Trolls and Terrorism

In a recent post, I mused about whether some of the recent acts of harassment faced by women like Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, and Brianna Wu might be thought of as acts of terrorism.  After all, the harassment represented an organized campaign designed to scare these women (and others who witnessed what was happening to them) out of participating in gaming culture.

We typically think of terrorism as an act committed in the context of what we call the War on Terror: we imagine terrorism to be something exclusively done by Middle Eastern religious extremists.  We forget that it is a tactic used by extremists of all races, creeds, and political bents.  We forget about the routine acts of terrorism faced by, for example, reproductive health centers and abortion doctors, or by civil rights activists and demonstrators of all sorts.

Well, today’s events at Utah State University serve as an unfortunate example of why we might need to start rethinking the events of #GamerGate and the other related sexism in gaming scandals through the lens of domestic terrorism in addition to that of trolling.

An email sent to Utah State University officials threatens to terrorize the school with a deadly shooting over a talk to be delivered by feminist critic and Tropes vs. Women in Video Games creator Anita Sarkeesian, Polygon confirmed with the school’s Center for Women and Gender Studies.

“If you do not cancel her talk, a Montreal Massacre style attack will be carried out against the attendees, as well as students and staff at the nearby Women’s Center,” the message reads. “I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs.”

The Montreal Massacre, also known as the École Polytechnique Massacre, took place in 1989 in Canada. Marc Lépine, who the email references, killed 14 women, injured 10 and killed four men in the name of “fighting feminism” before committing suicide.

The sender claims to be a student at the school, and adds “you will never find me, but you may all soon know my name.”

The Standard Examiner posted an image of the email sent to the Department of Public Safety:

terror email

Sarkeesian ended up canceling her talk in the wake of the threats.

Whether or not this anonymous troll actually planned to carry out this threat, the message is clear: stop talking about gender equality, stop pushing for feminist reforms, or we will find you.  We will hurt you.  We will kill you.

This is the trouble with trolls: they might begin their campaigns strictly seeking out “the lulz,” looking to agitate and upset others for their own amusement.  But every once in a while, some unfortunate will latch onto the people the trolls target and feel justified in upping the ante.  It becomes difficult to distinguish between a real death threat that someone actually intends to carry out and that of a troll.

While I am glad that Sarkeesian put her own safety first, I am saddened by the fact that the cancellation of her talk might be seen as a victory for those who would use such tactics.  I worry that others will become emboldened by today’s events.  I worry that I might have to right about a troll-related act of domestic terrorism someday soon.

8 thoughts on “Trolls and Terrorism

  1. (1) This falls under, at least, the rubric for ‘terroristic threats’ (generally a misdemeanor crime) and, consequently, when developed into a pattern of behaviour, cannot but fall under the rubric of terrorism. Trolling dovetails into terrorism, obviously, as they share several things in common, but is not itself strictly aligned with it or a type of it.

    You’ve probably come to see the new legislation being put forward in the UK that increases the prison term for trolls four-fold, from six months to two years. This is fantastic and needs to exist everywhere. Terrorism isn’t just blowing up buildings or shooting sprees and trolling isn’t just someone running their mouths like a little bitch: they are both attempts to, either directly or indirectly but knowingly, cause serious mental/emotional harm to others.

    Words matter and as a poet I’m acutely aware of this fact. Truth be told, so is everyone else, too, but apparently only when negative or otherwise damaging language is directed at them. For whatever reason when they are doing the directing it’s fine.

    I’ve said time and time again that emotional/mental violence is generally worse than physical violence but it’s treated as though it’s too meagre to be worth anyone’s time.*

    As someone that’s been on the receiving end of both as a child (6-16 years-old; I put a stop to it physically at that point) I can readily attest that I don’t remember what it felt like to be thrown down staircases but I do vividly recall what it felt like to be called worthless in so many ways (direct abuse) and what it felt like for the police and other family members to know but not remove me from said environment despite being very direct about what was happening (indirect abuse). We have a serious cultural problem with words not being seen as actions and it needs to stop for us to move forward culturally.

