It’s easy to be a hater online, where people can say anything they like behind a real or fake profile. Jess Jones explores the stories behind some of the more notorious anti-LGBTI trolls on social media.
The ‘vote Yes’ text message that went out to random mobile numbers during the marriage equality postal survey annoyed a few people, but one woman claimed it was such an invasion that it changed her vote.
“I was voting Yes until today but your unsolicited text message telling me what to do made me change my mind,” Marta Hemming wrote on the ‘Yes to Marriage Equality’ Facebook page in September.
“Sending me an unsolicited, politicised message to my private phone, in my private time whilst I am caring for my dying mother, telling me what to do and how to vote is not okay.
“I found your unsolicited text message offensive, an invasion of my privacy, and in a way I felt bullied by you for telling me how to vote.
“I’m sorry to say that on this occasion you have lost my support.”
The message went viral, after being shared tens of thousands of times, and was picked up by the mainstream media as proof that the text message campaign had alienated would-be Yes voters.
A week after the comment was made, Marta Hemming had vanished. Her Facebook page is gone, and nobody by that name is active on other social media platforms either.
She doesn’t even appear on the electoral roll—it seems she never existed.
Who would set up a fake account just to claim they had been dissuaded from voting Yes in the marriage survey? Well, probably someone who intended from the beginning to vote No, for one.
Xena* from Trans Health Australia, a Facebook group which is frequently targeted by trolls, says ‘Marta’ was certainly a fake identity and in all likelihood not even a woman.
“The person making the claims was not even a genuine person,” says Xena.
“Typically those kinds of trolls are male. There’s a lot of evidence that it’s more often men.”
In October, a Facebook post by an ostensibly conservative gay man named Jim Stone was shared widely.
In it, Stone explained what he had been doing as a primary school substitute teacher to “undo the ‘gender fluidity’ nonsense the kids are being fed” by the Safe Schools program.
He described telling his class that a man cannot change into a woman, just as a puppy cannot change into a kitten.
“’Are you sure?’ I ask,” Stone’s post read.
“At this point I dash outside and come back wearing a blonde wig.
“’Am I a woman now?’
“I dash out again and come back in a dress.
“’How about now?’ I ask while applying red lipstick and inserting two oranges.”
The kids, Stone assured readers, were both edified and amused by his antics. He wrote that he had passed on the technique to other teachers in Victoria.
Anti-LGBTI types ate up the story and passed it around, delighted to hear about someone having the courage to teach their kids ‘traditional’ ideas about gender.
But a few things didn’t add up.
Stone’s Facebook account had been around for only a couple of months, and seemed to be used solely for attacking marriage equality and Safe Schools.
He said in the post that he was a teacher in Victoria, but his profile said he was a retired academic in Canberra. One could travel and arguably be both a retired academic and a relief teacher, but a quick check with the teacher registration boards showed nobody by his name registered to teach in either location.
We reached out to Stone to see if he would be willing to talk more about his story, but received no response.
Another few weeks, and Jim Stone had vanished, just like Marta Hemming. A ghost.
The two are far from isolated incidents. Fake Facebook accounts may take a little investigation to identify, but are numerous.
Twitter ‘egg’ accounts are easier to spot, usually with no avatar, and a single click revealing they’ve been only recently set up.
They are notorious as fake troll accounts, often searching for tweets on a particular topic to pick the same fight with numerous people.
Sally Rugg from GetUp was one of the most prominent Yes campaigners during the marriage equality survey. She says she received countless vile messages from people on social media.
“It was really nasty stuff—death threats, ‘burn in hell’,” Rugg says.
She believes that women were more often targeted with abuse than the men who were publicly involved in the campaign, suggesting the trolls might be motivated by misogyny as much as anti-LGBTI sentiment.
Rugg does note that for every abusive message, she was sent several positive messages from supporters, which helped her ignore the trolls.
“The anonymous trolling accounts say inflammatory things to stir up the arguments,” says Xena from Trans Health Australia.
“It’s really concerning when someone goes to such lengths to troll the LGBTI community.”
She compares the online trolling to the real-life antagonism some marriage equality opponents engaged in during the debate, such as the Straight Lives Matter rally held in Sydney (the rally, being a physical event where supporters could not hide behind their keyboards, drew only a handful of people).
“They’re trying to provoke a reaction, and there’s a lot to be said about how underhanded some people are being, using an anonymous account and so forth,” she says.
“The ‘teacher’, that’s a really serious thing because what they’re doing is promoting vilification. What if he stirs up real teachers to do something like that in school?”
Xena says it’s an indictment of the anti-LGBTI crowd that they have to hide behind fake accounts and fabricated stories.
“They can’t win by playing fair, everything is all underhanded,” she says.
Xena fears that online trolling and lies about the LGBTI community are emboldening bigots to be more open in their homophobia and transphobia. She has suffered violence herself at the hands of a neighbour.
“The most violent of haters feel vindicated in doing this to us at the moment,” she says.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Dealing with numerous “very disgusting comments” posted regularly to Trans Health Australia, usually by fake accounts, keeps the group’s administrators busy.
“There’s a lot of people spreading hate,” says Xena.
“We’ve had death threats, threats of violence.”
While it may be appealing to think the trolls behind the fake accounts must be just kids being obnoxious, Xena believes most of them are likely to be older people.
“They’re adults,” she says.
“Young people tend to be more accepting of gender diversity, so I’d say these are older men, maybe in their fifties or so.”
Xena says Trans Health Australia has many cis women supporters but far fewer cis men, bolstering her belief that most of the anonymous trolls are men.
“I firmly believe it is [men’s] fear of trans attraction that leads to trolling of the trans community especially,” she says.
While we’ve all become a little more savvy lately to ‘fake news’, it can be tempting to take people’s personal stories online at face value.
The prevalence of fake accounts and trolls means we need to read social media with a more critical eye.
During the marriage equality survey period, activists warned us not to take the bait of the No campaign’s inflammatory tactics. That must go equally for fake stories and fake accounts on social media—we can do better than arguing with ghosts.
*Not her real name.