A scientific study of trolls found they are sociopaths and that they troll because they enjoy hurting others for their own gratification. So basically, trolls have the same psychological profile as serial killers. Some of them probably are or will develop into real life criminals. If a troll stalks a woman online and learns that everyone will blame her and defend him, what is to stop him from proceeding to stalk and attack her offline?
As they say in the military, we fight as we train. If one learns, over and over, that victim-silencing is the way things are done when it’s little ordinary everyday things, like internet trollery, that training is what everyone will fall back on when it’s something big and shocking, like rape. Back in the 1990s, I took a firearms course which qualified me to be a reserve police officer in California. We were trained to pocket our brass. That means we removed the spent casings from our revolvers and put them in our pockets before reloading. Why? Because it kept the range neat. Years later, I took up shooting again and went out to a range with a retired federal officer. It had been 20 years, but my body remembered my training and I pocketed my brass. He said they don’t do that anymore. Now they dump the spent brass on the floor. Why? Because cops were found dead with brass in their pockets. Training to pocket one’s brass caused officers to pocket their brass in an actual firefight, which slowed their reaction time and got them killed. Everyone had been told that they should pocket their brass at the range but not in real life, but training took over. If you tell people they should constantly victim-silence on the internet but not in real life, what do you think is going to happen?
In this essay, I will specifically address bullying in internet forums because it’s what I see currently, and my experiences with real life bullying were all in earlier periods of my life when the world was different than it is now. My early life experiences certainly influence my opinion about this, though, and I think the principles could be applied beyond forums if one wished to so apply them. I can deal with two types of spaces, in both real life and on the internet: Group Type 1: Okay Space 1: Total free-for-all. Victims of bullying are allowed to defend themselves. There are no referees. This is the type of space that the schoolyard was when I was a child in a rural school in the 1970s and 1980s. It was fine because when I was bullied I could fight the boy and no one punished me for defending myself. That encouraged me to be strong and fearless and self-reliant. That is the kind of space that the old MSN Asatru Group was when I managed it. Flame wars were permitted. The only time I ever censored posts was when they were commercial spam or violated MSN’s guidelines in a way that could get the group banned, such as posting graphic nude images. I let everyone post, even the racists (even though I’m of mixed race myself.) It worked because everyone knew they were in a free speech zone and no one was going to be punished for fighting back. Free-for-all is also the kind of space that Amazon is. Amazon does occasionally remove book reviews, but usually because they think they are fake. Amazon wants honest reviews, even if they’re bad. An author reviewing another author’s book is far more likely to have a 5 star review removed than a 1 star review, even if the 1 star includes trollery. Anyone is free to pick a fight, as an author did when he left a revenge-review on my book after I gave his book an honest bad review. Anyone is free to fight back, and I did when I discussed it on my blog. Anyone is free to chivalrously defend others, as Harrison Hall did by pointing out the anonymous 1 star review of my book was a revenge review, and by making a supportive blog post on his blog. Free-for-all zones are the best kind of safe zone because anyone can state their honest opinion without fear of punishment, and that allows victims to defend themselves without fear.
In a free-for-all space, anyone is allowed to join the fight, or leave it, anytime they wish. A Theodsman told me how the Theodish handle trolls. Orletta is Anglo-Saxon for champion. The orletta principle is that Theodsmen don’t defend themselves against trollery or bullying, but are championed by other Theodsmen. When a troll attacks a Theodsman, the champions publicly verbally counterattack the troll, while the target publicly goes about his business and ignores the troll.
Group Type 2: Okay Space 2: Victims are supported. Moderators act quickly to quash bullies and trolls. In some internet forums, there is an open and transparent process which lets the victims know their concerns are taken seriously and the space will be made safe for them. Victims are given the tools they need to be safe. They are never blamed, controlled, or silenced. They are shown or told when the troll has been dealt with.
