30th January 2017

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

Ex Aula - Logo4-cropped

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.

Recent Research Highlights

18th October 2017

2017/18 Teddy Hall MCR Writing Competition open

The MCR is excited to announce the call for articles for this year’s writing competition. The MCR journal, Ex Aula: Research from the Hall, was founded last year by the MCR and published 14 articles over Hilary and Trinity Term. The inaugural winning article, by Beth Raine, was chosen by the judging panel made up […]

Read More…

2nd August 2017

Winner of Inaugural MCR Writing Competition: Ex Aula

The winner of the first Ex Aula prize, for the best article submitted to the Teddy Hall MCR online journal, has been announced as Elizabeth Raine (2014, DPhil in Zoology). Elizabeth receives the £500 prize for her intriguingly-titled article, ‘Dung Beetles: We Should All Talk More About Poo’, in which she discusses the fascinating and often underestimated role played […]

Read More…

1st June 2017

The Molecules of Life That Trigger Death

Layal Liverpool, DPhil in Infection, Immunology, and Translational Medicine Nucleic acids –  DNA and RNA – are the molecules of life. Without them we wouldn’t exist but, ironically, they are the very molecules used by viruses to hijack our cells. Viral nucleic acids act like a virus-blueprint, containing all the instructions necessary to make more […]

Read More…

24th May 2017

The Death of the Brainstem: Should Each Person be Permitted to Define Death for Themselves?

  Jake White,  Law Established understandings of when death occurs have been critically undermined by technological advancement and medical innovation. Conceptions of what ‘it’ is that is constitutive of human life has been destabilised as medical intervention makes possible the continuation of major organs that would otherwise succumb to failure. Where a patient is in […]

Read More…

18th May 2017

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Developing Antibiotics

Hannah Behrens, DPhil Infection, Immunology and Translational Medicine (m.2015) Although first discovered in 1928, it was only during the Second World War that Penicillin was developed into a drug that could cure people of bacterial diseases. This started the “antibiotic era” and is considered to be one of the most important medical discoveries of the […]

Read More…