My first experience with mass trolling was in 2013. I had recently published a piece that attempted to dispel some of the myths about the behavior of rape victims by sharing, for the first time, my own rape story. I’d written it in response to all the slut‑shaming comments I’d seen about the sexual assault victim of then Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. A segment of FSU fans, educated neither in the dynamics of sexual violence nor in the psychology of trauma, had taken to Twitter to point out that his accuser had to be lying, because she didn’t report the rape immediately and because she texted Winston after the attack.
In the piece, I wrote about how it took me months, maybe years, to consider what happened to me “rape,” even though an army officer, much bigger and stronger than I was, held me down and overpowered me. Even though I kept saying no. Even though I was sore for days afterward. It happened during spring break of my senior year of college. The next night, I saw my rapist again at a bar. I made a beeline for him and chatted with him about college basketball. I couldn’t tell you to this day why I did that. Maybe because I needed to convince myself it wasn’t rape.
The day the piece ran, I was introduced to my first mass troll attack. As quickly as the piece went up, I had dozens of complete strangers threatening to kill me, accusing me of making up my own rape, and describing to me, in detail, what they’d like to do to me should our paths ever cross. I was so shocked that I made my account private and stayed away from Twitter for days. Eventually, it blew over.
The second time I was attacked by a troll army was far, far worse.
It was August 2015 when Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane was accused of sexual assault. I had started working at my radio station, the biggest sports station in Chicago, only a few months before. Because I’d both been a criminal defense attorney and worked with victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, I was in a unique position to explain to our listeners how the investigation would proceed and what each step meant. And because I’d already developed a reputation of writing about violent athletes, several people close to the investigation reached out to me privately to talk anonymously and sometimes off the record.
A few days after the story broke, I wrote a piece for our website titled “How NOT To Talk About the Patrick Kane Case,” calling out some of the “fans” who had taken to social media to share photos of the victim talking to Kane at a bar earlier in the evening and to speculate that she invented the rape as a “money grab,” even though she never sought a financial settlement from Kane. We were told by our station’s management to be extremely careful not to weigh in on Kane’s guilt or innocence publicly. I tried to analyze the case straight down the middle but found myself spending a lot of time online and on the air debunking myths about rape victims and women in general.
And then the case against Kane fell apart. I have very definite feelings on how and why that happened. I stand by every iota of reporting I did during that time. I still believe all of it to be true. I never once weighed in on Kane’s guilt or innocence. I would have been fired if I had stated my opinion one way or the other.
The day we got word that a family member of the victim had interfered with the investigation and that the case would not move forward, the trolls descended on me like a nuclear bomb. More than one man threatened to come to Chicago to kill me. Another suggested the only just punishment for me was to be raped with a hockey stick. Another said he hoped I would be raped “again.” Someone else sent me the worst message I have ever received. It was an image of a naked woman, bound and blindfolded and bleeding. I still haven’t recovered from that one.
And then there was a much more direct threat. In the midst of all the notifications I was getting about all the ways Blackhawks fans wanted to maim and kill me, someone sent me a picture of the entrance to the building where I worked. It wasn’t the main building entrance; it was a small entrance around the back: the way I got into the building every day.
That was the first time I understood what it meant to have your blood run cold. Remembering that moment, I can feel my blood going cold again. This was before I got into the habit of taking screenshots of all the threats. The first thing I did was pick up the phone and start shouting in a panic at my husband, who was in the middle of a conference call and was completely unaware of what was happening. Next, I called my boss. It was near the end of the week. We agreed it was safest for me to stay home until the following Monday.
Over the course of that weekend, the threats continued to roll in. I was afraid to go outside, afraid to be online. The camera on my laptop kept turning on by itself. I covered it up with tape. Word had gotten out, and a dozen media outlets contacted me for an interview. I was too afraid to talk to anyone.
I stayed in bed almost the entire weekend.
When Monday rolled around, I took a deep breath, donned the biggest pair of sunglasses I could find, and stuffed all my hair, which is recognizable, into a hoodie. I kept my head down the entire long train ride into the city and on the bus to my office. As I walked along the side of my building to a different entrance than the one I used, I caught a glimpse of myself reflected in the glass. Head down, shoulders hunched, looking like the Unabomber. I stopped and stared, disgusted with myself. This was not me. I was cowering and hiding because of a bunch of jerks on Twitter who were so worked up over a player they had never met that they were threatening to hurt me? SCREW THAT. I ripped off my hood, took off my sunglasses. I held my head high as I rode the escalator to the second level of the lobby. In the coming months and years, I would protect my Twitter and Facebook accounts many times, but I would never hide again.
