The feminists trolling the trolls

The claim of a link between trolling and domestic violence is itself a massive and fact-lite act of 'trolling'.

Patrick Hayes

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Topics Feminism

There are lies, damned lies and then there are feminist troll-hunters wielding statistics.

For all the foul, threatening talk by so-called trolls online – sending bomb threats to MP Stella Creasy or hurling abuse at Cambridge classics don Mary Beard – few of these trolls ever seem to follow through on their vicious words. Indeed, many of the victims say that they never expect as much, and were hardly quivering in their shoes at lame tweets. Now, however, a report in the Guardian claims to have found a statistical smoking gun. A headline earlier this week said: ‘Online trolling of women is linked to domestic violence, say campaigners.’

The aim of this claim from anti-troll campaigners is clear – to prove that ‘abuse of women on sites such as Twitter should not be dismissed as harmless’. The chief executive of Women’s Aid, speaking before a London-based conference on ‘Cyber Stalking and Harassment’ this week, told the Guardian: ‘It is critical that we make the link between this vicious online harassment and cyberbullying and real-life violence against women.’

In an attempt to prove this critical link, Women’s Aid conducted a survey of ‘domestic violence survivors’ and found that of the 307 who responded, 48 per cent had been ‘harassed or abused online by their ex-partner once they had left the relationship’, with 45 per cent saying their partners had ‘abused [them] online during their relationship’. These stats are significant, the CEO of Women’s Aid claimed, because ‘we need to understand that this is part of a domestic violence spectrum and we have to challenge this type of misogyny because it is the backdrop that allows that violence to take place’.

Except, of course, the survey findings demonstrate no such thing. The headline figure of 48 per cent refers to people who have been harassed online after an abusive relationship has taken place – that is, after domestic violence has occurred. So it cannot be said that online abuse or harassment causes domestic violence. The claim effectively boils down to a simple tautology – that ‘people who have committed abuse have committed abuse’.

Looking at what abusers do after the abuse is irrelevant in this attempt to prove a link between online behaviour and offline behaviour. The fact that a proportion of abusers ‘trolled’ their partners or former partners after or during the abuse does not prove there is ‘a link’ between trolling and domestic violence. It’s like saying that if a large percentage of the abusers also ate chocolate during or after committing abuse, then there must be a link between chocolate and domestic violence. With this logic, would we also say that if some murderers trolled online at some point after they committed murder someone then there must be a link between trolling and murder?

The underhand, dodgy attempt to generate an ‘evidence base’ linking online trolls with domestic abuse has dangerous implications. It is already becoming commonplace to dismiss as a ‘troll’ anyone whose views do not correspond with your own or with the mainstream, authority-approved outlook. And the well-worn phrase ‘do not feed the troll’ often just means ‘do not engage in debate’. To suggest now that ‘trolls’ are on a slippery slope to committing domestic violence could further stifle debate, generating increasing suspicion of anyone who disagrees with the majority view or who is especially heated in how he expresses things online. Perhaps, in an echo of the sci-fi idea of ‘precrime’, such online trolling will soon be taken as a marker for future violent behaviour and therefore the ‘troll’ will have to be invesitaged.

It is doubtless the case that some men who have committed domestic violence later turn to the internet to vent their spleen at former partners whom they no longer see face-to-face. But for feminist campaigners to infer from this that there is a link between ‘trolls’ sounding off and real-world domestic abuse is a massive leap in logic. In fact, it is tantamount to trolling itself.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

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Topics Feminism