A moderated space is an implicit promise that those in it give up their right to self-defense in exchange for being defended by official moderators. When one enters a Las Vegas casino, one is supposed to leave one’s personal firearms outside. The casino provides armed security guards. The implied promise is that armed robbers with be handled by professional security rather than drunken gambling patrons. Group Type 3: Not Okay Space: Victims are quashed and punished. Officials try to control and silence the victims. Even if the bully / troll is kicked out, nobody tells the victim. The victim is never told the space is safe for them to return, and they are never told they are welcome back. Instead, the victim is told they did something wrong and is ordered to do something to correct their behavior, especially something that silences them, publicly humiliates them, and forbids them from seeking practical advice and emotional support or from letting their friends, family, colleagues, and boss know they are going to be off the net for a while. This can happen in a forum, and it can also happen in real life groups. In the 1990s I was sexually harassed by the leader of a real life group who demanded sexual favors in return for learning, and demanded silence. When his crime came to light, the group blamed me and demanded an apology from me for “disrupting” the group. I got out of that group, but it was not easy. Group members stalked me, driving to the state to which I had moved to leave notes on the doors of my apartment and business in the middle of the night. Real life harassment is very different from internet harassment, but it’s on the same continuum, and victim-blaming and victim-silencing are still wrong, and contribute to a culture in which victims are blamed and shamed, which can carry over to offline behavior.
1. Groups That Provide No Way for the Victim to Find Out What Is Happening and When or If It Becomes Safe to Return. If the officials of a group do not want to have contacting the victim and letting her know the results to be one of their official duties, they could appoint a victim advocate to help the victim. This could be an official or just a friend. Either way the advocate needs to keep the victim in the loop and let her know that there is someone on her side. Of course, it would be preferable if the group officials simply told the victim when they booted out a troll. They could message her, tag her in an open post on the group with “You’re safe, come back” or some such message, or use some other method of communication. The more public, the better. Knowing a group is a safe place is important to general members.
2. Groups That Value the Group Over the Individual Members. Demands for silence from the victims towards a support group and from fellow members toward the victim are showing they place no value on individual human beings. They are showing that the group is important and victims are not. This is the same attitude that resulted in the child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, in which criminals were quietly transferred and allowed to continue their criminal ways. Yes, this absolutely does happen in pagan and heathen groups, too. Internet forums don’t have the same potential for abuse as real life groups, but their attitudes train their members to think in ways that can carry over to real life groups. The solution is to acknowledge that individual human beings have value as human beings and that no group can succeed if the individuals who comprise it are not safe.
3. Groups That Require Friends of the Victim to Shun Her. What if the moderator you contact is also a friend and claims to have to be “neutral” because of his/her/hir position? Real life judges in criminal courts are allowed to recuse themselves from a case if they know one of the parties, in which case, someone else takes over and they are free to continue their personal and business relationships and even advocate for their friends. Silence from friends is shunning, and it is the worst punishment one can impose on people. Don’t do this to your friends, and don’t require people to do this to their friends. It’s awful. It’s betrayal and abandonment. It is wrong to require people to shun their friends because of being victims of troll attacks. Excusing this behavior by saying it’s part of the process just means the group has a bad process. This is part of the problem with closed, non-transparent processes. There is a reason we have open court proceedings in real life law, so the victim and the general public– potential victims– can see what happens, and also so that criminals can see what happens to other criminals. Closed proceedings that result in the victim knowing nothing except that he/she/hir has been told the victims did something wrong is a form of victim-quashing and it is wrong. It makes the group an unsafe place. Even if the bully is gone, the victim will never know the group did anything to anyone but the victim. The victim will never know the bully is gone unless his/her/hir friend tells them, unofficially.
4. Groups That Take Forever To Handle Anything. Moderators need to be allowed to do their jobs, swiftly, immediately, and without any further permission from anyone. Groups that bounce all decisions to a committee and leave victims hanging while requiring everyone to maintain silence while officials discuss everything in private have created a de facto unsafe, victim-silencing, victim-shunning space even if that was not their intent.
5. Groups That Require Victims to Delete Their Posts. Internet trolling in a public forum is not a he said / she said matter, as long as nothing is deleted. For this reason, good groups have rules against deleting threads or posts until the moderator can get there and look at it. When it is possible on the site hosting their forum, they set the forum so only moderators and administrators can delete.
Moderators need to be able to see the entire thread with nothing deleted because one tactic trolls use is to pretend that they are being attacked. They write fake “responses” to posts that never existed. They will start a name-calling fight and then claim the victim is fighting back. In a no-delete forum, this tactic does not work.
