Reflections on How to Kill a Troll


Anita Sarkeesian is a cultural critic who makes YouTube videos. A lot of people like her work: she tried to raise $6,000 via Kickstarter to fund a new set of videos about women in video games, and raised nearly $160,000 instead. And it's this fact—that people like Sarkeesian's work, that they choose to listen to her and even put their money behind her projects—that so enrages some people who play video games.

"Click to Hit Her"

Since she started her Kickstarter, a lot of men have devoted themselves to telling the world how very much they disapprove of Sarkeesian, through hate mail, doxing, threats and images of rape, and most recently, an app that encourages you to beat Sarkeesian as a image of her face bruise and bleeds.

The Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian game
Sarkeesian's "before" image in the game. I'm not going to show you the other one.

It's nauseating. But revulsion alone isn't very useful, so I spent a chunk of the last week trying to work out what was actually going on, and whether there was anything to be abstracted from it about dealing with the pretty constant onslaught of sexist (and racist and anti-gay and cetera) attacks online.

Why Did This Happen?

The first part of the answer is just the usual sadness, I think: if you already think of women primarily as stupid sluts, you don't have to go far to get to rape threats and games about beating a woman bloody for the offense of speaking. In other words, this is all so screwed up online because it's screwed up everywhere.

Beyond that, I think most people find it difficult to hear criticisms of things they love. We often translate "I do not like X" into "you are a moron for loving X" and "I find Y to be troubling and kind of sexist" into "you are personally a sexist slimeball for liking Y, and I think you should be shunned forever."

This essentialization of taste is pretty pervasive. The only way to defang it is to accept the idea that you can like troubling things without being a bad person, and that it's a million times better to accept that some loved things are troubling than to go to the mat in their defense. It's tremendously relaxing to accept that things you like can be imperfect, and that pointing out their imperfections doesn't reflect on you. It's also rare.

Finally, there's the possibility that some kinds of unexamined pleasures are tainted by the simple proximity of a critical (as in analytical) voice: thousands of pop-culture discussions complaining about "overthinking" as the enemy of enjoyment attest to that.

But however the ego damage behind these attacks occurred, the mechanism itself is pretty simple: A woman expresses an opinion that some people disagree with. And a cluster of people, most of them men, decide that the right and proper thing to do is to try to scare her into silence or make her change her mind by posting horrible things about her, vandalizing her work online, dumping her private contact information into forums so people can harass and intimidate her offline, and talk extensively about how she deserves to be raped. Because, you know, she said something they disagreed with.

Female commentators of all kinds receive these threats and relentless attacks, all aimed at scaring them into silence. This is our normal.

How Do We Get Better?

The most effective response to trolls is supposed to be ignoring them.

Anyone who was tormented by classmates as a child knows how facile that is. You can't un-see threats and hateful comments, which is what the people who make them are counting on. Certain tools and processes can help people who are targeted avoid actually seeing more vitriol than they have to. Twitter's "block" button is a lifeline, and I've seen bloggers who are under coordinated troll attacks trade comment moderation duties so that neither has to read comments that directly threaten her.

The other problem with attempting to simply ignore comments that range from vulgarities to death threats is that women have reason to be afraid.

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