I am a children’s writer, blogger and library and human rights campaigner, and this means that I have an online profile that is fairly recognisable (alarm 1). In the last few years my presence in the virtual world has become more established, and people know me as someone who regularly writes about literacy and is outspoken about human rights issues. People also know me as someone who writes bestselling non-fiction (alarm 2) and my novels do okay too. I support many environmental campaigns and am proud to say that I am an outspoken feminist (alarm 3). Physically, I’m not exactly model material, and am a long way from being the prescribed size 8 that seems to be the socially accepted size for anyone who steps out in public (alarm 4)
I am a great lover of fairy tales. Not the sparkly singing-bunny variety, but the original folk tales that crept out of forests and nightmares. These stories fascinate and inspire me, but they don’t represent a place I want to live. The language of fantasy and fairy tales seems to be currently misused and applied to people who are, in fact, bullies (alarm 5). We call them trolls, but in fact they are simply bullies and to call them anything else is to suggest that they live only in a world of fairy tales and stories that don’t really have any impact on the real world. This is not true, and this is not a fairy tale. We are real people with real feelings and we can’t keep pretending that the virtual world is not the real world.
Many people are aware that I have been the victim of online bullying as I have been open about this before, and have written about it, and so I won’t rehash it here. I got past that bout of online bullying and it seemed to go quiet again. Now my profile is a little higher and this (apparently) has given the bullies an excuse to attack me again. I now seem to have attracted a group of men who have taken it upon themselves to hurl abuse at me (alarm 6). I’ve had death threats, hate mail and more general online confrontation and abuse. I’d rather not detail the worst of the things that I’ve been called, but the general tone seems to be that I am an “uppity bitch”, “fat ugly bitch”, “pathetic slut”, “ugly whore” and (my personal favourite) “feminazi”. So far 100% of the people who have abused me have been men. I don’t know why these men all hate me, but it seems that they really do. I also know that by saying all of this I will, somewhat ironically, be the recipient of even more abuse.
Recently (April 2016) the Guardian newspaper conducted a survey of 70 million comments left on their articles since 2006 and found evidence for something many of us suspected all along – that the people online who receive the most abusive comments are women. The report found that of the ten most abused journalists online, eight were women. The ten least abused writers were all men. The most aggressive blocked comments were those directed at women and connected to articles about female issues or feminism. (alarm 7). These findings are supported by many other studies on online bullying. It seems that online bullying is predominantly a female problem.
I have taken the standard advice about online bullying – ignore, block, delete. This bothers me. This means that I am actively discouraged from standing up to bullying. That goes against everything I know about bullying. “Don’t poke the trolls,” we are told. Well, this kind of online bullying has been going on for a very long time now and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better with that tactic, so maybe we are going about this all wrong? If this was in any of the schools that I have worked with I would not be advising teachers to just ignore it, I’d be telling them to confront it, talk about it, challenge the bullies and deal with it. I would not expect a parent of a bullied child to be told “that’s life, just ignore it, get a thicker skin, move on, it’s just a joke, don’t let it bother you,” and yet this is what we are told to do every day in the virtual environment. What if we challenge them? If we challenge the bullies, we are afraid that things will get worse. We are afraid that they will expand their attacks and damage our work and our private lives. In the virtual world the bullies have all the power, and we are letting them have it.
All of this has left me wondering what makes someone do this. What makes a perfectly normal person go online and hurl abuse at strangers? Is it because it’s easy? After all, we’re not real people are we? If we set ourselves up to do something more public, are we not asking for abuse? If we offer our opinions in public, should we not expect to be confronted? If we choose to do something more public, should be not just take it? (alarm 8)
I decided to take a longer look at one of the people who recently abused me. Recently, quite out of the blue, I was sent a direct Facebook message from a total stranger that said (and I apologise for the language) “I hope you die a horrible death you f**king c**t”.
This message went to a filtered mail box and so I did not notice it for a couple of weeks. My instinct was to hit delete and block and leave it at that, but something made me look further. First of all I reported it to Facebook as I assumed this sort of harassment was against their terms and conditions. Then I wondered what I might have done to deserve this. I scoured my Facebook posts to see if there could possibly be anything that might have made this man send me hate mail. But all of my public posts were mundane, or silly, or about saving public libraries, or about book awards – nothing that would make someone wish I would die.
