Why do trolls go after feminists?

Clementine Ford sent a message to the employer of a man who sent her abuse - and trolls responded with a torrent of messages Image copyright Christine Pobke
Image caption Clementine Ford sent a message to the employer of a man who sent her abuse - and trolls responded with a torrent of messages

After a man was sacked from his job for sending an abusive message, a feminist blogger found herself on the receiving end of a wave of abuse. So why do many hard core internet trolls target women, and feminists in particular?

It wasn't the first time Clementine Ford had been targeted on Facebook, nor was it the worst insult she had ever received. A Sydney man named Michael Nolan called the feminist columnist and blogger a "slut" after she drew attention to threatening abuse she had been receiving elsewhere online.

Sometimes, Ford said, she blocks people who send her such messages and sometimes she shouts back at the trolls. But this time, Nolan's comment touched a nerve.

"I think his choice to write that particular word - a word that is used to degrade and dehumanise women - on a post where I was sharing an example about sexualised violence and abuse was a pretty key indicator of the attitudes he took towards women," she told BBC Trending.

Ford, who writes about feminism and women's rights for Australian magazine Daily Life, noticed that Nolan's employer was mentioned on his Facebook profile. She wrote a post about the incident and, crucially, tagged Nolan's company. After a brief investigation, Nolan was sacked.


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That might have been the end of another cautionary but sadly routine tale about life online - and Nolan certainly isn't the first person to lose his job for comments made online.

But since the sacking, Ford said she has been subjected to hundreds abusive messages on Facebook, Twitter and on email. She has taken screen shots of some of the messages and posted them on her blog. They include obscene sexual slurs, and death and rape threats.

BBC Trending contacted some of the men who sent the messages - most didn't reply, although one claimed that someone must have been "messing" with his profile. And Michael Nolan didn't respond to our request for comment.


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Ford herself has at times cursed at people online, telling them to shut up or worse. She admitted that she loses her temper but draws a distinction between uncivil language deployed in an running online argument, and threats of violence that come out of the blue.

"The one thing I never do is go to people who I don't know and just give them abuse. If I say [shut up] to someone on Twitter, it's probably because they've sent me ten abusive tweets calling me any number of names," she said.

Mind of a troll

Abusive messages posted online are nothing new - but why do many trolls seem to target women and feminists in particular?

One person who should know is Emmett Rensin who writes about internet trolling and harassment of women for the website Vox. Today he's a self-described "lefty feminist" but he's also a former teenage troll who says that those hurling abuse online are "pretending that life online is an alternative reality."

"They think they're a nice enough person in ordinary life, maybe with frustration or anger that they think the internet is a safe outlet for," he told Trending. "They think the internet is somewhere they can go and vent, and there's no real victim, the people aren't real, it doesn't really matter."

Rensin sees nothing particularly new about online abuse directed at women.

"It's not as if in the last 150 years of feminist political action there haven't been men and women screaming at them to shut up or threatening them," he says. As our lives have moved online, so has hate and frustration. "It used to be on the street or in the post, now it's on the internet."

He suggests that individuals stick to that old internet adage "don't feed the trolls" - in other words, ignore and block them - but acknowledges that it's difficult, and ignoring them won't quiet them, and won't always make them go away.

Ford says she will continue to challenge some of the people who send her abusive messages - because she doesn't feel like she has a good alternative.

"You hear on the one hand 'Why don't you just block and delete?', or 'Why don't you ignore them?'" she says. "So you block them then you are told you don't like debate or criticism and it's censorship.

"Women are told just ignore it and it'll all go away. It never goes away."

Blog by Emma Wilson

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