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Our digital society, from citizens to companies, needs to understand the trolls

Amanda Windle

02 October, 2016

Written for NS Tech, the New Statesman’s new B2B tech website, and first published here.

Amanda Windle is a feminist digital researcher heading up the Digital Laboratory at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London

Social media platforms are where a digital researcher like me can make an impact – and using them is something increasingly required of many non-tech-oriented careers too.

In fact, let’s admit it. We’re a nation of social media addicts . And it’s not just kids and marketing people. Most British adults are ‘on it’. In fact, almost a quarter of pensioners have now joined the collective digital conversation.

I personally use social media platforms to gain support, give encouragement and share my research ideas with a public, but it continues to trouble me in lots of conflicting ways. Not least in the nagging possibility of turning one’s career upside down with the press of the return key.

This week saw the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service report a 10 per cent increase in violence towards women being linked to social media use. That’s a more than troubling jump – and something that should really be a call to action – for more research and training, better HR policies, and reflexive tech industries with open and transparent ethical boards.

We’re a digital society and that means we need a rethink at all levels – the personal, collective, communal and corporate – about why we are doing what we are doing on social media.

Written for NS Tech, the New Statesman’s new B2B tech website, and first published here.

Twitter smear

Having my career smeared recently on Twitter jolted me into rethinking my personal social media strategy. Like a million other women, I’ve been trolled, but for me and no doubt others, this experience came entangled with previous threats, actual violence, stalking and harassment.

It’s been a decade since I was first cyber-stalked and double that since I was physically stalked. That’s why I ended up in a women’s refuge at 19. Since then, I got an education and slowly built my life as a digital researcher – but with constant hesitation about having a public online presence.

For myriad reasons, some researchers forego this engagement. But it’s an activity that promises a researcher like me a direct form of impact, enabling experts to engage with other experts and, crucially, publics together.

I’ve spent decades researching new technologies in online spaces, but this kind of research actually perpetuated my spaces to hide. I felt safe to research online and tech innovation enabled me to keep on running. I was actually an early adopter of alternative online media, blogging privately, but I was a late adopter of social media, because I was and still am cautious about the when, what and how I comment or have my image captured online.

Diversionary tactics

I’d forego the liveness of social media, delay live posts, be vague if noting my whereabouts and, from time to time, I’d deliberately misinform. My online strategy was a complicated compromise of habits to keep me feeling safe, which has meant foregoing some aspects of public life, namely the world’s number one social meeting spot – Facebook.

Increasingly, though, my online strategy was in conflict with what I feel is the necessity of gaining a public voice as a digital researcher. I had become a trickster, which philosopher Isabelle Stengers and sociologist, Vinciane Despret describe as a person ‘who practice[s] the art of escaping attribution’.

My approach to social media was one convoluted workaround until I finally got trolled earlier this year.

It was time for a rethink. My outdated strategy had stopped working, mainly because it was based on the words of counsellors, police and solicitors giving me advice two decades ago.

Experiences in my teens ought not to be the only ones that shape my online strategy, my digital life, decades on. It sounds obvious, but it’s taken me a while to figure this out by doing it, through practice, one comment at a time, taken with counsel.

Naming it

Knowing how you feel and naming it is a big challenge. It means trying to express what has happened – at a time when you might be at your most inarticulate.

Initially I was calling trolling ‘slamming’, because that’s how it felt. I felt slammed for one of the things I hold very close – the importance of informed debate. But understanding what has happened (be that in or after the moment) starts by naming it.

Both direct and indirect (text and image-based) violence are legal or punitive matters and it’s in these terms where it tends to get shaped and named first.

When trying to figure out what happened to me on Twitter, I tried searching online and within these search results the legal and the punitive were in the mix along with some less than helpful articles.

The top Google search results for: how [to] deal [with] troll[ing], returned clickbait articles from the press, but also a post by the Hertfordshire police:

“Trolling is recognised as deliberately inflicting hatred, bigotry, misogyny, or just simple bickering between others.”

