCarthyism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    "men are raised to hate women"

    When others are the subject of such lazy generalisations, feminists rightly protest. I wish they would refrain from doing the same thing. It's really not hard to say "some". I dislike being tarred with the same brush as other men and would prefer to be writing posts in support of the women receiving abuse than posts like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    stanilic @20
    "Can we make people happy?"
    We can try

    Most parents and most teachers will try, only inadvertently becoming agents of selection for degrees of belonging, the range from devastating exclusion to the 'absolute corruption' of absolute power

    Fear for family drives 'dynasty'. No such fear in equal partnership. No need of 'personal ownership' of trappings, functional privileges of office

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    The bullying of others is a sign of weakness and an inability to engage positively with society. Sadly, this is very common and very evident among men. Throughout my life I have had experiences of mainly men with a desperate need to ram all the rest of us into little boxes they then think they can manipulate, manage and control.

    Happy people don't have this problem. Can we make people happy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    How can these people be satisfied by raining insults and abuse on others when there is satire and genuine criticism - which requires some intelligence and education. They should be ignored unless there are indications they will follow their poisonous tweets with actions (e.g. stalking).

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Just as for 'public order' & press self-regulation, we need systems of 'moderation', but they in turn may 'offend'

    With checks & balances, such systems slowly evolve, here for instance to allow 'the definition of democracy' to be raised as relevant to belief in its possession

    Such evolution might be circumvented by pre-moderation blocking of comments

    (Has Stephanomics been so 'protected'?)

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    We have to discuss & pursue hate-crime - to protect victims, to reform, to 'clean-up' of our debates

    For prevention, we need a wider view of perceived 'influence', to include perceptions of 'representation' - in short-supply for those excluded-at-school, unemployed, low-paid, arguably all victims of institutional fraud, anger to focus on agents, those nearest, or just passers-by

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Please re-examine your endorsement of the 'Block Bot'. It is most certainly *not* a list of abusers (although that isn't to say that none of them are) as you claim in the program.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The Block Bot is interesting. Anyone who uses it blocks a bunch of very intelligent, successful women, and is by definition a misogynist. Are good intentions enough to mistreat women (and others) in the name of trying to prevent abuse, even though no abuse is actually being prevented?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    The "Block Bot" featured here is a good example of the problems with 3rd party filters.

    If you follow the link in the story and take look at its Block List Table, you'll find that most of those blocked are not misogynists, abusers, or trolls.

    In fact, many are women. Some of whom ended up on the Block Bot simply because they criticised the concept, or disagreed ideologically with its creator.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Men are raised to hate women? What a disgusting and warped generalisation that is. If we are to have a "report abuse button" there should also be consequences for abusing such a system. For example if you use it just because someone criticised you then your account should be suspended. Unless of course the feminists are just looking for a consequence free means of backdoor censorship.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Disheartening to observe how ill-informed commenters seem to be about the daily and constant experience of misogyny that all women face. Perhaps the welcome and justified steps towards equality make people all the more eager to hate and blame women where they can. Why can't the identities of twitter-posters be made public? Isn't it illegal to threaten anyone with violence or rape?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Not all men hate women. As a young man I find that statement very offensive and generalist.

    Technology is not to blame. Society is.

    But to blame the internet and censor sites like Twitter is just stupid. It's like blocking porn instead of having an adult conversation about it.

    Misogynists will always exist but the cynic in me asks if this is an excuse for further censorship.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Agreeing with some other comments here over the claim that men hate women, just does not stand up to any examination.
    We all have mothers that most of us love, most of us have wife's/partners that we love, and some of us have daughters which we not only love but feel very protective towards.
    Where are these women haters, unfortunately they are a few sad people on the Internet outside of society

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Although repeated threats of violence isn't something to be tolerated, what seems to be also coming through is a wider attempt to propagate a particular view of women's place in society. So they have successfully argued for Twitter to stop "harassing" emails, but how is this to be defined? Someone disagreeing with their ideological position, who attempts to get a straight answer to a question?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    solution. easy.

    did this problem exist before fb and tw ?

    Data comms consultant for 15yrs, have accounts on both platforms, but have not seriously used that medium like many other IT prof that I know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The internet is a really easy way for sexist comments to be expressed. No reprisals and no-one to properly stop harassment and insulting comments. Threatening rape or more is disgusting but also an extremely weak and pathetic way of trying to belittle women. Governments and the media must work together immediately to stop society from falling into primitive social behaviour like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    It's not clear that women suffer more abuse than men online, study I've seen says most common victim of abuse is a teen boy. Mass abuse happens to all types of people. Young people today are prob most gender equal in history, difference is between 'high culture' and internet one which invective is thrown about casually. "men raised to hate women," baseless stuff like that is part of the problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The solution to these problems of abuse is not through tech. Same goes for collection of meta-data to combat 'terrorism' (whatever that is these days) or porn-filters to stop child abuse. It's just silly to believe that.

    But it is not down to individuals to adopt strategies to ignore/deflect/alter their own behaviour. Its selfish of the rest of us to let it pass. Social inclusion = responsibility

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    "The social problem is that men are raised to hate women..."
    Does Ms Nortons assertion go unchallenged? Most men have been raised by their mothers.


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