2016: a year in which the dark army of trolls claimed victory

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Jenny Noyes

Booking a November trip to the United States earlier this year, I chose to fly in on election eve, so I could be there to see the first female president elected. In chorus with the rest of the world, I told myself that Hillary couldn’t possibly lose, even as Trump closed in a fraction on her enormous lead in the polls. But that didn’t stop my dread that the bad thing would happen. Because Hillary Clinton winning the presidency just didn’t seem to fit the pattern of all that happened in 2016. Donald Trump rising to power, on the other hand, just seemed to make sense in a year that already felt like it belonged to the trolls of the world. And here we are.

Clinton’s loss to Trump now seals 2016 as the year that racism, sexism, homophobia, hatred, fear, selfishness and sheer stupidity won out. But even if she had won the presidency, the cost of the vitriol stirred up during the campaign had already left many feeling broken, anxious and defeated – especially those directly targeted by the Republicans’ wedge: women, people of colour, Muslims, and the LGBT community.

Now those same groups are facing a future in which violence against them is tacitly approved by the President-elect’s rhetoric. And rights hard fought for – such as abortion – look like they’ll be rolled back.

Of course, the battle for the US presidency wasn’t the only election campaign to mar the year with hateful rhetoric and a result that left a large chunk of the world reeling and fearful for the future. Britain’s Brexit referendum was another shocking victory for the trolls, following a vicious campaign that boiled over into violence, with the politically-motivated killing of Labour MP Jo Cox as its terrible nadir. Violence and hate speech against immigrants has become a new normal in the months since.

The unprecedented ugliness during these two historic campaigns was, of course, amplified in the cesspool of social media. In 2016, trolling reached new heights, particularly on Twitter, with several prominent women driven off their platforms by hordes of often violently sexist, racist, hate-filled individuals.

Breitbart’s tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos emerged as the leader of the trolls, and mouthpiece for both Trump and Brexit among the extreme alt-right movement. In July, he was also banned by Twitter following a prolonged campaign of abuse against actor and comedian Leslie Jones. The Ghostbusters star quit the platform “with tears and a sad heart” after trolls, directed by Yiannopoulos, bombarded her with racist and sexist abuse for weeks.

Although she eventually returned, Jones wasn’t the only prominent woman to give up on Twitter amid abuse this year. Guardian columnist and Sex Object author Jessica Valenti quit for several months after a troll made a rape and death threat against her five-year-old daughter, in a case now under investigation by the FBI. Chelsea Cain, the writer behind Marvel’s Mockingbird comics, also succumbed to harassment by misogynist trolls, while Fifth Harmony singer Normani Kordei quit in August after racist trolling.

“I am not the first black female celebrity to deal with this and I’m sure I won’t be the last,” Kordei said.

Indeed, women have long complained about the platform’s failure to protect its users from trolls, but in 2016 trolling has become louder, uglier and more orchestrated than ever.

Despite eventually being banned by Twitter, Yiannopoulos and his publication have continued to gain influence in the halls of power. Stephen Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News, was made CEO of the Trump campaign back in August, and this week he was appointed Chief Strategist and senior counsel to the President-elect. This is the man behind a publication that, under his guidance, has relished in offending and vilifying women and minorities, with headlines like “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?” and “Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage”.

And the culture of trolling, misogyny and hate is alive and well in the Australian political sphere, too. Our election this year saw the return of Pauline Hanson to the Senate on a platform of Islamophobia and “fathers’ rights”, along with three of her (conspiracy-touting, climate-change denying) One Nation colleagues – all of whom gleefully celebrated Trump’s success last week.

They did this alongside actual government member Cory Bernardi, whose Twitter profile suggests he’s in fact more interested in outraging people than serving the community. “Specialise in outraging assorted lefties and SJWs by speaking common sense” is literally how Bernardi describes himself on the platform. And the only person he follows on Twitter? Donald Trump, of course.

In the media, Australian trolls are doing pretty well too. Outed actual Twitter troll Mark Latham is still dragging Rosie Batty’s name through the mud; while Steve Price remains a regular on The Project despite co-host Waleed Aly’s call to “stop the cycle of outrage”. During an emotive discussion about Trump’s win this week, Price was interrupted by female panellist Jamila Rizvi and cautioned to watch his tone when he snapped back at her. This led to claims of him being “bullied” (not by Price himself, but his supporters), demands for an apology and Rizvi having to disable her Facebook page due to trolling. Really, Australia?

It’s clear that just about everywhere in the western world (bar Canada perhaps) it’s a dangerous time right now to be a non-white, non-straight, non-male. Misogyny, homophobia and racism are boiling over and, worse, gaining legitimacy in public discourse.

These vitriolic sentiments must be understood to breed from resentment at the loss of power of traditional white masculinity in the face of a changing, diversifying world. And that’s something we should both take heart in and be very concerned about.

Now is the time for us to make ourselves and each other safe, reach out, gather support, make allies, listen, educate and work.

There have been steps forward this year. In the same election that saw the return of Pauline Hanson, Australians also elected our first Aboriginal woman and Muslim woman to the lower house. And in the US, the number of women of colour in the Senate just quadrupled. We can also take heart from the youth vote in both the US and Britain. And remember also that the majority of US voters did not vote for Trump: Clinton’s lead in the popular vote could end up at about 2 per cent.

The trolls, losers and haters may have won the battle of 2016. But the war we are fighting – for equality, freedom, justice, fairness – is centuries old. And we are – albeit slowly – winning it. We know that because of how hard they’re fighting back. Spitting tooth and keyboard-tapping nail.

With every piece of ground we gain our enemies dig their heels in further, delve deeper and darker into their arsenal. We have to expect things to get worse before they get better. Trolls are no longer just a bunch of faceless eggs on the internet – they are a real political force. As bad a year as we’ve just had, it’s also been a wake-up call against complacency. And it’s only the beginning of the battle we now have on our hands.

We have to be brave, be generous, love hard and work together to get through it. And we will.

Nominations are open for the Daily Life 2016 Women of the Year until November 18.

 

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