The battle against internet trolls shows that a compelling story will always beat cold, hard facts

The fightback against online abuse reminds me of the screenwriters’ adage: no villain knows he’s the villain. He thinks he’s the hero in a different film. So if you want to fight trolls, you have to counter the narrative they are pushing about what trolling is.

In 2007, a computer programmer called Kathy Sierra “left the internet”. She had suffered a campaign of harassment that included threats accompanied by photos of corpses, and the publication of details such as her social security number and address. She deleted her blog, cancelled her speaking engagements and withdrew from every open forum.

By the time I started writing about trolling, Sierra was long gone. She was an internet ghost, a story to scare children with (particularly if they were female). She had done exactly what many well-intentioned readers have urged those who suffer internet abuse to do: she moved her life offline.

Then, on 7 October 2014, Kathy Sierra returned. In a blog headlined “Trouble at the Kool-Aid Point” she outlined why she thought the original campaign against her had started. “I now believe the most dangerous time for a woman with online visibility is the point at which others are seen to be listening, ‘following’, ‘liking’, ‘favouriting’, retweeting,” she wrote. “In other words, the point at which her readers have (in the troll’s mind) ‘drunk the Kool-Aid’.”

Sierra believes a certain type of troll reacts strongly and negatively to high-profile women, out of a desire to correct those who have been “taken in” by them. It is an attack on the idea that women can be powerful, that they can be experts. Mary Beard was targeted after she appeared on Question Time, the closest thing we have to an approved list of People Whose Opinions Matter. My colleague Laurie Penny was targeted as soon as she gained an audience for her journalism; Caroline Criado-Perez attracted attention for her successful banknotes campaign, Anita Sarkeesian by crowdfunding a video series about computer games. In every case, the attacks are designed to remove the woman’s authority: to stop the masses drinking their Kool-Aid.

The only trouble is that, generally, the first wave of trolling attacks doesn’t work; instead, the victim often uses that same public profile to protest that she doesn’t deserve rape threats merely for being well known while in possession of a vagina. So what comes next? As Sierra put it, “. . . the Worst Possible Thing has happened: as a result of those attacks, you are NOW serving Victim-Flavoured Kool-Aid.” Not only are people listening, but they are sympathetic; this, to trolls, is the greatest injustice of all.

And so the trolling moves into its second phase, where the subject is discredited, her trauma minimised, and – crucially – a ready-made narrative is constructed by the sociopathic ringleaders so the lower-level joyrider trolls can feel righteous about what looks, ostensibly, like bullying and abuse.

In Sierra’s case, this came through the suggestion that she had tried to have criticism of her removed from the internet using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. “If you are in the tech world, issuing a DMCA takedown is worse than kicking puppies off a pier,” she wrote. She denies the allegation – one that, funnily enough, was also levelled against Zoe Quinn, the developer at the centre of the absurd “Gamergate” conspiracy, in which the entire games industry was supposedly conspiring to rip off consumers and trade sex for good reviews.

The effect of such an allegation is obvious: not only is the target of the internet’s ire supposedly gaining sympathy/retweets/a career boost from her sob story, but she is also trying to stifle legitimate criticism and put herself above reproach – a favourite complaint of men who are angry that no one tells mother-in-law jokes any longer, as if this were evidence of widespread misandry.

Suddenly, harassing her – sorry, holding her to account – becomes nothing less than the mob’s patriotic duty: they are the heroes the internet needs, defending free speech by nobly posting her private details, emailing her employers to warn them she’s a slut and sending pizzas to her parents’ house.

This is why, even if you loathe and forswear the internet, you should care about trolling – because it is fundamentally about the dangerous gravity of a compelling narrative. No religious patriarch in history thought he was burning sinners or stoning adulterers to preserve his own power or fulfil his sadistic desires. It was always for a higher cause. Race-baiting politicians tell themselves they don’t want immigrants to be demonised, dehumanised or attacked; they just want to stand up for the Common Man. It reminds me of the screenwriters’ adage: no villain knows he’s the villain. He thinks he’s the hero in a different film.

Trolling shows us how much more appealing we find grand stories than boring, nitpicking facts. As politicians must know, you can knock down factual error after factual error but it means nothing if the narrative backbone remains intact. After writing a piece on Gamergate, I spent a fruitless 72 hours I’ll never get back trying to pick through the blizzard of allegations against Zoe Quinn. They all slipped through my fingers, like hateful sand.

At the same time, a journalist at a fringe right-wing publication was telling his followers that Anita Sarkeesian had made up the harassment, because there was no complaint on file with the local police. This was because the case was so serious it was with the FBI. He corrected himself, but it was too late: to many people, the idea that Sarkeesian had made no police complaints just felt right, and they didn’t hang around to see it debunked. A lie that people are primed to believe can travel around the trollosphere before the truth has unstuck the space bar on its keyboard.

So, how do we fight trolls? We fight the stories they tell themselves to justify what they do. We make the case that there are many enemies of free speech, but they are not, largely, female writers or programmers, or women who make TV shows about Pompeii. It’s impossible not to feed the trolls; but we can destroy their narratives. 

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten