The day after the election, Jennifer Jones, a night-shift hotel worker and mother of two from Charleston, South Carolina, received an unsettling text from her friend. It said, “Oh my gosh, you need to get that picture removed,” Jones told me. She was at a restaurant with a friend when she got the text, and she didn’t immediately know what the text was referring to. So she asked her friend to send her a screenshot.
It was of a picture of Jones’s four-year-old daughter. About a year earlier, Hillary Clinton had made a campaign stop in Charleston. It was Halloween, and Jones’ daughter Sullivan wanted to dress up as Clinton, who she considered her hero. Jennifer dressed her in a navy blue blazer with pearls, an American flag pin, and a little bag that read “Senator’s briefcase.” When Clinton spotted Sullivan at the campaign event, she told her she looked like a future president, and posed for a picture with her hands on Sullivan’s shoulders. The campaign uploaded it to their Flickr site, and Jennifer had it printed so her daughter could display it in her room. For a few days, the little Hillary doppelganger was written up in places like MTV and Buzzfeed.
Oh my gosh, you need to get that picture removed.
Jones hadn’t seen it coming, but of course someone took the photo of her daughter and made it into a meme. “I AM FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS!” it said, in text across the top of the photo. Then it said Clinton would do business with countries “that would mutilate this girl’s genitals, marry her to a Muslim pedophile, and stone her to death if she doesn’t wear a bedsheet.”
“It was like I’d been kicked in the gut,” Jones told me. Later that night, she went online and saw that the altered version of the image had been shared all over the internet. “One by one, I’d report the photo as harmful to a child, saying it was my daughter and they didn’t have my permission to use it. I did hundreds of times. It was so sickening.”
When I spoke to Jones in early December, Washington was reeling. A day earlier, a man had entered Comet Ping Pong, a pizza parlor where many local parents take their kids, and fired a gun—he was convinced that the restaurant was playing host to a child sex trafficking ring led by former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. The absurd rumor, which got its start in the online trolling hub 4chan, spread like wildfire across the internet thanks to fringe conservative conspiracy theorists. Meanwhile, those same fake newsmongers and online harassers were celebrating the election of their preferred candidate, Donald Trump, to the presidency. Jones’s experience and the current politics of the moment point to a depressing, undeniable truth about this year: the trolls won.
For anyone who even vaguely followed the news this year, it was impossible not to feel the unrelenting toxicity and corrosiveness, unleashed in a way we have never seen before. Trolls targeted Jews with Elders of Zion-style execution scenes and flooded comedian Leslie Jones’s Twitter account with so many racist attacks that she had to temporarily quit the site. Eventually, they went further and hacked her phone, spreading her personal photos online. Jessica Valenti, a feminist writer for The Guardian, also temporarily quit when she woke up to a rape and death threat against her five-year-old daughter. And for every high-profile target like Leslie Jones, there were countless smaller ones, like Jennifer Jones and her daughter—people who suffered an onslaught of abuse and harassment for the simple crime of daring to share their opinions online.
It is not a coincidence that this kind of harassment reached its pinnacle during the rise of Donald Trump, whose bid for the White House amounted to one giant trolling of the American electorate, one grand attempt to stir up their worst emotions. In Trump, the parasites found their perfect host. Beginning with his kickoff speech, in which he decried the influx of illegal Mexican rapists, he ran a campaign predicated on eliciting visceral reactions to his provocative and racist remarks. He also delighted the trolls, who thought of him as a living, breathing embodiment of their favorite qualities. He was funny, absurd, offensive, and completely unconcerned with the truth. Of course Trump became the favorite candidate of 4chan. On the night of his win, posters on the site’s /pol/ message board celebrated his victory as a victory of their own. “We actually elected a meme as president,” one said.
Adding another wrinkle to one of the most disorienting moments in modern political history, it turned out some of the pro-Trump sites and sentiments were part of a larger effort by Russian entities to interfere with the election. Fake news sites—both domestic- and foreign-made—sprang up across the internet. Loaded with false, negative stories about Clinton, and false, positive ones about Trump, they became huge drivers of Facebook traffic, resulting in a scourge of fake information that drove even more trolling.
