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Cyber-trolling as symbolic violence: deconstructing gendered abuse online



Trolling is often enacted against women and minority groups on social media platforms, such as Twitter, as a means of limiting or undermining participation in virtual space(s). This chapter considers trolling as a form of gendered and symbolic violence. Drawing on an analysis of British national newspaper reports focusing on cases of trolling, we demonstrate that trolling can be viewed as a ‘silencing strategy’. Trolling leaves its victims in a powerless position as freedom of expression for perpetrators is defended via social media ideologies. The initial promise of social media – to provide democratizing spaces – in practice creates space for the percolation of misogynist, sexist, racist, and/or homophobic attitudes. The chapter focuses on trolling in the form of rape and death threats, women as doubly deviant when deemed to be entering men’s (online) domain(s), responses to trolling, and feminist activism.
Cyber-trolling as symbolic violence: deconstructing gendered abuse online
Karen Lumsden and Heather M. Morgan
Trolling is often enacted against women and minority groups on social media platforms, such
as Twitter, as a means of limiting or undermining participation in virtual space(s). This chapter
considers trolling as a form of gendered and symbolic violence. Drawing on an analysis of
British national newspaper reports focusing on cases of trolling, we demonstrate that trolling
can be viewed as a ‘silencing strategy’. Trolling leaves its victims in a powerless position as
freedom of expression for perpetrators is defended via social media ideologies. The initial
promise of social media – to provide democratizing spaces – in practice creates space for the
percolation of misogynist, sexist, racist, and/or homophobic attitudes. The chapter focuses on
trolling in the form of rape and death threats, women as doubly deviant when deemed to be
entering men’s (online) domain(s), responses to trolling, and feminist activism.
Introduction: cyber-trolling
Media reports and public debates concerning the ‘dark side’ of the web focus on various forms
of online abuse, such as trolling (Phillips, 2015), RIP trolling1 (Marwick and Ellison, 2012),
hate crime (Citron, 2016), cyber-bulling, e-bile (Jane, 2014a), revenge porn, stalking, and
sexting. Police and criminal justice agencies report difficulties in keeping up with the rise in
the number of reports of online crime and abuse, while there are currently ineffective means of
legislating against and/or investigating and prosecuting cases (Bishop, 2013). Social media
corporations, such as Twitter, have been called to task for their slow responses to dealing with
online abuse. In 2015 the Chief Executive Officer of Twitter, Dick Costolo, was quoted as
stating in a leaked memo that ‘We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple
trolling issues that they face everyday … I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with
this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd’ (Griffin, 2015).
This chapter considers trolling as a form of gendered abuse and symbolic violence (Bourdieu
and Wacquant, 2002) as it is performed in relation to women on social media platforms, such
as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Trolling can be likened to a form of cyber-bullying and
involves the sending or submission of provocative emails, social media posts, or ‘tweets’
(Twitter messages), with the intention of inciting an angry or upsetting response from its
intended target, or victim. In contrast to visibility, anonymity has been deemed important for
making trolling possible in a variety of online spaces (Hardaker, 2010; Hardaker and
McGlashan, 2016) and this form of online bullying is often committed incognito. Trolling can
also attempt to hijack and disrupt the normal interactions and communication practices and also
to ‘oust’ the victim from participation in public forums of debate. As Williams (2012) writes:
Trolls aren't necessarily any more pleasant than haters, but their agenda is different
they don't just want to insult a particular person, they want to start a fight – hopefully
one that has a broader application, and brings in more people than just the object of their
original trolling. The term derives from a fishing technique say your stupid thing,
watch the world bite.
Different categories of trolls have been identified. According to Bishop (2013: 302), those
‘transgressive messages designed to harm others for the sender’s gratification and others’
discomfort are called “flame trolls”, and those designed to entertain others for their gratification
are called “kudos trolls.”’ Mantilla (2015) identifies ‘gendertrolling’ as distinct from forms of
trolling which more generally attempt to disrupt or hijack online interactions. ‘Gendertrolls’
have a different motivation and ‘gendertrolling is exponentially more vicious, virulent,
aggressive, threatening, pervasive, and enduring than generic trolling … gendertrolls take their
cause seriously, so they are therefore able to rally others who share in their convictions … [and]
are devoted to targeting the designated person’ (Mantilla, 2015: 11). New forms of media can
also ‘exacerbate issues surrounding sexual violence by creating digital spaces wherein the
perpetration and legitimization of sexual violence takes on new qualities’ (Dodge, 2015: 67).
The most prominent reported form of abuse or ‘gendertrolling’ targeted at women online
involves rape threats and/or death threats. ‘Rape culture’ can be seen as re-emerging within
popular discourses over the past five years and is ‘a socio-cultural context in which an
aggressive male sexuality is eroticized and seen as a “healthy”, “normal”, and “desired” part of
sexual relations’ (Keller et al., 2015: 5; Herman, 1978). It can be defined as:
A complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence
against women … condones physical and emotional terrorism against women and
presents it as the norm… In a rape culture, both men and women assume that sexual
violence is a fact of life, as inevitable as death or taxes. (Buchwald et al., 2005: xi)
Jane (2014a: 535; 2014b) notes that ‘such discourse has become normalized to the extent that
threatening rape has become the modus operandi for those wishing to critique female
commentators’. Online abuse both redeploys existing manifestations of ‘rape culture’ and
intensifies them due to the speed at which images and written communications can be shared
online (Shariff and DeMartini, 2015). In this chapter, we are concerned with those instances
where trolling crossed the boundary from an exchange of teasing remarks or humour, to
sustained abuse by one or more individuals, and which can be viewed as a form of gendered
and/or ‘symbolic violence’.
Advice to victims on how to respond to trolling includes such statements as: ‘do not feed the
troll’ (Binns, 2012) and ‘ignore the troll’. The implications implicit in this advice for dealing
with trolls is that victims should be silenced. This is particularly a problem in relation to women,
whom, we argue, have become particularly susceptible to online gendered and symbolic
violence by cyber-trolls and whom are being advised, implicitly or explicitly, to ‘put up and
shut up’, reminiscent of advice given about responses to physical and mental, especially
domestic, violence, in the past.
