by Melissa McGowan, a fattitude Intern
These are the words that greeted me on Twitter last Wednesday morning, out of nowhere, from someone whose screen name I didn’t recognize (I’ve obscured his name because he doesn’t deserve any further attention. I’ve obscured the names of anyone other than myself for the sake of their privacy). Needless to say, I was a little shocked. Not because someone called me fat – I mean, I AM fat, I make no secret of it – but just the fact that someone I didn’t know would go out of their way to target me for literally no reason at all.
I’m no shrinking violet, so I felt the need to respond. Partly because I didn’t want to give this person the satisfaction of just ignoring him, which I felt he’d interpret as stunned silence or me being too upset to respond. But I knew questioning his motives or responding in kind wouldn’t get me anywhere either. So I responded the same way I would respond to anyone who would call me fat to my face:
Like I said, I make no secret of the fact that I’m fat. I mean, I’m fat – I couldn’t hide it even if I wanted to, which I don’t. It’s taken me a long time to learn to love my body, and now that I do, I love it without qualifications or strings attached. This body has gotten me through so much, the least I can do is love it and appreciate it as it is and treat it kindly. So I live my fat life proudly and happily, without the need for anyone else’s approval. And I’m a good person so I generally get along just fine, save for the occasional ignorant jerk like this.
My response seemed to displease this troll, who must have felt that if he wasn’t going to rattle me just by trying to disparage my weight he’d have to try harder, as he responded with:
– an insinuation now that I was not only fat (oh, the horror!) but also *gasp* a LESBIAN (which is, somehow, a bad thing?) Apparently fat women with short hair who wear glasses are all gay, according to this fellow. Again, I thanked him and told him I’d pass along the news to my husband – the husband who he of course assumed I was lying about.
I posted a screenshot of the first exchange on my private Facebook page, simply because I was surprised by the randomness of it. I wasn’t taking his attack personally, but it’s still kind of shocking to be the unwilling recipient of this kind of hatred, especially when it’s unprovoked. So many of my friends rallied around me, making sure I was okay, and offering up support and solidarity. A few even jumped onto Twitter to confront this guy themselves. One friend asked him directly why he was attacking me, and he said that he was “bored at work”, figured he’d “make someone else feel shitty”, and that he was “just trolling on fatties”. My friend told him that he was speaking to a lady and should address me as such, which went about as well as you’d expect.
He said he singled me out because I looked “weak emotionally”. I’m not sure how he made that assessment based on a single profile picture, and moreover how (out of the literally millions of people on Twitter who in his mind might fit that description) I was the person he zeroed in on, but he apparently felt that my emotional state was in such a shambles that he could break me somehow. He tweeted again, saying I “kinda look like a dude” My final response to him was to say that he was entitled to his opinion, but that I didn’t see why any of that meant he felt he had the right to harass someone. He shot back with two final attempts to break me (to which I didn’t respond).
I then blocked and reported him to Twitter.
You’d think that being the victim of unprovoked fat-shaming, homophobia, and harassment doled out simply because I look “weak emotionally” and was therefore an easy target would be what upset me. But I’m thick-skinned, and long ago stopped worrying about the ignorant opinions of people who aren’t important. What upset me, though – really, truly, deeply upset me – was the response I received from Twitter.
Very shortly after I reported this person’s tweets, he began to delete the worst ones (and at the time of this posting, all of them have been deleted). So all I had left to send in with my report to Twitter were screenshots. There were 15 in total, gathered amongst myself and others who reported him, but I could no longer link to the harassing tweets themselves. But I detailed in my report exactly what happened, and attached the screenshots, hoping that they would be sufficient to prove my case. It wasn’t so much about what he had said to me, as much as the vitriol with which he said it. Some time later, I received a standard e-mail from Twitter saying that while they take harassment very seriously, they could find no evidence that he’d violated any of their terms of service. This, despite the fact that Twitter’s Rules regarding abusive behavior state: “Users may not engage in targeted abuse or harassment. Some of the factors that we take into account when determining what conduct is considered to be targeted abuse or harassment are…if the reported behavior is one-sided or includes threats”. These Rules also state “Users also may not make threats or promote violence against a person or group on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, age, or disability.” The only advice this pre-fab email offered me was to block or mute this person.
Looking at Twitter’s own rules, and three points in particular (Targeted harassment, one-sidedness, and promoting violence), I’m confused as to why my report, as well as reports submitted by my husband, were met with a refusal to act. (Note – I have contacted Twitter @Support for clarification on their definition of “targeted harassment, and have yet to receive a response, despite 24 hours and dozens of retweets.) This person’s harassment of me was one-sided. While I did respond to him, my responses were never in kind. I answered politely, with light-hearted humor, and even an admission that he had a right to his opinion. I never insulted him. I stood my ground without stooping to his level, so it was about as one-sided as it could have been. As for his behavior being targeted, he admitted – twice – that he singled me out. When you single a person out, you are targeting them. There was no person to whom he directed any harassment that day, apart from myself and those who stepped in to defend me. It was laser-focused, pin-point accurate, targeted harassment.
The final point may be the sticking point from Twitter’s point of view, but it’s the one that I would argue they’re missing the bigger picture on, and that’s the idea of violence. This troll did not make an overt threat or ask anyone to physically harm me. However, the mentality behind what he did – targeting someone who he perceived as “weak emotionally” with an aim to “make them feel shitty” – is an inherently violent one. This is the mentality behind trolls across the internet, and the impact of their behavior is, far too often, devastating. Any social media outlet that advises users simply to “block and ignore” (standard policy these days) doesn’t understand how single-minded and pervasive trolls can be, especially when they begin working together to attack someone. If this simple blocking tactic worked, then it’s possible that 19 year old Adam Smith, 14 year old Ryan Halligan, 13 year old Megan Meier, 16 year old Amanda Todd, and 47 year old Charlotte Dawson would still be alive. These people, and many others, are the fallout from social media sites like Twitter either not having strong anti-harassment policies, or not taking reports of harassment seriously enough. Bullying, whether in person or online, is an inherently violent behavior. And bullying that seeks to tear a person down because of a perceived “weakness” or “inferiority” is especially so. Twitter needs to understand that, and take action to address it.
I am not looking for Twitter to protect me specifically. As I’ve said before, I am a strong person and I have an incredible support network that has my back no matter what. This individual targeted me in an attempt to break someone he perceived as “weak emotionally”. His assessment of me was wrong, and he missed his mark – this time. What happens next time he’s “bored at work”, though, and wants to make someone else “feel shitty”? What happens if his next target isn’t as resilient or is emotionally fragile or otherwise unstable? What if he hits his mark then, and Twitter had an opportunity to prevent someone else from becoming another statistic? What I am looking for is for Twitter to enforce its rules, and to take harassment seriously when it’s reported. By doing so, they can help prevent one more person from feeling like the only recourse they have to escape harassment is to harm themselves, or to end their own life. And until Twitter takes this issue seriously, they will continue to be part of the problem. #ShameOnTwitter.