Trolling, Power, and Enforcing Privilege

[Content Note: Fat hatred; racism; threats; eliminationism; harassment; stalking; abuse.]

Fierce fat activist (and my friend) Amanda Levitt has written a stellar piece for BitchMedia about trolling, with a central focus on the trolling of fat activists.
For almost a decade, I have been involved in online fat-positive community spaces. For the last eight years, I have been writing and working as a fat activist, moving more offline over the past few years as I head into academia. So I expected to get some pushback on the Tumblr from people who are upset the idea of fat people loving their bodies. But the sheer amount of hatred took me by surprise. On my first day moderating the blog, I logged on to find my inbox filled with messages from a single person who wrote the word "FAT" hundreds of times in ten messages that filled my screen.

Frankly, I found someone wasting their time copying-and-pasting a word we use to define our own bodies amusing. It was then that I decided to document the trolling we got for an entire year and turn it into an art project. I started taking screenshots of the messages. Some days I would only get a few and other days I would get a hundred. My intent in the beginning of this was to create a visual representation of the hatred that feminists and activists online have to deal with. Over the time I archived the attacks of anti-fat trolls, I began to see that while there were a few individuals who were continually sending vitriolic messages, trolling wasn't the work of just a few bad apples. Instead, there were many, many people who sent us mean messages saying that they simply thought the blog shouldn't exist. This is similar to the way fat people experience the world offline—there are a handful of folks who will make nasty overt comments, but many, many ways we are subtly told that we shouldn't exist.
One of the important ideas Amanda is documenting here is something about which I've written before—that the internet is not separate from culture, but a reflection of culture. The pretense that the anonymity of the internet creates the urges that underlie bullying is a way of distancing oneself from the real-life harm many marginalized people face, ignores that many people engaging in trolling come at us under their real names and even work emails, and elides that whatever anonymity and/or impunity the internet provides merely empowers bullies to be uglier, meaner, bolder than some of them would be face-to-face. It doesn't make them engage in behaviors that don't exist in the offline world.

As I've said many times before, it's not like no random dude ever called me a fat cunt before I started a blog.

Amanda also effectively knocks down that this is just the product of a "small but vocal group"—another rhetorical mechanism people use to try to distance themselves and diminish the harm done via trolling to people from marginalized populations.

The opening salvo to a conversation about the trollery directed at fat women is to document what it looks like and who's doing it and why, in a way that transcends the usual dismissals. Amanda has accomplished that here, and her piece urges people to care about what's happening to fat activists.

Especially all those people who purport to be so very concerned about our health, ahem. Because this isn't remotely a healthy environment for fat activists, or for the people for whom we advocate.

If you care about our health, maybe start there.

Two famously unmoderated Shakesville threads—Rape is Hilarious (trigger warning) and Fat Princess Update—give a glimpse behind the curtain of the sort of violent fat hatred that is directed at me. And, as perfectly documented in Amanda's piece, when trolls are cut off at one source, they take it to another. That is, if they're moderated here, they come to my inbox.

And when our inboxes don't satisfy, the aggression escalates. Amanda again:
In April, Lindsey Averill and Veridiana Lieberman launched a Kickstarter campaign for their documentary Fattitude, a feature-length film that will seek to "expose how popular culture fosters fat prejudice" and offer an alternative approach to thinking about fatness. When the campaign began, Averill and Veridiana were instantly attacked online. People wrote vitriolic messages to them on Twitter and on the project's social media sites, saying that the film shouldn't exist. The online abuse spread into their home lives—people called Averill to harass her, so she changed her number. Then someone anonymously ordered her a pizza. In an interview with a local TV station, Averill says she knows that this isn't just about trying to make a fat woman feel bad by sending her a pizza. "They are telling me they know where I live," she says.

The motivations behind this kind of behavior are bigger than just wanting to be anonymously nasty to someone. Feminists who seek to deconstruct dominant narratives about race, gender, class, body size and other forms of marginalization online are often subjected to calculated and destructive trolling campaigns that go far beyond individual attacks and instead seek to damage their work and lives.
It isn't just a "small but vocal group" who are using the anonymity of the internet to annoy fat advocates and others. To continue to believe this lie is to facilitate the indifference in the shadow of which this chilling abuse is perpetrated.

Please read the whole thing.

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