Bad groups require people to delete posts, even offlist. This kind of controlling, victim-silencing behavior is a huge red flag. On an internet forum, it might be no more than annoying. In a real life group, it’s exactly the kind of thing that protects perpetrators of sexual assault, and has been going on long before the internet even existed. If a group that has both an internet forum and local real life groups or a real life festival or convention has the same non-transparent, victim-quashing, victim-silencing rules for both, sooner or later their rules will inevitably protect a rapist or pedophile from justice, because that is exactly what that kind of behavior is designed to do. It keeps the group looking nice at the expense of the victims by covering everything up. That’s what happens when a college investigates a rape and the end result is the jock stays and the victim leaves. That’s what happened when the Catholic Church investigated pedophile priests and quietly transferred them elsewhere, not telling the victims or their families that no consequences had befallen the perpetrator. This is rape culture. Microagressions grow rape culture, even when committed online.
6. Groups That Handle Everything in Secret. Secrecy and silence are the toxic building blocks of rape culture. There is a reason that local governments are subject to transparency laws, sunshine laws, and open meeting laws, and why courts are conducted in public. It’s because secret proceedings do not serve the interests of society, and our society has learned that over the years. How public is public? The press is always welcome at public meetings and courts, and every level of government from Congress down to local city councils televises their proceedings. In my city, Henderson, Nevada, one can even watch the council live on the internet, and the city attorney has advised the council that two council members cannot meet in private because it might violate the open meeting law. So, it is very public indeed. These rules are intended to provide fairness for the public, fair hearings for public issues, and to prevent cronyism and corruption. As we know, in politics there are more players besides the public and public servants, but the effects of vast amounts of campaign money are generally not applicable to groups like internet forums and small local religious organizations, which could adopt the sunshine model from local councils in its purest form.
What about closed groups? A group that is closed can still handle everything “publicly” in front of the group. An example of a group that does this well in real life is the Asatru Alliance. Once, I was at a Thing, which is a campout festival. Only heathens were present, so the Thing was closed rather than open to the public. Someone made a White Power gesture during a ritual. The group gathered, discussed, and voted, and kicked the offender out of the Thing. The offender and his whole camp decamped, got in their car and left. The entire process was handled “publicly” within the group. Everyone understood what had happened and what the consequences would be for breaking that rule in the future, so it would not keep happening.
7. Groups That Defend Trollery in the Name of Inclusion and Free Speech. That works fine in a free-for-all zone, but not in a moderated space. In a free-for-all, those attacked can fight back. In a moderated space, they will be punished for defending themselves. If the moderators don’t defend them, the group sides with attackers, whether by intent or by default. Moderators who have been told they have to be “neutral” between trolls and victims are as useful as police who arrive at the scene of an attack and stand around saying they have to be “neutral” and stay aloof from what’s going on. That would de facto side with the criminals. That is especially so when this attitude is coupled with victim-silencing. It would be like if the police arrived at an attack, did nothing to the attackers, and arrested whoever made the 911 call to silence them and drive down the city’s crime statistics.
In a free for all zone, there are no police to call. The victim fights back. It’s the Wild West and everybody is armed.
I believe in free speech. The right to free speech is a person’s right vis-à-vis the government, not other private citizens or non-governmental groups or businesses. People can say whatever they want in the people’s park. That’s because the people’s park is a tax-supported space and belongs ultimately to the people. People don’t have the right to say whatever they want in a shopping mall that’s privately owned.
In the city of Las Vegas, the courts have clearly stated that pamphleteers are allowed to hand out leaflets on public sidewalks, even if the leaflets contain graphic sexual images. However, no one has the right to engage in leafleting one inch past the line where the public sidewalk stops and the privately maintained resort property begins without permission of the property owner.
The same is true on the net. The right of free speech is only relevant in a tax-supported government space. It’s not relevant in a space owned by a private individual or non-governmental group.
