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Ginger Gorman is a troll hunter. But not the kind who seeks out ugly monsters that lurk under bridges and scare unsuspecting billy goats. Gorman is an award-winning journalist. Her weapon of choice is a laptop and an internet connection. Her targets are those anonymous individuals who use the internet to demean, mock, harass, terrorise and terrify. The depth of her first-person research into the sick world of trolling is vast and surprising, and it’s all chronicled in Gorman’s first book, Troll Hunting.
An attractive Canberra mum-of-two, with striking black hair, ruby red lipstick and a flair of the Mad Men era to her dress, isn’t exactly how most people would picture an expert on predatory internet use. Ginger Gorman is full of surprises. Just last week she invited the local newspaper to document her getting a new tattoo; an armpit to thigh spirograph representing the ‘tangled lines’ of her relationships with the trolls she hunts.
“Troll” is online slang for people that use the internet to deliberately start fights, hurt feelings and sow discord amongst others. This is about more than just being unpleasant online. Trolling can be a full-time activity, particularly for those who rally together groups of trolls and use their collective power to cause greater harm and animosity. It was an unsettling experience of being trolled herself, that sparked Gorman’s curiosity and desire to understand what drives people to devote their every waking out to upsetting strangers.
“Getting to know a handful of trolls over months and in some cases years, I came to understand that many of them had neglectful, violent and damaging upbringings.”
Gorman says that while anyone can be a troll “this is largely a cohort of young, white men who – rightly or wrongly – feel marginalised and left behind by society”. She says that “instead of questioning society’s complex structures of power control – and understanding how inequality becomes entrenched – these young men take the more simplistic (and well-worn) route of blaming women for their problems. Another reason it that some men can feel threatened by women taking up space and using their voices”.
“Getting to know a handful of trolls over months and in some cases years, I came to understand that many of them had neglectful, violent and damaging upbringings,” Gorman explains. As children and teenagers, “they were left completely alone with no adult supervision on the internet, imbibing torrents of hate on forums”. After an exhaustive period of studying and talking will trolls online, Gorman concludes that “more than anything else the story of trolling is one about parenting. We can’t then be amazed that some years later, these under-parented young guys get spat out as hurt and angry individuals who want to harm others via the internet”.
Trolling is a gendered problem. The vast majority of trolls are men and the most significant cohort of victims, are women. Gorman commissioned the Australia Institute to help her conduct the research for her book, mostly because there was so little actual data already in existence. What she found is that 44 percent of Australian women and 34 percent of men had experienced some form of online harassment.
The devil, however, is in the detail cautions Gorman. While men were more likely to be abused about religion and politics, women were more likely to be abused in every other topic category. “The abuse against women is more sexual and more violent,” says Gorman. “24 percent of women have been sent unwanted sexual messages or images, compared to 11 percent of men. Women are more likely to receive threats of sexual assault, death, rape and physical violence”.
But this is all happening on the internet, right? None of it is real. Surely, the people who experience this sort of poor treatment can just turn off their computers and walk away? So goes the regular refrain offered to those on the receiving end of predatory or abusive online conduct. It’s not happening ‘in real life’ is the less than subtle message, missing the point entirely that so much of all our real lives does take place online.
“So often cyberhate targets are labelled ‘snowflakes’ and told to ‘pull their big girl panties up’,” says Gorman, recalling things she herself has been told as well. “They’re simply told to stay off the internet – which is ludicrous. Even the United Nations has recognized internet access as a human right”.
“The advice of ‘don’t feed the trolls’ [meaning ‘don’t engage with those who are abusive – ignore them’] is only of limited use. I’ve really changed my thinking on this one,” says Gorman. Her advice is that if you’re being trolled, you should respond in line with what you’re psychologically prepared for, putting your own wellbeing first. “Silence can be a great weapon but at the same time, women must not feel silenced online. They must not be driven out of these spaces… I say to women, understand the risks of being in the middle of a cyberhate event and consider those risks. This is a choice you can make… If you feel you need to respond, think carefully about it”.
It would be folly to assume that trolling – and the effects of trolling – are confined to the online world. Trolling is serious business in the so-called real world as well. Ginger Gorman has linked online trolling activity to shootings, terrorism, suicide and suicide attempts. In Troll Hunting she cites the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville last year in the United States as an example of organised trolling spilling over into the physical world – and resulting in serious physical injuries and the death of one young woman.
