Monday, October 31, 2016

Monthly Matinee October: The Masks We Hide Behind

The Masks We Hide Behind; Geek Culture, Free Speech, Harassment And Internet Anonymity. It Matters For All Of Us.

 The Magic

Masks. Pull one on, and your identity is concealed, revealed, improved or obscured. It's an intoxicating thing, this freedom. It is, in fact, so beguiling that the German language has a word for it: Maskenfreiheit, the freedom conferred by masks.  We love the power a mask confers, especially those of us who read comics and delight in comic culture. Conventions, cosplay, roleplay, stepping into the protagonist's shoes. Behind the masks, we do all the things we didn't dare. Behind a mask, a blind man becomes the savior of Hell's Kitchen, a mild mannered journalist saves Metropolis, a wealthy dilettante becomes the Dark Knight and a scared girl becomes a Marvel with a capital M.
 A quite unassuming person pulls on a mask and SHAZAM, they're a superhero!
Or a supervillain.

The Mask

In the age we live in, we've been given the best mask of all: the world wide web. On the web, we're free to really be ourselves, to indulge the things that we might not be able to talk about or do in our daily life. On the web we let out parts of our personality that yearn to be free. We change all kinds of things when we interact on the web in venues that range from chat rooms to rolepaying games: species, sex, social standing. Some of us are heroes on the Web. Some of us are teachers, storytellers, performers, artists, friends, guides, students, guardians.
But behind the masks, some of us transform into something else. Sometimes, we become monsters.

The Trolls 

Art by Wil Huygen

We call them The Trolls, those who use the anonymity of their masks to indiscriminately hurt and shame others. If you create content on the Web, chances are you will someday encounter a Troll. They're the person who randomly posts 'you suck' on your new art piece. The person who goes on a rant on your comment thread and destroys the conversation because you don't agree with them on a point, however minor it is.
Some trolls are simply annoying. Some are terrifying.
Cyber-harassment or 'trolling' is a problem that's gone from bad to worse in the last few years. It can affect anyone, but it tends to fall most heavily on people with progressive views and women in the media. If you're both, you might as well have a target on your back.
Take Gamergate.  In Carly Smith's IndieWire article GamerGate: A War on Women Hiding Behind a Mask of “Ethics” , she wrote up several disturbing interconnected cases that occurred in 2014, started by an angry ex-boyfriend of Zoe Quinn and infecting the lives of two other creators:

*The case of Brianna Wu, an independent game developer who was threatened so badly and so often online that she has had to move her family from an address disclosed by a troll online and ask for a security detail when she attends conventions. Why? Because she defended Zoe publicly and said 'You cannot have 30 years of portraying women as bimbos, sex objects, second bananas, cleavage-y eye candy," she said. "Eventually it normalizes this treatment of women. And I think something is really sick and broken in our culture." You can read more about this on the well-written Inc article by David Whitford.  

This was an actual Twitter account linked  to a game
that let users punch
an image of Anita in the face. 

*The case of  Anita Sarkeesian. According to Smith, 'For pointing out demeaning stereotypes of female characters within video games in a series of YouTube videos, feminist cultural critic Anita
Sarkeesian has received bomb threats, shooting threats, rape threats, and death
threats from certain parts of the gaming community. Just this past week,
Sarkeesian canceled a speech she was going to give at Utah State University,
citing possible dangers and insufficient security measures after an anonymous
threat promised "the deadliest school shooting in American history"
in response to her presence on campus.'

The ubiquitous Troll

We can talk about these cases all night, unfortunately. The wonderful actor Leslie Jones of the new 'Ghostbusters' movie was recently harassed off of Twitter by misogynistic, racist viciousness. Back in June Jonathan Weisman, the deputy Washington editor of the New York Times, quit Twitter after a barrage of anti-Semitic messages. And now Chelsea Cain has been bullied out of social media, just this past month.
Chelsea's crime? A t-shirt with sass
Chelsea Cain is a comic writer and an artist of her craft. Recently, she celebrated and joked about the short run of Mockingbird (Marvel Comics) as it ended by putting the heroin in a tshirt reading 'ask me about my feminist agenda' on the cover of the last issue.
She was harassed so badly that she deleted her Twitter account.This is Chelsea's experience in her own words.

