Is there a tech solution for hatred of women?

  • 30 July 2013
  • From the section Technology
  • comments
Quinn Norton
Image caption 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.

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.