“Silence can be a great weapon but at the same time, women must not feel silenced online.”
The cost of trolling can be enormous to its victims, their families and the economy. “Not only do cyberhate targets report needing to take unpaid time off work, or even losing their job or multiple jobs, they describe having their reputation wrecked online and effectively becoming unemployable,” says Ginger. “When it comes to money, they also shell out cash to pay for myriad other expenses, such as (but not restricted to) medical fees, legal fees, child care, moving house and interstate travel and accommodation to attend court. As you can imagine all this take a huge toll on a person’s mental and physical health”.
The obvious but probably unanswerable question is what can we do about it? If trolling is to be taken seriously and its horrific effects, as documented by Gorman and others, tempered – how can that actually be achieved? After all, this is happening in the wild, wild west of the internet. The untamed space where, try as they might, governments have little to no power. When someone can pretend to be someone they’re not with limited consequence and even less chance of being found out, how can crime be prevented?
“Cyberhate is a complex issue that needs multi-pronged community response” says Gorman. “As a bare minimum, law enforcement and social media companies need to do a lot more to keep us safe. Police need to be resourced and trained to deal with this issue. As for social media companies, if they aren’t willing to keep us safe off their own bat – which they don’t seem to be because it’s not to their advantage – there needs to be a legislated duty of care. It’s absurd that they have created public spaces where we are being harmed and killed and yet somehow, are not held accountable for that”.
It’s also up to us as individuals, cautions Gorman. “Misogyny, racism, homophobia and all the other types of bigotry and hatred didn’t start online. Those attitudes started with us – the humans. This is where you get movements like #MeToo that are so important. If we stopped misogyny offline, we wouldn’t see it online either. The technology is just the vehicle… While writing the book, I often felt so hopeless about the constant and extreme hatred and misogyny and violence expressed by these young men. But this watershed moment just shows that this kind of hatred can’t survive exposure and kindness. We need to bring our greatest humanity and compassion to this problem”.
“Misogyny, racism, homophobia and all the other types of bigotry and hatred didn’t start online. Those attitudes started with us – the humans.”
I wonder if these years spent inhabiting the world of internet trolls has taken its toll on Ginger Gorman personally. I don’t have to probe very deeply to get an answer. Gorman is up front about just how difficult the research for this book has been on a personal level. “There have certainly been times when my husband and I have been incredibly worried about the safety of our children. This was especially so in 2013 when we got a death threat and no one – the police or my employer – took any real action or seemed to know what to do… The book was so dark and damaging, that I’m doing a specialised course of therapy for trauma in journalism. My therapist actually advised me not to keep contact with the trolls”.
I ask Gorman if she has any sympathy for the trolls that she developed relationships with or if she can’t bring herself to move past the very real damage they cause. Her response is cautious and perhaps just a little confused. I get the sense she’s still trying to answer this question for herself.
“As a rule, trolls are very damaged individuals, so my relationships with them may be longstanding but volatile at the same time,” says Ginger. “I go in and out of contact with them – usually on purpose but not always… You have to remember that they feel marginalised – rightly or wrongly – and that no one is listening to them. I spent such a long time developing relationships with a handful of them and hearing them, that we built up a trust relationship. They seem to feel represented by the book”.
I ask if she was trolled by those trolls she has relationships with about the publication of her book. This prompts a cheekiness in Ginger. She’s no fool who is being taken for a ride by these guys. Her empathy for them is real but it’s prudent and sceptical at the same time. “When we announced the book cover, I did cop a bit of D-level trolling. I’m so used to it now that I know how to play the game. I took screen shots of their foul comments (see this example) and used them to promote and sell the book. I also announced on all my social media channels that if trolls were planning to troll me about my book on trolling, I was going to feed them into my publicity machine”.
Ginger = 1. Trolls = 0.
If you find yourself in the middle of a big cyberhate event, Ginger says the fastest way to get help is through the eSafety office. There are loads of resources there designed specifically for women there too. Ginger Gorman’s book ‘Troll Hunting’ is in stores now. She will be in conversation with Future Women’s Editor at Large, Jamila Rizvi at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne on 13 March.
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