Last week, I got trolled for calling out a sexist birthday card. I tweeted a picture, complained; it got taken off the shelves. I said, "Thank you." Case closed. Or so I thought, but then the next morning, the Mirror picked up the story, followed shortly afterwards by The Sun, the Mail online and various regional newspapers. Angry tweets began to trickle in on my train into work. And, by the time I got to my desk, it was a full-on flood. Ping! “You c**nt!” Ping! “Whore!” Ping! “Humourless sow!” Every 30 seconds, a new message rolled in and, over the next few days, the flood turned into a torrent – a tsunami of anger that buffeted me, wave after wave, from the minute I got up in the morning to the minute I went to bed.
I confess I always naively thought that trolling just happened to celebrities and a few outspoken politicians. How wrong I was. All I could do was wait and let the flood die down. I couldn’t feed the trolls by replying to them and defending myself, but I knew that if I deleted my account it would mean they had won. I'm also aware that Twitter is a public forum – people are entitled their opinions as much as I am mine. Some were just cross with me, but many went a lot further – their "I don't agree with yous" came attached with a battering ram of insults and threats.
Over the following days, this barrage turned into a morbid fascination. I found myself refreshing Twitter constantly, almost willing one of them to issue a death threat because then I could report it and then, perhaps, it would all stop.
But they always stopped short, with hints not direct threats. Then, suddenly, as quickly as they had started they were gone, in hot pursuit of some other poor soul no doubt, leaving me with a lingering incredulity and incomprehension at exactly why they were so enraged with me.
It was about a card, not a person. Most hadn’t even clocked that I was a journalist or actually read my piece decrying the sexist card, which I wrote after the trolling ramped up. The Sun had called me a “furious customer” and most of the trolls tweeted me direct from the article page. My career is online and I’m savvy to the internet “game”, but the fact that even I got unnerved makes me wonder: if I had just been a “furious customer”, a woman not used to putting myself in the public domain, how would I have coped?
Of course, my “attack” is just a drop in the ocean, as Amy Schumer demonstrated yesterday. She posted this statement on Instagram, where she complained that her latest stand-up comedy, The Leather Special, had been the target of alt-right trolls. Schumer accused them of grouping together in chatrooms, plotting to pose as fans and bombard Netflix with one-star reviews and nasty comments.
Trolls aren't all sad loners who sit in their bedrooms. They are men and women, old and young, black and white, thin and fat. They are scientists, rugby-players and wedding photographers
Not only did Schumer have to deal with the trolls sabotaging her work, but she also had to deal with cynical journalists who didn't believe her (despite website Splitsider confirming her accusation). And that's the thing – to really know what it's like, you need to experience it to understand. Trolls, as I've discovered, aren't all sad loners who sit in their bedrooms. They are men and women, old and young, black and white, thin and fat. And, although some of them hide behind their eggs, many of their profiles will chirpily tell you they are married with kids, that they are scientists, rugby-players and wedding photographers. And, like in Amy’s case, the most vitriolic get together and hunt in packs, @-ing and RT-ing each other, showering their prey in mutual hate. One lone troll is bearable – gangs of trolls are not.
But, if there’s one thing that I've learnt from “cardgate”, it’s to draw strength from adversity and channel their fury. That’s why Schumer’s post rang so true this week:
“I thank you trolls so much. It fills me with hope and power to see you all furiously posting so as always accuse me of whatever lies you want,” she said.
“I want to thank them. It makes me feel so powerful and dangerous and brave. It reminds me what I’m saying is effective and bring more interest to my work and their obsession with me keeps me going.”
She's got a point. Trolls are just bullies in the playground and the old saying "sticks and stones will break bones" rings so true. Words are just words, not weapons and – in this age where hyped-up social media rage is a daily occurrence – it's so important to remember that. So, Mr and Mrs Troll, listen up: you will not drown out my voice. You will not intimidate, scare or undermine me. In fact, you have made me even more determined than ever to call out sexism and, thanks to Schumer, I'm going to be "dangerous and brave" when I do.