Troll Alert: Standing Strong Through Online Abuse

It’s Monday and I’m on a supposedly laptop-free holiday. But I can’t stop thinking about what happened on Wednesday night.

As Jamila Rizvi from MamaMia put it, a line was crossed that night when celebrity Charlotte Dawson was hospitalized after a torrent of abuse on Twitter, including a hashtag urging her to take her own life.

No one should ever be subject to that kind of abuse. It’s disgusting. And sadly, it’s not a one-off case. What happened to Charlotte reflects a broader ugliness that has infected the tone of our public debate – from Parliament house down. As my very smart friend Sarah Maddison wrote so eloquently in the Herald a few days ago:

“Today we find ourselves at the lowest ebb of political debate I can remember. Australian politics seems never to have been quite this turgid; quality debate never quite so drowned out by shouting, a carping competition for … what?”

She’s right. And we’ve all noticed it. Australian political debate has become angrier and uglier. It’s spilling into other areas of conversation too: sport, celebrity culture and even completely unexpected topics.

The unchecked aggression, sexism and racism so common on talkback radio and in columns like Andrew Bolt’s debases us all. And I fear it sets an example to ordinary people that it’s OK to say vile things online. After all, Alan Jones and Mike Smith get paid to do essentially the same thing on the airwaves – and get barely a slap on the wrist even when they go so far as to call for the Prime Minister to be thrown out to sea in a chaff bag (a.k.a. drowned).

But given the anonymity of the internet, it’s unlikely the trolls will start reining themselves in anytime soon. So if you’re a target (or potential future target) of online or offline abuse, how can you build resilience to help cope when these kind of attacks happen?

A decade as an environmental campaigner and being married to Public Enemy #1 of all the right-wing nutjobs in Australia means I’ve had a bit of experience in this area. I knew at the start of this year that as soon as my ABC documentary came out, I’d have a higher dose than usual of public scrutiny and that it would be accompanied by my fair share of nasty messages via email, Twitter and my blog.

I’ve grown a much thicker skin over the past few years, but I still needed a plan to make sure the haters weren’t going to affect me or derail my ‘changing hearts and minds’ climate change speaking tour to regional and rural Australia.

So I thought a bit about how I’d deal with it, and here are the strategies and learnings that have served me well. If you’re subject to cyber-bullying and hate messages in any context, I hope they might help you in some small way.

Separate Self from Role

This is the big one. If you can master this, abuse will flow off you like water from a duck’s back. You’ll shake your feathers and barely notice the haters.

Your self is who you are. The core things that make you, you. Your personal life. Your personality. The person you are with your family. Your role, on the other hand, is the position or function you are playing in your community, workplace or society.

Often, if you’re the target of trolls, you might be playing the important role of intervening in a public debate to help society move forward on a controversial issue like marriage equality or climate change. Making progress on these issues threatens the worldview and identity of some people. The research shows these people are more likely than not to be middle-aged men who aren’t comfortable with change. They feel that their values are under attack so they lash out – but not because they have a problem with you, the person. Their problem is with the role you’re playing and how it makes them feel.

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linksy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government write about this in their excellent article ‘A_Survival_Guide_for_Leaders

“You need to distinguish between your personal self, which can serve as an anchor in stormy weather, and your professional role, which never will. It is easy to mix up the two. And other people only increase the confusion: colleagues, subordinates, and even bosses often act as if the role you play is the real you. But that is not the case, no matter how much of yourself – your passions, your values, your talents – you genuinely and laudably pour into your professional role.

Ask anyone who has experienced the rude awakening that comes when they leave a position of authority and suddenly find that their phone calls aren’t returned as quickly as they used to be.

That harsh lesson holds another important truth that is easily forgotten: When people attack someone in a position of authority, more often than not they are attacking the role, not the person. Even when attacks on you are highly personal, you need to read them primarily as reactions to how you, in your role, are affecting people’s lives. Understanding the criticism for what it is prevents it from undermining your stability and sense of self-worth.”

Decide whose opinions you actually care about

The people who send abusive comments online are often, according to technology academic (and my former colleague) Jason Wilson, driven by a need for attention or power. Web community manager Venessa Paec explained in the SMH yesterday that trolls are often (I should add: not always) middle-aged men who are ”angry at the world”.

In other words, they’re often sad, lonely little people who get their thrills by abusing people online. Do these sound like the type of people whose opinions you care about? Thought not.

It’s important to decide upfront – and before you enter the public arena – whose opinions you will listen to and value. For me it’s my family, close friends, other authors (if their opinion is about my writing) and other climate campaigners (if their opinion is about my climate change work).