Does a Not Okay Space group deserve to have any members? Only if they change. Only if they are willing to admit their process has made their group an unsafe space and they change it to a better process. I’m willing to give any group a chance to show they will change. If they do, good. If they don’t, I will vote with my feet and go where it is safe. And gradually, so will everyone else except the bullies and the trolls. I’ve seen that happen to plenty of forums before. X
Groups of type 3 masquerading as type 2 have moderators that refuse to do the jobs of moderators
I once belonged to an online group that was a good place to get recommendations on which academic papers to read about various topics of interest to heathens. Then it was taken over by trolls. The trolls posted offensive content such as graphic porn images. I’m not talking about nice porn, either. I’m not a prude; I’m a Priestess of Freya, and one of the genres of books I acquire for publication is erotica, including BDSM erotica, and both straight and GLBT erotica, which means I read it to judge its quality and commercial potential. However, there are types of porn I find offensive. I tried to give the group a chance, but by the end I had announced, “If someone posts one more bestiality porn video and the moderators don’t remove it, I’m leaving.” And guess what? Yeah, that happened, and I left. I’m glad I left. I didn’t need to deal with that, and there are other places to get academic papers.
In a group where the moderators actually moderate, if someone posts something offensive, like bestiality porn videos, they get rid of it, immediately, and if the troll does it repeatedly, they get rid of him, and they warn him immediately at the time they are removing things.
If there is a flame war developing in a moderated group of type 2 and someone requests a moderator to shut it down, the moderator will come on, shut down the flame war immediately, warn or boot the troll immediately, possibly have everyone re-agree to the rules if necessary and then it’s done and over in a matter of minutes. Sometimes in small groups they have “really everyone” in the group publicly put their yes on the rules thread again, which could take some time for the people who were not online at the time to get to it. In larger groups, they usually just have the people who were actually there do it. It’s usually public, it takes a few minutes, and then it is over. Everybody goes on, unless someone wants to leave the group, and that usually happens immediately too, and then both everyone who is still there and the people who left go on with their lives and get over it.
What happens instead in groups of type 3? I was once in what appeared to be a moderated forum when a flame war started developing. Doing what I was supposed to do in a moderated space, I got an admin right away rather than engaging in battle. The administrator happened to be a friend. Instead of either doing the job of a moderator or getting someone else who would, some secret process started in which she claimed she had to be neutral. Neutral in what, I never found out. Days of heart-crushing emotional pain passed in which although we maintained collegial communications, the flow of advice and emotional support had stopped, which was emotional shunning. The group’s only official communication with me was a demand for my silence off-list and a notice that they believed I had done something wrong. Whatever secret rule or process the group engaged in, I know neither its goal, nor its outcome, except that it wrecked our friendship and reduced us to the level of awkwardly polite work colleagues.
When Online Life is Real Life
I work on the net, both to sell my books and to do my real job. I do my real job entirely over the net. I’ve never met my boss in person or talked to her on the phone. My money comes from her company to Paypal to my bank to the bill collectors entirely over the net. I hear about and get transportation to conventions on the net, and develop relationships with the writers I’ll be meeting with at those conventions on the net. I shop on the net, renew my vehicle registration on the net, plan times and places for local meetings and events on the net, and even get my local friends to adopt cats from the local animal shelter via the net. The internet is my real life.
Nonetheless, I understand what people mean when they call meatspace real life. They mean a person can’t be physically harmed because of something that happens on the net. Except that isn’t really true. When I’m being stalked from one internet space to another by a guy in the heathen community, I think about what would happen if we ever met in person, either by accident because we happened to travel to the same heathen festival, or by his turning his internet stalking into meatspace stalking. I wonder if I should be concerned for my physical safety. I wonder if I should take the initiative and challenge him to a duel the moment I see him, just to get the inevitable fight over with and hopefully have the advantage of being awake and wearing my glasses when it starts. Because if I wake up already under a man I’ve lost before I can even start fighting. But, festivals are a frithspace, meaning no fighting is allowed. So, that wouldn’t really work. If I had driven hundreds of miles to a heathen festival, which would be a substantial investment of money for me and which I would have to recoup through onsite book sales just to have enough money to drive back, and someone who had been internet-stalking me was there, I don’t think I’d feel safe sleeping alone in a sleeping bag on the festival grounds, but I would not feel I could just leave either. Rules don’t stop stalkers, so the festival being a frithstead would not prevent violence towards me. What’s my solution? There are four possible solutions. Two of them are that I can just not go to any more festivals, or I can wait until I could go with a group. I’ve spent most of my life refusing to let fear rule my life, but there is being cowardly and then there is being realistic. I’ve already reached the stage in my life when I no longer enjoy long road trips alone anyway, just so I don’t have to drive the whole way by myself because it’s exhausting. Going with a group sounds like a good idea all around.