Chapter overview
In this chapter we discuss key themes identified within a recent literature review and
ethnographic content analysis (Altheide, 1987) of 175 British newspaper reports on of trolling
(Lumsden and Morgan, forthcoming). We focus on how the themes we identified fit with wider
discourses around trolling and their implications in deconstructing gendered abuse online. The
core of the discussion focuses on ‘gendertrolling’ and gendered ‘symbolic violence’ in the form
of rape and death threats, body shaming and female incompetence, the framing of women in
online spaces, the advice given to victims of trolling and the responses to it so far. We draw on
Bourdieu’s (2001) concept of ‘symbolic violence’ and the work of feminists to deconstruct
gendered/deviant interactions on Twitter. We argue that greater social scientific attention must
be paid to the social aspects of information and communication technologies in terms of
(gendered and other) social inequalities and communications and interactions online, which act
as ‘symbolic violence’, to address the growing ‘dark side’ of the web and social media and to
inform the policy and practice developments required to address this form of abuse. We
consider that the same old everyday feminist problems are manifested in different, but just as
damaging, ways in which women again appear as somehow complicit, but also as victims of
gendered online abuse, hence lacking power in online spaces just as women previously (and
still) often lack power in offline spaces.
Gendered and symbolic violence
Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of ‘symbolic violence’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992), and the
work of feminist writers including Angela McRobbie (2004) and others (Adkins, 2004; Skeggs,
2004), are useful for analysing the ways in which ‘symbolic violence’ is enacted upon women
(and minority groups) on social media. Bourdieu’s work has relevance for feminism and
analysis of gender relations, although as Adkins (2004: 3; Moi, 1999) points out his social
theory itself had ‘relatively little to say about women or gender… with most of his writings
framed pre-eminently in terms of issues of class’ (although an exception is found in Bourdieu
(2001)). His work, however, offers ‘explanatory power’ that is not provided elsewhere (Skeggs,
2004: 21). This includes linking objective structures to subjective will; his ‘metaphoric model
of social space’; and his methodological insights, including his focus on reflexivity (Skeggs,
2004: 21).
By drawing on Bourdieu’s work, we can ‘re-cast symbolic violence as a process of social
reproduction’ (McRobbie, 2004: 103). Social inequalities (classed, racialized, and gendered)
are thus ‘perpetuated as power relations directed towards [online] bodies and the “dispositions
of individuals”’ (McRobbie, 2004: 103). These dispositions also reflect Bourdieu’s theorization
of ‘taste’. ‘Symbolic violence’ denotes more than a form of violence operating symbolically. It
is ‘the violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity’ (Bourdieu
and Wacquant, 2002: 167). Examples of the exercise of ‘symbolic violence’ include gender
relations in which both men and women agree that women are weaker, less intelligent, more
unreliable, and so forth (and for Bourdieu gender relations are the paradigm case of the
operation of ‘symbolic violence’). Hence, what we also want to explore is the complicity of
online agents. The advice given to victims of online abuse and/or trolling involve complicity
with the ‘symbolic violence’ enacted on them by the villain/troll, and therefore by entering into
these online spaces, or ‘fields’ to use Bourdieu’s term, we can argue that ‘corporeal inculcation’
of ‘symbolic violence’ is ‘exercised with the complicity’ of the individual (McNay, 1999;
McRobbie, 2004). For example, as we will show below, the presence of the ‘male gaze’
(Mulvey, 1975[1992]) is evident via social media scrutiny of the female body by both men and
women online, with women deemed to be deviant for attempting to reverse the ‘gaze’ onto the
watchers. Therefore, violence against women in the digital realm reinforces established gender
roles (as they emerge in offline spaces).
Examples of Trolling and Gendered Abuse Online
Rape and death threats
As noted above, trolling most commonly involves rape and death threats directed at women
who are in the public eye, such as politicians, television presenters, musicians, and feminist
bloggers and activists. These examples demonstrate the increasingly prevalent ‘rape culture’
which incorporates aspects of popular misogyny and which entails anti-female violent
expression via the threats of rape and death directed at women online. Expressions of aggressive
male sexuality are therefore eroticized in the online sphere (Keller et al., 2015: 5; Herman,
1978). These instances were often related to the posting of visual images online. For instance,
one report referred to the Australian DJ Alison Wonderland who:
received the abuse alongside a photo of herself sitting on the ground with her legs
apart…Instagram trolls said they wanted to ‘roofie’2 and ‘rape’ her Thousands of
people had ‘liked’ the photograph … before the first of the offenders commented: ‘Can
we rape her or something please,’ tagging the other with the Instagram handle … The
second responded by looping in another follower, seemingly alleging him to say: ‘I
would roofie her’. (Soldani B., MailOnline. 08 October 2015).
Social media trolls’ responses to an alleged rape and assault offline, including the utilisation of
the #JadaPose described below, further demonstrates the blurred lines between the offline and
online worlds, and those actions which are deemed by the troll to have consequences for a
victim of trolling:
A teenage girl, who discovered she had been drugged and raped at a party after
images of the alleged assault appeared online, has become a victim of online trolling …
since Jada’s story made international headlines, online bullies on social media, or so-
called trolls, have shared photos of themselves imitating how the teenager appears in
the pictures of her alleged attack, alongside #JadaPose. (Gander K.,
11 July 2014).
The stereotype of women as ‘gossipy’ and deviant, which draws upon (antiquated) negative
images of women found throughout history and still feeds into narrow definitions of femininity
that promote hegemonic masculinity and undermine women, is also evident via the use of terms
such as ‘witch’ alongside rape and/or death threats, as the below trolling of the Labour MP
Stella Creasy and the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, in relation to a campaign for
a woman to appear on UK currency (£10 bank notes). The troll in this instance was jailed for
18 weeks and had:
threatened to assault … [and] called her a witch in a ‘campaign of hatred’. He retweeted
a threatening message …which read: ‘You better watch your back, I’m going to rape
your a**e at 8pm and put the video all over’ … In his next message he posted: ‘Best
way to rape a witch, try and drown her first then just when she’s gagging for air that’s
when you enter’ … Later that evening he wrote: ‘If you can’t threaten to rape a celebrity,
what is the point in having them?’ He called the Labour MP an ‘evil witch’ and
wrote: ‘What’s the odds of Criado and Creasy snuggling and cuddling under a duvet
checking their tweets and cackling like witches (rape me says Caroline)’. (Williams A.,
MailOnline. 29 September 2014).
