You never forget your first troll and I’ll always remember mine. It happened on a sofa – my sofa – at home watching telly. I reached for my phone to briefly check Twitter and there it was, waiting patiently for me in the palm of my hand. On my screen and in my house - telling me it wished me to die.
My story isn’t extraordinary. According to research released by Demos, I share a narrative with 6.500 other individuals in the UK alone. Internationally, more than 200,000 aggressive and misogynistic tweets were sent to 80,000 people during a three-week period in April.
What do we mean exactly when we discuss "misogyny"? The study monitored the regular use of the words 'slut' and 'whore'. What's more, the Washington Post even calculated that women are being aggressively inundated with this language 6.6 times a minute. And it's not just men perpetrating them. I, for one, was surprised to learn that more than half of the offenders were women.
This week, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians are coming together to call for a national campaign to defeat online misogyny with a hashtag: #ReclaimtheInternet. Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, is calling it a 'call to arms' and is encouraging us all to speak out about our experiences via an online form.
'Forty years ago women took to the streets to challenge attitudes and demand action against harassment on the streets,' she said. 'Today the internet is our streets and public spaces.'
Yvette’s words are worth underlining. Take this week for instance: Amy Schumer had to take to Instagram to shut down her trolls and reclaim - not just the internet - but her own body. Amy posted a paparazzi shot of herself in a swimsuit on a Hawaiin beach and the following to say:
'I meant to write ‘good morning trolls!’ I hope you find some joy in your lives today in a human interaction and not just in writing unkind things to a stranger you’ve never met who triggers something in you that makes you feel powerless and alone. This is how I look. I feel happy. I think I look strong and healthy and also like miss trunchbull from Matilda. Kisses!'
I decided to start this story with one of my own because it's easy to diminish online trolling as something that is one-dimensional and benign. As if - because it occurs on a flat screen - this somehow weakens its harmful effect. It doesn’t. It’s real, it's serious - and it can have lasting consequences for the victim on the receiving end.
I write about women – it’s my job. As a by-product, I occasionally have to deal with angry individuals who resent me talking about women’s rights and think bullying me online is a way to shut me up. They won’t succeed, but that doesn’t mean it’s something I can easily shake off. On days when I'm feeling particularly insecure I'll briefly hesitate before writing something.
I've been told to 'f**k off' and 'shut up' in the past - 'get a life' and 'calm down'. Or how about one troll who called himself an 'evil oppressor'? And I quote: 'We should set up camps to kill all women after menopause. What use are they at that age anyway?'
Words are powerful. I’m human; they’re human. Whether it’s shouted at you in a pub or directed at you on an online feed: it’s abuse.
If a stranger knocked on my door and aggressively shouted in my face (I specifically say ‘shout’ because the tweet in question was typed in capitals): 'YOU ARE THE CANCER AND THE DISEASE,' I’d probably ring the police and (I’d hope) they might pop over and help me out. But they didn’t come to my door – the ‘troll’ came to my phone because I wrote a feature about gender inequality in Hollywood. They even attached the tweet with a violent GIF for extra emphasis.
What did I do? I cried, blocked the offending account, brushed my teeth and went to bed. On a couple of occasions I've screengrabbed a tweet and shared it. I've tried to joke about it. I try not to cry. The pressure to "do the right thing" when it comes to dealing with online bullies can be overwhelming - and puts responsibility on me, not them. I resent that.
And who they are, really? Often faceless and anonymous. We call them 'trolls' and, in doing so, the monsters remain hidden. In Old Norse mythology trolls are said to dwell in isolated mountains, rocks, and caves. Sometimes I imagine them there: hurling ill-shaped boulders from their darkened corner. Then I remind myself that they aren't supernatural beings, because this isn't folklore. This is real life.
Isn't it about time we stopped treating 'trolls' like grotesque - but harmless - apparitions?
By Kat Lister