When the Online Trolls Are Men With Offline Power

It’s not just losers in basements wearing pajamas. There’s a stereotype that comes to mind when picturing an online troll: Someone sad and pathetic, living in their parents’ basement, eating cold pizza while posting cruel comments.

The sad and pathetic part may stand, but it’s a mistake to minimize those who spew online hatred as a bunch of insignificant losers.

Many men who post awful things on the internet — because let’s be clear, the vast majority of them are men — are far from being innocuous jokesters or nobodies. Instead, we are finding over and over again that they are men who already wield real power: They’re police, politicians, industry leaders, business owners, and media makers. And we’d be foolish to believe that the hate these men peddle online isn’t part of their lives and jobs offline.

Over the weekend, for example, the head writer for Fox News host Tucker Carlson resigned when it came out he had written blatantly racist and misogynist rants, used racist slurs including the N-word, and maintained a five-year-long online thread about an Asian woman he knew where he encouraged users to mock and post personal information about her.

Blake Neff, who was still posting hateful comments just a week ago, told Dartmouth Alumni magazine that whatever Carlson was reading off the teleprompter, “the first draft was written by me.” CNN found that there was an overlap between what was written on Carlson’s show and what Neff was writing on these forums.

We’d be foolish to believe that the hate these men peddle online isn’t part of their lives and jobs offline.

Neff also said, “we’re very aware that we do have that power to sway the conversation, so we try to use it responsibly.” Indeed, Carlson’s primetime show is the highest-rated show in cable news history — and on a channel that the president of the United States often turns to for his talking points.

And so say what you will about losers in basements — this particular loser’s audience was vast — and included the most powerful, dangerous person in the world.

Neff is not a one-off. In 2017, a New Hampshire politician had to resign after it came out that he created and moderated one of the most misogynist forums on Reddit. Representative Robert Fisher not only wrote that he believed women were naturally stupid and only good for sex, but that feminists made up false rape accusations and “wished they were hot enough to be rape-able.”

A few weeks ago, four police officers in California were placed on leave when they were found posting racist messages on a private Facebook group. A Louisiana cop was fired for the same thing in May, as was a campus police chief earlier this month.

The people who write horrible bigoted things online already have jobs, influence, and power. One reason they think they can get away with it is they don’t always lose their jobs when exposed. When Stephen Miller — the president’s chief architect of immigration policy — was revealed to have cited white nationalist websites in emails while he was a Senate aide, nothing happened.

And when Tucker Carlson finally addressed Neff’s resignation, he said that Neff’s comments were “wrong,” but reserved harsher words for those who exposed his writer’s off-air output: “We should also point out to the ghouls now beating their chests in triumph at the destruction of a young man, that self-righteousness also has its costs.”

“When we pretend that we are holy, we are lying. When we pose as blameless in order to hurt other people, we are committing the gravest sin of all. And we will be punished for it. There’s no question.”

That Carlson would espouse thinly veiled threats at those who outed Neff is not a surprise — Carlson’s show has long peddled in white supremacism and misogyny, in anger and bluster and grievance. It’s his bread and butter. But it should frighten us.

The backlash to so-called cancel culture wants to protect men with power — no matter what kind of horrible things they say and believe. And as a new generation of “trolls” gets jobs as cops, writers, business owners, or politicians, I predict we’ll see more and more excuses made for people who spout bigotry online. We’ll be told they were young, or that they made a mistake — that they were being “ironic.” We’ll hear over and over again that no one’s life should be ruined over a few comments.

We can’t let that kind of erasure happen. Feminists have been warning about the danger of online harassment and bigotry for over a decade — laying out how misogyny and racism on the internet impact “real life.” At the time, we were mostly dismissed as too sensitive or overreacting. Now, with powerful men being exposed as secret (and sometimes not-so-secret) racists and misogynists, we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes.

In a time when racism is literally killing people, when misogyny is on the rise, we can’t afford to underestimate the power and purpose of online hatred. Often the troll in the basement is anything but.

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