‘Naked trolling’, where men send women explicit images of themselves via social media, can
also be viewed as a form of digital rape:
Mum-of-two Laura Allen received graphic naked images of strangers on her Facebook
account. The 28-year-old therapist explains: ‘The first time I logged on and saw the
messages was three years ago. I only went online to see friends and was shocked when
a series of naked pictures came up on my screen from a complete stranger. I tried to
click off them as quickly as I could. I was humiliated by what I had seen Then I
received another graphic picture message from this stranger with a message saying if I
wanted sex I should reply to him. I deleted it but worried about who this guy was. I felt
violated that he’d made me see him naked … I received another private message, from
a different man, with a picture of his penis and a message saying if I wanted to see more
pictures I could email him … It made me feel vulnerable …’ (Unknown, The Sun. 04
December 2013).
Body shaming and ‘feminine’ expectations
Body shaming was also a prominent form of trolling, linked especially to the posting of images
on the social media application Instagram, and also with victims receiving negative comments
linked to their appearance in addition to, or instead of the aforementioned rape and death threats.
The presence of the ‘male gaze’ (Mulvey, 1975[1992]) is evident via social media scrutiny of
the female body by both men and women online. For instance, the musician Nicki Minaj was
reported to have been ‘mocked for her appearance’ on Instagram. However, in this instance,
the report highlights her response to the trolls as a form of ‘public shaming’, making implicit
the underlying advice that she should instead have ignored or ‘not fed the trolls’. Her strategy
of re-posting pictures of those trolling involved the reversal of the ‘gaze’ to give ‘fans a taste
of their own medicine’:
Minaj has never been one to take verbal abuse lying down, and after a string of cruel
comments about her appearance on her Instagram page the rapper decided to give fans
a taste of their own medicine. She had been Instagramming pictures from her brother
Jelani’s wedding, which she allegedly paid for in full, when someone made comments
about her hair, telling her she needed to get rid of her ponytail. Minaj retaliated by going
onto the Instagram accounts of people who were rude to her and posting their selfies on
her account to see how they liked being scrutinised …. But following complaints she
was ‘bullying’ people, Minaj took to Twitter to justify her actions, and hit out at the
double standards she gets when she tries standing up for herself:
Lol can I just be on my own page minding my business in peace? Lmao. When I post a
pic of a person dissin me I’m a bully? Lol this world… - NICKI MINAJ
(@NICKIMINAJ) August, 23 2015. (Mandle C., 25 August 2015).
Like Minaj, the boss of Uber Car UK, Jo Bertram, also received comments about her
appearance, and this time the report highlights that offenders are female, as well as male:
Female cabbies have also joined the attacks. One, who uses the Twitter handle ‘claire
bear’ has sent more than 40 tweets in which she has criticised Bertram’s looks and
compared her to Jimmy Saville, the disgraced BBC DJ and presenter. (Henry R., The
Sunday Times. 05 July 2015).
Women as incapable or incompetent in relation to their profession
In addition, comments from trolls also included links to what is viewed as normative
expectations for displays of femininity in the public sphere. For instance, this report below
demonstrates how women are viewed as ‘incapable’ in relation to various professions, and how
femininity is incompatible with capability:
Apprentice finalist Leah Totton has been ‘devastated’ by internet trolls claiming she is
not a real doctor … The stunning 25-year-old has also suffered online abuse about her
looks as well as creepy demands to expose herself for the cameras. Vile trolls have
accused the ex-model of misleading Lord Sugar about her medical qualifications
leaving her distraught … And others have gone on her Facebook fan-page to claim her
medical degree gives her nothing more than the ‘courtesy title’ of doctor. The hate-
fuelled postings include one from Andrew Miller, who wrote: ‘You won’t win. You’re
showing off too much pink lipstick, not enough competence and skills…dying to know
how on earth you have become a qualified Dr by the age of 24 …’ She has also been
subject to a torrent of taunts about her looks from bullying men. Micky McGinnis said:
‘Go on Leah, get your t**ts out’. And Rakin Islam wrote: ‘*cough eye candy *cough*’.
(Hill P., The People. 14 July 2013).
Women as ‘doubly deviant’
The examples given above also indicate the sexist and misogynist abuse directed at a woman
who is viewed as ‘incompetent’ by men in terms of her occupation and gender, and participating
in a field typically associated with men and masculinity. In this sense, women who entered
spaces typically deemed to be a ‘man’s domain’ were viewed as ‘doubly deviant’ (for instance
deviant for being online and deviant for daring to partake in a male-dominated field or
occupation). Often, it was women’s lives in the offline context which then were utilised as a
rationale for trolling as online abuse via Twitter. This was the case for the television presenter
Sue Perkins who received abuse after rumours (later confirmed as untrue) spread that she would
be taking over from Jeremy Clarkson as the presenter of BBC’s Top Gear programme:
Sue revealed to fans on her social media account earlier this week Top Gear fans had
been ‘wishing me dead’ after it was rumoured she was being lined up to take a leading
role in the motoring show. She wrote: ‘Guys, post the utterly fabricated story about me
& Top Gear, my timeline has been full of blokes wishing me dead …’ ‘This morning
someone suggested they’d like to see me burn to death.’ (Thistlethwaite F., Express
Online. 17 April 2015).
