Just as nearly 6,000 tweets go into the world every second of every day, so do countless bullying attacks, penned by individuals with a desire to silence, intimidate, upset or control other internet users (mostly strangers). The execution of these attacks is known as trolling.
Experts say that trolls have a need to exert power. Many trolls are attention seekers; others are angry, sad, jealous or narcissistic. Their goal is to provoke an argument or bully other members of online communities. Because social media never shuts down, it is a little like Las Vegas: The trolls never have to sleep. But, unlike Vegas, what happens on the internet does not always stay on the internet, which is one reason why trolling can be so dangerous.
Trolling is not the same thing as the uncomfortable disagreements that often happen on social media platforms. It is about silencing others through hate speech, harassment or intimidation. In fact, according to Women, Action and the Media (WAM), 27 percent of the harassment that happens on Twitter is hate speech, including sexist, racist and homophobic rants.
Educators must ensure that their students understand that trolling can happen to anybody who expresses themselves on any social media outlet. While Twitter is the favorite playground for trolls (see the great infographic “Reporting, Reviewing and Responding to Harassment on Twitter”), WAM says that approximately 17 percent of the trolling reports they get come from Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube and other platforms.
Sherri Williams, a media scholar and veteran journalist who teaches at Wake Forest University’s Anna Julia Cooper Center, says it is important to be in discussion with students on what trolling really is and its impact. “When marginalized people, including black women, tell their own stories and challenge the status quo, they often get trolled,” she says. And the level of trolling has increased since the 2016 presidential campaign, as trolling is being amplified by the polarized and emotionally charged times. “We are starting to see even more profound hate show up online, ” Williams says. “It isn’t a stretch to see one person tell another one to shut up because they don’t like what they say online, and see it escalate to very violent rants. And in some cases, cause personal harm.”
Williams, who teaches and researches about the impact of the media, says institutions that encourage open discourse, such as schools, college and universities, have a responsibility to talk and teach about trolling and how students can protect themselves. “One of the problems is that there are few policies that protect [internet users] from vicious and hyper-sexualized trolling,” she says. “And, unfortunately, there are few consequences, because you can do it anonymously.”
Michelle Ferrier teaches media entrepreneurship at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. She knows the power of online harassment because trolls have targeted her online for her writing. Ferrier has been a champion of protecting people in this amplified age of unfiltered racism and misogyny. She founded TrollBusters, which she calls a “rescue service for women writers and journalists who are experiencing trolling.”
“[TrollBusters] came out of a hack-a-thon in 2015 for women news entrepreneurs,” Ferrier says. “It continues to be a way to counter the Gamergate-type attacks that are happening to women on Twitter. It is an opportunity to see whether positive messaging and support can help women stay online in the face of some of the ugly attacks that were happening against them.”
Ferrier notes that trolls don’t just target journalists or women, and the perpetrators aren’t exclusively male. But, according to Ferrier, the most vile and consistent attacks seem to be waged against women journalists based on their gender, race or ethnicity, and because they express their opinions through their writing.
Being on the receiving end of prolonged or mass-level trolling is associated with a variety of negative consequences for victims, from driving users off social media to precipitating depression, PTSD and even suicide. But there is no recourse, short of reporting it. Williams calls for the social media networks, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, to put stronger policies in place to protect users.
Ferrier says it is important for educators to equip their students with the tools they need to protect themselves from trolls. TrollBusters’ Pinterest page offers online protection tips that can be readily shared with students.
Here are some additional tips that students can use to keep their online identities as safe as possible:
- Safeguard the passwords to all personal online accounts and addresses.
- Encrypt email addresses.
- Back up data in a safe and protected way.
- Protect the data on cell phones.
- Use private and secure options to use the internet.
- Don’t share physical locations publicly.
- Add privacy protection to websites and domains.
- Always use https:// as a secure prefix to surf the web.
- Use privacy plug-ins to block cookies.
- Make sure to install security updates on software as soon as they become available.
- Never use information that is not readily known and available as the answer to security questions.
If a student is being trolled, encourage them to report it to the platform they are using and, if the harassment includes hate speech or threats of violence, report it to the police. Of course, the number one recommendation: Don’t feed the trolls.
This blog was produced in partnership with the anti-hate news project 500 Pens.
Collier is a multimedia journalist based in Lansing, Michigan. Her work appears on Salon.com, Pacific Standard, Essence, NBCBLK and others. She is the author of Still With Me...A Daughter's Journey of Love and Loss. Twitter: @andreacollier.
The Atlantic: “We spoke to [Rikers Island Principal Tim] Lisante about his work in District 79, how he plans to help New York City’s court-involved youth, and whether New York state’s graduation requirements are too tough.”