Anyone else – I don’t care what they think. If they’re not an expert in a field I’m working in, or they’re not someone whose judgment and opinion I respect, I have no reason to listen.

Seth Godin wrote a great post about this, called ‘Is everyone entitled to their opinion?’ His answer: ‘Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean we need to pay the slightest bit of attention’.

Godin lists two things that disqualify someone from being listened to. The first is lack of standing. “If you’re not a customer, a stakeholder or someone with significant leverage in spreading the word, we will ignore you. And we should’. If people are going to do great work, he argues, it means that some people aren’t going to like it.

The second disqualifier is no credibility – a lack of experience and expertise in the subject matter their opinion relates to. People with a history of bad judgment, who believe in unicorns or who have limited experience in the subject area are entitled to their opinions, says Godin – “but it’s not clear that the creator of the work needs to hear them”.

Godin concludes: “If these two standards sound like precisely the opposite of what gets you on talk radio or active in anonymous chat rooms, you’re right.”

Have a Plan B

Even with the thickest skin in the world, online abuse can still hurt. And as Helen Razor pointed out, turning off the computer doesn’t remove the fact that someone is being abusive. You can’t “turn off” threats. Especially when you’re feeling vulnerable and have had a crappy day.

This is why I always advise the young people I mentor to have a “Plan B”. A “Plan B” is a pre-planned action, or series of actions, that you take when you’re feeling truly awful that will get you out of a potentially damaging situation or headspace and make you feel a bit better. A Plan B is a list of things that will make you feel better – or at least get you into a safe situation. They must be written down on a piece of paper, very clearly in step form (like: step 1, call this person, step 2, call a cab to go to the beach, step 3 listen to this song, step 4 go to friend’s house with the cute puppy).

It’s important to have the Plan B written down before you feel crap. When you’re in the midst of feeling terrible, you’re probably not going to be thinking logically. You need to have thought it through before you get to that point.

Remember you’re not alone  

Every person in the public eye – really, any person who does anything worthwhile, stands up for a cause, does something unpopular – is going to get abuse hurled at them. Online or offline, in our current context it’s going to happen. In the words of Jay-Z:

With the same sword they knight you,
they gon’ good night you with
Shit, that’s only half if they like you
That ain’t even the half what they might do
Don’t believe me? ask Michael
See Martin, see Malcolm
See Biggie, see Pac,
see success and its outcome
See Jesus, see Judas
See Caesar, see Brutus,
see success is like suicide
If you succeed, prepare to be crucified

So it’s not about you, it’s about the role you’re playing. You’re not alone in being the target of abuse – in fact, the trolls targeting you are probably targeting lots of people at once! Try to keep it in perspective – it’s probably a lonely, sad little man behind a computer screen. You, on the other hand, have real-life friends who actually know you and would be more than happy to support you and remind you what a wonderful person you are.

What are your tips for dealing with online and offline abusive messages? Please share them here and maybe we can create a useful resource to help people dealing with haters.

If you’re reading this and it brings up any issues for you, please immediately contact Lifeline – 13 11 14 – or Kids Helpline – 1800 551 800 – or Beyond Blue.

About annastarrrose

Author & environmentalist
This entry was posted in learning, life. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Troll Alert: Standing Strong Through Online Abuse

  1. Byron Smith says:

    Great advice!

    I’d only add that something like 99% of readers don’t comment, and people are *far* more likely to say something if they disagree than if they agree, which means that even your best pieces of writing will often receive more negative than positive feedback.

    For all the nutters, there are thousands who support you to the hilt. Keep going, Anna!

  2. Jon Dee says:

    Good piece Anna :O)

  3. tbag5 says:

    Spot on advice. Keep up the awesome work :)

  4. cterkuile says:

    OMG, can’t believe you also listen to that Coldplay/Jay-Z song too!

    I’m hoping to take Heifetz’s class next year, so thanks for this reading heads-up too.

    My other tip would be to have an inspiration-wall, or something similar. A number of posters, images or something that you look at everyday that helps you commit to your intentions. When we think of the violent physical and emotional abuse that heroines and heroes from the past lived through and overcame, it helps put online harassment in context, as horrible as it is.

    Thanks for writing Anna, will definitely be sharing this.

    • Ah yes, seperating self from role!
      SLA teaches this on its many programs and when i participated in one earlier this year it really helped me be more professional, calm, and rational when dealing with people at a work level. Overall I also became more in tune and clear about the difference in the role I hold at work and my role as me, as just ‘Katia’. But I’ll be the first to admit, as someone who is friendly and wishes to often connect on a personal as well as professional level, this can be so HARD!
      Great post, thank you Anna.

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