An artist was just forced out of the space of public discourse by viciousness and misogyny.

The Troll Caves

Unfortunately, there's no easy answer to the reason people become Trolls. Psychology, social status, and cultural conditioning all play a part in creating a Troll. Psychologically, the very anonymity of the internet helps to allow for Trolls. Several psychological experiments have proven that people, when they feel they aren't being watched, will behave much more badly than usual. We need other humans to act human, essentially. When we feel that no one is watching us, some of us feel free to indulge our darker urges. It's so easy to lash out when there will be no repercussions.
In his article for Dark Psychology, Michael Nuccitelli, Psy.D. wrote  'the Internet Troll is a unique creature to say the least. In essence, the Internet Troll is what this writer calls Cyber Environment Dependent.

Cyber Environment Dependent simply means that an Internet Troll requires access to cyberspace in order to engage in their nonsensical passive aggression. Without having what this writer calls the “veil of anonymity” available to all online users, Internet Trolls would be non-existent. If anything, and without going into a long diatribe, if they could not hide behind their technology, “they would quickly have their ass kicked for their incessant provocations.” Prior to the internet, Internet Trolls were men, women and children who kept their subconscious fantasies for power, control & dominance between their ears hoping to one day ascend to a position in life whereby they could feel psychologically superior. Now with the internet and a cyber environment to interact with others without being in the physical presence of others to communicate, the Internet Troll flourishes.'
Okay. That might be a wee bit over the top in terms of rhetoric. But several reputable news and research groups have looked into this issue and found much the same thing. The trolls? They really are losers. They're miserable, and they give vent to misery by attacking others. For a moment, they're the one in charge. For the moment, they have power.
Paul Jun, in his insightful and useful 99U article  Don’t Feed the Haters: The Confessions of a Former Troll put it best of all when he described what drives a Troll:

1.They’re bored: Trolls lack stimulation “IRL” (in real life), for good or ill, so they seek it online where it’s readily available and easily acquired. A troll’s behavior reflects a deep insecurity so having someone respond to their words gives life meaning, regardless of how pathetic that may sound. I raided that wedding because I wanted to be noticed and talked about. Random people cursing me out through private messages or the general chatroom invigorated me. I was so bored with my real life, and even my virtual character’s life, that I learned to find joy in harming others. If a troll had something better to do, like work or a hobby, they wouldn’t have time to troll. The next time you find yourself posting a negative comment think about why you’re doing it.

2. They want attention: All a troll wants is you to turn the spotlight onto them. They want you to repost their comment to your followers. They want you to write a blog post or status about them. They will use anything and everything to get it. They will criticize you, post inflammatory comments, or write remarks just to make you wonder how someone could be so dumb. The problem is that you will feel compelled to respond to “set things right.” Even if you respond in a cheerful or positive way, you’re still feeding the troll.
Art by Vaejoun on Deviantart
I'll add a number three to that: Trolls are usually unsatisfied with their own lives. Not just bored. Miserable. Unfulfilled. UNHAPPY.
To illustrate the point, Joel Stein tells this story in his Time article:
"I’ve been a columnist long enough that I got calloused to abuse via threats sent over the U.S. mail. I’m a straight white male, so the trolling is pretty tame, my vulnerabilities less obvious. My only repeat troll is Megan Koester, who has been attacking me on Twitter for a little over two years. Mostly, she just tells me how bad my writing is, always calling me “disgraced former journalist Joel Stein.” Last year, while I was at a restaurant opening, she tweeted that she was there too and that she wanted to take “my one-sided feud with him to the next level.” She followed this immediately with a tweet that said, “Meet me outside Clifton’s in 15 minutes. I wanna kick your ass.” Which shook me a tiny bit. A month later, she tweeted that I should meet her outside a supermarket I often go to: “I’m gonna buy some Ahi poke with EBT and then kick your ass.”

I sent a tweet to Koester asking if I could buy her lunch, figuring she’d say no or, far worse, say yes and bring a switchblade or brass knuckles, since I have no knowledge of feuding outside of West Side Story. Her email back agreeing to meet me was warm and funny.