    (2) Call Sarkeesian a manipulative hack. Fine. Call Zoe Quinn a manipulative whore. Fine. If people what to go solely ad hominem that’s fine, childish but fine. That’s an exercise of the freedom of speech. Say that you want to do them harm and go on to describe how and things change. Make the same a distinct pattern of behaviour and there is no way to take it other than seriously.

    While the behaviour of these females** have been questionable-at-best there’s just no reason for attempting to cause them real injury, mental or physical. It’s totally acceptable for real men and real women to vent and to use coarse language, but when real men and real women are doing this they’re also providing some meaningful criticism of the behaviour/arguments in question. To do otherwise…well, that’s to make oneself to be a punkass little bitch at the very least and there’s absolutely no reason to listen to the voice of a punkass little bitch.

    *There are obvious examples of where this is not the case and those examples shouldn’t be seen to break down my point. Emotional/mental damage or pain often leads to physical damage or pain, e.g. the relationship between self-harm and the emotional/mental pain that led to it or, more obviously, the Columbine attack in the late 1990s. We can gesture to the reality that emotional/mental damage is all the worse, not simply because it’s the longest lasting, but because it arguably is what leads to the physical damage that is all people seem to focus on.

    **Do note that I have nothing at all negative to say about Brianna Wu, only the two abovementioned females. I’d really like to see the voice of a long-term industry leaders like Amy Hennig, Brenda Romero, Roberta Williams and Jane Jensen on relevant women’s issues in gaming.

  2. I think your comment illustrates a really important idea that I want to try and think through here in the comments

    I don’t think that refraining from using inflammatory or offensive language automatically makes one weak or not worth listening to. There is this idea floating around that to do so is to kowtow to the P. C. Police, that it is evidence of a fundamental cowardice (or emasculation: see your description of such folks as “punkass little bitches”). Your statement implies that the type of person who worries about language and trigger warnings and the like is not someone worth listening to *because* they are not presenting themselves as brash, raw, uncensored, off-the-cuff type of speakers/writers, that this presentation suggests a kind of weakness or instability in the speaker (and that this weakness is akin to being overly emotional aka overly feminine).

    In my mind, this really common sentiment comes out of the widely assumption that trolls and harassment are inevitable on the Internet – that, in fact, trolling is a kind of lingua franca of the Internet – and that, thus, those who are “overly sensitive” should just pack up and get offline altogether. This is the line that gets delivered to female victims of trolling and harassment over and over again. “If you don’t like it, don’t write on the Internet! What did you expect to happen to you?”


    money quote:

    “But making quick and sick threats has become so easy that many say the abuse has proliferated to the point of meaninglessness, and that expressing alarm is foolish. Reporters who take death threats seriously “often give the impression that this is some kind of shocking event for which we should pity the ‘victims,’” my colleague Jim Pagels wrote in Slate this fall, “but anyone who’s spent 10 minutes online knows that these assertions are entirely toothless.” On Twitter, he added, “When there’s no precedent for physical harm, it’s only baseless fear mongering.” My friend Jen Doll wrote, at The Atlantic Wire, “It seems like that old ‘ignoring’ tactic your mom taught you could work out to everyone’s benefit…. These people are bullying, or hope to bully. Which means we shouldn’t take the bait.” In the epilogue to her book The End of Men, Hanna Rosin—an editor at Slate—argued that harassment of women online could be seen as a cause for celebration. It shows just how far we’ve come. Many women on the Internet “are in positions of influence, widely published and widely read; if they sniff out misogyny, I have no doubt they will gleefully skewer the responsible sexist in one of many available online outlets, and get results.”

    So women who are harassed online are expected to either get over ourselves or feel flattered in response to the threats made against us. We have the choice to keep quiet or respond ‘gleefully.’

    But no matter how hard we attempt to ignore it, this type of gendered harassment—and the sheer volume of it—has severe implications for women’s status on the Internet. Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages. I’ve spent countless hours over the past four years logging the online activity of one particularly committed cyberstalker, just in case. And as the Internet becomes increasingly central to the human experience, the ability of women to live and work freely online will be shaped, and too often limited, by the technology companies that host these threats, the constellation of local and federal law enforcement officers who investigate them, and the popular commentators who dismiss them—all arenas that remain dominated by men, many of whom have little personal understanding of what women face online every day.”

    end quote

    I want to push back against the idea that one can *either* be a troll or be one of the trolled, a bully or a victim. Such a mindset (which I’m not saying that you necessarily have, but it seems to be very common in the discussions I’ve had with folks about Internet culture and gaming culture) helps the trolls in that it sets up a world in which THEY get to dictate the terms of every debate and discussion. Those who aren’t willing to engage with them, to play the game of trolls, get dismissed as not worth listening to because they aren’t “tough” enough or “brave” enough.

