Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Don't Read the Comments

I first became aware of the problem of trolls and their vile comments before the interweb was even a thing for anyone but university researchers. It was when the Pioneer Press hired a young woman as a columnist (in the early 1990s, if I remember correctly).

Katherine Lanpher wrote great columns. Lots of personality and heart. After she had been on the job for a while, she started to write occasionally about how horrible the letters were that she received. These were letters, yes, not email, not comments. From jerks who took the time to write with a pen or typewriter, put it in an envelope with a stamp, and send it.

I don't remember the specifics of their words but I was shocked at how terrible they were, and I'm sure Lanpher omitted the worst ones as unprintable in any form.

She left the paper after a few years and went to Minnesota Public Radio, then on to Air America with Al Franken. 

She was replaced by another woman columnist, Laura Billings, who may have been about 30 at the time, since it's hard to believe they would have hired a columnist right out of college, but she looked younger. Plus she was blonde and blue-eyed. She not only got the same hate mail, she ended up with a stalker. She left the paper after a few years as well.

These days, anyone who pays attention knows that women (and men of color and pretty much all queer people) get all kinds of awful responses to their public writings and appearances. Today, the Guardian newspaper published a story about its analysis of 70 million comments on their site and found this:

Although the majority of our regular opinion writers are white men, we found that those who experienced the highest levels of abuse and dismissive trolling were not. The 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men. Two of the women and one of the men were gay. And of the eight women in the “top 10”, one was Muslim and one Jewish.

And the 10 regular writers who got the least abuse? All men. 
 Also: "...the more male-dominated the section, the more blocked comments the women who wrote there got." For instance, women writers of sports or tech articles got way more horrible comments than those who wrote about fashion.

No one is surprised by this, because the trolls are clearly all about defending what they see as straight white men's control of the public sphere, but it's good (if that's the right word for something so bad) to have the numbers.

Young-adult writer Rainbow Rowell, who was a columnist for the Omaha World-Herald in her late 20s and early 30s, had this to say on Twitter:
When our newspaper went online, my editors were BEWILDERED by the amount of comments my columns got. And the VITRIOL. The mocking. I’ll never forget an editor saying: “I think you just bring out strong feelings in people. The other columnists don’t get comments like this.” I was the only woman! But the Internet was so new, nobody realized what was happening. How anonymity brings out the worst in people.
It brings out the worst in people, huh. Rainbow, I think you've got the wrong noun there.

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