(CNN)Here we are today, in Donald Trump’s version of “modern day presidential”: Random badly behaved men on the Internet suddenly find their juvenile online aliases thrust into the national spotlight, as “HanA**holeSolo” did this week when he conceded he had created the Trump v. CNN meme — and it was further revealed that he was a regular purveyor of racist and anti-Semitic content on pro-Trump subreddits.
For women who write on the Internet, the existence of these kinds of trolls isn’t new. It would get boring to recount all the harassment I’ve received from anonymous men on the Internet, but suffice it to say there are few creatively misogynist insults (and many more pathetically uncreative ones, usually starting with the letters B or C or involving obscene demands) that haven’t been hurled my way.
Two of these anonymous men have shown up in my real life, off the Internet. A few of the comments have been sufficiently alarming that I’ve contacted law enforcement.
And yet usually, the line between “real life” and “online life” stays impenetrable — at least according to the trolls themselves, who, when they are found out, nearly universally describe themselves as normal upstanding citizens.
HanA**holeSolo claimed, in an apologetic subreddit post Tuesday, that his online comments weren’t a reflection of his character, despite one earlier post that put Stars of David next to the head shots of CNN contributors, and others that called African-Americans the N-word and described wanting to stab Muslims in the neck. Don’t worry, HanA**holeSolo wrote, he never meant any of the hateful or violent things he said. “I was trolling.”
Trump-CNN wrestling video origin questioned
What goes on in the minds of “trolls” remains mysterious to those among us who may occasionally behave intemperately on Twitter but would never think of using our spare time to post hateful commentary just for kicks.
The true mark of a person’s character, to use a classic mom-ism, is how one behaves when no one is looking. Do you return the wallet you found, or do you keep it? Do you throw your empty bottle away in a garbage bin or litter into a duck pond? Do you spend your time online liking a friend’s baby photo and sharing interesting news articles, or do you post memes under an anonymous Reddit handle about how much you hate Jews?
I don’t feel sorry for trolls; they have made my life miserable enough to remove any sympathy on my part. But when I think about what their lives probably look like — they seem to be not particularly bright nor particularly likable nor particularly busy with interesting or meaningful endeavors, but who knows? — it gets a little easier to worry less about who they are.
The bigger worry is who’s reading them, and who’s allowing their toxic ideas to drip into the mainstream.
The answer to that used to be, more or less, more trolls, or some bored emotional adolescents who frankly probably serve society better by staying in front of their laptops and away from real human beings (and real women in particular). But now, it appears that one way or another, content from the fetid cesspools of hate and violent fantasies about harming Jews, Muslims, African-Americans, women and members of the news media is finding its way into the Trump team’s consciousness as was also apparently the case during the presidential race.
Internet trolling protected free speech?
On Monday, a senior administration official told CNN the faux-wrestling video was not pulled from Reddit. One wonders, then, where the President did get it, and why he would post it.
Judging from his ready tweeting of offensive material over time, he appears to enjoy it, too.
Trolls, more than anything, want attention. They want to provoke disgust, outrage and sometimes fear. Of course they mean it. The President’s team, and Trump himself, have shown they live in their ranks. They mean it, too.
Feminist writers like me have been on the receiving end of troll vitriol for a long time. To stay sane, many of us tell ourselves that these are just pathetic guys on the Internet, unpleasant and aggrieved men (does anyone doubt they are usually men?) who live in their mom’s basements, lacking both notable talents and girlfriends.
The truth is a scarier thing to admit: For every troll who has emailed me a rape threat or tweeted at me to tell me I’m a bitch who should die or posted one of my articles on an Internet message with attendant comments about my weight or his efforts to figure out where I live or his detailed description of the many different ways he would like to see me physically violated, there are other men reading, nodding along, maybe laughing. Men who date women, are married to women, ride the subway every day, work in an office and engage in polite water cooler chat, sit next to you in math class, wave to you over the fence. Men we think are “normal.”
Men who work in the White House and want to please their boss. And one man who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office.