Then I thought I would take a look at the profile of the person who had sent it to me. I wanted to know what would make a stranger sit down on a Tuesday early evening and tell a stranger that they they wished they would die. I could not check the Facebook profile of this man because the brave bully had blocked me, probably right after he sent the message. That did not deter me, and I had my family look him up for me. Instead of discovering the profile of a violent moron or confused and ignorant child, I saw the profile of a regular looking family man. He had a nice smile, and so did his wife and children. He had holidays that looked like the holidays I take, and he had even changed his profile picture to the rainbow filter that I had previously used. I saw the profile of an obviously proud father who loved his daughters and his dog, and someone who seemed perfectly normal. I could see nothing about his profile that would show that he is the kind of person who sends death threats to total strangers. I’m sure that his family have no clue that he secretly does things like this. I wanted to ask him why he did it, but I didn’t want to make his family suffer by exposing his actions.
A few days later Facebook got back to me about my complaint, and apparently they too believe that I am wrong to challenge things. This message, I was told, did not violate their “community standards” – so they too give all the power to the bullies. I checked their list detailing “unacceptable content” and found that it precluded “violence and threats” as well as “bullying and harassment” but it seemed that calling me a “f**king c**t” and wishing that I would “die a horrible death” did not fit either of those categories.
What can we do? In a school I would be advising teachers to talk about the issues and to challenge them head-on. Speak to the bullies and their families and try to discover why they are doing this. I would be advising the school that they should work towards creating an environment where bullies feel driven out, where other children feel safe challenging bullying behaviour, and where they are regularly challenged on their behaviour by others around them.
This is what we should be doing online. This is not right and we should stop ignoring it. We should take back the power from the bullies. If we see it happening, we should challenge the behaviour and speak out against it. I’m not for naming and shaming, but I am for creating an environment where positive dialogue drowns out the negative. Don’t get into arguments with people, and it’s fine to disagree with people and share a contrary opinion (alarm 9) but if the comments become personal or disconnected with the original topic, then don’t be afraid to ask someone why they said it. Don’t tell them they are wrong, just ask them why they said what they did. I think that is something we all want to know – why. Why have they done this?
We are told that behind every bullying child lies a story of their own struggle and their own darkness, it is possible that this is the same with online bullies. I do believe that everyone is fighting a battle that we know nothing about, and possibly this is the same with the people who bully me? The man I mentioned above, the one who wants me to “die a horrible death”, maybe he too suffers in his own way. Maybe he suffers from a crippling inferiority complex and acts out macho posturing to strangers because society stifles his ability to express himself? Maybe he’s just a git.
I may never know his reasons, but I certainly don’t wish a horrible death for him. I hope that he finds a way to be a nicer person and to enjoy his lovely family. I hope that he feels shame for what he has done, and realises that behind every comment he leaves there sits a real person and not just a screen. I hope that he realises that every woman he sends death threats to is someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, someone’s wife, and that we are just like the other women in his life. Beyond that screen we are all real people with real feelings, and things like this both hurt and scare us. I hope that he is happy in his life and does not continue grind his teeth with internalised anger and hatred for random strangers.
Today I heard that the daughter of a friend of mine has also been targeted by online bullies, she’s only a teenager and shouldn’t have to grow up with this. My own daughter has been targeted too, and so have many of her friends. We would not tolerate this in our schools and working environments, but apparently it’s fine in the virtual world? We all have to find our place in the world, and if you feel that your place in the world is one where you set out to cause sadness and suffering in others, then I feel deeply sorry for you. (alarm 10).
Footnote and alarms –
I was tempted to not open the comments up on this blog, as this post is what I refer to as a Parapet Post. This means that I am sticking my head up and, to the bullies, this is asking to get shot down. I have, however, left the comments open but will be filtering for abuse.
Throughout this piece you will notice that I have flagged certain phrases as “alarms”. These are the points that I know from past experience are likely to be the points most targeted in abusive comments – this is just how fragile this situation has now become. For those of us who have become targets we now feel we have to modify our behaviour, when clearly it should be up to others to modify theirs. These alarms are the phrases that I was most tempted to either remove or reword as an attempt to avoid being further abused but, in the context of this article, I have decided to leave them alone.
Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and librarian