When Trump won, it was hard not to feel like the burn-it-to-the-ground bigotry practiced by his internet cohort was being voted in, too. The explosion of hate-crime reports and video of white supremacists raising their arms in Nazi salutes only solidified it.
It seems crazy to say now, but trolling used to be fairly harmless. The term is used to describe a wide array of online behavior: anything done to intentionally and provocatively promote a response (usually a negative one). I have a friend who used to log in to the community forums of businesses like Panera and post things like, “I really like this place, but you know what would make it even better? If it served soup.” Then he’d kick back and watch as dozens of replies saying, “they already serve soup!” rolled in.
It was hard not to feel like burn-it-to-the-ground bigotry was being voted in, too.
But since then, it’s become impossible not to associate the word “trolling” with something much darker. The last year has shown us just how politicized the behavior has become, and how often the word is simply a euphemism for abuse. Trolls—particularly those who harass their targets—often argue that nothing should be taken seriously on the internet. It is a self-serving logic, and it shares its roots with the anti-PC backlash that was one of the core convictions of Trump’s campaign. Trolls are just as obsessed with the idea that political correctness is ruining our culture as any traditional conservative, but they have taken the logic to its most extreme conclusion: the weapons they use to fight it are the most offensive misogyny, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism they can muster.
The effect is often to silence women, people of color, and other marginalized or vulnerable voices online. According to a recent study by the think tank Data & Society, 47 percent of people have been abused or harassed online, and the targets are much more likely to be minorities. The study has troubling implications for the idea that the internet can be a democratizing or liberating force: the researchers found that 41 percent of users have censored themselves to avoid being the targets of abuse.
“Many early internet adopters and developers hoped and believed that the internet could be a great equalizer, that anyone would have the ability to participate in public life if only the problem of access could be solved,” said danah boyd, a researcher at Data & Society. “What we’re seeing with this study is that this is not true. When people are self-censoring for safety, we must contend with how technology is, at best, unevenly empowering and, at worst, actually disempowering marginalized people and communities.”
Jones is a prime example of the high price women can pay for daring to share their political beliefs online. “Finding my daughter and seeing that beautiful face among all of these anti-Hillary posts—I was crushed,” Jones told me. “I remember calling my pastor and sobbing and asking, why would God let this happen?”
Eventually, Jones posted about the situation in Pantsuit Nation, a Facebook group of more nearly four million people who supported Clinton’s candidacy. Offers to help poured in, most crucially from the Anti-Defamation League, which Jones says played a major role in getting the meme removed. But the fact that she had to ask for assistance from a Facebook group of 4 million people—which is locked specifically so that Clinton supporters can post there without fear of harassment—points to the heart of the problem.
There are a few signs that tech companies are getting closer to figuring out how to tamp down on the worst trolls: At Jigsaw, an “idea lab” within Google dedicated to combatting everything from online bullies to repressive regimes, employees are working to develop artificial intelligence that can detect and remove abusive or threatening content before it ever reaches the intended target. “Toxicity on the internet is a real problem,” C.J. Adams, a Jigsaw project manager who leads the team’s “Conversation AI” research, told me. “It’s easier to silence someone online—either with overwhelming or toxic comments—than it is to make yourself heard. We want to use technology to level the playing field and create equal opportunities for everyone to express themselves.”
But after this year, it’s clear that it will be difficult—if not impossible—for technology to solve what is fundamentally a human issue, and a societal failing. That’s what has been so disturbing about 2016: the realization that abusive behavior online is no longer contained to the internet. It used to be that we could compartmentalize, convincing ourselves that the worst of a troll’s antics only happened in the digital realm, that it would go away if we just logged off. 2016 exposed that lie in that kind of thinking. Now, the behavior found in the darkest corners of the internet is in power. It’s in the Oval Office. It’s in the president’s cabinet. It’s all around us.
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