As we cruise through October many of us are burdened with exhaustion over the upcoming election. There’s a majority of Americans wondering how, within four short years, our political process has devolved into such a sad state of affairs -The name calling, the dick swinging, the out-and-out lying and the daily barrage of unchecked information. We are so often besieged with sounds of hateful comments it’s become a norm so disgusting it’s now a Presidential platform. So how did we get here? Easy. We gave a validity to voices and opinions that never deserved recognition in the first place. We said it’s okay to be an asshole, especially if it’s sometimes amusing. “They’re just words, right?” We found a way to marry hate and capitalism. It made a lot of white men rich. And we all bought in.
Here’s a thought-If you don’t want to see another uniformed, misogynist like Trump vying to be president stop feeding into the systems that created him.
It all started with the tiny crumbs we fed the trolls via the comment section. Readers have always been allowed space to critique a journalist’s work. If someone hated what you wrote they had to take the time to write up why, put a stamp on it, walk their hate or complaint or compliment to a mailbox and if they physically threatened you, risk a felony. As the internet began to take over, the opinions of readers went to the “letters to editor” email address where they were screened for crazy but also allowed the public to fact check and have that fact check, re-checked by an actual fact checker before the letter was published. Around 2006 when the rise of comment section came to be, we print journalists were expected to supply additional content online, in many cases for free. In a matter of months it became evident the reception of the work of women and people of color was very different than those of our white male counterparts, but the hate that was spewed towards us kept readers engaged and on the page just a little longer, so the powers that be -i.e. Media owners- who were almost 100% white and male, decided hate and unqualified comments would yield them the most profit. Many editors began insisting we write the most inflammatory posts possible to fuel the comments, some going so far as to leave in typos just so there was something in an article to criticize. If we complained about it the most common response was “just suck it up or we’ll find someone who will”, thus creating a system where women and minorities are forced to engage in intense emotional labour to do our jobs that our male counterparts are not. It also gave rise to “Trama Porn” where mostly women writers are encouraged to write about the most painful things they’ve experienced for around $50-$100 and the subjection of that experience to a comment section. We are expected to air our most personal stories simply to be ripped apart by anonymous talking heads and those who get off reading it. There are entire sites, often branded as feminist, who run on nothing but this kind of content. A major publication like the Guardian will publish the demographics regarding which of their writers get the most hateful comments, but won’t close the comment section that creates the problem. They could easily provide an email address where comments could be directed, screened and offer a level of protection for their staff- but it’s not lucrative, so why would they?
Even as papers and sites cling to this antiquated model of driving traffic the problem has been made worse by the instance that journalists engage directly with anonymous idiots who wish them harm on social media platforms. If only we’d established rules for dealing with assholes on the internet early on. Little did we know that what we now call trolls feed and grown on acknowledgment. By responding to a troll you are essentially feeding a mogwai after midnight and creating a slew of even more awful gremlins who continue to multiply off our acknowledgment till they reach Trump like proportions. Some of these guys have gotten famous for how well they abuse us. Sometimes they follow us just to do it. More often others follow us to watch it happen voyeuristically. And that’s really unfortunate because Twitter followers, whether they follow you to issue rape threats, watch your abuse for amusement or actually support your work are the criteria now used by agents and major E.I.C’s to decide if your work will be published. It’s a climate where a young agent will look you in the face and say “We really like your style and your writing is fantastic, but you need to start a Twitter war to get more social media traction- Just find someone you disagree with and go after them.”
Essentially to be a female or minority writer in 2016 you must willfully be complicit in a system the exploits and abuses you for profit- and that profit is rarely your own. Some have made a career out of it, playing with anonymous haters for professional gain, and while it may benefit them personally it does little change the system that holds degradation supreme and shackles those who just want to do their work to it. It also promotes the notion that women and minorities need to give additional justification to our words. If we are already fortunate enough to have a platform where we can publish, our stories should be the end of the story. We have a place to say our piece, why should we feel the need to justify it? If you really want to subject yourself to that abuse and feel like it benefits your career, do it from your own website where the traffic revenue goes to you. Don’t line someone else’s pockets while making said abuse mandatory for the rest of us.
Twitter itself has become a business model driven on empowering un-fact-checked haters. Now it’s not just writers for whom anyone is allowed to say anything they want at any time- anyone is fair game just by virtue of being on the site. If their actions or the lack thereof is any indicator, Twitter LOVES your abuse. They do nothing to prevent it. You can anonymously tell someone their child deserves to be raped and nothing will happen. You can write them a letter or file a complaint and you will see nothing in terms of action against the perpetrator. It’s on us to keep our finger continually on the block button, but not before we have to read the hate and let it seep into our souls. Nothing makes me sadder than when I see a middling writer post a comment Like “Just got my first death threat, guess I’ve made it!” If you’re celebrating your abuse or using it as some sort of career milestone you aren’t just feeding the Trolls after midnight, you’ve made them a five-course meal.
When someone like Leslie Jones suffers online abuse via Twitter women rally to her side via comments, driving more traffic for Twitter and encouraging the hate brigade to go in harder. Wouldn’t it be more productive for us to take the power we have, which is essentially producing their content away from them? What would happen if instead, every person who has been abused on the platform simply closed their account in protest one day, insisting Twitter won’t get our words back till they can add common decency to their policies. This isn’t silencing the persecuted, it’s using our power to change the system. It’s a taking a knee regarding exploitation. Imagine how many more minorities and women would be encouraged to speak up and would join the conversation, if they didn’t have to be threatened to do it. Of course, the thought of this will have many agents, publicists and “internet celebs” shitting themselves, as aggressive or controversial Tweets or jumping on the hashtag of the day have become the easiest and laziest way to self-promote.
Just imagine if Twitter’s policy forced users to provide verification and disclosure of their identity before they would even be allowed tweet and Twitter themselves were to block anyone who makes physically threatening statements. It would change everything, including how we interact in real life, the type of speech we deem acceptable from each other and namely politicians who want to represent our country. Reddit already exists so the haters can go at it till they swallow each other whole. Let’s not just suggest Twitter be about productive conversation, promotion and interaction, let’s insist on it. That fact is, if we had all just hit delete on every troll’s unchecked hatred, threats and generally stupidity since the beginning of comment sections we wouldn’t be where we are today. Make no mistake about it, it was a thousand anonymous Egghead icons, incubated in the internet’s warm nest of loathing that hatched Donald Trump.