30th January 2017

Lollipop, Cupcake, and Viagra: Gender in Trolling and Hacktivism

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Siân J.M. Brooke, DPhil student at the Oxford Internet Institute (2016)

You use social media. Be it Facebook, Twitter, or even a MySpace you haven’t visited since the early ‘00s, the clear majority of us now have an online presence. The most widespread social media sites will often display your profile with your real name, but there are several popular sites in which users can be relatively anonymous. Such forums include 4chan and Reddit. You may think of such websites as the realms of pornography and funny pictures of cats, and you wouldn’t be far wrong. Reddit is a social networking news-aggregation site, equated to the digital age form of reading a newspaper as its users submit text, links, or images. It is divided into theme and content specific communities, called Subreddits. For instance, the popular question and answer Subreddit is r/AMA (Ask Me Anything) has featured Barak Obama, Patrick Stewart, and Steve Wozniak. A similar forum is 4chan an image-based bulletin board. Unlike Reddit, 4chan does not require the creation of an account to participate, instead assigning users the tag ‘Anonymous’ followed by a series of distinguishing numbers.

Antagonistic humour is common to Reddit and 4chan and can be considered “trolling”. Rather than a monstrous Norse creature, an internet troll intentionally angers or frustrates.  Trolls’ comments and posts are often colloquially considered as “flaming”, employing hostility as entertainment and sport typically associated with masculine or “lad” humour. The use of humour shows a practise of “toxicity”, in which ambivalence is shown towards destructive or prejudicial speech, such as the case of Operation: Lollipop. In 2013, Men’s Rights advocates on 4chan launched a subversive anti-feminist propaganda campaign by creating fake ethnic minority twitter users who posted hashtags such as #EndFathersDay and #WhiteCantBeRaped to discredit feminist activism. In using hashtags, the trolls can use the features of Twitter that promote virality through controversy.

4chan and Reddit are not only used to organise collective trolling, but are also the birthplace and home of the internet’s most notorious subculture; Anonymous. Anonymous is an ad-hoc collective of internet users who are commonly associated with various hacktivist operations, such as protesting internet censorship. Hacktivism is a form of internet activism (demonstrating the internet’s fondness for portmanteaus – “hacking” and “activism”) involving the subversive use of computer networks to promote a political agenda. For instance, in November 2015 the Anonymous affiliate Ghost Sec replaced a website which publicized and supported the militant group ISIS on the deep web, with an advert for Viagra and a message to ‘calm down’. Such activities are not restricted to ad-hoc collectives. In 2011 the British Intelligence Agency MI6 and GCHQ launched a cyber-warfare operation on ISIS’s recruitment efforts in the Arabian Peninsula. The online magazine instructed individuals on how to easily fashion pipe bombs. The British Intelligence hackers replaced the magazine with recipes for cupcakes that was published by the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

These examples illustrate how bait-and-switch pranks (linking to an unexpected webpage), which are typical of trolling behaviour, are employed by hackers as a form of political action. Significantly, there is a gendered element present here. Both examples can be shown to encroach upon masculinity. Anonymous’ use of a Viagra advertisement points to a theme of flawed masculinity through the connotation of impotence. In the second instance, cupcakes are often associated with feminine ideals of homemaking, whilst masculinity is a rejection of such domesticity. The humour in both campaigns points to an idea that the “in-group” of hackers as male.

In looking at a wider impact, gender based trolling and hacktivism are activities with high prominence in the public sphere, with minimal understandings of how they are organised and the politics they represent. In looking to a recent example, following the release of Ghostbusters in July 2016, the female lead actor, Leslie Jones, was trolled aggressively, which drove her to leave Twitter. In the following month, Jones was the subject of hacking attacks as her personal website was altered to display alleged naked images of Jones. Such practises are referred to as “doxing”, meaning the displaying of identifying images and personal information online. The responsibility for the unwanted exposure is placed with the victim in a form of slut-shaming. A woman is a slut, not because of sexual promiscuity, but rather because they chose to be exposed to a private and trusted camera. The moment the images are accessed, with or without consent, the woman is a slut.

The examples outlined above form the background of my doctoral thesis. Whilst race has undergone extensive study, gender has largely been overlooked in the study of the internet. Crucially, the use of trolling by feminist movements has been largely ignored. For instance, responses to the #FemFuture (2012) report on feminist activism online shows a “call-out” culture. Calling-out is the act of naming and shaming patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism, also referred to as tone-trolling. In this manner, the troll focuses on the tone of arguments as opposed to their content to derail discussion by diverting attention from the specific words. “Toxicity” in terms of feminist call-out culture has developed its own lexicon using such phrases as ‘mansplaining’, ‘whitemansplaining’, and ‘check your privilege’, which are often expressed as hashtags on social media.

It may seem that the stealing of naked images of celebrities and mansplaining is far removed from Ghost Sec’s bait-and-switch attack on ISIS. However, there is a crucial link; toxicity and gender.

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