My story of online harassment is far from unique. The day the Patrick Kane investigation ended was the day my life changed. More than five years later, it’s still not normal. But I’m far from the only woman working in sports (or media in general) dealing with this sort of harassment.
In the months after that incident, I wrote a piece that revealed how much online abuse women in sports media have to wade through on a daily basis. I reached out to several women in the industry, and, almost to a one, they asked me if I wanted their entire file of abusive screenshots or if I just wanted a few examples.
Which brings me to my all-time favorite bit of terrible social media advice: don’t feed the trolls.
No one who has ever dealt with online trolls has ever said this seriously to someone dealing with mass, ongoing harassment. Most of the time, this particular bit of advice comes from Steve with 25 Twitter followers or someone’s mom on Facebook. So let’s talk about trolls.
First, I recognize that this advice is well-meaning, in the same way telling small children being bullied that their parents can’t fight their battles for them is well-meaning. It’s really off base and ignores the reality about bullies and how they operate, but it’s meant to help. I think. It’s also possible it’s meant to tell harassment victims to shut up and stop whining. It’s problematic and unfair to tell victims that they have to deal with people insulting them all day, every day, without fighting back. We wouldn’t say that to someone being verbally harassed on the street, and we wouldn’t say it to a child being picked on at school.
Telling people to ignore the trolls assumes that all trolls are the same and have the same objectives. It’s true that some trolls just want attention and, if you ignore them, they’ll move on to bother someone else. But other trolls will ratchet up their behavior until they get the reaction they want from you. Block them and they create 10 new accounts. Mute them and they keep going. The lies and insults they send your way will keep increasing in volume and intensity. Some trolls want to ruin your reputation. Some trolls want to make you cry. Remember that when we’re dealing with dedicated trolls, we’re often dealing with psychopaths, sociopaths, and extreme narcissists.
For help in understanding trolls, I called up Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency, a popular speaker and YouTuber. She’s also someone who has dealt with some horrific trolling and speaks about it regularly.
“Trolls believe they are the heroes of their own stories,” Sarkeesian said. “So in order for them to be the hero of their story, you have to be the villain.”
This is the best explanation I’ve ever gotten for why certain trolls fixate on a victim who essentially becomes their “hobby.” Imagine having that much free time and using it to harass a perfect stranger.
If you work in sports media, or in any other field, and you’ve been the victim of mass troll attacks that have affected your standing with your employer, know that you aren’t alone. I know several women working in media who have been labeled “lightning rods” because of the troll armies that created multiple accounts to get around being blocked, waited for any opening they could exploit, and then made life miserable for their targets by making life tough on their employers. And while I was sympathetic to my boss getting spammed by trolls because of me, it was also a 72‑hour window into what I deal with on a regular basis.
So, because Twitter and Facebook and all the other social media platforms have refused to deal with trolls and the harassment taking place via their platforms, how do we make sure people in general, and women in particular, have some protection at work? First, it’s incumbent on every employer with public‑facing employees to be educated about the dynamics of online harassment. It’s inexcusable that I had to deal with two HR directors in a row who weren’t on social media, basically throwing up their hands and telling me there was nothing they could do. If there was a guy following me everywhere I went and standing outside my building yelling every day, my company would handle it. When it’s 500 guys on Twitter, I’m on my own.
Second, more media companies need to look to the protections ESPN gives its staff as a model for keeping their own employees safe. Those protections need to be incorporated into a two‑way social media policy. Most companies have a catch‑all policy that says how they expect their workers to comport themselves on social media. You probably have one at your job right now. But what can employees expect from their bosses when the online harassment begins? Will you help protect me? Will you back me up if I go to law enforcement? Will you provide security for me if I need it? What will you do if you find one of your employees is using social media to troll people? Will you use your relationship with platforms like Twitter to advocate for me? Can I take a mental health day if I’m in the middle of a storm of abuse?
These are all reasonable requests for employees who are expected to take part in social media regularly as part of their job. Unfortunately, for the most part, media companies have been more concerned about being embarrassed by their workers making a misstep than about the very real possibility of mental or physical harm coming to one of them as a result of online harassment. Media companies must learn to back their employees, and it’s high time we started demanding it.