Responses to trolling: silence, public shaming and ‘pitchfork democracy’
Media discussions tended to centre on how the victim and/or their supporters responded to
incidents of trolling and online abuse. In many cases, reports indicated that the victims had
opted to leave Twitter permanently or temporarily in order to avoid abuse. Implicit in this
approach to dealing with cyber-trolling is a kind of blame, which encourages victims to accept
responsibility for and act on the abuse by removing themselves from the online space in which
the attack occurred, perhaps denying them opportunities to use social media platforms for
information sharing, networking, engaging in social discourses. This is reflected in movements
to address abuse on social media, for instance the campaign #TwitterSilence:
Celebrities went into Twitter lockdown yesterday to protest against vile trolls on the
website. Thousands of users observed a 24-hour silence yesterday in a backlash against
bomb threats sent to women. The move came after TV historian, Mary Beard, 58, called
police when she became the latest victim of the hate campaign. (Jorsh M., Daily Star.
05 August 2013).
Moreover, as highlighted above the adage of ‘do not feed the troll’ has been employed as a
form of advice for anyone at the receiving end of online abuse. This ‘silencing strategy’ can be
viewed as encouraging the complicity of victims in the act of ‘symbolic violence’. As the
feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez notes, if they attempt to respond to trolls, women are
viewed as ‘seeking victimhood’:
‘Don’t feed the trolls’. So tenacious is this mantra’s grip on our collective conscious
that any deviation from the one true anti-trolling path results in a barrage of advice
which basically amounts to two words: ‘shut up’. The theory, like that strange childhood
belief in the invisibility of those who close their eyes, being that if you don’t react, the
troll can’t hurt you – or at least the troll will get bored and go away… To some perhaps,
this response proves the adage; by talking about abuse we were ‘feeding’ the trolls, so
we got what we deserved. (Criado-Perez C., 07 March 2014).
A satirical blogger, described in this article as a troll, also highlights the response that offending
trolls receive is akin to being pursued by an ‘angry mob’ who are out to reap justice. The
instance of Brenda Leyland that he refers to involved her committing suicide after being
confronted by a Sky news reporter with regards to her trolling of the parents of missing child
Madeleine McCann:
now his name is public, Ambridge receives death threats every day. He says: ‘They say
they’re going to come round with baseball bats in the middle of the night or rape my
wife …’. ‘It’s not satirical bloggers like me we should be scared of – it’s the screeching,
hysterical mob. When these people descend it is brutal and in Brenda Leyland’s case it
was fatal. It’s pitchfork democracy by the mob and it’s a dangerous thing. It is grim,
unchartered territory. It’s like the middle ages again – burn the witch, kill the heretic. If
you just happen to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong comment,
then you can pay dearly for it …’ (Daubney M., The Sun. 31 January 2015).
Challenging the actions of the troll is portrayed negatively in media reports. This was hinted at
above in the response of Nikki Minaj to body shaming on Instagram. It is also reflected below
when fans of the blogger Kat Blaque opted to challenge the trolls directly:
Against Kat's wishes, fans began posting negative reviews and comments on Kenneth's
personal and work pages, which only caused him to escalate his abuse. (Bolton D., 30 September 2015).
‘Victim blaming’ was also prominent, particularly with those who opted to publicly engage
with the public on social media, or display their body (or parts of it), being advised that the
response received was not unsurprising and was part of normal interactions between a celebrity
and their audiences as another example in the exchange below demonstrates. The exchange
between Lena Dunham and Whoopi Goldberg was prompted by The View’s Candace Cameron
Bure’s public comment which compared internet trolling to being raped:
Dunham announced earlier this week that she received hateful comments after sharing
a photo of herself in her boyfriend’s underwear, labeling the response as ‘verbal
violence’ … Moderator Whoopi Goldberg did not share her opinion about Duhnam’s
assessment, however, she did say that people should know what they’re facing on the
Internet in this day and age. ‘The minute you put yourself out there in someone’s
underwear, you can’t be surprised,’ Goldberg said. (Graham RF., MailOnline. 02
October 2015).
Feminist activism online: challenging the trolls
It is important to note that recent work also highlights how feminists and women have utilised
social media to respond to sexist treatment and discrimination. Most notable examples include
the #EverydaySexism Project which includes a website (set up by Laura Bates in 2012) and
Twitter page, both of which catalogue instances of sexism experienced on an everyday basis
across the globe. Keller et al., (2015) focus on the ways in which girls and women use digital
media platforms to challenge the rape culture, sexism and misogyny they experience in
everyday life. A special issue of Feminist Media Studies (2015) also highlights the use of
feminist hashtags to ‘expose the transnational pervasiveness of gendered violence, creating a
space for women and girls to share their own experiences and, through doing so, challenge
“commonsense” understandings of this abuse and promote gendered solidarity’ (Berridge and
Portwood-Stacer, 2015: 341). Examples include black feminists’ use of social media to fill the
gap in national media coverage of black women’s issues, including ‘the ways that race and
gender affect the wage gap to the disproportionate amount of violence committed against black
transgender women’ (Williams, 2015: 343). Khoja-Moolji (2015) highlights the use of
‘hashtagging’ (#) as a form of activism which is encouraged by campaigns for girls’
empowerment, while Eagle (2015) focuses on their use as part of a campaign to improve
women’s use of transport and public space, without the fear of sexual harassment.
However, the dangers feminists can encounter in relation to the ‘threats of gendered violence
that occur within online spaces themselves’ are also highlighted (Berridge and Portwood-Stacer,
2015: 341). Thus, for women utilizing the public space of the internet, there is a double-edged
sword in that it promotes freedom of expression and provides a space for feminist activism,
while it also presents the risk of a backlash from potential trolls as a means of curtailing
women’s appropriation of, and participation in, online spaces. As Keller et al., (2015: 5) note,
‘anyone who challenges popular misogyny puts themselves at risk of becoming the subject of
sexist attacks and abuse’.
