In March, AFLW star Tayla Harris became the latest target of a coordinated troll campaign.
A photo of Harris kicking a football, her front leg stretched into a split, her back leg off the ground, was posted to social media and disseminated across social media. The photo was a spectacular image of athleticism featuring a star performer in a code that faces constant ill-founded criticism and pointless comparisons to its equivalent male league. And yet the headlines became less about Harris’ ability and more about abuse, as the 22-year-old faced vile, sexual, and misogynistic comments.
The reaction was reported on, the image was taken down, the take-down was criticised, and – finally – the image was republished. It made international headlines.
Harris, who didn’t even post the original image, called for accountability and transparency, suggesting social media profiles that are “attached to your driver’s license” would curb the internet’s problem with aggressive trolling.
Think about that world: one where drivers licenses are linked to Facebook accounts and Twitter verification becomes mandatory. An email account backed by government identification being the only thing you’re allowed to use.
The idea would have many frantically shaking their heads and screaming something about Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, and the surveillance state. Those already in power would argue it is warranted; a necessary tradeoff to ensure a certain degree of public safety. It’s end of days stuff, but it might not come to that.
Still, it is becoming increasingly clear that much of the abuse perpetrated on social media does come with a face. These are people using their personal details to form their online personas, and they don’t seem to care that the rest of the world can see what they’re saying. Many of the people who hurled online abuse at Harris never bothered to hide their identity. Perhaps they feel shielded by the fake protection of a closed Facebook group, or maybe they simply don’t care.
Anger and ignorance catalysed abuse long before the internet, of course. With the advent of the world wide web and social media, we constructed a representative ‘face’ of it all: the online troll sitting at their keyboard, firing off mean words and harsh “truths”, regularly, and without reason. It was a picture that stuck for years, but it is no longer accurate. While the media worries excessively about the “anonymous troll”, there are tens of thousands of people using real profiles, with their real names, to do exactly the same thing.
Emily van der Nagel, who lectures in social media at Monash University, says social media has simply provided a public outlet for our worst impulses.
“In some ways we’re just realising that a lot more people are mean, yeah,” she said over the phone, “but the problem isn’t that we have an issue with trolling. The issue at the core is that we have an issue with misogyny or racism.”
Van der Nagel says those same people may have their bigotry bolstered by offline factors before even logging on.
“The bigger problem than one, or two, or two hundred trolls is that politicians, journalists, and people in positions of influence start this rhetoric and discussion,” she said, linking the killing of 50 Muslims in Christchurch in March to Islamophobic ideas laundered through print and television.
Individuals who come online versed in misogyny, Islamophobia, or other oppressive ideologies then find themselves in familiar company.
“They’re constantly being told it’s OK to feel the way they do, and then they step into an echo chamber they’ve probably created online that backs up their views more,” Van der Nagel said.
For those who spend time in the far-right circles of social media, this is not news. Andy Fleming, who has tracked the rise of the far-right in Australia for years, told me there is a distinct lack of attention being given to the “ordinary mums and dads” who have been radicalised by groups like the United Patriots Front and Reclaim Australia.
Another trend has also emerged: a telling lack of real-world consequences.
“Generally, people overstate how afraid folks are of consequences that may arise from using their real names, profiles, and emails,” said Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a writer and broadcaster who was famously chased out of Australia by the mainstream media and a tidal wave of online abuse for posts she made on social media.
“The reality is, there are little to no actual negative consequences to using real identifying information,” she said.
“The police are unlikely to prosecute, platforms don’t often take action, and if I were to track down and report every single individual who threatened me online to their employer I’d have literally no time to do anything else.”
Abdel-Magied, who is a Muslim and a woman of colour, was a particular target of ire. Still, the blasé attitude exhibited by many of her online harassers has been mirrored across the nation. One reporter told me they had received threats on Twitter from complete strangers whose profiles openly list government jobs.
Debra Smith, a Senior Research Fellow and Victoria University, posits that many online abusers may simply be unaware of how public their comments are.
“People don’t realise it’s public but they may as well be shouting it out at the MCG,” she said.
“Social media is just another social space.”
Smith echoed a factor highlighted by Van Der Nagel and Abdel-Magied: the comfort found in those online social environments.
In 2019, a person’s identity is as much offline as it is online. Every part of the internet is just a subculture that real people participate in. Without flesh-and-blood human beings sharing how they feel, those nooks don’t exist. Russian bots don’t make new ideas, they feed already existing ones. These xenophobic, often racist, and conspiracy-ridden holes in the internet help people make communities, make friends, and express who they are. We see these communities give their members a de facto sense of security. They’re not trolling in the traditional sense – they’d probably say they’re not trolling at all. Just sharing things they’re interested in and saying how they feel.
“These are subcultures that people participate in,” said Smith.
“It’s part of performing their identity – why wouldn’t they use their names?”
One person, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, told me they lost their job for posts shared to their Facebook. The posts parroted far-right talking points: statistics claiming 20-25% of Muslims are radical, that Muslim refugees are rapists, and that refugees exploit welfare and social services. They had used their real name on the account, and a picture of themselves, while they shared videos from conservative Facebook groups.
“I didn’t say I agreed with it,” they said. “I got called a racist and a white supremacist… But I talk about everything in real life – I’m not ashamed to talk about what’s happening in the world.”
“I’m not anti-anything.”
Higher profile cases ask more questions of what ‘identity’ is online. Recently, the persecution of Australian rugby player Israel Folau prompted weeks of media coverage. The dual-code international faces a Rugby Australia code of conduct hearing next month after making anti-gay comments on his Instagram – and not for the first time. His right to post the image, which declared homosexuals were destined for Hell, was both criticised and defended across the media for days.
But this was not abuse, at least not as we tend to understand it. It was an openly conservative and religious man being openly religious and conservative. Circumstances like Folau’s spur ethical debates on what rights a star footballer has to their online personality.
The fact that the HR department are the ones enacting justice for poor conduct on social media suggests that these platforms lack the ability or the will to control the communities they enable.
Brenton Tarrant, the man who perpetrated the Christchurch attack, had maintained a Facebook account using his real name for years. In the aftermath of the massacre, it was reported he had used that account to send death threats to people two years ago. At the time of the threat there had been no active effort to hide who he was and what he thought, and while he did at some point change his name on the profile, he changed it back when he carried out the March 15attack. Facebook, for what it’s worth, only removed his account after it was used to live-stream the massacre.
Anonymous or otherwise, we’re not at a point where the Internet Cops are in full force. Even if they were, there is no huge indication that the public are all that worried. Celebrities, politicians, and conservative Christian rugby players will always have their movements more intensely scrutinised, online or otherwise. That’s the culture we have built over years of radio and glossy gossip mags and paparazzi and celebrity blogs, all with their sights on the rich and powerful.
The rest of us, left to navigate this weird new online world we’ve created, have been left to self-police. Many people do not do a good job of it. Many more do not even care. Whether or not they should, only time will tell.