The Christian Science Monitor: “The political tensions have created a fundamental dilemma for teachers: how to make class work relevant while acceding to school efforts to prevent or minimize political blow-ups between students, parents, and administrators with opposing views.”
Education Week: “Instead of using children to promote discord, what if we used their beginner’s minds as a reminder that there is a better course? Uncorrupted by the prejudices that destroy curiosity and breed fear, children love hearing new ideas.”
The Hechinger Report: “Nationally, 52 percent of low-income high school graduates immediately enrolled in college in 2014, compared to 81 percent of high-income students.”
The Hollywood Reporter: “[Get Out] embodies and expresses the African-American experience with infrastructural racism in a way that blacks hope whites will better understand after seeing it.”
National Association of Elementary School Principals: "For years, Tillicum Elementary’s achievement scores were reported as being the lowest in the school district and state. ... Fast forward to 2016, Tillicum Elementary was honored with numerous awards, including the State Achievement Award, National Title I Distinguished School, and Elementary Principal of the Year."
National Public Radio: “[Richard Kahlenberg’s] idea: Create public schools that are more integrated. He helped innovate the use of social and economic indicators to do that—instead of race and ethnicity.”
The New York Times: “When we don’t talk honestly with white children about racism, they become more likely to disbelieve or discount their peers when they report experiencing racism.”
The New York Times: “These 25 short New York Times documentaries ... range in time from 1 to 7 minutes and tackle issues of race, bias and identity.”
ThinkProgress: “‘I just want to be an advocate for boys or girls, anybody who is trying out for a sport and has a religion and they feel like their faith can interfere with the way they play sports. ... It shouldn’t be that way.’”
The Washington Post: “The Trump administration is seeking to cut $9.2 billion—or 13.5 percent—from the Education Department’s budget.”
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to email@example.com, and put “What We’re Reading This Week” in the subject line.
I needed a snow day on a recent Friday.
It didn’t happen. Nope. Not even a delay.
My two daughters had a snow day. I, on the other hand, had deep, deep anger.
I should have taken a day, but making lesson plans for my classes this year is more stress than being in an angry frenzy.
I was bitter.
My students and some of my colleagues entered the building in a funk. My seniors and I just gave each other “the look.” Our eyes silently communicated our dismay.
We weren’t the only school in the snowiest U.S. city to be open and on time; it just felt that way.
My anger dissipated as I began to teach. It was replaced by purpose. My lesson was on “-isms”: capitalism, socialism, communism and fascism. It was a great lesson. But it also involved the scariest student conversation I have overheard in my entire teaching career.
For 22 school years, I have taught about these “-isms.” This year, however, two students reacted to fascism positively. Luckily, it was only two students, but I wonder how many other students are seeing the merits of extreme nationalism, instead of recoiling in disgust at its historical consequences.
Students tend to be like hamsters trying to escape their cages at the end of class, so most of the students were rushing to return their tablets and packing up their huge backpacks when I heard it: Two male students were discussing their thoughts concerning my lesson, and the exchange went something like this:
Student A: “I agree with
extreme nationalism. If we don’t put our country first, we will never prosper.”
Student B: “Yeah, I would have made a good Nazi.”
Maybe these two adolescents were trying to be provocative or funny. Maybe they simply felt a naive connection to fascism. Maybe. Or, quite possibly, I am teaching in a new time. Maybe I will look back and see this year as a turning point. I do not have a crystal ball, but I am disturbed. When I taught eighth-grade social studies, I used to show a corny movie, The Wave, based on a California teacher’s classroom experiment in the 1960s to show his students how people came to support the Nazi regime. Maybe I should show that movie again. Or would I be told that I was being political? My administration has warned us educators to not share our political views. I agree that I have a very influential position as a high school social studies teacher, but I also have a responsibility.
Luckily, the lake-effect machine gave me a snow day on Monday.
Monday’s snow day gave me time to write this reflection.
In the words of another student, “Snow days are savage.” So is teaching in 2017.
Brown is a high school social studies teacher who is exploring teaching in the age of Trump.
I picked up the ringing phone yesterday to hear the voice of a colleague. “Maureen,” she said, “I just got a call from a JCC director who needs advice.”
I began a mental inventory of our resources on combatting anti-Semitism when my colleague continued: “They’ve been having bomb threats and evacuations. The children are anxious and asking questions like, ‘Why is this happening to us?’”