Discussion: Trolling, online violence and complicity
In the media discourses of trolling presented above, the denigration of the female victim is
viewed as a form of ‘self-conscious irony’ (McRobbie, 2004), and victims are advised to
remember that ‘no harm is intended’ and not to provoke the ‘troll’ further – ‘do not feed the
troll’. However, these strategies do not address the issue of abuse, misogyny and sexism (not
to mention in other instances racism and Islamophobia), but instead require the women to be
complicit in the exercise of ‘symbolic violence’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992). Bourdieu’s
work is therefore useful for analysing how ‘social arrangement along gender lines takes shape
within… media… by means of habitus adjustment to ensure conformity with the contemporary
requirements’ of the field of Twitter or other social media sites/platforms (McRobbie, 2004:
108). We can view social inequalities on Twitter, epitomized in communicative
interactions/relations such as trolling, as a further example of the ‘feminization’ of the post-
feminist production and reproduction of social divisions (Adkins, 2004: 7). New forms of social
media and online media, such as Twitter, thus play a key role in these new forms of social
Trolling also sits within the wider social and cultural context of the rise of ‘lad culture’ (see
Phipps and Young, 2015), where sexist and misogynistic language and treatment of women is
lauded and admired by peers, flagrantly displayed online in sites such as Lad Bible, and forms
of racist and sexist trolling on Twitter and other social media sites. Trolling must be viewed
within this wider context, as a means of silencing women’s voices online and their participation
in ‘virtual public space’, resulting in the heteronormative masculinization of virtual space. We
see this in relation to women and technology throughout history, for instance female cyclists
and then in women’s adoption of the motor car (the stereotype of the incompetent ‘woman
driver’ still exists), and like the online abuse faced by women, this misogyny and sexism can
be viewed in the vein of attempts to curtail female participation and presence in the public
democratic sphere, and women’s mobility – whether physical travel in the case of the bicycle
or car, or virtual travel vis-à-vis online communication and messages. We see the virtual
becoming reality.
Therefore, the time has come for media framing of trolling to stop promoting virtual space as
something separate and detached from the ‘real world’. Given how closely it is now intertwined
with our everyday social lives and social relationships, the ‘virtual’ is ‘real’, and has ‘real’
implications for women, ethnic minorities and vulnerable groups who more often than not are
the victims of various forms of cyber abuse. This is echoed in work by feminists on women’s
participation in other online spaces, such as Braithwaite’s (2014) study of World of Warcraft
online forums, in which she argues that ‘the digital and the virtual are not independent spaces’
(Braithwaite, 2014: 703). Instead these are experienced as part of the everyday, and hence
‘feminists and feminism are treated as threats to these virtual spaces’ (Braithwaite, 2014: 703).
Moreover, as Jane (2014b: 559) notes: ‘E-bile’s self-generative properties will also become
apparent, as we see that women who speak publically about being targeted by online invective
often receive more of it’.
In addition, the largest and most systematic study of Violence Against Women (VaW), which
covers up to 2005 (Htun and Weldon, 2012), does not account for today’s trolling or the
implementation of social policy by governments to address this. It is therefore important to
recognise the likelihood of the under-reporting of online violence and abuse and also the link
between online and offline violence for instance in cases of domestic abuse and stalking. For
instance, a report by Women’s Aid (2014) indicated that 41 per cent of domestic violence
victims whom they helped were tracked or harassed using electronic devices.
Online abuse, such as trolling, thus victimizes women in particular and in gendered ways.
Whilst there is a developing spectrum of policing responses, online abuse contexts and settings
mean that they are usually perceived as ‘different’ – in fact, less serious. As reports of online
abuse and offences increase, there is a need for more open discussion of the policing and
regulation of online space. For instance, it is now estimated that half of all calls received by
police relate to online offences such as threats on social media. Twitter crimes are said to have
doubled in the last three years (Moore, 2014). As the Head of the College of Policing, Alex
Marshall, explained: ‘it will not be long before pretty much every investigation that the police
conduct will have an online element to it’ (Moore, 2014). With the privacy and anonymity the
Internet can afford users, we see traditional offences conducted from the comfort of people’s
own homes, and often by strangers. In addition, in many instances ‘trolls’ are targeting those
who are already vulnerable (for instance the example of RIP trolling, 3 racism, sexism,
islamophobia, homophobia).
The combined effects of these shades of victimization and discrimination call for action and
further (feminist) research and theorizing in order to explore the myriad ways in which both
female and feminist voices are constructed, received, and responded to online, and of means of
tackling cyber abuse. For women, a ‘geography of fear’ (Mehta and Bondi, 1999), can be said
to extend from the offline world to online spaces such as Twitter, comment feeds, blogs, etc.
Trolling is therefore a form of ‘symbolic violence’ against women and a means of attempting
to silence women and their participation in these online fields. We call for greater academic,
particularly social scientific, attention to this problem, with the aim not only of understanding
and making sense of the issues, but also informing the development of policy and guidelines
for practice, for example in the same ways that legislation on revenge porn has been developed,
and perhaps drawing on this new response to online violence to move towards and shape
prosecutions for trolling.
This chapter considered cyber-trolling as a ‘silencing strategy’ and a form of gendered
‘symbolic violence’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 2002; McRobbie, 2005) enacted against women
in online spaces, such as Twitter. Cyber-trolling mainly targets women, and is therefore
gendered, but often involves intersectionality, particularly with ethnicity, religion and sexuality,
which we have acknowledged in places, but do not explore in detail in this chapter. Recent
research also indicates that the majority of victims of online Islamophobia tend to be female
(Feldman and Littler, 2014). Reasons given for this include women being more likely to report
online abuse, and also in offline cases the greater visibility which is related to items of clothing
(such as the hijab) (Gerard and Whitfield, 2016).
We drew attention to the media discourses on trolling via analysis of British newspaper reports.
The very nature and structure of social media sites, both in terms of their design and the related
discourses and communications they facilitate, reflect the normalization of online violence
against women as an extension of or proxy for gendered violence. The act of public shaming
and/or offending (vis-à-vis trolling) also leaves the victim and/or target of the troll in a
powerless position. This position of powerlessness relates to the irony of the freedom of
expression promised by social media, apparently embedded within ideologies and a logic of
providing a democratizing space, but which in practice creates space for the percolation of
misogynist, sexist, racist, and/or homophobic attitudes. For victims to abide by the message
that is propagated in media and popular discourses: ‘do not feed the troll’, the ‘corporeal
inculcation’ of symbolic violence is exercised not only against the victim, but also makes them
complicit (McNay, 1999; McRobbie, 2004). This encourages old versions of the gendered and
symbolic violence relationship to be established and upheld in online spaces, while the focus
on addressing them in offline spaces continues, which essentially displaces rather than
eliminates gendered violence in modern society.
