I read Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object about a month ago and it was painful at times. I think what troubled me the most was the section titled “End Notes.” Valenti compiles what is probably a small representative sample of the anonymous hate mail and trolling she has experienced. I realize the Internet enables people to do and say things they never would in person. I have an acquaintance who barely speaks in person yet will post combative and vitriolic Facebook articles in support of Donald Trump. If anyone questions the accuracy of her news sources (Breitbart), she will reply with sarcastic or belittling remarks. It’s an aggressiveness that no one would assume she was capable of in person—it only comes out online. She’s not technically anonymous, but she’s protected by the fact that it’s not a face-to-face interaction. She doesn’t have to look at people when she says shitty, condescending things to them—just like writing this post is easier than telling her in person that her online conduct is troubling.
In any case, the power of the anonymous troll was already in my mind after Valenti’s work. Then I went on to read West’s Shrill. If I thought the anonymous trolling of Valenti was awful, there aren’t words to describe the degree of hatred leveled at West. Not only has she committed the offensive act of being a woman with a voice, she’s also a large woman with a voice. That seems to really attract the trolls. Her opening explains the powerful impact that anonymous trolling has now made in our society: “Trolls tested the boundaries of how far society would allow racism, misogyny, and transphobia to be normalized. Would anyone do anything? Would anyone take action? Would anyone powerful take this seriously? The answer turned out to be no. Those of us on the receiving end begged for help, and we were told to grow a thicker skin because the Internet ‘isn’t real life.’ Until, surprise, the Internet became president” (x).
West’s chapter, “Slaying the Troll” was fascinating because it gave perspective to trolling that is never shown: the actual person behind the comments. One of the most telling moments in this almost unbelievable interview was his comment on whether or not West’s gender played a role in his perception of her: “Oh, definitely. Definitively. Women are being more forthright in their writing. There isn’t a sense of timidity to when they speak or when they write. They’re saying it loud. And I think that—and I think, for me, as well, it’s threatening at first” (249).
It’s perhaps not seen as appropriate to treat women this way in person (or at least, it wasn’t), but with the anonymity of the Internet, people have the ability to say and do things that should be considered harassment at best and hate crimes at their worst. That’s how anonymity has been weaponized in our digital age. It emboldened populations privately and then publicly manifested itself as an ugly administration that openly does not give a shit about being decent human beings.
Not only is anonymity a benefit to trolls and the super awesome people who comment on Breitbart articles but it is also enforced upon women who have had abortions. There is absolutely an attempt to silence these women through judgment and shaming. People don’t want to hear about their relatives, friends, coworkers, or other people they know making that decision because then they can’t continue to demonize them as abstracts—or, if they do find out, then they have to be judgmental right to that person’s face, and the Law of Trolling shows hating someone in person is just much more difficult. If between 25-33% of women will have an abortion by the time they are reach the age of 45, that’s a sizable population. Yet, many people will say that they don’t know of anyone who has had one. That’s just not true. They know many people who have had to or have chosen to have an abortion. Those people just aren’t speaking up because they are afraid of the consequences in their families, with their friends, and in some cases, at their jobs.
That’s why West’s “Shout Your Abortion” movement was so powerful. So many voices speaking up and relating their stories created a space to go when women, feeling isolated, needed support. As West states, “we simply must talk about it. The fact that abortion is still a taboo subject means that opponents of abortion get to define it however suits them best. They can cast those of us who have had abortions as callous monstrosities, and seed fear in anyone who might need one by insisting that the procedure is always traumatic, always painful, always an impossible decision” (65).
In the end, anonymity has been dangerous to our humanity in two ways. It’s allowed people normalize hate speech with no personal consequences. Then, it’s been pushed on women, allowing abortion opponents to demonize reproductive rights. The fallout of these actions is everywhere now.