The thread about Holly was centred mainly around a single story frame where she’d expressed frustration at something her youngest child had done. ‘Someone had taken one moment of my life, quite literally a feeling that had lasted a few minutes, and turned it into something so dark where I hated my child, wasn’t a fit mum, didn’t know what I was doing.’ This kind of trolling can be disguised as concern, but it rarely is. Holly is a trained paediatric nurse who was using her platform to share tips for other young mums who may feel overwhelmed. Any reasonable or good-faith discussion about her would have included this fact, but of course, it didn’t.
It can be argued that these gossip sites are a contained kind of malevolence and that influencers mentioned there have the option not to look and be hurt by what they see. But vitriol in one online space can easily boil over into others, and anonymous commentators whose entire MO is insulting a person’s character, physical appearance, work and social media presence don’t strike me as the most reasonable group. In Holly’s words- ‘people read the site and then came to my Instagram, my friend’s Instagrams, the brands I work with, and spout the same sh*t. It’s not a case of if you don’t read, it won’t hurt you- it’s bigger than that.’
The impulse when someone misrepresents you is to defend yourself, but in the case of online harassment or internet trolls, there are only so many rebuttals to be made. As sad as it seems, the people behind the anonymous accounts and the burner email address and the gossip threads are finding enjoyment in what they’re doing. It’s a leisure activity, something to do with their evenings or commutes to work. Cloaked by a false name, a community of like-minded individuals and the illusion of impunity, they’re unlikely to admit pettiness or change their ways.
In the years since that first flush of trolling, I’ve dealt with death threats, scores of unsolicited dick pics, people trying to find out where I worked and lived and anonymous accounts reaching out to exes to ask if they would sell intimate photos of me. I’ve had my face photoshopped onto images of naked women and have been called a stupid bitch in at least six languages. It’s been exhausting, even when I’ve managed to laugh it off in the moment. I’ve come to see that something doesn’t need to threaten your immediate physical safety to have real psychic consequences. I’ve also realised that caring about your own peace of mind can mean resisting more baser urges to snoop, to name-search, and to seek out online gossip. Blocking and muting accounts or keywords is one way you can look after your mental health while continuing t use social media. You can also change your notification settings on various sites to only allow prompts and messages from certain people- e.g. followers or mutuals, or users who have confirmed their phone number and email address.
I believe it’s naive to talk about the internet as though it exists somewhere outside of reality. It’s a space where many of us spend hours and hours of our time each week, where we may generate income, make friends, meet partners, and build communities. It’s also somewhere we may disagree, debate, and come across people we dislike and who dislike us. It’s a social environment, and the impact of what happens there is real, even after we close out of an app or delete a nasty message. Practising good digital self-care means recognising that sometimes it does wear on you to be misunderstood, misrepresented and attacked, and taking steps to be free of it.
Since changing my settings and deciding no longer to engage with internet trolls, my user experience on social media has been much more pleasant, and my mental health has benefitted. I’ve even started telling jokes again on Twitter.