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1 RIP trolling consists of anonymous individuals posting offensive comments on tribute pages
(set up by the bereaved) on Facebook. In this form of abuse, the identity and memory of the
victim, which has been immortalized via the Facebook tribute page, is attacked or desecrated
by the ‘troll’. Metaphorically and symbolically this cyber-act resonated with instances of the
physical desecration of grave stones.%
2 ‘Roofie’ is a slang term for Rohypnol, a sedative often used by perpetrators to incapacitate
potential rape victims in advance of committing a rape.
3 RIP trolling refers to vicious cyber-abuse following a death, usually targeted at or within
online ‘memorial’ pages or ‘tributes’.
... Siguiendo esta última línea, entendemos como trol de género a la acción y/o al sujeto que publica mensajes misóginos agresivos y que persigue que las víctimas reaccionen de forma molesta para lograr el efecto disruptivo que interfiere en la interacción y comunicación de los usuarios de las redes (Lumsden & Morgan, 2018). Los mensajes misóginos y agresivos son variados, pero, en general, corresponden a: amenazas de muerte o violación, humillaciones dirigidas al cuerpo (body shaming), mensajes que atacan la competencia profesional de las mujeres y mensajes que atacan a mujeres que se desempeñan en campos tradicionalmente vinculados a los hombres (Lumsden & Morgan, 2018). ...
... Siguiendo esta última línea, entendemos como trol de género a la acción y/o al sujeto que publica mensajes misóginos agresivos y que persigue que las víctimas reaccionen de forma molesta para lograr el efecto disruptivo que interfiere en la interacción y comunicación de los usuarios de las redes (Lumsden & Morgan, 2018). Los mensajes misóginos y agresivos son variados, pero, en general, corresponden a: amenazas de muerte o violación, humillaciones dirigidas al cuerpo (body shaming), mensajes que atacan la competencia profesional de las mujeres y mensajes que atacan a mujeres que se desempeñan en campos tradicionalmente vinculados a los hombres (Lumsden & Morgan, 2018). En este último caso, por ejemplo, una periodista chilena especializada en fútbol compartía en Twitter el mail que un lector furioso había mandado como reacción a una nota sobre la Copa Africana de Naciones: «esto pasa sres Redgol cuando ponen minas a escribir de futbo (sic)!!! la «señorita» sandoval escribe que mahomed salah es africano cuando todos saben que es EGIPCIO.. PIENSE (sic) Srta y sres Redgol contraten gente con talento de periodista y que sepa de futbol y no mujer por los puros escotes, gracias!» (Sandoval, 2022). ...
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Los capítulos de este libro abordan distintos aspectos de la «cultura digital» entendida como un entorno que actúa sobre nuestra forma de estar juntos, nuestros vínculos sociales y nuestras sociabilidades —en suma, nuestra forma de vivir. La mediación de las interacciones, la difusión de contenido digital, las formas de violencia en línea, la apropiación de la escritura, la organización política en las redes sociales, la transmisión y socialización son algunos de los temas abordados en estas páginas. Y es que las Nuevas Tecnologías y las redes sociodigitales son portadoras de una revolución «mediológica» y «epistémica». Mediológica, porque la materialidad de la cultura se transforma, se refunde en el crisol técnico de la digitalización. Textos, imágenes, videos y sonidos se convierten en binary units. Comúnmente hablamos de «multimedia», pero de hecho deberíamos hablar de «uni-media», ¡ya que la tecnología es única! Y permite, en soportes diferenciados, recibir contenidos culturales previamente separados por una valla mediática hermética. Pero la revolución también es epistémica, porque las TIC nos hacen pensar y sentir diferente, «consumir» y producir cultura diferente, «estar con», hacer sociedad diferente. Contribuir a la reflexión sobre las dinámicas y desafíos de nuestras sociedades digitales desde las Ciencias Sociales ha sido el objetivo de este trabajo colectivo.
... Other researchers relate the gender-based attacks on female journalists with online misogyny (Tandoc et al., 2021). Gender-trolling is the same as any other misogyny-to exercise symbolic violence by discouraging women from participating in the public sphere (Lumsden and Morgan, 2018). ...
... Studies show that online harassment can cause self-esteem issues and affect social life leading to further psychological problems (Lobo et al., 2017;Ruoho and Torkkola, 2018). In various Western countries, researchers have found that women journalists were discouraged by vicious trolls from participating in the online public sphere (Lumsden and Morgan, 2018); were thinking of switching over to other jobs (Neilson, 2018;Chen et al., 2020) going anonymous (Adams, 2018) or all together relinquishing their profession (Bamezai et al., 2020;Bhat and Chadha, 2022). ...
In this study, we examined the trolling of female journalists on Twitter in Pakistan. Through quantitative and qualitative content analysis, we found the female journalists received offensive comments in which the trolls mocked their gender, profession, and personal lives. Though the trolls affiliated with the government produced more hate, opposition political parties and ordinary people also engaged in varying levels of gender-based slurs. Moreover, the journalists critical of the government received more negative comments than the pro-government journalists. Our findings show the trolls adopted a targeted approach in which the highly conservative cultural values were exploited to put social pressure on journalists to dissuade them against exercising their democratic rights.
... Following this last line, we understand as gender troll, the action and/or the subject that publishes aggressive misogynistic messages, and that pursues that the victims react in an annoying way to achieve the disruptive effect that interferes in the interaction and communication of the users of networks (Lumsden & Morgan, 2018). The misogynistic and aggressive messages are varied, but, in general, they correspond to death or rape threats; humiliation directed at the body (body shaming); messages that attack the professional competence of women; and messages that attack women who work in fields traditionally linked to men (Lumsden & Morgan, 2018). ...