That stopped me cold. I knew institutions like Jewish community centers (JCCs), synagogues and Jewish day schools (along with mosques) around the country have been getting bomb threats. According to the Anti-Defamation League, as of March 15, there have been 165 such anti-Semitic threats this year in the United States and Canada. The JCC on Staten Island where my son had played youth basketball was targeted, and a friend posted on Facebook, angry that her child in daycare was repeatedly sent outside to wait in the cold while police checked the building. But this question brought home what it felt like to the children most affected by the threats.
“Why is this happening to us?”
Who really wants to have to explain to a 4-year-old why complete strangers hate Jews so much that they would make such threats? I’m supposed to have ready advice for such matters, but I stumbled on this one.
Because I just don’t get it. Even though I know about implicit bias, scapegoating, hate crimes and genocide, I really don’t understand what happens to a human mind and heart to produce this behavior. Like the caregivers at this JCC, I cringed at having to explain this darkness to children.
We like to preserve the innocence of children and focus only on the positive. I thought of the blog I’d written after the Boston Marathon bombing, which recalled Fred Rogers’ advice to “look for the helpers.” Shaping the narrative is a privilege that comes from living in a country where, for most (but not all) of us, tragedy is relatively rare and where it’s possible to imagine that we can always protect the children. That kind of narrative isn’t available to children in Syria, Afghanistan or South Sudan. How do adults in those places explain the world to their kids? How do they answer the question, “Why is this happening to us?”
Part of my mind rebels against shielding kids, and not just because other children around the world are in danger every day. Why pretend that the world is safe when we know it’s not? Teaching Tolerance advocates for honesty with kids when it comes to racism and other forms of injustice. We’re not for whitewashing or erasing unpleasant truths, but we think these truths need to be told within stories of empowerment. Children need to know that injustice exists and that there are those who will protect them and fight for righteousness.
All of this ran through my mind as I thought about what to offer the JCC director and all the others who are struggling to navigate the xenophobia and hatred that’s mushrooming across this land.
But I can’t get that question out of my mind.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.
Are we losing our humanity? If indeed “love is a many splendored thing,” as a 1950’s songwriter writes, why is it that this current moment in our American political and social history seems to be one of unadulterated hatefulness, fear, divisiveness and deliberate unkindness? For the noisy hate groups on the fringes of our nation, hate is the result of fearing difference, of fearing that the “good ole days” are a distant past, never to be repeated. But those who value diversity in true democracy will ensure that the hands of time and progress will not turn back.
It is precisely this unwillingness to accept progress that explains the rise of hate groups, particularly white nationalist groups that are actively recruiting for membership. While the days of terrorizing whole towns on the basis of racial victimization like Rosewood, Florida, are gone, church burnings, church shootings and other hate crimes are still perpetrated in the name of some alleged religious teachings and an illusory “white racial purity.” The current trend in recruiting for and promoting these desperate groups—as in recent cases in Denver, Colorado, and in Dahlonega, Georgia—reminds us that the fear of the ethnic, racial, gendered, sexual and differently abled Other is still very real.
But even as the numbers of hate groups and hate crimes increase, Americans must be mindful that such groups and heinous acts of violence have defined our nation’s very identity and landscape. What would the United States be without the genocide of American Indians? Yet indigenous sports mascots and names persist in supposed homage to American Indian culture or heritage, though it is just the opposite.
A study of American history reveals that our version of police started not as a way to fight crime, but as white males during Reconstruction who were charged with controlling freed slaves. During the same period, the Ku Klux Klan began to keep black people “in their place” through intimidation, hatemongering and race baiting. And cultural appropriation and misrepresentations were another form of keeping black people in their place.
This history—and the present that results from it—indicates that my own and my colleagues’ work in Arizona State University’s Project Humanities is needed now more than ever. We’re building and promoting comprehensive programming around seven principles: kindness, respect, integrity, forgiveness, compassion, empathy and self-reflection. In spring 2017, Project Humanities reveals the new theme song for its Humanity 101 Movement, “Humanity (Love Is in the Air),” written by the late rock guitarist Dick Wagner and produced by the legendary Motown icon Bobby Taylor of Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. The song is an R&B-rock hybrid, a musical testimony and a challenge to each of us to shed our individual vanity and to meet violence with creativity. After all, what is a social movement without a song to energize and to sustain community?
The work of educators, socially conscious people and other “woke” individuals will persist. We cannot and will not lose ourselves by bending to or otherwise legitimizing the inhumane actions of those who grab the headlines and the news crawls. We will remain focused and even more vigilant to ensure that our individual and shared humanity is greater than the fear others have of American progress defined by “liberty and justice for all.” We can use our knowledge of these growing hate groups and the historical contexts of their hate to strengthen our position of resistance and resolve. As James Baldwin put it, “The great force of [American] history comes in the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
Lester is a foundation professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.