They say that if you don’t garner a bit of criticism, you haven’t done anything particularly courageous. That if you’re rolling, they’re going to start hating. That a little bit of online vitriol, here and there, is the price of being a woman– especially if you’re a young woman of color with an opinion.
But there’s an important difference between criticizing and downright internet trolling. And for too long, society has ignored the legitimate danger posed by vicious users of the internet, leading to a dangerous trolling culture that seems particularly and vengefully targeted at women.
Like many in my position, I viewed online hating as an abstract problem– until I was in the center of what felt like a whirlpool of unkindness. That’s because just last month, I published a bold piece in the Huffington Post about my experience leading my school walkout. When the Huffington Post posted my piece on their Facebook page– exposing it to 8 million followers– I received an outpouring of love, encouragement, and solidarity from people with experiences similar to mine. But surprisingly, I also received a lot of hate.
While I thought that my essay was uplifting, empowering, and reflective– it included quotes like “Together, we are stronger than any bullet,” not everyone agreed with my message. People ridiculed that very quote, with pithy observations such as “If you’re stronger than a bullet, why do you care about gun control?” It was easy to laugh off the empty criticisms– for example, the allegations that I was probably “failing school,” “eating tide pods,” or “bound to become a single mom” (still trying to figure out that one!)
Those comments were easy to ignore. But even more insidious than that was the undercurrent of suggestion that I didn’t know what I was talking about. Several trolls accused me of being brainwashed by the left, of being stupid, of being a brat who was trying to skip school. I was truly shocked to read those comments, because these people didn’t know me. They haven’t met me, and yet they felt comfortable enough to pass judgement on a teenage girl’s life.
And here’s the thing– I’m not a victim, not by a long shot. I recognize that the hatred I was receiving was the necessary result of getting such a large platform at such a young age. In fact, I even feel proud to have impacted people enough that they took the time to write these comments. And as for the “tide pod” haters, they made for a good laugh with my best friends. But I recognize that for other women, their experiences of online trolling can be a lot less funny, and a lot more dangerous.
The news is filled with stories of women who were stalked by anonymous users on the internet; who had their addresses and employer information posted online; who were subjected to revenge photo posting; who were sent death threats– or worse. You can find countless stories like these, and while each woman’s story is horrible and unsettling, they provide us with a valuable lesson about our online culture of trolling.
Trolls are uniquely disgusting– and uniquely vulnerable– in that they are anonymous. They hide behind masks of false usernames and meme profile pictures, secure in the knowledge that nobody will be able to trace their identities. They gain the upper hand by seeming invisible, and therefore invincible.
More importantly, trolls fear women like me because we are not invisible– in fact, we’re far from it. We’re loud and unapologetic and bold in driving change, and we inspire fear in those who must resort to anonymity in order to have their voices heard. That’s why we can’t let the haters stop us. That’s why we must continue elevating and magnifying women’s voices– because together, our voices can drown out the trolls. While they keep hating, we keep rolling.
And we’re not stopping anytime soon.
Photo by Sergey Zolkin