The trolls are back

Trolling had its moment in the press back in springtime, or at least it felt that way when it happened to me. This was a moment where academics like Mary Beard were writing about it.

But just this week, Mary Beard was writing again about her trolling experiences, this time about the comments she receives about her work on amazon.com – for the Times Literary Supplement.

I caught myself this time wondering if the term trolling was still ‘fashionable’? Have we tired of the national coverage of violence towards women on social media? Would search page results on trolling still return trending articles that give little support to someone trying to soothe themselves with words?

Similar results appear now as they did in March, except with slightly less of the punitive articles in abundance. I’m tired of trolling, but I’m also tired about how it gets written about and how useful (see: useless) those articles are for those experiencing it on a frequent basis.

No policy

And there is another rub. Trolling and other forms of indirect violence are rarely named, let alone defined, in my academia, my sector or in university policies. I wonder if all sectors and companies, from the newest tech startups to the aged narhwals, talk to their employers about matters of indirect violence done in the name of so-called banter or informed debate.

I searched a few universities in the southeast and – apart from the University of East Anglia – trolling, as well as other forms of indirect violence, hardly gets a mention.

Where it is addressed, it can be found nested within a subsection of other forms of bullying; implicitly embedded on university websites in policies relating to diversity and equality, bullying and harassment, dignity at work, dignity at work advisors and equal opportunities.

It isn’t surprising that the University of East Anglia has a policy – because trolling is most prolific in the southeast, according to Ministry of Justice stats from 2015.

East Anglia is very careful with its naming listing (not exhaustively) terms like – victimisation, cyber-stalking, cyber-bullying, stalking, trolling, happy slapping, denigration, flaming, impersonation, outing and trickery and sexting. It’s a comprehensive start to what we as a society need to do.

We need straightforward informal and formal advice that covers a wide range of digital terms so that someone trying to understand their feelings may be able to identify with new and less legally defined forms of bullying and harassment. This is what search pages should provide when an abused-user seeks to care for themselves.

Increasingly, employers need to be aware of the ongoing changes to regulation around bullying and harassment, and that includes trolling and other forms of online violence. Today, sector-based approaches vary and advice is general and inchoate.

In higher education, for example, there are helplines and factsheets for academics and students, including those provided by the University College Union, and there is advice provided by local police.

Good work

The same day I was smeared on social media for giving encouragement to one of my peers, I actually gained new followers, trended for data visualisation and had my research validated by an inspiring and civil audience. I’ve gone on to do some amazing things because I risked having a public voice, but it has taken more than two decades to get there.

I do not want to be misunderstood as discouraging the use of social media – we all love looking over the digital garden fence into the world – but in jobs that demand this sort of impact (like mine), it’s still a choice to engage, and many choose not to.

It takes practice to gain a voice on social media, which means frequent use, but I’ve also learned to take breaks, holidays even away from social media.

What works for me at the moment is to regularly ask the ethical question that Isabelle Stengers asks of researchers – what am I busy doing? In answer, regardless of my job – I’m trying to be me – whether I’m liked or not. I haven’t got it all figured out and never will, because that’s an impossible [t]ask.

Together my feelings and work experiences lead me to suggest that there is a greater need for digital research to enquire into the more nuanced connections between our growing digital addictions and ongoing online violence.

However we choose to name indirect forms of violence whether it is by calling it – flaming, trolling, smearing or slamming — finding new words to express age-old forms of violence towards women is part of the problem.

The words may date and the digital infrastructures may change but the problem is as old as the hills. Violence by different means has its shifts. Indirect violence shifts and morphs each time almost but not quite out of the grasp of calling it and naming it for what it is. Violence by other means.

Research on violence towards women via social media is a question on the reliance we have for each other – both our social communities and social networking platforms. These networks require trust and with trust there is always a measuring of risk, which in social media has become increasingly far more personal and intimate.

Having employees engage in social media is not just a concern of risk identified through brand management. It’s about personal risk.

For me it will always be a deeply ethical and intimate choice.

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Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.