My first-ever troll told me to kill myself. I was 22 years old, I’d just started working at The Daily Telegraph and I’d just written my first opinion article for the newspaper, about equality. I didn’t know, then, not to read the comments below the final line. One of the first ones I saw told me to “commit suicide” immediately. In graphic detail, this anonymous reader advised I jump out of the nearest windows of the Telegraph offices to end my life, stat.
When I read it, I laughed out loud in shock. I didn’t really know how I felt about it, so I took my cue from all the experienced journalists around me and resorted to black humour. My trolls would become fodder for jokes to share with my colleagues and laugh at.
That coping mechanism worked for a few months. But as the abuse steadily worsened, to the point where I’d be getting an average of 20-30 abusive tweets a day (and that’s without counting comments beneath articles, emails and other social media), I found that I was being trolled to a level that none of my colleagues were. I was one of few people in the offices writing about feminism, and I was the only one who was brown. The abuse against me wasn’t just misogynistic and sexist – it was racist, too.
I kept trying to find it funny when I was told I’d be murdered, raped (to be honest, I did laugh when one of them said: “i wanna rape u lol xx”) and when I was constantly told to go back home (I was born in London). I tried to be strong, when they kept telling me how ugly I was and would screenshot images of my face and draw lines with arrows to my “disgusting brown skin”, my “massive nose” and my “four eyes”.
I even tried to find it flattering when I had my debut novel published a year into my job, and ultimate troll Milo Yiannopoulos actually bought a copy, just to screenshot paragraphs he thought displayed what a “stupid pathetic feminist” I was. And I tried to laugh it off when his 100,000 followers began attacking me daily, to the point where I was getting hundreds of messages a day, telling me how ugly I was, how no one would want to date me, and giving my novel false 1* reviews.
But about 18 months into it all, I broke down. I *knew* that I was meant to be strong, that these were just total weirdos writing to me from their parents’ basements. I knew that sticks and stones could break my bones, but words could never hurt me. I knew that I was supposed to “not read the comments”, or “ignore them”. So why was I crying in secret in the work loos? Why was I filled with anxiety every time I logged on to Twitter and why was my self-esteem in pieces? I couldn’t ignore the logic that I was factually big-nosed and I was factually Indian, so maybe I was also factually an ugly pathetic excuse of a human being.
The psychology of a troll isn’t simple. On Instagram, some tell me I’m gorgeous, then I don’t reply and they tell me I’m a fucking bitch
When you’re a female journalist, it is almost impossible to escape trolling. I always felt this strongly on an instinctive level, but now Amnesty International has proved it is true. A new report has found 1.1 million abusive or problematic tweets were sent to women politicians and journalists on Twitter last year – an average of one every 30 seconds. When you’re being trolled so prolifically, and so are people around you, it normalises the activity. I didn’t feel that I could admit just how much the trolling was affecting me, because in the busy newsroom, I just imagined people would raise their eyebrows in judgment. Trolling had become part of being a digital journalist, and I didn’t want to seem weak for letting it bother me.
In the end, I was in such a bad way that I opened up to my non-journalist friends. It wasn’t the norm for them and they saw it with clear eyes. They were completely shocked by the level of abuse I receive, and I’d barely told them the worst of it. They made me realise that it was OK to admit I wasn’t OK, and that I could ask for help. I signed up for therapy.
Over the next year or so, I learned that I didn’t have to keep on trying to “be strong”. It wasn’t weak to admit that people making nasty comments about my appearance bothered me – it didn’t mean I wasn’t a proper feminist. It wasn’t pathetic to feel teary when you were already having a bad day, or on day one of your period, and someone told you that you’re a fucking worthless bitch with a big nose. Instead, I realised that the more I ignored the effect they were having on me, the worse I was making it all. I didn’t have to do a JK Rowling and respond to the trolls – but I did have to face up to how much they were hurting me.
So, I started to be honest about it. When colleagues joked about the reaction my latest article had provoked, I stopped laughing along. I’d tell them, “to be honest, I don’t really want to know what they’re saying so please can you not tell me”. I put boundaries in place and limited my social-media use, even though trying to build a following would be good for my career. Instead, I only ever checked comments from “verified” people on Twitter, deleted the app off my phone, and flat-out ignored my editors’ requests to interact with readers, because I didn’t want to go below the line. I put myself first, and decided to focus entirely on validating myself. I wanted to see myself as beautiful and worthy, so that no one saying otherwise could affect me.
Slowly, it worked. I managed to take control of a difficult situation, by labelling it and by doing what was best for me. A couple of years later, I even managed to use social media in a positive way. I decided to confront my insecurities face-on and started speaking about my big nose and how much it used to bother me. I shared a photo of it with the hashtag #sideprofileselfie and spoke about celebrating unique differences and moving beyond white beauty standards.
It reached millions, and 50,000 people battled their own issues to join me and do a #sideprofileselfie. They told me they never imagined seeing someone with a big nose decide to see themselves as beautiful, and that their insecurities – and being bullied – had ruined their lives. They opened up to me about all of this, and they said thank you to me for speaking up about it. Meanwhile, my trolls were confused, now that I was openly loving myself. “This movement is pathetic,” wrote one, adding in desperation, “your nose isn’t even that big.”
The psychology of a troll isn’t simple. On Instagram, some tell me I’m gorgeous, then I don’t reply and they tell me I’m a fucking bitch. Some start with the abuse, then say something like, “I bet you don’t want to go for a drink with me?” One emailed me recently, saying: “You seem extremely brilliant, beautiful, witty. What the left has done to your mind breaks my heart. Just have a damn good time in life before you die.” One troll even came up to me IRL in a bar. He offered to buy my a drink, while simultaneously telling me how he’d trolled me on Twitter. I don’t really understand what any of this means (though I’m obviously tempted to just assume it means all my trolls are in love with me). But what it does is prove to me that nothing is black and white. If my trolls are so mean to me – a complete stranger – then imagine how they speak to themselves.
It’s still hard to not let all their comments get to me. I recently felt really derailed when someone messaged me saying: “I accidentally watched you on YouTube. You really pissed me off. In order to release the anger, I’m gonna smack the shit out of the first woman I see tonight. You caused it. Remember the pain of that innocent woman before you say something stupid again.” When I read that, I felt like crying. But instead of keeping it to myself, I told my friends how hurt I was. I even tweeted it – something I never used to do, for fear of provoking the trolls more – and let the kind words of my followers support me.
It’s now been six years since I was first trolled. I’m over the worst patch, when I was receiving hundreds a day. Now, I tend to get about 30 abusive comments a week, spread out on Twitter and Instagram DMs. But they don’t affect me in the same way any more. I’m stronger now, in ways that truly count, because I’ve learned to focus on my self-esteem and self-belief, rather than what others think of me.
In a way, I’m almost thankful to my trolls, now. They’ve taught me so much. I’ve learned that true strength is being vulnerable and knowing when to ask for help, and I’ve learned how to validate myself without caring about what the trolls say. I never would have built up my self-esteem the way that I did if it wasn’t for the trolls proving just how many cracks I had in it, and for that, I’ll always be grateful.