    I actually think it is really brave to expose oneself and to speak/write with emotion and passion and caring online. As the last few weeks have shown, regular people on both sides of the #GamerGate issue have reaped the whirlwind for doing so.

    • “Your statement implies that the type of person who worries about language and trigger warnings and the like is not someone worth listening to *because* they are not presenting themselves as brash, raw, uncensored, off-the-cuff type of speakers/writers, that this presentation suggests a kind of weakness or instability in the speaker (and that this weakness is akin to being overly emotional aka overly feminine).”

      This is neither directly stated nor implied. I took care to point out that words matter (section 1) and that people who merely resort to ad hominem attacks are not worth listening to (section 2). Further, I gestured to the fact that coarse language is often used in venting and even critical analysis (section 2).

      I’m at a loss for how you came to some the conclusion quoted above and then what followed. My comments were clear and I’d appreciate you re-reading them.

      • Hello,

        This is the passage that interested me:

        “It’s totally acceptable for real men and real women to vent and to use coarse language, but when real men and real women are doing this they’re also providing some meaningful criticism of the behaviour/arguments in question. To do otherwise…well, that’s to make oneself to be a punkass little bitch at the very least and there’s absolutely no reason to listen to the voice of a punkass little bitch.”

        I originally understood this to mean: “if one *isn’t* aggressive and forceful when formulating their arguments, then there is no reason to listen to that person.” I think what threw me off was the “little bitch” line. That reminded me of threads where people who objected to aggressive and forceful language (like calling Zoe Quinn a whore or Anita Sarkeesian a bitch in the midst of an attempt to lay out their supposed failings) are called “white knights” or “pussy whipped” or just “pussies.”

        Were you actually saying that “one who is aggressive and forceful IN THE ABSENCE of an argument is not worth listening to”? In that case, of course I agree! However, the trouble comes when the “argument” that is presented is merely an excuse to vent and not the other way around. Those who are pushing back against #GamerGate see the “ethics in journalism” argument as a cover story to legitimize the harassment of women (note: none of the women who have faced intense harassment so far actually ARE gaming journalists themselves).

        How do we judge between “little bitches” who merely spew invective (easy to spot) with trolls who purposefully cover their tracks by inventing “arguments” designed to be the Trojan horses that let them sneak into situations where they can spew invective in the name of their “impassioned argument?” The original meaning of the word “troll” meant just this: someone who only PRETENDED to be sincere in their argument but actually only intended to sow discord and chaos.

        Furthermore, what does it mean to refer to those who argue “incorrectly” using a gendered insult? This reinforces the logic of the game of trolling in that it labels “correct” (adequately rational and productive) responses as masculine and unproductive ones as feminine (irrational, unproductive, bitchlike). But who gets to decide what kinds of responses are productive critical analysis that just happens to be laced with course language and which responses are bitch-like? Unfortunately, in my experience, women on the Internet often end up being ASSUMED to be too hysterical to argue well

        I’ve seen exchanges like this play out so many times online:

        Sarcastic Commenter who Arrived at a Feminist Website and Wants to Explain Why the Conversations They are Having About Gaming are Stupid: Feminists like Anita Sarkeesian are ruining gaming! She keeps putting out stories talking about examples of sexism in popular games but I disagree with some of her examples so she can’t be a Real Gamers. She is just making things up to get attention. She should probably just quit playing video games and go back to the kitchen. What a cunt.

        Annoyed Feminist Website Regulars: Hey, dude, fuck off. Don’t come into our space and lay a bunch of sexist drivel on us.

        Sarcastic Commenter: Jeez, lighten up! I’m just trying to have a discussion with you about video game culture! You must be too sensitive to have a rational discussion. Maybe if you don’t like talking with people who disagree with you, you should just get off the Internet.