I saw Koester standing outside the restaurant. She was tiny–5 ft. 2 in., with dark hair, wearing black jeans and a Spy magazine T-shirt. She ordered a seitan sandwich, and after I asked the waiter about his life, she looked at me in horror. “Are you a people person?” she asked. As a 32-year-old freelance writer for who has never had a full-time job, she lives on a combination of sporadic paychecks and food stamps. My career success seemed, quite correctly, unjust. And I was constantly bragging about it in my column and on Twitter. “You just extruded smarminess that I found off-putting. It’s clear I’m just projecting. The things I hate about you are the things I hate about myself,” she said.'

Few trolls are so honest with themselves and others. Some have been taking pleasure in hurting others so long that there is no changing their behavior. So what's to be done?

The Battle

So what do we, as a community, do about the trolls?

Respect. Reflect. Rethink.

First, we can make sure WE aren't part of the problem. Here's some good rules from Edutopia

Starve The Trolls
What trolls need, what they CRAVE, is attention. Recognition. They want to know they've had an affect.

Don't. Feed. Them.
Don't respond. Don't acknowledge. Put them on your blocked or ignored list so you don't see the messages. Don't even talk about them publicly; if you have a friend online, sure, vent in PM, but DO NOT let the troll see you squirm. Know from the start that they're not here for a reasoned discussion, they're here to see you flinch. Don't blink. Turn your back. This may make them more vicious in the short term, but in the long term animals don't stay where they're not fed.

 Stand Together

Art by Simon Love

People targeted by the worst of the Trolls often feel terribly isolated. In Stein's Time article, Leslie Jones said this regarding her serious internet harassment: “I was in my apartment by myself, and I felt trapped,” Jones says. “When you’re reading all these gay and racial slurs, it was like, I can’t fight y’all. I didn’t know what to do. Do you call the police? Then they got my email, and they started sending me threats that they were going to cut off my head and stuff they do to ‘N words.’ It’s not done to express an opinion, it’s done to scare you.”
Don't leave a frightened victim to suffer alone.
If someone you know or someone you know of is suffering a trolling, get the community behind them. Don't just chat amongst yourselves about how wrong it is: contact the person directly with support. Flood their walls with positive, friendly messages. Ignore the trolls, but make absolutely sure their voices are drowned out by better things.
Here's a good example. When I heard about what had happened to Chelsea Cain through an acquaintance, I researched it, then got on several art forums I'm a part of and posted about it. On Sunday we'll be sending over 30 images of our own characters in the same t-shirt that Mockingbird wore to show our support. This is the internet equivalent of taking your neighbor a bottle of wine after they've had their house robbed and staying over to keep them company. It's how we let each other know that they're not alone.

Stop The Game

If things are escalating and the person being trolled starts to feel unsafe, there are groups out there to help.


is a rescue service for women media creators. According to the site, "TrollBusters provides just-in-time rescue services to support women journalists, bloggers and publishers who are targets of cyberharassment. We use our virtual S.O.S. team to send positive memes, endorsements and testimonials into online feeds at the point of attack. We dilute the stings of cyberbullies, trolls and other online pests to support you, your voice, your website, your business and your reputation."

Crash Override, founded by Zoe Quinn, is another anti-trolling group with a lot of work under their belt and an extensive resource center. The site describes itself like this: " Crash Override works with clients before, during, and after episodes of online abuse with a combination of public resources, private case work, and institutional outreach."

*Author's note: I was unable to discover
 the artist of
several images in this piece,
 especially the girl with the masks.
 If anyone knows, please tell me so
I can credit the creators.

Paint Your Own Mask

Unfortunately, there will always be trolls growling in the dark corners of our society. Somewhere, someone will always feel entitled to hurt someone else from some seat of perceived superiority. There will always be that person who has come to feel that their comment is funny and if you don't take the joke you're being too sensitive. Somewhere there will always be someone who feels so helpless and angry about their own life that hurting someone else is their only way to feel accomplished. It's sad but true that as creators, responsible readers and artists, we have to learn how to fight them. 

But we are a strong community, full of talent, vibrancy, wit and humor. We'll paint and craft our own online masks, weave them out of our art and our wits, our worldbuilding and our storytelling. We'll make carnival masks so beautiful that, when we walk together, you won't even be able to see the trolls for all the beauty. And we'll keep on walking through this wonderous parade called life. 
Grab your mask, it's carnival time.

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