An example of a group that does a good job protecting its members while camping out is Hammarrheim. Hammarrheim sets up camp at Renfaires. Rennies know that Renfaires are full of predators, and nobody ever camps alone, only with a group. Every group sets up a perimeter and defends it, and posts guards at the entrances. This is not just for show. The guards remain when the tourists leave for the day. Visitors ask the guard for whoever they’ve come to visit by name, and they are only let in if the person they ask for says so and if that person is someone who can say so.
The other two possible solutions are to only go to festivals that take place in hotels, such as PantheaCon, so there will be a locked door in between me and whoever random people are there. Of course, that costs more. Or only go to local events where I go home at the end of the day; that works, too, but isn’t really another solution because it’s the same as just not traveling to any more festivals. The fourth solution is to have a mutual friend broker a peace between me and the stalker. Who knows if that would work, but it’s worth a try.
Even local events where there is no overnight camping could possibly bring me face to face with a previously online-only stalker, especially if it happens to be someone who travels often.
What Silence Means to Me
In the heathen tradition there is no “Law of Silence;” that’s Wiccan and it actually only refers to working magic anyway. Even among Wiccans, it doesn’t mean “don’t talk about issues that affect people,” it means “don’t cast spells while non-believers in magic are watching you, because their disbelief could affect your magic.” To me silence is what the online support group aftersilence.org helps its members get past. Aftersilence is a support group for survivors of rape and childhood sexual abuse. I was sexually abused as a child. The experience has colored my entire life. I cannot even imagine who I would be if that had not happened. I am a member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau. RAINN is the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. The purpose of the bureau is to have survivors of sexual violence speak out about it. I have been breaking the toxic silence for a long time. In the 90s I was on the Leeza Show talking about how I was mistreated by the mental health system when I tried to get help dealing with issues stemming from having been abused as a child. As a result of my advocacy, I was appointed to serve on the Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Advisory Board, where I was the voice of the voiceless and I am proud to have made a difference for victims and survivors. I published a memoir in which I wrote about having been abused as a child, in addition to writing about my heathen path and other important parts of my life. I wrote it to help myself, but I published it because I was afraid to, and I wanted to help other survivors be unafraid to speak out, and to do my part to create a world in which it is safe to speak out. I will not be silenced. Silence is what the adults who abused me as a child demanded, which protected them and prolonged the abuse. Silence is what the group leader who sexually harassed me demanded. But, what about privacy? Aren’t some things better not spoken? There is a difference between silence and privacy. You will note that I have told my story of all my experiences in this essay while only mentioning people or groups in an identifiable way if they are positive examples of the way to do things right, with the exception of mentioning bad book reviews on Amazon because Amazon is as public as it gets and that information is already there for anyone to read. I have done my best to remove all identifying details from all the other negative examples. I can tell the story of what I have experienced without identifying who did all these things. I can refuse to be silenced without starting fights by naming people. I own my personal story. I have a right to tell it. And I will not be silenced.
If internet culture teaches sociopaths that they will get away with hurting people for their own pleasure because the group will punish the victim, this is a lesson that the sociopath may transfer from online to offline life.
When I owned a bookstore in the 90s, the cops would never come out to arrest shoplifters. Kids stole over and over and they learned there would be no consequences. Did these children suddenly become upstanding, law-abiding citizens when they turned 18? Probably not. When criminals learn that society does not punish crime, it encourages more and bigger crimes.
We fight as we train. We live as we train. Victim-quashing behavior is just like pocketing your brass. It keeps the place looking tidy and pretty at the expense of developing a habit that could get someone killed. Don’t engage in victim-quashing. And don’t pocket your brass.
[Erin Lale is the Acquisitions Editor at Eternal Press and Damnation Books. Her writing and publishing career began in 1985. She has an extensive list of published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, etc. In the print era she was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine and owned The Science Fiction Store, and she publishes the shared world Time Yarns.]