        Who in this story is the troll? Who is “acting like a bitch”? If “bitches” are the kinds of people who aren’t worth listening to, then how are the ways that we communicate online understood according to gendered logics?

        I agree with you that words matter. The way we categorize and describe things matters. I think I misunderstood your comment because, although you are pushing back against harassment that takes place via language (and I’m glad that you are doing so, because it is something that really needs to be done!), you do so by using words that have a violent history themselves, words that are commonly used to harass and dismiss.

        That said, I’m glad you came back to point out my mistake.

        Question: how do you, personally, differentiate between an impassioned critical analysis that uses course language and a troll’s attempt to dress up harassment in the “party clothes” of argument?

      • N.B. Please forgive any typos or other errors. I wanted to get this out to you as soon as possible and have had a busy night at work.

        (1) I take argument in the ‘philosophical’ sense because that is my background (see N.B. on my blog). ‘Argument’, then, can be seen as a reasoned position (one explaining one’s position) or the meeting of differing reasoned positions (person A explaining their position in the presence of person B’s position).

        The colloquial appropriation of ‘argument’ to mean ‘fight’ is a problem that needs to go away and has caused far too much havoc. Without sharing a common lexicon or having the epistemic humility to ask questions and hold the belief that one may be missing something in their arguments (or even be wrong entirely) we simply cannot talk with people.

        Welcome to the fucking internet, right? It doesn’t have to be this way but…well, people don’t have the will to change it.

        (2) This is something that I’ve dealt with since my Senior year as an undergrad studying Philosophy and the entirety of my time as a graduate student studying Theology. When I say that I’ve dealt with this I do not mean to imply that it was ever a problem for me, only that I’d been doing that for quite some time.

        This behaviour is informed by two ideas.

        First, following the late George Carlin, it’s like spice. This needs no real explanation.

        Second, the notion of vulgarity doesn’t make much sense as it was the language of the common folk that was initially considered ‘vulgar’. What would be vulgar, then, would be ‘Valley Girl’ or ‘Bro-speak’ rather than things like ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’ and ‘asshole’. It seems to me that those offended by the use of language should think critically about what offends them and why, if it is blind adherence to mere tradition or something much more meaningful. There are no bad words, really, just bad language, viz. poor use of language or manipulative use of language that interferes with communication.*

        That said, the difference between some punk-ass bitch throwing a fit, someone merely venting, or someone using purported vulgarity as ‘language spice’ shows through in both the content and context of their writing.

        Someone venting, like the former Paranuatical Activity dev on Twitter, is quite obvious and needs no explanation.

        Someone being a troll (aka punk-ass little bitch or something else that’s fun to say) is less easy to spot. Part of this is because sarcasm is seen only in context and over time, like other subtle trolling behaviour. But, mainly, it will show through that the troll has no desire to (a) ask questions, (b) have epistemic humility, or (c) seek truth. Simply put: context, context, context.

        Still, we can be more clear through a personal example.

        I have many harsh things to say about Anita Sarkeesian, but all of it centres on how she goes about doing what she does and the ideas she holds rather than things like gender, ethnicity, religion, et cetera. The key here is that pejoratives or purportedly vulgar pejoratives need to be connected to either the ideas the person holds or the manner in which those ideas are presented. With this in mind, I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) get away with calling her a manipulative cunt without attaching it to meaningful argument. If I attached examples like theft of work (the whole fan art incident), cherry-picking of and over-sampling instead of getting into the meat of fewer samples, and lack of rebuttal to critical analysis while all but solely speaking about how she’s been harassed then I would have legs to stand on. My language is harsh, true, but there is no ad hominem attack.

        Ultimately, trolls show through. They like to be loud and opine frequently, however they do not like to engage in actual discourse and do not tend to write at any real length (e.g. a flurry of text message-sized posts instead of carefully constructed paragraphs of any size). The problem is that purportedly vulgar language, being the spice that it is, captures attention and as soon as most people see that their brains switch off and they either stop reading or stop reading charitably. This last affects both the trolls and the white knights and is what really does render them opposing sides of the same coin.

