Why Trolls Still Love to Hate Feminists

Feminist voices are getting more and more space online, so why do they still have such a huge target on their backs?

by Kaleigh Rogers
Mar 9 2015, 6:40pm

Image: Eirik Solheim/Flickr

For a few hours yesterday, a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) knocked Femsplain—a Kickstarter supported platform for writers focusing on women—offline. It was just the latest in the seemingly endless stream of online attacks against feminists and feminist-focused writers.

What is it about writing about feminism that makes someone a guaranteed target?

Yesterday, the fact that the attack coincided with International Women's Day made the attempt to silence women writers seem even more egregious to many readers, so they spoke up about it on Twitter. In a satisfying twist of poetic justice, the attention from the attack actually boosted the site's profile and attracted new readers, according to founder Amber Gordon.

"We got a little over 1,000 new followers and are still getting more followers on our social media accounts," Gordon told me. "A lot of the new readers have expressed that they didn't know about the site until this so, you know, well done to the people who hacked us because now we have a larger audience."

It's not the first time Femsplain has been attacked, and it won't be the last. Since the site launched in October, Gordon says they've seen multiple attempted attacks—users poking around looking for security loopholes—and the attempts have only increased as the site becomes more popular.

Gordon said she fully expected this kind of reaction for one simple reason: Femsplain is a feminist site. Even though the site welcomes writers from across the gender spectrum and encourages discussions from different points of view, she knew they would be a target.

"Of course. Any time you give women a voice on the internet, there's always going to be someone to tell them 'no,'" Gordon said.

Feminist blogs, websites, and just feminists in general have long been a favored target for trolls and hacking attacks. There are countless examples, from three feminist-friendly blogs that got DDoS-attacked around this time last year to Anonymous's attacks against feminists on Twitter to the time was taken down and replaced with a bunch of juvenile sexist jokes.

And lest we forget Gamergate, where the systematic attack of women in gaming—including death and rape threats—was rank with misogyny, despite supporters' cries of it being about "ethics in journalism." It seems any time a writer starts to delve into feminist ideas, the flare goes off.

"It's been going on as long as the internet's been around to one degree or another," Ann Bartow, a law professor at the Pace Law School who specializes in technology law and feminist legal theory. "Part of it is just that there are people who don't like to see women who are strong, independent, or in positions of leadership and the internet gives them a way to attack people that they really never had before."

Bartow said the anonymous nature of the internet has created just enough detachment to empower people to spew all kinds of hate—feminists are, of course, not the only ones who get trolled, attacked, and harassed online.

"It's a lot of the same sexism that's been around forever, it's just found a really convenient platform," Bartow told me.

However, she theorized that its a relatively small fraction of the online population that actively engages in this kind of behavior (whether it's directed at feminists or others). They just do it a lot.

"I don't call the cops every time I get a threat because if I did, I'd be calling the cops every week."

Researchers who study trolls have found that many might not actually be that upset about feminist ideas, they just know it's a good way to garner a reaction, according to Lisa Nakamura, the coordinator of digital studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and a co-facilitator of FemTechNet.

"It's not about their personal politics but just about getting a rise out of someone," Nakamura told me. "It's not something they're doing to convey their own opinions or feelings, but it's a way to engineer other people's social behavior. It's a kind of manipulation for its own sake because attention is the currency of the internet."

She also said its a reaction to the shifting attention span of the internet. Way back when the world wide web first began, it wasn't so hard to carve out some space and be heard. Now, the fight for eyeballs is a constant struggle online and those who used to have a focused audience are drowned out by new voices, including feminists, Nakamura said.

"It's hard to get heard on the internet and acts of really egregious hate is one way to do it," she said.

But with all these feminist voices taking up more and more real estate online, why are attacks still happening? There are laws preventing this kind of behavior: you can't threaten to kill somebody. You can't take someone else's website offline. Yet there is a gap between the laws being broken and the laws being enforced, explained Mary Anne Franks, an associate law professor at the University of Miami and the vice president of the of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.

The problem, aside from a lack of resources for many law enforcers, is largely a trivialization of these kinds of attacks, Franks told me.

"It's precisely because it happens so often to so many women that the response by law enforcement will often be 'this isn't that big of a deal,'" Franks said, adding that the victims are just as likely to trivialize the attacks themselves.

"Pretty much everyone I know who has written anything that could possibly be construed as feminist, or even if they're just a woman writing online, has experienced some level of attacks," Franks told me. "We really do just kind of get used to it. I don't call the cops every time I get a threat because if I did, I'd be calling the cops every week."

The silver lining is the frequency and, in some cases, severity of these attacks has made it achingly apparent that sexism isn't dead and gives evidence for why feminists bother to write in the first place. The next steps to breaking away from hackers and trolls targeting feminists lies with both better law enforcement and better support from platforms, Franks said, like Reddit's recent crackdown on revenge porn.

"Too often the question is phrased as 'which one of these things should we do?'" Franks said. "The answer, pretty much always, is 'all of these things.' We should be trying to shore up all of these attempts."