K is for Keeping the Light on Racism

The People Speak!: Internet trolling

Over the past weekend, I had the interesting experience of being trolled.

Wikipedia defines an internet troll as someone who “sows discord on the Internet by starting quarrels or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an on-line community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response” (Internet troll, n.d.). It is equated with online harassment.

For years I have watched many Indigenous women being trolled on their Twitter feeds. I have never been quite sure of the dynamic or of how to respond. So usually, I have not intervened. I have just watched.

Image via: YMCA

On one hand, internet trolling is triangular, just like bullying. It involves a bully, a target and a bystander. Bullying is usually a performance; it requires an audience. When the audience does nothing, the bully is emboldened, taking this as tacit approval. So, the most effective way to stop bullying is to have the bystander step in and intervene. This is the message we tell students, over and over again: you must stand up to bullying.

On the internet, there can be millions if not billions of bystanders. There are lots of people who can, and do stand up to cyber bullying. However, standing up to internet trolls often has the opposite effect: it feeds them. In fact, the only ways to effectively stop a cyber trolling attack, are to ban or block individual accounts or close off comment sections entirely.

This feels a lot like letting the trolls win.

Last week, I co-wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper about racism in Moose Jaw (See Q is for Questions: The Violence of Disbelief). We have received an incredible amount of support from a wide section of our community. However, not everyone agrees with us. The following day, two rebuttal letters were published. These two letters were virtually identical and took up a page and a half of the paper. One of the writers took a picture of his letter and proceeded to harass me and my other co-writers on Twitter starting late Saturday night and early into Sunday morning.

Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images via Lifewire

Elise Moreau (2017) has identified ten types of internet trolls. The second one, “the persistent debate troll”, is someone who loves to argue and who persistently and vociferously believes that they are right and everyone else is wrong. You find this kind of troll posting long threads or arguing with other commenters in community comment sections.

What makes these trolls particularly difficult to deal with is that they are determined to have the last word.

They continue to comment until other users give up.

But is it ethical to give up?

One of the positive comments we received in response to our letter was the following: “This topic has to be kept in the light. Racism in Moose Jaw is so bad. I hear it at work and in social situations all the time. Its really heartbreaking” (Simon, 2017). But, how do we keep the light on racism if trolling ends constructive discussion?

When trolls are determined to have the last word, is there any point in forging on with the conversation?

The harassment of Indigenous people online is particularly severe. Just this week, CBC reported that the chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, Bobby Cameron called for tougher hate speech laws. “Indigenous people everywhere are being targeted online with disturbing regularity…It’s getting out of hand. Our people deserve to feel accepted…” (Cameron as cited in Warick, 2017). In November 2015, CBC made the extraordinary decision of closing the comments section on stories that relate to Indigenous people due to the volume of violent and vitriolic comments. “The more visible and vocal Indigenous peoples are in this country, the louder the racism gets, and there’s no coincidence there” (Ryan McMahon as cited in As It Happens interview).

Currently we live in a climate where it is more socially acceptable to make racist comments than to challenge racism. The way Indigenous people and people supporting Indigenous people get harassed online speaks to this.

So, what do we do?

Recently, when Cree author Dawn Dumont was being trolled for reporting an incident of racism that her family endured, Cree writer Tracey Lindberg called for allies to “do the work” (16 July 2017). Lindberg wrote in another tweet that allies can make a difference when they “strengthen our [Indigenous] numbers and change the narrative” (May 12, 2017). I think she is onto something.

No one can take on a troll alone. You can’t win on your own. You need the strength of numbers.

Subsequent to our letter to the editor, other columns about empathy for other cultures and individual experiences with racism were published. The trolling continued but more and more supportive people began to chime in. When dozens of people responded to the troll, all from different angles, the troll had no choice but to quit. The narrative was changed.

Having now seen how this works, I will no longer sit idly by and watch harassment and intimidation take place on social media. Certainly, if we are telling our children to stand up to bullying, we must also model what it looks like to stand up to online bullying. That said, because the harassment is occurring online, the techniques need to be a bit different. It’s not about engaging in lengthy arguments with trolls. That’s not helpful. Instead, it’s about posting a single message of support, every time we encounter cyberbullying and intolerance online and encouraging others to do the same.

“Haters should be confronted each and every time they crawl out of their holes. If not, it signals that we condone their behaviour” (Fletcher, 2017).

I will respond and I hope many others will join in with messages condemning racism. There is strength in numbers. Keeping the light on racism will require these numbers.


Fletcher, Jan (@FletJan). “Haters should be confronted each and every time they crawl out of their holes. If not, it signals that we condone their behaviour.” 28 July 2017, 6:53 AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/FletJan/status/890903100751585280

Internet troll. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved July 25, 2017 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_troll

Lindberg, Tracey (@TraceyLindberg). “I am sorry, Dawn. This is crap. Allies, do the work.” 16 July 2017, 5:39 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/TraceyLindberg/status/886717041654235144

Lindberg, Tracey (@TraceyLindberg). “And: THIS is when allies make the difference, strengthen our numbers and change the narrative.” 12 May 2017, 9:01 AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/TraceyLindberg/status/863031498622029824

Moreau, E. (2017, May 19). 10 types of Internet trolls You’ll Meet Online. Lifewire. Retrieved from: https://www.lifewire.com/types-of-internet-trolls-3485894

Ryan McMahon on CBC decision to close comments on indigenous stories. (2015, November 30). CBCRadio: As It Happens. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-monday-edition-1.3343703/ryan-mcmahon-on-cbc-decision-to-close-comments-on-indigenous-stories-1.3343712

Simon, Joseph Michael. “This topic has to be kept in the light. Racism in Moose Jaw is so bad. I hear it at work and in social situations all the time. Its really heartbreaking.” July 22, 2017, 6:14 AM. Facebook Comment. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/groups/359614337774192/

Warick, J. (2017, July 25). ‘It’s getting out of hand’: FSIN chief calls for tougher hate speech laws. CBCNews: Saskatoon. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/afn-indigenous-hate-speech-1.4219223

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