        (3) It is important to recognise the fluid definition of certain pejoratives, how their meaning isn’t fixed despite having a readily identifiable historical context and meaning. To call someone a ‘bitch’ is no longer a gender-oriented insult, though people may want to cling to such. Calling someone a bitch is to call someone whiny, tantrum-prone ( or –happy) and with a generally negative demeanour or attitude.

        This, of course, is one example and only meant to be demonstrative. For a better and more amusing example of the fluid definition of pejoratives, I’d gesture to the South Park episode ‘The F Word’ which can be watched for free on the official South Park website (

        A shared lexicon is important and, so too, is the breaking down of the worst pejoratives to take the sting from their meaning. I’ve written a few times about how we need to be able to freely use what’s considered the most vulgar language, e.g. sex-based and ethnic pejoratives, in order to strip them of their power via the process of dilution. Some people will always be sensitive to these words, true, but that should not stop us from attempting to take power and alter through use the meaning of some of the most hateful language in our possession.
        *I understand that using purported vulgarity can fit this bill. However, if we are to admit that language is more or less a living thing with only relatively fixed meanings that we change over time through use, it stands to reason that the blunt-force use of vulgarity within conversation/discussion has every right to a place.

      • I totally agree re: context being king in spotting a troll. It requires looking at a PATTERN of behavior, and not merely a single instance. Trolls hide behind the facade of plausible deniability. “I didn’t mean to offend, I was just arguing my heartfelt position!” they cry. Followed, perhaps, by “okay, you got me, I was just messing with you. But I was just joking! Have a sense of humor, why don’t you!” Either way, because they “didn’t really mean any harm” they are supposed to be protected from criticism. But, of course, if one DID intend to harm, this is exactly the excuse one would have at the ready! As you say, it becomes a matter of looking at the patterns of discourse that one accumulates over time. If this same cycle plays out over and over, you can be pretty sure you are dealing with a troll and not someone interested in a real debate. The trouble with the Internet is: it is so easy to create throw away anonymous accounts for use in a single argument that it becomes difficult to figure out people’s patterns! That is why I really like systems like Gravatar, by the way. They create “footprints” or persistent reputations. True, they can be skirted farily easily, but they are at least a start!

        Speaking of meanings that accumulate, I don’t think it is possible to ever really wash away the historical origins of words. Meanings build up over top of each other over time, but they never really disappear. I agree that calling someone a “bitch” often is intended to mean “you are being whiny and tantrum-prone.” But it came to mean that in the first place BECAUSE it was thought that women WERE, as a group, whiny and tantrum-prone! So to act like that IS TO BE acting “like a woman” in the abstract sense (and “acting like a woman is NOT something that one wants to do!). See also the word “hysterical.” It means “overly emotional and irrational” right? Its origins come from the word for “womb,” which was thought to be the source of instability in women, the biological reason why they were unable to be strong and rational like men could. When we call someone hysterical today, we aren’t necessarily trying to say that they HAVE a womb, but we are *literally* saying that they are acting AS THOUGH they are a silly woman.

        We might try to reappropriate words like “bitch” or “faggot” or various racial slurs or the like (I am ambivalent about whether this is a worthwhile project or not), but to do so would mean reversing their negative contexts (making bitch into a good and strong and powerful thing to be!),not simply declaring that the gendered portion of its negative meaning has dropped off *which, again, I argue it can never really do – the various meanings of a word may be more or less prevalent but they never disappear entirely) and that it will now be seen as a gender-neutral way of insulting someone, by decree of… those who want to reclaim it I guess?

        re: vulgarity – you might enjoy this documentary on the word “fuck.”

      • Exploring these concepts and teasing them out can go on at great length, which is a good thing, however I’d like to end this train of thought in respect to this entry for the (now laughable) sake of brevity. No need to bog down one entry when it’s likely this topic will come up again and can be explored in greater depth with different material.

        With that said, I’m glad that we were able to actually have a discussion about this and, all things considered, both come to a fuller understanding of what’s going on. In a world of trolls, white knights and people with pockets full of fucks but none to give…well, discussion is something that’s just too damn rare. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: The Invisible Hordes of Online Feminist Bullies | Megan Condis

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