Are Internet Trolls the Modern Incarnation of Witch Hunters?

In the age of the Internet troll, there's an unfortunately predictable cycle for what happens to women who talk about feminist issues online: They get barraged with rape threats and harassment. Who were the pre-Internet antecedents to anti-feminist trolls?

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In the age of the Internet troll, there's an unfortunately predictable cycle for what happens to women who talk about feminist issues online: They get barraged with rape threats and harassment. For examples: see here, herehere and most recently, here. The anonymous nature of Twitter and comment threads allows cowards to write hateful things to people without consequences, suggesting that this reaction is unique to the digital age. But it's not. The Twitter rape threat is just the 21st century incarnation of a centuries old reaction.

Just the other day we saw the modern-day cycle play out, with a "countercampaign of online harassment" lobbed at "several high profile women" who advocated for Jane Austen and other historical female figures on British bank notes. The announcement that Austen would grace the 10 pound bill resulted in Twitter rape threats by the minute against the blogger Caroline Criado-Perez because she both advocated and celebrated the "brilliant day for women."

The scope and nature of the hate is specific to the Internet, argues Dr. Whitney Phillips, a media studies and digital culture researcher, who is writing a book on trolls. "While the sort of violently sexist bile directed at Criado-Perez definitely has precedent (and not just precedent but precedents), it also has context," she told The Atlantic Wire. "Not only does Twitter allow for anonymous or pseudonymous communication, not only does it provide a forum for users to directly interface with public figures, its social functionality encourages the breakneck spread of information." In addition, because of the Internet, more people have exposure to people like Criado-Perez and her story, further amplifying the potential haters.

But, like Phillips said, the behavior has precedence. The sexism we see online is just a reflection of real world hatred, suggests University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron, who is writing a book about cyber harassment. "We have gendered harms that we see these nudged into cyberspace where it's much safer for perpetrators to demean," she told The Atlantic Wire. Before, you might see acceptable sexual harassment in the work-place, for example. And certainly journalists in particular saw these feelings manifest in letters to the editor and hate mail — the comment threads of the analog age.

Those mediums aren't as public as Twitter or a hateful blog post, however, says Emily Bazelon, who wrote Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy (which was adapted into this Atlantic feature). "It has a smear campaign aspect that would have been harder to pull off before," she told us. There's no editor to keep the mean comments and tweets out of the paper.

Perhaps, a more analogous comparison is a witch hunt, suggests anthropologist Gabriella Coleman. "For me what comes to most to mind as an interesting parallel is the extraordinary and very public demonization of women as witches during," she said. "They were burned in very public ritual acts." Or, later, lynch mobs had the same effect. What these have in common with the Internet is that they're public, aggressive, and the people involved had a sense of disinhibition. You feel anonymous in a big group of people singling out a witch, the lynch mob has that, plus the added effect of a white-hood. Similarly, talk-radio — another breading ground of proto-trolling — gives the caller a layer of distance because it's just the caller's voice. And, finally, the Internet troll has the protection of the Internet, with almost full anonymity and physical distance.

As the troll has progressed from the IRL witch-hunter to the sad man in his basement harassing a journalist on Twitter, he has sought out more physical distance and protection from the victim, as it's no longer socially acceptable (or legal!) to get together and burn a woman alive. Gathering a large group of like-minded people to launch an Internet harassment campaign is totally fine and accessible. So, if we use that as a metric of progress, things have certainly improved for the feminist. Hateful tweets are certainly preferable to death. Yay?

Image via Flickr/Anna Bialkowska

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.