jessica valenti

Illustration by Max Fleishman

Writer Jessica Valenti quit Twitter after her daughter received a rape threat—but what causes even the worst troll to cross that line?

On July 27, author and Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti received a rape threat directed at her 5-year-old daughter.

In her tweets, Valenti called on social media companies and police to do more to protect people from online abuse. Valenti has long been the target of incendiary threats and hate; a recent Guardian survey of its comments found that Valenti received the bulk of the online abuse. But it was this threat at her child that made her quit Twitter altogether. 

Valenti's departure from Twitter comes nearly two weeks after Breitbart tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos—who many see as one of the platform's greatest harassment instigators—led a Twitter campaign against Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones, which ended in his being banned from the site.

Yiannopoulos has been non-apologetic, doubling down on his insults toward Jones in numerous interviews. And yet, even Yiannopoulos, social media's greatest provocateur, argued in a Facebook Live segment with Business Insider that physical threats cross the line

And so it would seem that physical threats toward children are the worst kind, violating a fundamental code even among trolls.

So what makes a person, even a person who hides behind the anonymity of the internet, threaten a child with violence?

The simple answer, according to research, is that online trolling is a manifestation of sadism. A study done by the University of Manitoba showed a correlation between the "dark triad" of personality traits—sadism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Though distinct, the three traits often overlap in malevolent personalities.

The university's research dug deep into the psyche of the troll—analyzing comments and asking people if they agreed or disagreed with statements like:

I have sent people to shock websites for the lulz.

I like to troll people in forums or the comments section of websites.

I enjoy griefing other players in multiplayer games.

The more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt.

That final statement casts a particularly insightful look at the psyche of someone who would threaten a child: More than anonymity or personal hate, a troll who threatens a "pure" child is driven by the sheer power and pleasure in another's misery.

A recent BuzzFeed profile of two people convicted in the U.K. for making online threats also shines a light into the psychological makings of a troll. BuzzFeed interviewed Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo—who were sentenced to 12 and eight weeks, respectively—after they were released from prison, noting that in both cases, they where in it for the notoriety:

Both Nimmo and Sorley say they offended for the same reason: because they enjoyed the attention and endorphin-generating effects of becoming briefly famous, or notorious, on Twitter. Without any planning or forethought, they joined a bandwagon that was already rolling. It was a game and they enjoyed it. 

In Sorely and Nimmo's cases, neither were particularly motivated by a vendetta against their victim, they just seemed to want to jump in on trolling popular targets.

This may in part explain why Valenti's social media accounts have gotten so clogged by hate: It's a snowball effect, troll attracts troll attracts troll, until eventually it all a rape threat against a child?

Sounds extreme, but perhaps there is something to this theory. Garry Crawford, professor of sociology at the University of Salford, spoke to Wired magazine about trolls and made an analogy between trolling behavior and the broken-windows theory of criminology, which argues that crime begets more crime.

"English football got a reputation as a violent place, as a site of frequent hooligan outbursts," Crawford told Wired. "The subsequent press and public focus on football hooliganism then only reinforces and helps solidify the idea of the English football stadium as a regular and legitimate site of violence." He continued:

"The internet does not create aggressive behaviours, just like football doesn't create hooligans. It is just certain places become seen as legitimate sites for that aggression and, similarly, we become more aware and more sensitised to looking for aggressive behaviour in those spaces."

There are other competing theories for why trolls act the way they do. In an episode of This American Life, Lindy West, author of the memoir Shrill, confronted a troll who impersonated her dead father. He told West that he was motivated not by pleasure or fame, but pure anger. 

"When you talked about being proud of who you are, and where you are, and where you're going, that kind of stoked that anger that I had." In West's case, her troll was not looking for fame, but was lashing out because he was dissatisfied with his own life. 

"More than anonymity or personal hate, a troll who threatens a 'pure' child is driven by the sheer power and pleasure in another's misery."

Other research posits that the anonymity of the internet fuels abuse culture—because so many people don't have to face the consequences of their actions.

In 2015, Jezebel writer Anna Merlan documented her own frustrating efforts trying to report threats to the police, noting, "Technically, threatening someone online is just as illegal as doing it over the phone. But in practice, it's been hard for cops and courts to separate what constitutes a true threat online from what's protected as free speech."

As Danielle Citron, author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, told Jezebel, "The police response comes from a place of intimidation... When police officers are intimidated, they say, 'Turn it off and ignore it.' You have officers who mean well, but they do not understand the technology, and they aren't well-trained in the laws."

But despite what trolls would like to believe, cyberstalking laws do exist, and individuals can report online threats directly to the FBI. This is what I did when I worked as a community manager for a website. One day, I came across comments from a user describing ways he wanted to rape a child. My co-workers and I reported the case to the FBI. However, that was seven years ago and no charges have ever been filed. 

While Valenti is hardly the first to receive such threats against her daughter, she might be the most high-profile. Heather Armstrong of once famously published all the negative feedback she received on her site, which included a lot of terrible comments about her children and questions about their safety. Blogger Katie Reed, who went viral after people questioned the veracity of her story about her son wearing a pink headband in Walmart, wrote that she received a lot of threats directed at her son, which eventually forced her family to leave their home and caused her to have an emotional breakdown. In 2014, after an article I wrote for my blog was picked up by the Huffington Post, I received numerous threats from people who told me they were going to have my children taken away, some even said they hoped my children might die. 

Victims—even non-media, regular folks—are often told just to block and report, but social media sites are notorious for not taking action on those reports. In Leslie Jones's case, it took a celebrity to get Yiannopolous banned for his racist attacks. Not all of us have the star power or the energy.

So does the lack of repercussions make trolls think they can do whatever they want? Even threaten to rape a child? An article in Psychology Today theorizes that one of the main reasons trolls keep on trolling is a perceived lack of consequences: "Social exchange theory suggests that we analyze the costs and benefits in our communication and relationships. All in all, these factors precede the belief that the benefits of expressing oneself outweigh any costs."

Whitney Phillips, author of Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, argues that whatever they are, the reasons for trollish behavior are beside the point. Phillips has been studying troll culture for years and says that while misogyny and sadism are at the root of online trolling, some commenters like Sorley and Nimmo are just participating in a cultural zeitgeist.

"When it comes to online comments, it's hard to distinguish between real extremism and parodies of extremism... but regardless of what their motivations are, what matters is the messages that are communicated," she says.

In the case of Valenti, Phillips argues, "I don't care if participants are actually sadists or actually misogynistic—they are participating in misogynistic and sadistic behavior, so that's what we call them... Reasons don't matter, impact matters."

Phillips says we have to think about all the factors that fuel the trolling epidemic—whether that's the troll's intent, the lack of legal repercussions, or the media's compliance with click-baity negative comments. 

"We need to do more than just report on what is being said," Phillips says. "We have to put what is being said into it's appropriate context so we don't just see a problem—but we can see why it matters... We need to have slow, deliberate, nuanced conversations that take into account multiple points of view. That's how we get out of this cycle."

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