My Biggest Troll Is Someone I Could Probably Be Friends With

[CN: discussion of narratives surrounding sexual violence]

With nearly 4,000 followers on Twitter, I get a few trolls that are persistent and annoying. I tend to block without mercy and with swiftness, but occasionally, some trolls develop such a legacy that I can’t help but keep tabs on them. Maybe that’s weird or creepy, but it helps me to know when said trolls are accelerating their campaigns against me without having to see that stuff in my mentions.

But I’ve also found that this keeping tabs process has also had a secondary positive effect – it helps, in some ways, to humanize the trolls. One particular troll shows up in the mentions of a lot of progressive Christian feminists talking nonsense about birth control and reproductive rights. Her behavior online is fairly creepy, as she’s figured out multiple ways to keep track of my work despite blocks and reports of abuse. But the glimpses I get of her life beyond the trolling and the stalking tell me a different story.

She likes nerdy things. She enjoys cute animals. She’s a devout person of faith who has been through a lot of personal struggle. She and I probably would have gotten along if we had not encountered each other in the context of online trolling and discussions of feminism. In a different lifetime, we might have even been friends.

This is the strange reality of much of the trolling and abuse that happens online. Trolls aren’t just pure configurations of malice – they have people who like them, and they exist in a world outside of this online environment in which we encounter them. This doesn’t excuse anything that misogynistic and racist and creepy trolls decide to say in the public forum of Twitter. Instead, it simply complicates our narrative of who and what trolls are.

When the media talks about online trolling, it often presents a story not unlike that commonly presented about sexual violence. Indeed, the narrative frequently falls along the same kind of arc: a white woman who is just trying to do her job/exist in space/participate in a discussion is attacked, out of nowhere and viciously, by complete strangers who form a monstrous mob of horror cloaked in anonymity.

This story makes a similar error in judgment that stories about "perfect victims" do – it narrows the events down to a specific, perfect victim and turns the attackers into an autonomous, independent mass that is unidentifiable and inhuman. Like the stranger who jumps from the bushes, trolls are without identity and without accountability. But their attacks only really matter if the victim is perfect.

These narratives about trolling flatten both troll and victim – they fall along lines of power within society. This is why, in many instances in feminism, discussion of trolling tend to omit discussion of the experience of women of color – particularly trans women of color – within the environment of toxicity and trolling. Indeed, our narratives around trolling actually decenter the most common victims of trolling to the point where they are turned into the trolls themselves. For example, cross-reference any number of recent articles from white men and white feminist women about the “toxic” nature of “call-out” culture on twitter.

Trolling is a problem that exists in a “I know it when I see it” intellectual space. Threats of bodily harm fall into a much more serious category of trolling and abuse that absolutely should not be given the benefit of the doubt – if you tweet to someone “I’m going to find you and kill you,” you have done something wrong and humanization of the troll in that case is fairly unnecessary.

But in more microaggressive cases, I feel an urgency to complicate the narrative, to understand I am always someone else’s troll. This doesn’t excuse my actions, but simply places them within a more complex narrative that allows for discussions about how power dynamics work themselves out online. I’ve been blocked by some of the biggest names in the evangelical business, and I’m sure, if you asked, they’d say I’m a troll and nothing more. But to those of you who know me and read me and know my work know that my work of “calling out” doesn’t exist in a simple definition of “troll” or “not troll.”

Writing off our trolls is sometimes – though certainly not always – much more complex than we make it. Sometimes, one trolling statement coming from a white man is an important point when made by a person of color. It takes a lot of time and a lot of skill in working online to tell the difference. And it takes a lot of work recognizing where we sit along the axes of power to recognize where and when the trolling actually is trolling.

Examining our social location is vital to understanding relationships in all other parts of life, and it needs to be the same in our online life as well. Our social location doesn’t prevent us from contributing to a conversation, but it does influence whether or not we are labeled as a “troll.” When we have discussions about online behavior and online community, social locations have to enter into the discussion.

My troll may engage in a lot of bad behavior, and has clearly demonstrated that she’s not a safe person to interact with. But that doesn’t mean she’s any less human or any less deserving of understanding.