How Not To Communicate: Lessons From Trolls
In recent weeks, many Americans have been astounded by the hatred some of their compatriots seem to harbor toward people of color, immigrants, and anyone else who seems different. But as a woman who is regularly trolled for sharing her opinions, I have long understood that our country has a harrowing problem with hate.
I’m a professor and I write about one op-ed a week, typically for CNN Opinion and Bloomberg View. My commentary focuses on politics and communication, so I’ve written about everything from how President Trump can communicate more effectively to why Cynthia Nixon should run for governor of New York. The abusive e-mails and tweets I receive in response aren’t voluminous -- they clearly come from a small fringe of my readers. But three things about them trouble me, and suggest trouble for the country.
First is the issue of gender. Although it’s difficult to confirm someone’s identity on the basis of an email alone, it appears that almost all of my hate mail comes from men. For example, more than 90 percent of these messages come from senders with traditionally male names. They often contain other cues that lead me to suppose the writers are men. For example, one Lee W. signed his vitriolic missive with “husband, father and grandfather.”
And the language they use is rife with sexist slurs. As an example, when I criticized President Trump in a CNN op-ed for commenting on the French first lady’s body, a Henry O. in Cleveland wrote, “I’m sick of women or their pansy men who get offended over comments or jokes that they judge to be ‘offensive.’ Screw you, bitch.”
My experience is hardly unique: Research confirms that female writers get more cruel feedback than men. When The Guardian commissioned a study of the comments posted by their readers last year, its conclusion was clear: “Articles written by women attract more abuse and dismissive trolling than those written by men, regardless of what the article is about.” Eight of the 10 writers who received the most abuse were women, even though the majority of the paper's regular opinion writers were men. (This same pattern repeats with race: Although most of the male Guardian writers were white, the two men who received the most abuse were black.) And while women are disproportionately targeted by trolls, men are more likely to be trolls, researchers have found.
The second thing that troubles me is that hate mail usually doesn’t contain counter-arguments. Writers almost never try to explain why they believe I’m wrong; instead, they attack me personally. (I sometimes need to reference Urban Dictionary to understand the earthy phrases they use.) For example, after I wrote commentary for CNN arguing that Fox News should have fired host Bill O’Reilly when allegations of sexual harassment against him were first raised, a Greg V. emailed, “I bet ... you would be praying to have a famous rich guy call you hot anything.” 1
Third, my interlocutors often put me into categories. Because I worked in President Barack Obama’s administration, they peg me as a raging liberal. For example, in March, I received an especially nasty slew of emails for my Bloomberg column arguing that Melania Trump should hire a press secretary. I didn’t attack the first lady at all in the piece; I gave her the same advice I would have offered to Michelle Obama about how to improve her own and her husband’s approval ratings. Indeed, the day after the column ran, Melania Trump hired a communications director. But my commentary was nevertheless read as a hit job (if these writers bothered to read it at all).
This suggests that many of the people writing to me don’t have a problem with my specific arguments. They have a problem with the fact that I have arguments at all.
Of course, you have to have thick skin to weigh in on contentious issues. An easy way to deal with these messages is to delete them. In fact, when I wrote a piece for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, I received official guidelines indicating: “You are writing for a general audience, who can be expected to be reasonably intelligent and reasonably interested in the world around them. (This excludes the commenters on articles. You can ignore them.)”
But the reason my hate messages are too disturbing to ignore is because of what will happen to our country if we engage with one another this way. Trolls disproportionately target members of historically less powerful groups, as the Guardian study indicates. This abuse has a chilling effect on the broader national debate. A study published by the Pew Research Center last month found that 27 percent of Americans have declined to post something after seeing others harassed online. And an especially large share of women ages 18 to 29 (45 percent) have chosen to censor themselves after witnessing the harassment of others.
I’m one of the lucky ones. The only time I’ve ever self-censored was while writing this column: I chose not to use the last names of the men I quoted out of fear of retribution.
But I have some advantages. As the Guardian research showed, factors such as race can also make people targets. A Pew study published last month found that black and Hispanic Americans are more likely than white Americans to be harassed online, and are far more likely to receive racial abuse. Fifty-nine percent of African Americans, 48 percent of Hispanics and 41 percent of whites say they’ve experienced online harassment. For women of color, the problem is compounded.
Ultimately, trying to intimidate people you disagree with is a sign of weakness. The only brave thing to do is to debate issues on their merits. So, if you disagree with me, don’t call me a beast. (MAGA Mike King on Twitter, I’m looking at you.) Tell me why I’m wrong.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.