The Problem with Social-Media Martyrdom

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Updated last on September 7 at 7:15 p.m. ET

Robin Rinaldi took to ​The Atlantic this morning to detail at length the misogynist comments she received on Twitter and Facebook after publishing her memoir about the year she opened up her marriage to “pursue sexual liberation in midlife”—a totally laudable goal. But what seems less productive is Rinaldi meticulously saving “all the messages and tweets to a Word file” and then elevating them to the heart of her essay. Commenter west_coast_ange says it well:

There is no point to these third grade insults by internet trolls; they've left their super egos at home, so all we get is pure id spewed across the page. Don’t give their words power.

Jack Dawkins also has it right: “Her desire to draw universal truths from internet trolls is not helpful.” But Rinaldi veers into offensive territory with this comparison:

I sensed my kinship to the women halfway around the world who are flogged, imprisoned, or buried up to their necks and stoned to death for alleged sexual offenses—a kinship it’s too often easy for me to ignore in my daily life. Each new message was a punch to the gut: My breath caught, my hands went cold, a tingling spread beneath my skin.

These are actual physical blows—against a woman stoned to death in Afghanistan for adultery. If you can’t stomach watching that video—and who could blame you?—here is a graphic of the barbaric ritual as done in Iran, and if that’s still too much, here’s a written account. Over to commenter Jack Dawkins again, criticizing Rinaldi’s comparison:

Ma’am, you had freedom to behave as you wished. No one stopped you. No one threw a rock at you or felt compelled to maintain family honor by killing you. You went public with your story and discovered there are lots of creeps out there on the internet. Talk about First World problems!

Rinaldi, to her credit, addressed the other side of the argument:

On one level, I knew these were just trolls, and other writers had unanimously advised: Don’t feed the trolls. As I blocked a few, a quick glance at their profile pages produced a deep sadness in me—for them. In quieter moments I even felt like I could sense the terror below their rage, a reflexive shrinking from chaos that I recognized in myself: If women pursue sexual freedom, where do we all end up? What happens to the family, to children, to society, to love?

But then she quickly lapsed back into her social media martyrdom and excerpted a long, truly vile message from an anonymous troll. Lyov Myshkin, while overgeneralizing here, calls out that straw-man tactic from Rinaldi:

I’ve noticed that feminists never want to address the considered critique of their work and always need the debate to be centered around perceived victimhood at the hands of anonymous people who can’t spell and probably have ‘small dicks’ or reside in the bowels of a house owned by their mother.

Lyov later addresses the readers who revel in that sort of straw-manning:

‘Signaling’ is when well-educated, liberal urbanites go to the comment section of good progressive articles, see a bunch of ‘ignorant’ morons who never took a Gender studies degree in their ignorant lives and then feel the need to display their higher morals and indict the beasts who disagree and ‘troll.’ They denounce how ‘This article has really brought the idiots out today, must be hitting the truth methinks.’

It’s an utterly useless comment and it doesn’t inform anyone. It’s simply an exercise in moral status signaling—which, as we know from psychology, signaling moral righteousness is an addictive behaviour due to the neurotransmitters it releases.

And the biggest problem of all this seems to be: The more attention you pay to trolls, especially elevating them to an essay, the more they are encouraged to continue spewing poison against women and others. It’s totally counterproductive. Attention is their goal, so why give it to them?

Your thoughts? Email and we’ll post the most critical but productive ones. You can also head over to the comments section of Rinaldi’s essay to read the so-so debate, but we closed down the section for further commenting because it was quickly filling up with trolls, whose comments we deleted. So email if you want to get a real debate going.

Update: In case you think “martyrdom” is off-base, consider this passage from Ridaldi:

I debated trashing the file, deleting the Twitter account. But what if instead of feeding the trolls, I let them feed me? Instead of pushing it out of my mind or retreating, I wanted to digest the shame and fear they’d brought to the surface and process it into something others could use if and when they found themselves in a similar situation.

Update from a reader who strongly disagrees with my argument:

I really think you are blaming the victim here. Ms. Rinaldi wrote a perfectly reasonable article on her experiences in dealing with these vile, misogynistic Internet trolls; they retaliated by trolling her with yet more vile, misogynistic hate speech in the “Comments” section below the article; and The Atlantic's response is to shut them both down. There is really no reasonable ethical comparison between an article writer like (on the one side) Ms. Rinaldi, who operates in public and who is very honest about a personal issue, and (on the other side) a bunch of viciously-abusive, hateful, destructive, nihilist and misogynist trolls, who hide behind anonymity so they can engage in ad hominem abuse of other people, with zero consequence or risk to themselves.

What you are doing is in effect empowering bullies. I would have thought that this would be the opposite of what you had intended.

