Who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge?

Read to daily as a little girl, some stories stick in my memory.  I had a Ladybird version of Three Billy Goats Gruff.  I remember wondering as a child why they were called “Billy” goats?  Were all goats boys?  Was “Gruff” their surname?  Why did they want to cross the bridge to eat grass in the nicer meadow to get “fat”?  Where was their mummy?  Mostly, I remember the repeated refrain of the sinister character who lived under the wooden bridge.  The one who jumped out angrily, shouting at the goats as they crossed, “Who’s that trip-trapping over MY bridge?” He was a troll.

Today, “troll” describes people, often men, who choose to behave in an unkind or abusive manner on social media.  Some attempt to conceal their identity – a pseudonym, a fake photo or no profile picture at all.  As a Twitter user, I mostly choose to avoid trolls, quick to disengage and ‘block’ them, a facility enabling users to disallow others from interacting with you.  Indeed, tweeting an experience of sexual harassment a few days ago gained attention from several trolls who I subsequently blocked for their unwelcome, sexist comments. I don’t mind discord, disagreements or differences of opinion.  I abhor unkindness, abusiveness and hate – three classic hallmarks of trolling.  Gratefully, I rarely encounter online trolls….though perhaps it’s because I tweet so as not to invite them? After all, I don’t need their negativity.

Recently, a Twitter exchange with a colleague about violence against women led to a troll telling me among other things, to “Suck on it.”  I reported his tweet, then blocked him.  Perhaps given he used “it” rather than naming the part of his anatomy that even my 12 year old confirmed he was likely referring to for me to “suck on,” Twitter deemed it not offensive.  I found this concerning and it further confirmed why it is unsafe to allow children access to social media.

Though “troll” now refers less often to a fictional being who lives under a wooden bridge in the countryside, and more often refers to the online sort, I find the fundamental parallels  intriguing:

1. Both types of trolls are frequently males who feel aggrieved; a lot of online trolling is provoked just by hashtags – #feminism & #endVAW attract trolls. Why are these not elements we would all want to promote, regardless of our own gender?

2. Trolls’ counter-arguments tend to focus on a deluded sense of self-righteous entitlement. Think about the troll under the wooden bridge who simply thinks he owns the damn thing.

3. Social isolation features. Often interesting how many (or few) followers the trolls have, how little backing. Many simply provoke responses from those keen to oppose & discredit them.  With fewer followers, they shout and no one hears. Just as the ugly, unkind troll under the bridge is alone, perhaps even ostracised, and shouts corrosively into the dark, empty space he inhabits.

I feel ambivalent sometimes when I block trolls. By blocking/reporting social media trolls, their views, some of which pose a threat to people/women’s well-being or personal safety remain unchallenged. Often these concerning views are held by others in society and need exposing and addressing.  Some people on Twitter are amazing at handling trolls, as their skills in this area are second to none.  One such shining example is Caitlin Roper (@caitlin_roper).  Using humour and sarcasm to respond to their unkindness, Caitlin uses her 140 characters creatively and economically.  Watching her Twitter exchanges with trolls, she adeptly draws out key issues, attracting attention of others who begin to challenge the troll, too.  This strategy creates opportunity to examine and begin to debase their underlying beliefs, by exposing those beliefs through the ensuing debate on the social media platform.

There is no ‘right’ way to approach trolls, either under bridges or online. Always make choices which feel safest for you when deciding what route to take.  As the Billy Goats Gruff each made a personal decision whether to cross the bridge to the other meadow in the story, so can each person choose how to respond to trolls on social media. The decision may depend on how much time you have, how strongly you feel about the topic, and your current state of well-being.  On Twitter, choices include blocking, reporting, muting, responding, tagging someone in to support you or simply ignoring the troll.

Please prioritise your own well-being and safety when managing trolling, as you would with anyone who is behaving abusively towards you.  Their behaviour is unacceptable. You matter.  You have value and worth. And your worth does not depend on others’ opinions of you.

** Online abuse can be reported to CEOP if it relates to a child under 18.  Also, you can report to police on 101, or in an emergency 999 (in the UK).