I knew Campus Reform was going to write about my Baptist News piece on white Christians and climate change. Campus Reform is a conservative news site that uses students as reporters to target progressive professors, and a young writer had gotten in touch with me with a few questions I answered for him. Then I didn’t think too much more about it.
The first two emails arrived on a Friday. More came on Saturday and Sunday along with voicemails on my office phone. Many messages were from people who identified as Christian and yet felt calling me names and questioning my faith was an appropriate response to disliking my arguments.
So Sunday night I wrote another piece for BNG about mean Christians.
Monday Breitbart picked up the Campus Reform report, and then the emails took a decidedly more vile turn, calling me every misogynistic, homophobic name in the book. Campus Reform and Breitbart readers emailed my university president, my dean and even the senators in the Oregon legislature.
Through Wednesday, the emails poured in; it seemed like a blitz attack by a pack of rabid dogs. It felt like an assault. Then by Wednesday afternoon, the emails slowed to a trickle. The trolls had moved on to the next outrage and targeted the next person with whom they disagreed.
I’m not sure what they hoped to accomplish. Did they want to hurt my feelings by calling me names and telling me I’m ugly? I thought about comedian Hannah Gadsby’s response to trolls: “I’m not ugly. I’m objectively OK.” I’m an almost-60-year-old lesbian feminist who lived through the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Seriously, name-calling by trolls who can’t even spell their insults correctly (I mean, “dike,” really?) does not hurt my feelings.
Did they hope to silence me? That’s certainly not going to happen at this stage in my career.
Did they think they would harm me? Well, that backfired. I had several of the most affirming days of my career as friends and strangers got in touch to offer me words of support and love. A 75-year-old grandmother from Georgia emailed to express her sorrow for my treatment at the hands of fellow believers. Her grandson is an OSU student, and she sent him my article with a note for him to come by and introduce himself to me when campus opens back up.
“Name-calling by trolls who can’t even spell their insults correctly does not hurt my feelings.”
In many ways, I was fortunate. I wasn’t threatened. I didn’t have to go into hiding as many women do when they are trolled. I felt loved and supported. Still, being targeted and trolled by the Right was difficult, and it could have all been much worse had I not had the support I did. So as I’ve reflected on what happened, I’ve learned a few things that may be helpful if you have a loved one, professor or pastor who is trolled.
First, the kindness of friends and strangers matters. When friends heard the trolls had come after me, they stepped in. Friends in Corvallis dropped everything to come over and sit (socially distanced) in the backyard to listen and give advice. Friends on Facebook wrote amazing affirmations. One high school friend I had not talked to in years found my email and sent a kind note.
The person who emailed the entire Oregon State Senate did not realize that one of my former students is a senator. She replied all and wrote the most beautiful, powerful defense of me you can imagine. Friends from different political persuasions got in touch to condemn the trolling and offer kind words.
And it all mattered. In the midst of a grievous verbal assault, their kindness overwhelmed and minimized any power vile words might have had.
I thought of the story of Joseph when his brothers discovered he’d become Pharaoh’s right-hand man after they had thrown him into a pit and sold him into slavery. Joseph told them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Now, I don’t think God intended any of this, but that’s a theological conversation for another day. I do think what the trolls intended for evil turned into good because friends and strangers responded with support, kindness, concern and love.
“When you know someone is being trolled, let them hear from you.”
When you know someone is being trolled, let them hear from you. Tell them you support them. Tell them good things about themselves. Offer whatever help you can. It makes a difference.
Second, institutional support matters. The week following my trolling, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an essay by another professor who was targeted by Campus Reform and then Fox News. The first part of her story could have been mine. The second part, however, was very different. Her institution threw her under the bus. As she explains, her administration treated her like a public relations problem to be solved not a respected colleague to be defended.
My experience with OSU was quite the opposite. My colleagues cleared the ugly comments on our WGSS Facebook page before I could even see them. My school director supported me. My dean and upper level administrators defended me. They sent words of appreciation to me for the public scholarship I do. The campus offices that deal with issues of inclusion and equity put me in touch with public safety who offered to read the emails and listen to the voicemails so I wouldn’t have to, assess the threat, send any potentially criminal contacts to the police, and block the senders.
Knowing my institution had my back made a difference. At no point did I have to worry about my job security or my standing at work.
People who are being trolled need institutional support. Supervisors, board members, colleagues, governing councils and trustees need to speak up to defend people who are being trolled. Trolls want to cost people their jobs. Workplaces need to assure workers — whether professors or pastors — that this won’t happen when they have spoken for what is true and right and just.
