Maskaphobia is the fear of masks.
It can be the fear of the mask itself or the unknown of what is behind it.
When internet trolls attack, they often perpetrate their crimes anonymously, hiding behind screens, using fake names and accounts like masked attackers.
Trolls don’t only scare their victims away from public life on the internet, but their influence spreads because countless others, who have witnessed their work, are silenced by the fear they may be next.
So, what is this so-called creature?
Associate Professor in Convergent and Online Media Dr Fiona Martin believes the term troll is used a bit ambiguously. Referencing early internet studies, Martin defines trolls as people who provoke others for particular political purposes or for fun.
But as time has gone on, Martin explains trolling has come to refer to people who are abusive, threatening and predatory; that is, they are trying to hurt others.
“The term [troll] implies that the person is a bit hiding under the bridge, somehow mythical or, you know, they’re deviant. When actually the people who abuse women online, exist in society, they have always existed in society, and they have always abused, threatened and harassed women. So, they’re not deviant as much as they are part of patriarchy and misogyny in contemporary society,” she said.
Martin said being online gives an experience of disembodiment and distance, which fosters disinhibition. So, people feel they can say things they wouldn’t otherwise say in person.
Research student Delysha Pick is working on a PhD on trolling in the Australian media.
Her research found that women are targeted with significantly more vulgar, sexist and violent abuse online than men.
Misogynistic comments by online abusers usually relate to the domestic environment (even when the targets of them don’t have the surname ‘Kitchen’!). Meanwhile, men are usually targeted online with comments relating to their political views, intelligence or homophobic attacks: even when they’re being insulted, men are still afforded a complexity that women are denied.
People in most jobs don’t have to accept trolling as part of the deal, but for many journalists it is.
Pick says journalists are susceptible to trolling as part of their job because they work within the public realm.
She said in some cases, trolling consumes journalists’ work life and that transfers onto their homelife.
“Your whole job is to connect and engage with the world, to provide commentary on it, there is no option to turn your computer off. It’s a fundamental part of your role. You can’t be a journalist and not engage with the public domain online. Eventually, you will have to face it,” she said.
Almost a year ago, journalist Kate Bartels wrote a story about man caves. She was trolled personally in response, called all sorts of horrible names.
She couldn’t understand why people would be so cruel to someone they didn’t even know, simply because they don’t agree with them.
“The trolls got extremely personal. Insulting my work is one thing, but making comments (albeit untrue comments) about my weight, sexuality, physical appearance and political views was just like a knife,” she said.
“I had to take a day off work to mentally recover.”
Bartels said many fellow female journalists rushed to tell her this sort of thing happens to everyone, almost as if it was a rite of passage.
For Bartels, this news was simultaneously comforting and horrifying.
Alex Radovan used to work at a television station. Part of his job was sorting mail and phone calls for many female anchors. He said every nasty letter he can remember was about the appearance of those anchors.
Radovan said they would just throw the letters out. Unfortunately, this is not an option online.
Radovan said although the things written were unspeakable and would make anyone uneasy, he was inspired to see the anchors still doing amazing work.
Can we lock up a troll?
Cove Legal Principal and media law expert Roger Blow says the biggest problems for bringing trolls to justice is their anonymity.
“You can’t sue an email account or a social media handle for someone online. You have to have a human at the other end of the legal action on a civil side,” he said.
If someone hasn’t used their own name on a Hotmail or Gmail account, there is a layer of anonymity, it is procedurally and legally quite hard to break open.
Blow said there are lots of legal applications and procedures we can use to obtain information, but all of those takes weeks normally and take significant money.
A hole within the criminal system is the lack of resources within the police department.
Blow said ACORN (now called ReportCyber) is the police department that deals with online abuse, this is the same team for online sex crimes and paedophilia rings. Naturally, they have to allocate their resources as they best see fit.
“Average online attack or abuse of a journalist is going to fall lower down the pecking order for ACORN [ReportCyber] than cracking or dealing with major online sex offences,” he said.
Blow would like to see real effort put into making people personally accountable for their online activities.
“When someone goes into a pub and starts a fight, that someone is probably on CCTV and we all accept they should be held accountable for that conduct; they’ve hurt someone, they’ve done something illegal, and they answer to it,” Blow said.
And yet, Blow says that when it comes to online activity, people’s allowances or how accountable people should be certainly seems to downgrade.
“When someone faces a major concerted online attack, it can have very very grave circumstances. And we’ve seen plenty of examples now of people, especially young people, taking their lives over online attacks,” he said.
Blow believes the laws are already in place and it’s the procedures being used that need to change.
“We don’t actually need more arguments, what we do need to do is make all that easier to get access to and cheaper. So that when someone comes to me to action something, we’re not having to spend weeks and many thousands of dollars just to be able to identify who it is,” he said.
What we can do
Everyday, thousands of women in the journalism receive a countless messages/tweets/tags/posts/videos directly criticising them or their work.
Delysha Pick said to tackle trolling every single person has to be proactively working in syncronisation to support each other, or else no real fundamental change will happen.
Fiona Martin thinks the social media platforms and media organisations need to start working together, to be better.
“Media organisations need to put in place ways of supporting women who are being abused online. They need to collect and document the abuse, to track the people that are doing it and to prosecute them where that is possible.”
Pick said Facebook was certainly more proactive in implementing response strategies to trolling, where Twitter was extremely delayed and behind the times, even now.
There is the common advice to ‘not feed the trolls’, but Pick said this suggestion does not work and some critics have suggested that it can have a negative impact on the victim.
ABC 7:30 presenter Leigh Sales is no stranger to being trolled. She publicly addressed her online abusers and the skew towards females in the public eye.
Another prominent figure to serve her trolls a hot meal is Clementine Ford.
Ford uses her social media platforms to call out her trolls and address their inexcusable comments.
Writer, broadcaster, performer and comedian Alice Fraser tries to find the funny side of her trolling attacks and shares them with her friends to turn it into something laughable.
“Contextualising petty cruelty as silliness might be a Pollyanna way to approach the problem, but it certainly means that now when I have a troll, I start thinking of jokes to tell friends; the flowers I can plant in the manure of the internet,” Fraser wrote in article called Ignore or respond? How to deal with online trolls.
Unfortunately, as all the experts in this article said, there is no guide to magically remove all trolls from the internet. Women won’t wake up tomorrow to old mate, SIM0z_catz_1326, sending messages of praise and kindness.
But women can, however, continue to work as journalists who are not afraid to research, write and publish articles about the issues of the world.
Hopefully, one day the sound of a notification after publishing won’t make anyone flinch.