... Following this last line, we understand as gender troll, the action and/or the subject that publishes aggressive misogynistic messages, and that pursues that the victims react in an annoying way to achieve the disruptive effect that interferes in the interaction and communication of the users of networks (Lumsden & Morgan, 2018). The misogynistic and aggressive messages are varied, but, in general, they correspond to death or rape threats; humiliation directed at the body (body shaming); messages that attack the professional competence of women; and messages that attack women who work in fields traditionally linked to men (Lumsden & Morgan, 2018). ...
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Misogyny as a social historical phenomenon has manifested itself in different ways through the ages and societies. With the arrival of the Internet and the use of social networks, these behaviours and manifestations of hatred towards women have changed, but they have also intensified their violence, recurrence and, at the same time, reinforce stereotypes and entrenched sociocultural behaviours that reproduce the traditional role of women. Misogyny in social networks is a phenomenon that particularly resists accepting the visibility of women when holding important political positions, attacking mainly women who exercise their rights and in particular when they participate in electoral processes. The objective of this chapter is to know how the specialized literature is analysing this phenomenon and how certain ideologies use it as part of their political discourse strategies
... Os espaços de comentários desencadearam oportunidades sem precedentes de as mulheres jornalistas serem atacadas com impunidade, em especial, mulheres que trabalham assuntos considerados do domínio masculino, a exemplo do desporto (Antunovic, 2018) e da tecnologia (Adams, 2018), com maior exposição pública, tais como pivots e repórteres de televisão (Miller & Lewis, 2020), e profissionais que escrevem sobre temas de direitos humanos, extremismos de direita e questões de igualdade de género (Mijatović, 2016). Por outro lado, ainda que os jornalistas homens também recebam comentários hostis, os ataques que visam as mulheres são essencialmente de natureza pessoal e sexual , configurando, portanto, estratégias de desqualificação profissional, que desencorajam a participação no espaço público (Lumsden & Morgan, 2018). ...
Women journalists, as some of the most prominent and visible public figures, are frequently the targets of the cyber violence. Several studies stated that online abuse has a massive impact on women journalists and that it can cause psychological problems such as anxiety, stress, and fear, and it can lead to self-censorship. Through the analysis of existing data on online attacks on journalists in the Balkans, online survey addressing women journalists in particular and the series of interviews, the chapter aims to provide an overview of the online harassment of female journalists and explore their responses to abuse. The chapter shows the most common reported forms of abuse targeting female journalists victimize them in particular and gendered ways. They often don't report the violence due to lack of trust in authorities, and they are usually left alone facing intimidation and its psychological impact.
This study examines conversations developed in the virtual public sphere to identify if a user’s gender affects the presence of incivility in news comment sections. By relying on a mixed-method analysis of 1,961 news comments published on a Chilean news website, we observed the extent to which uncivil speech and gendered symbolic violence traits are used to reinforce stereotypes against women. Our results show men are more likely to post uncivil comments, while women use fewer profanities, insulting language, and stereotypes. One of our most intriguing findings is that men tend to receive more uncivil replies that women, mostly because they are more likely to initiate uncivil conversations, which in turn triggers uncivil replies and increases the odds of uncivil comment threads. As such, news outlets looking for enhancing healthy discussions should encourage greater participation of female users in their comment sections. We also identified the presence of hegemonic masculinity discourses referring to women and their gender roles in society. These findings reveal that comment sections mirror a social hierarchy in which men have a position of power that allows them to be more uncivil. Consequently, the virtual public sphere replicates the dominant-subordinate relationships described by previous research.
Digital systems now mediate our everyday social practices, political and economic lives. But ICT4D (ICT for development) research exploring the relationship between gender, technology and development has only had a limited conception of the power relationships and structures underpinning these systems. In this literature, technology is linked to gendered empowerment in that it is conceptualized as a means of increasing women’s choices and freedom, with little consideration of its potential disempowering impacts. Based on an understanding that the production of gender is ineluctably related to the production of power, and rooted in earlier techno-feminist scholarship, this paper proposes a new theoretical framework on the power relations of digital systems, exposing the visible, hidden, and invisible power in socio-technical systems and infrastructures. The framework is explored through a review of data and research on the global epidemic of online misogyny and gender-based violence (GBV). Harassment contributes to a culture of violence against women offline, and silences women’s voices in digital civic spaces, threatening the achievement of development goals. This paper illuminates the multiplicity of structural factors behind online GBV and offers a provocation for a critical ICT4D research agenda on the relationship between gender, digital technologies and development goals which engages with the complex and opaque power relationships underpinning the contemporary digital economy.
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To further consider the ways Touch both enables and constrains bodies and ways of being, this chapter examines Touch as including forms of both intimacy and violence. Extending from the implicit understandings of selfies and memes as Touch (Chap. 10.1007/978-3-030-94316-5_2 ) and the initial mapping of Touch (Chap. 10.1007/978-3-030-94316-5_3 ), the PrettyGirlsUglyFaces meme (and the selfies that make up the meme) is used as an example to consider selfies and memes as intimacy and violence. Then, drawing on the fundamentals of Touch (Chap. 10.1007/978-3-030-94316-5_3 ), I begin to plot a map of Touch, identifying how the example meme and selfies act as intimate connections that are positioned in a culture of violence. Central to this chapter is the identification of the joke’s importance to the positioning of visual conversations in social networks. As a form of Touch, the joke is identified as both enabling and constraining intimacy and violence. Examining memes and selfies as practices of connectivity and symbolic violence further recognises Touch for the ways it culturally both enables and constrains bodies and identifications.
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This chapter outlines the book’s key takeaways and future research trajectories, emphasising that Touch is a key cultural communicative aspect of social media relationships, and more broadly of digitally networked relationships. I summarise the key argument of each chapter, then drawing these arguments together, I locate and define the key aspects of “semeful sociabilities” as a means to map Touch of digitally networked social relationships and to describe the technological self as meaningful (semeful) and part of meaning-making processes. Mapping Touch is a means through which selfies and memes (as fundamental elements of everyday cultural communication and embodied networked practices) can be explored as meaningful cultural relationships, exposing the social, cultural and political realities of everyday socialities. Future trajectories for semeful sociabilities include application to a range of other memes and selfies, and to networked social relationships beyond visual. Furthermore, I propose that mapping Touch (to identify semeful social relationships) can provide insight into investigations and mapping of automated systems. Semeful sociabilities has the potential to identify and expose the semefulness (meanings) and impact of seamless systems and gain a better understanding of ourselves as humans as we design our technological futures.
