Fred Grimm

The year lies, insults, threats and fat shaming supplanted civil discourse

Lucy Richards leaves the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 19. Richards, accused of threatening the parent of a boy killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting, in Newtown, Connecticut, because she thought it was a hoax, pleaded not guilty Monday and was barred from visiting websites that promote such false conspiracy theories.
Lucy Richards leaves the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 19. Richards, accused of threatening the parent of a boy killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting, in Newtown, Connecticut, because she thought it was a hoax, pleaded not guilty Monday and was barred from visiting websites that promote such false conspiracy theories. AP

Let’s just make it official: the Year of the Trolls.

Mark down 2016 as the unseemly epoch when the online mob murdered civil discourse.

They slathered the internet with their racist and xenophobic and misogynistic suppositions. They disseminated outrageous lies. They slaughtered reputations. They slandered innocents. They posted their targets’ home addresses and phone numbers, along with embarrassing photos. They nurtured lunatic conspiracy theories. And they brutally harassed those hapless souls who questioned their veracity.

And oh how they fouled our politics. It was no longer enough to question someone’s political ideology. The trolls had to insist their perceived enemies were outright evil, that they were unpatriotic traitors or criminal operatives or secret saboteurs, in league with Muslim terrorists, who — in their spare time, when they weren’t busy conspiring to seize the guns of law-abiding Americans or plotting a UN takeover — were running child sex rings in the basements of pizza joints.

It was the year the trolls managed to elevate one of their own to higher office, a serial tweeter and unabashed fabulist, a man who employed insults, personal attacks, fat shaming and outright lies to denigrate his political opponents. This was someone who rose to national prominence in 2011 by peddling a mendacious claim that the president was not born in the United States.

So the King of the Trolls was elected president of the United States.

Maybe the boys behind gamergate weren’t far off when they took credit for Donald Trump’s election. (The #Gamergate profile photo on Twitter is Trump in a purple and green Make America Great Again baseball cap.)

Gamergate, flogged into the nation’s consciousness by Breitbart’s notorious provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, was the online harassment campaign that disgruntled boy gamers waged against women (”feminist bullies,” Yiannopoulos called them) who trespassed into their netherworld. Boston magazine reported video game designer Zoe Quinn’s account of what happened after her ex-boyfriend sicced the online gang on her. “I have received numerous death and rape threats from an anonymous mob that [her ex] had given details to. My personal info like my home address, phone number, emails, passwords, and those of my family has been widely distributed, alongside nude photos of me, and several of my professional accounts and those of my colleagues have been hacked.”

All that, of course, accomplished in furious anonymity. That’s how we roll here in our not-so-brave new world.

(Yiannopoulos, who says he’s writing a book about his Gamergate exploits, was permanently banned from Twitter in July after leading a racist online campaign against “Ghostbusters” actor Leslie Jones. But at least Yiannopoulos, who revels in his notoriety, can’t be accused of hiding in the shadows.)

Gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas might have been an Olympic hero last summer in Rio, but the trolls were relentless when they noticed she hadn’t placed her hand over her heart during the national anthem. The Washington Post described “a steady stream of hate” roiling out of the internet.

The Pew Research Center has documented an epidemic of online harassment, intimidation, threats, stalking or attempts to embarrass someone. At least 40 percent of adult internet users reported some kind of harassment in Pew’s survey. Cyber bullies, of course, prefer young women. Pew found that 70 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds have experienced harassment.

It was during 2016 that many of us first became familiar with terms like “doxxed” — the dark art of posting hacked private information like Social Security numbers or home addresses, etc. online. Or worse, “swatted,” when harassers falsely report an armed emergency at their target’s address, hoping a police SWAT team will come barging into the home.

The left has its nasties, for sure, but 2016 was the year that trollers from the so-called “alt-right” went berserk. (In July, a headline in the alt-right online publication Breitbart suggested, “The solution to online ‘harassment’ is simple: Women should log off.”)

Far-right trolls despised liberals, feminists and the Black Lives Matter crowd, of course, but they were furious with Never-Trump Republicans. David French, a staff writer with the conservative National Review, wrote about the torrent of sexually explicit abuse aimed at his wife and the racist denigration of his adopted 7-year-old daughter. “I share my family’s story not because we are unique or because our experience is all that extraordinary, but rather because it is depressingly, disturbingly ordinary this campaign season,” French wrote. “The formula is simple: Criticize Trump — especially his connection to the alt-right — and the backlash will come.”

Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League reported that some 800 journalists had been subjected to anti-semitic online attacks, most of them by Twitter. (I’ve received a few anti-semitic missives myself. Doesn’t matter that I’m not Jewish.)

This was the year NPR joined CNN, Reuters, the Toronto Star and other publications who’ve stopped allowing reader comments, which have become so laden with anger, threats, racism, insults that they’ve stifled civil conversation. As the Brattleboro (Vermont) Reformer reported in September, the abusive comments had a “chilling effect on people’s desire to contribute meaningfully to a productive discussion of the issues.”

Two weeks ago, a 57-year-old woman named Lucy Richards appeared in federal court in Fort Lauderdale after she was sending anonymous death threats to the parent of a child murdered in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. Richards, prosecutors charged, had reacted to online trolls who claim the killings never happened and that the parents were actors in a giant government conspiracy.

The Sun-Sentinel described this operative from the dark side of the internet, this emissary come in from the troll universe. Richards shuffled into the courtroom in a flowery blouse and furry black bedroom slippers, pushing a walker.

It was that kind of year.

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