WRITING ON THE INTERNET is the modern day equivalent of crossing a bridge in a haunted forest: do it long enough, and eventually you’re going to meet a troll. I’ve been blogging and writing for a few years now, and there’s virtually always someone who’s ready to jump down my throat, call me a moron, or tell me I’m worthless. And I typically write about travel: one of the least controversial, most beloved things on the planet.
So my trolls show up relatively infrequently, to the point where I can dismiss them as mentally unstable or, you know, just as assholes. But my female colleagues don’t have quite as easy a time as me. Internet trolls are particularly creepy about women writers, particularly when the women are writing about women’s issues like feminism, rape culture, misogyny, or sexism. Women who write about these topics get routinely harassed and threatened by the douchebags who like to hide behind internet anonymity.
It’s not something you get used to, necessarily, but feminist bloggers rightly recognize that their silence means the trolls win. And you never want a cowardly misogynist creep to get the best of you.
One of the feminist blogosphere’s most outspoken voices is Lindy West, who has written for Jezebel, the Guardian, and a ton of other publications. Back in 2013, she was at the center of a debate about rape jokes in comedy, which naturally made her the target of an absolute shitload of internet trolls. West is a pro, so she followed the old internet maxim of “don’t feed the trolls.” At least, she did until someone opened a fake Twitter account with her dad’s name and picture.
West’s father, Paul West, had died a year and a half earlier after a long battle with prostate cancer. The fake Twitter account, called @PawWestDonezo, had a bio that read, “Embarrassed father of an idiot. Other two kids are fine, though.” West does have two siblings, and the picture was an actual picture of her father. The troll had done his research.
Instead of not feeding the trolls, West wrote about it. And the next day, her troll e-mailed her and apologized.
This does not happen. Like, ever. It’s hard enough for a thoughtful person to change their mind on the internet, let alone a frothing-at-the-mouth troll. But West’s nastiest troll did what the nastiest troll’s never do: he realized he was an asshole.
Her troll (who she generously decided to keep anonymous) wrote:
“I can’t say sorry enough.
It was the lowest thing I had ever done. When you included it in your latest Jezebel article it finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who is reading this shit. I am attacking someone who never harmed me in any way. And for no reason whatsoever.
I’m done being a troll.
Again I apologize.
I made donation in memory to your dad.
I wish you the best.”
West eventually got back in touch with her troll and talked to him over the phone. You can hear that discussion on this incredible episode of This American Life. In short, the troll admitted that he hated her because he, like West, was overweight, but unlike West, he hated himself for it. He hadn’t thought of her as an actual human being until she wrote about how much his fake Twitter account had hurt him.
He apologized. And West forgave him.
The interaction changed West’s approach to trolls as well: “It’s hard to feel hurt or frightened when you’re flooded with pity,” she wrote in the Guardian. She’s still a badass when it comes to dealing with them, though.
While it would be nice to think of this as a feel-good story, there are still countless women on the internet being harassed and threatened by anonymous troglodytes who either hate themselves or hate women or just hate everything, and it’s worth noting that this is the only apology West has received from a troll. Most feminist writers on the internet don’t have the luxury that I, a white dude who writes about travel, have in being able to dismiss trolls as crazy or dumb.
The internet is a community, like any other, and we who spend time in it get to choose how we treat people in it, and we get to choose how we allow others in our community to be treated. Trolls, like the writers they harass, are people too. Just because they operate behind anonymous screen names doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold them to the same standard that we hold every other human being to: you must treat others with dignity. Always.