Making Peace With an Internet Overrun With Trolls

Making Peace With an Internet Overrun With Trolls

Blogger Joe Jervis is used to dealing with angry readers sending him nasty emails and flooding his comment boards, but even he was taken aback by the actions of a demented Lady Gaga fan last month. The JoeMyGod creator was warned to give Gaga’s new single a good review or else (not that the political-minded site is often in the business of doling out music critiques) and sent images of an ISIS terrorist holding the head of a man he just decapitated.

Jervis informed Gaga’s management, who alerted authorities about the deranged person.

“[The images of the dead men] were something you might see in a flash on Twitter and just go, ‘Ugh,’” Jervis says. “But it’s as gruesome as any horror movie you can imagine and more so because you know it’s real.”

For much of the 12 years of JoeMyGod’s existence, Jervis has found himself on the receiving end of online hate and threats, sometimes from the anonymously unbalanced like the Gaga fan, but also from the religiously zealous. The antigay organization Liberty Counsel repeatedly requested that onetime U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder arrest Jervis for terrorism because a JoeMyGod commenter called for homophobic churches to be burned down. Others have mailed hate messages to Jervis's home.

“I’ve gotten emails from people that made it very clear they know where I live,” he says.

Brazen xenophobia and online harassment — known as “trolling” in online parlance — is familiar to not only gay writers like Jervis. Most LGBT people on the internet know not to look at the comment sections of sites like YouTube or TMZ, which often teem with antigay, anti-trans, and racist rhetoric. Trolling is becoming such a problem throughout the internet that high-profile action is finally being taken.

National Public Radio ended public comments on its site a few weeks ago (NPR’s managing editor didn’t say trolling was the reason, instead advocating for online conversation to shift to social media, where people are more accountable). Time recently ran a cover that declared trolls were ruining the internet, sprinkling toxic hate, homophobia, and misogyny from Reddit to 4chan. Saturday Night Live’s Leslie Jones was bullied off Twitter this summer by haters who attacked her appearance, some encouraged by the gay king of trolls, Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. After the Jones incident attracted global news coverage, Twitter finally banned the serial harasser.

Fame-whore Yiannopoulos is a reminder that some LGBT people can be just as cruel on the internet as any alt-right Donald Trump voter typing away in a dark basement. Trans reality star Caitlyn Jenner is frequently a target of hate from gay and bi men on Advocate.com comments and social media. While much of the animosity stems from her vocal support for Republican politicians, including Trump, her gender, genitals, and appearance are frequently disparaged instead of her political views.

“We’re cheating ourselves if we don’t accept that there are horrible gay people in the world,” Jervis says. “There are gay transphobes, gay racists, gay misogynists.”

Jervis doesn’t regularly police his very active comment boards — which receive hundreds of thousands of comments every month — instead letting hateful posters hang themselves.

“My [tolerant] readers take care of [the trolls],” he says. “Some of them rather enjoy taking care of it.”

Jervis draws the line at physical threats, which his more rational readers will inform him of by emailing him directly. Even wishes of physical harm by natural means will get users deleted and possibly banned. Writing “I wish Tony Perkins would drop dead” or “How is Pat Robertson not dead of a heart attack yet?” will not fly, Jervis says.

Though he’s considering hiring someone to monitor the boards, the idea of ending comments on JoeMyGod is as far from Jervis’s mind as possible. Discontinuing comments “would be the end of my site,” he says. Sure, people scream at each other and occasionally lash out — the Hillary versus Bernie battle among LGBT readers continues to periodically rage — but there’s “a sense of community” on JoeMyGod’s comment boards, sort of like a virtual gay bar, that would instantly be extinguished.

Jervis says many of his readers are middle-aged or senior gay and bi men, some with HIV, who have few outlets for connection with those like them.

“They feel like they know each other,” he says. “A lot of them can make a joke that would seem obtuse to the average person, but other readers will fall to the floor because they know that guy’s history.”

On a recent post about presidential polls in Colorado, a longtime reader revealed that his father had died. The whole thread got derailed with condolences. “It went on for hours and was really a beautiful thing,” Jervis says.

As a semi-hardened New Yorker, Jervis is mostly reluctant to use the term “safe space,” but he acknowledges that’s an accurate description of his boards. “For many years, my site has been a safe space for older gay guys to talk about their fears and their successes and their loves.”

Jervis is even trying to make lemonade out of the trolling sent his way. He’s creating a line of T-shirts emblazoned with insults he’s received and asking readers to pick their favorite — “homosexual buccaneer” is currently leading.

“The other one was ‘deviant sodomite,’” he says. “I’d wear that one on the subway.” 

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