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On 24th July 2013, feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez's petition to the Bank of England to have Elizabeth Fry's image on the UK's £5 note replaced with the image of another woman was successful. The petition challenged the Bank of England's original plan to replace Fry with Winston Churchill, which would have meant that no woman aside from the Queen would be represented on any UK banknote. Following this, Criado-Perez was subjected to ongoing misogynistic abuse on Twitter, a microblogging social network, including threats of rape and death. This paper investigates this increasingly prominent phenomenon of rape threats made via social networks. Specifically, we investigate the sustained period of abuse directed towards the Twitter account of feminist campaigner and journalist, Caroline Criado-Perez. We then turn our attention to the formation of online discourse communities as they respond to and participate in forms of extreme online misogyny on Twitter. We take a corpus of 76,275 tweets collected during a three month period in which the events occurred (July to September 2013), which comprises 912,901 words. We then employ an interdisciplinary approach to the analysis of language in the context of this social network. Our approach combines quantitative approaches from the fields of corpus linguistics to detect emerging discourse communities, and then qualitative approaches from discourse analysis to analyse how these communities construct their identities.
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Over the past four decades, violence against women (VAW) has come to be seen as a violation of human rights and an important concern for social policy. Yet government action remains uneven. Some countries have adopted comprehensive policies to combat VAW, whereas others have been slow to address the problem. Using an original dataset of social movements and VAW policies in 70 countries over four decades, we show that feminist mobilization in civil society—not intra-legislative political phenomena such as leftist parties or women in government or economic factors like national wealth—accounts for variation in policy development. In addition, we demonstrate that autonomous movements produce an enduring impact on VAW policy through the institutionalization of feminist ideas in international norms. This study brings national and global civil society into large-n explanations of social policy, arguing that analysis of civil society in general—and of social movements in particular—is critical to understanding progressive social policy change.
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The advancement of information and communications technology often results in early adoption, followed by concern over a digital divide, followed by mass adoption and then, inevitably, abuse and misuse of that platform. The most recent of these technologies is social networking services. The early adopters used Friendster and MySpace, and the masses now use Facebook and Twitter. The abuse of people on these platforms was called Cyberbullying in the case of the first two in the 2000s, and Internet trolling in the case of the second two in the 2010s. This paper reviews the legislation enacted in the UK parliament between 1981 and 2012 to deal with these offences, called ‘flame trolling’, for those based on transgress humour, or electronic message faults more generally. The paper presents a framework that includes a ‘Trolling Magnitude Scale’ based on established trolling culture, in order to link the legislative offences to the severities of those faults, as well as to the ability of specific Internet users to tolerate them or otherwise. The paper concludes that by using this framework law enforcement agencies such as the police can apply the laws more fairly and proportionally to protect free speech and at the same time be tough on the causes of electronic message faults in the form of Internet abuse and data misuse.
Cyber hate can take many different forms from online material which can lead to actual offline abuse and violence, cyber violence; cyber stalking, and online harassment with the use of visual images, videos, chat rooms, text and social media which are intended to cause harm. This book examines the case for current guidelines dealing with online anti-Muslim abuse and concludes that we require a new understanding of this online behaviour and the impact it can have on vulnerable communities. It is unique as it focuses on new technology in the form of social media and the Internet and explores the challenges the police and other agencies face when confronting anti-Muslim abuse in cyberspace. It also provides a critique of how people are targeted by online offenders and helps us understand online anti-Muslim behaviour in a much more detailed and comprehensive way by bringing together a range of experts who will examine this phenomenon and critically discuss why they think it has become so much more prevalent than it was before.
Whilst computer-mediated communication (CMC) can benefit users by providing quick and easy communication between those separated by time and space, it can also provide varying degrees of anonymity that may en-courage a sense of impunity and freedom from being held accountable for inappropriate online behaviour. As such, CMC is a fertile ground for study-ing impoliteness, whether it occurs in response to perceived threat (flam-ing), or as an end in its own right (trolling). Currently, first and second-order definitions of terms such as im/politeness (Brown and Levinson 1987; Bousfield 2008; Culpeper 2008; Terkourafi 2008), in-civility (Lakoff 2005), rudeness (Beebe 1995, Kienpointner 1997, 2008), and etiquette (Coulmas 1992), are subject to much discussion and debate, yet the CMC phenomenon of trolling is not adequately captured by any of these terms. Following Bousfield (in press), Culpeper (2010) and others, this paper suggests that a definition of trolling should be informed first and foremost by user discussions. Taking examples from a 172-million-word, asynchro-nous CMC corpus, four interrelated conditions of aggression, deception, disruption, and success are discussed. Finally, a working definition of troll-ing is presented.
This article explores the signal characteristics of gendered vitriol on the Internet – a type of discourse marked by graphic threats of sexual violence, explicit ad hominem invective and unapologetic misogyny. Such ‘e-bile’ is proliferating in the cybersphere and is currently the subject of widespread international media coverage. Yet it receives little attention in scholarship. This is likely related to the fact that discourse of this type is metaphorically ‘unspeakable’, in that its hyperbolic profanity locates it well outside the norms of what is regarded as ‘civil’ discourse. My case, however, is that – despite the risk of causing offence – this discourse must not only be spoken of, but must be spoken of in its unexpurgated entirety. There is, I argue, no other way to adequately assay the nature of a communication mode whose misogynistic hostility has serious ethical and material implications, not least because it has become a lingua franca in many sectors of the cybersphere. Proceeding via unexpurgated ostension is also the best – arguably the only – way to begin mapping the blurry parameters of the discursive field of e-bile, and from there to conduct further inquiry into the ethical appraisal of putative online hostility, and the consideration of possible remedies.