Schilling is an active, outspoken Twitter user, @gehrig38, and recently sent out a tweet congratulating his daughter Gabby for her acceptance to Salve Regina University, including the fact that she’d be a pitcher on her college team. What followed was a few jokes and then a series of stomach-turning, violent and threatening, responses by anonymous trolls on the social media platform. Some of the language used is deeply disturbing.
As many fathers would, Schilling decided to take action. He Googled the Twitter handles, found the identities of many of the tweeters, their families and their employers and found ways to hold them accountable, including exposing them on his blog.
“You don’t think this isn’t going to be a nice compilation that will show up every single time this idiot is googled the rest of his life? What happens when a potential woman he’s after googles and reads this?
…Everything they’ve just said and done? That is out there now, forever. It can, and in some cases will, follow them for the rest of their lives.”
Bloggers have debated responses to trolls for years. Think how many shared posts come with the admonition “Don’t read the comments!” Twitter has only made trolling easier, perhaps starting with a quick offhand quip, but rapidly escalating with increasing nastiness in language and tone; exactly what happened in Schilling’s case.
I’ll admit that I’ve never understood trolling. It seems like an act of cowardice. It feels like a waste of time and talent by those who think they are either having fun at the expense of someone else’s security, or perhaps they honestly feel threatened because they somehow sense that success or attention is a zero-sum game. I’m often amazed, and a little confused, by the energy some people put into this. Why bother? My impulse has been to ignore, block, or delete them. Gabby Schilling apparently wanted to do the same, but her father argued that this is not just frat-boy nonsense:
“Gabby I know you’re likely embarrassed and for that I apologize. But as we have talked about, there is no situation ever in your life, where it’s ok for any ‘man’ to talk about you, or any other woman this way (and truth be told no real man would ever talk this way anyway). It truly is time this stopped.”
Schilling’s actions prompt a more serious look at trolling. Anonymity unleashes a range of words and emotions that would not get expressed in face-to-face communication. You don’t have to be a father to see that. Trolls use the security of their supposed anonymity to threaten the security of others. Threats can cause their targets to make changes in their plans or even their lives. Perhaps it’s that illusion of control of another person that motivates trolls. That’s where the real darkness of the trolling phenomenon begins to take shape. After all, manipulating the actions of others through fear is what terrorism is all about. Even if they are not controlling my actions, and don’t cause me to change what I am doing, the fact that they might think they are reinforces the idea that identification and prosecution is the only appropriate response.
As Schilling told Only a Game’s Bill Littlefield:
“For me to allow people that don’t know me to dictate the things I do and say in my life, that’s absurd. That’s ridiculous. So, if we turn our heads the other way, women will stop being raped? Crimes will stop being committed? It doesn’t work that way. The world doesn’t work that way.”
Although Schilling framed his actions in the context of protecting his 17-year-old daughter, we don’t need Dad to, er, go to bat for us either. Game journalist Alannah Pearce took matters into her own hands, tracked down several of her trolls and contacted their mothers. And writer Lindy West tracked down one of her trolls and got him to apologize. Then she brought the story to This American Life.
In a particularly poignant example, writer Ijeoma Oluo continually used the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to respond to one of her Twitter trolls on MLK day. In the course of an exchange that went on for an least an hour, it was revealed that the troll was a 14-year-old boy, experiencing some personal pain of his own, who had been advised by a therapist to express his anger on Twitter.
But this is not a game.
Congresswoman Katherine Clark of Massachusetts recently called for the Department of Justice to step up investigation and prosecution of online threats and harassment.
“When women are targeted with violent threats online, they are not only forced to fear for their safety, but their ability to fully participate in our economy is jeopardized. We have to examine how well we’re enforcing existing protections and work to keep the internet open for everyone.”
In a column on The Hill she wrote:
“After speaking with the FBI, other law enforcement agencies, and women who have experienced these threats firsthand, it’s clear that nothing is going to change until we stop thinking about these crimes as harmless hoaxes and recognize the chilling effect these crimes have on women and the economy.”
Those of us who spend significant time online probably know someone who has been trolled or stalked. In her op-ed, Clark cites a staggering 2.5 million cases of cyberstalking.
Presumed anonymity can make Internet trolls and cyberstalkers feel powerful and protected. Schilling and others show us that it doesn’t have to be that way – and that it shouldn’t.
Melissa Tingley is a writer and Instructional Designer living in Massachusetts. She firmly promises to prosecute.