Another dissenter:

We are dealing with abusiveness towards women and a thorough documentation of that reality is necessary to challenge the denial about the problem. For solutions to arise, the denial must be first dispelled. That means there is positive value is showcasing exactly how bad the reality is. This is not just true of women, of course, but any social justice cause.

And another:

I think it’s a mistake to characterize Rinaldi’s androcentric antagonists as merely trolls. There’s more going on there than just lulz. The online feminist community has reason to be interested in Gamergate types, and this discussion must have started at least eight or nine years ago. So there’s nothing wrong with Rinaldi recording their comments, prima facie. The telling phrase they use is “beta male.” That speaks to the origins of this psychology in social humiliation.

Thanks for all the great pushback. Another reader:

I just have to say while I agree with commenter Lyov about the “moral status signaling” taking place on internet comment boards, I couldn't help but notice how specifically he describes the folks doing so: “well-educated” “liberal” “urbanites” with “gender-studies degrees.” Right, because of course they are! (They’re probably sipping lattes and trolling us via Starbucks Wi-Fi as we speak!)

Please. While I’m certain this stereotype applies to a number of commenters on progressive sites, including The Atlantic, this behavior is not a partisan phenomena. There are plenty of well-educated conservatives and libertarians online who do exactly the same thing. And it must be said some of Lyov’s liberal-caricatures-of conservative-morons aren’t conservative morons at all, they just play “morons” on teevee; they troll for the sport of it.

But the real problem with Lyov’s frame is he ignores the frustration of commenters of all political stripes who genuinely want to have a constructive discussion with their fellow earthlings. They complain about “The Morons” on comment boards not because they want to feel morally superior, but because they expected a semi-rational response to their comment and got complete rubbish in return, or they’re so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of trollish responses overall they end up posting a complaint instead of the thoughtful comment they had in mind.

I mean, that’s why The Atlantic moved to this new Notes section, right? Turns out a free exchange of ideas requires filters if we want to gain anything productive from it.

Update from my wonderful colleague Sophie, our culture editor:

One of the reasons I thought Robin’s essay was so powerful was because she described so accurately what it’s like to be on the receiving end of an Internet shame storm. Social media enables writers in lots of ways, but it also opens them up to tremendous abuse, particularly if they’re a woman writing about sex or feminism or equality.

Some anecdotal evidence: After I reviewed a book of essays about women not wanting children earlier this year, I had to read (and delete) a number of comments below the story advising me to kill myself. I received emails from strangers criticizing my “whorish” lipstick, and noting the neighborhood I lived in, and saying what a shame it was that I’d end up as an unloved, wizened old crone in a nursing home. This was, bear in mind, a book review. I can only imagine how much worse it was for Robin given the volume of messages she received, but the way she described responding to them—how her breath caught, and her skin tingled, and every new message was like a punch to the gut—was, for me, exactly what it felt like to experience people hating you, even momentarily, for something you've written.

There’s a psychic toll to receiving that much negative energy on a daily basis and I'm grateful Robin wrote about it, and how it affected her. I think it’s important for people to understand that women who publish their writing online regularly receive this kind of response, and choose to keep writing anyway, not because it’s easy, but because it’s important.

I also think it was enormously brave of her to describe what happened to her after her book came out, knowing full well that the people who trolled her then would almost certainly do so again, just as viciously (which they did, and which is why we had to shut down the comments). The people who do this—who call women filthy sluts and diseased whores online—do so because they're hoping to upset them enough to scare them away. I don’t think it makes her a “martyr” to refuse to slink off quietly.

When Robin mentioned how she felt a kinship with women who are stoned to death, I don’t think she was comparing what happened to her to with women being executed in any way. What she was saying is that the impulse to murder women for honor crimes and the impulse to tell women to kill themselves in comment threads come from very similar places. She acknowledged that she has an enormous amount of freedom living in this country, and that she chooses to use that freedom to speak openly about sex.

But the backlash she has to face in doing so demonstrates that there are plenty of people who’d rather see women silenced, and that hating women and condemning them for having sex isn’t something that only happens on the other side of the world.

(On another note, I have to object to the excerpted comment by Lyon about “considered critique.” Robin mentioned the “considered critique” when she talked about the thoughtful messages she received. But the piece wasn’t about that; it was about the other 99 percent of the messages sent to her, which were vile and misogynist and insanely offensive. How can you begin to respond to those in a thoughtful way without tearing your hair out?)

Speaking of that great book review from Sophie, here’s an edited roundup of reader comments drained of all the vitriol she received. Update: Robin Rinaldi wrote a really eloquent must-read in Notes, getting the last word in this debate.