Third, gender matters. Some studies suggest more online hate is directed toward women than men, and that hate takes the form of misogyny and sexualized insult. While other studies suggest that men and women experience similar levels of online harassment, the finding is consistent that the kinds of harassment and hate women and men experience are different. Men are attacked for ideas and attitudes. Women are attacked for being women.
“Men are attacked for ideas and attitudes. Women are attacked for being women.”
Many of the messages I received specifically targeted gender and sexuality. For Black and brown women, trolling encompasses the intersections of gender and sexuality with race, complicating the nature of insult and harm even more.
The impact of trolling is also gendered. Women often have stronger and more fearful reactions to being trolled, and women may be more likely to refrain from expressing themselves subsequent to trolling. Even women who witness other women being trolled may be less likely to speak up because they recognize the gendered nature of trolling.
For women who are trolled, fears for personal safety are significant. I found myself asking our public safety officer if someone could escort me to my office if I needed to come on campus. I started researching doorbell cameras.
When a woman is trolled, supporters should not minimize the feelings of fear and the impact of gendered insults and online harassment. Understand that online harassment of women is gender violence and, for women who have spent a lifetime dealing with gender violence, being trolled may prove quite traumatic.
Fourth, personal safety matters. When the trolling began, I didn’t know how bad it would get. I did know what has happened to so many women online, and so I began to think about my own safety, both online and in real life.
A friend of a friend on Facebook went into my personal page and took a screenshot of my profile picture and personal information to share on his page along with his rant against me. My profile picture shows me with my partner, Catherine. I became aware of his post when Catherine came to me because she’d been notified on Facebook that someone had posted a photo that might be her. This was the worst moment of the entire experience for me because now the trolls had brought my family into the attack.
A former student who works in tech got in touch to advise me on safety issues. She talked me through increasing privacy measures online, and she gave me advice about the best home camera systems.
I realized the extent of my worry when I heard a knock at the front door and had a moment of anxiety. It was only a neighbor wanting to borrow a tool, but that moment underlined the sense of threat that comes with being trolled, even if the messages haven’t been overtly threatening. Another neighbor who heard about what was happening offered to keep a close watch on the house.
“When someone is trolled, help them feel safe.”
When someone is trolled, help them feel safe, whether it’s guiding them through deleting a Twitter account or offering to spend the night if they live alone. Trolling is a violation of a sense of personal safety, and anything that helps restore that is welcome.
Fifth, continuing to speak matters. I knew I had done my homework. My original piece was rooted in social science and climate research, and I knew I could stand by it as an accurate, evidence-based assessment of a problem.
Not surprisingly, the Right had misrepresented my argument. They reduced a nuanced exploration of how White Christians’ denial of climate science is a form of complicity with the intersecting systems of racism and global capitalism that underlie climate change to “Oregon professor says white Christians cause climate change.”
While many messages decried my embrace of climate science, the real problem was that I called out racism among white Christians. For that, these people wanted to silence me.
We cannot cede the public square to the loudest, most uninformed, angriest, vilest voices. Speaking out against white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia is imperative precisely because the Right wants to traffic in misinformation, bigotry and discrimination. In this moment of science denial, alternative facts, fake news and lies, speaking truths with reliable evidence and credible arguments is essential.
“In this moment of science denial, alternative facts, fake news and lies, speaking truths with reliable evidence and credible arguments is essential.”
When someone is trolled, support them if they continue to speak out. Out of concern, we might wonder, “Why keep speaking so publicly?” Recognize that for some writers and speakers continuing to speak is a way of taking power back from the trolls.
On the other hand, don’t judge people who decide not to speak out anymore. The emotional toll of being trolled can be too great, and the threat to safety can overwhelm. Those of us who can, however, must continue to speak, and we need support as we do.
The responses of other people matter when someone is being trolled. Personal and institutional support, affirmation and a sense of safety can help people make it through trolling with less emotional and spiritual damage.
At some point, you will likely know someone who is experiencing trolling. Some group of people won’t like your pastor’s sermon or your best friend’s tweet or your daughter’s Tik Tok video or your colleague’s BNG article. When the trolls come, you can make a huge difference to their targets by offering your vocal and visible support.
Susan M. Shaw is professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. She also is an ordained Baptist minister and holds master’s and doctoral degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide, co-authored with Grace Ji-Sun Kim.