May 8, 2018 at 2:36 pm PDT | by Sara Elizabeth Grossman
The Troll Next Door

Sarah Elizabeth Grossman (Photo Grossman’s Facebook)

“Just shrug it off. They’re just trolls.”

Actually, they aren’t. The folks who are harassing us online, peddling fake news stories from sources they don’t bother checking, or encouraging our adversaries for the hell of it are no longer the South Park caricature-versions of trolls. They are no longer just the degenerates taking breaks from playing video games in their parents’ basement to hop on Reddit and make fun of people. They are our neighbors, relatives, and old high school classmates.

They aren’t just “the uneducated.”
They are eye surgeons.
They are attorneys.
They are educators.
They walk among us.

Where do we draw the line with this? Is it cute or funny when a family member posts photos of guns followed by that heinous yellow snake flag followed by an article about how the Republicans were the ones who stopped slavery, so how could they be racist now? Is it cute or funny when an old high school classmate posts article after article from Breitbart? Do we have an obligation to push back? Because sometimes that doesn’t end so well.

Sometimes it results in someone threatening our lives. Sometimes it results in a completely random person telling Brandon Wolf, a Pulse survivor-turned-activist and one of my close friends, that he should have died in the bathroom at Pulse that night. Should Brandon have to relive that trauma and hell every time someone following the misinformed trail of crumbs left by Fox News gets triggered?

Of course not. But how do we stop it? Do we retweet these threats and tag Melania? Isn’t she supposed to be on our side and be fighting against cyber bullying? At times, I feel as though her even saying she is anti-cyber bullying is a joke on us. “We can and should teach children the importance of social and self-awareness, positive relationship skills, and responsible decision-making,” she said when announcing her official First Lady campaign called Be Best.

Yeah, okay, Melania. Bring that “Be Best” rhetoric home first.

In 2013, when I was working for Colorado State Senator (then Representative) Rhonda Fields, I was on the front line of her social media because we were in a re-election season. This also happened to be the year that she introduced common sense gun legislation in Colorado in response to mass shootings after the Aurora theater shooting caught national attention. Try being a black female state representative fighting for a law to make magazines over 15 bullets illegal. The messages I received on her behalf were disgusting.

Fields’ constituents seemed fine with it. But there were folks all over the rest of the country who seemed so threatened by her proposed laws that they sent in death threats, racist epithets, and there was even one person who threatened to sue the state of Colorado if he were stuck in the woods with a mountain lion and only 12 rounds to protect himself.

I desperately wanted to remind that particular man of Darwinism, but instead relegated to ignoring and deleting his message.

But this kind of thing happens daily.

I was reminded of it last weekend, after Brandon was on AM Joy to discuss the aftermath of Joy Reid’s old, homophobic statements resurfacing. He used his platform to change the subject and discuss something that is current and matters a little bit more than 12 year old blog posts: the current administration and their homophobic past, present, and future. It is no secret that Vice President Pence has been a longtime supporter of conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ people.

The Daily Caller didn’t like this pivot.

Neither did Tucker Carlson.

Two callouts later, and the rabid right was attacking Brandon on everything from soup to nuts. I stepped in, and they began attacking me. Then they began attacking the organization we helped launch to honor our friend lost at Pulse–The Dru Project–threatening its 501c3 status and saying Brandon violated it by speaking out about Pence.

The biggest problem to come out of that, in my opinion? A person with 80k Twitter followers and tons of influence lied about violating IRS rules and suddenly, a dozen more people were after us, telling us the IRS was going to defund our nonprofit. (Spoiler alert: The IRS does not fund nonprofits to begin with.) This is how false information is spread hourly on the Internet.

Another spoiler alert: There are not enough people on the Internet to combat these kinds of lies that are infiltrating society. People don’t fact-check, and this is the biggest problem we are facing. Eventually this is going to have to fall back on the platforms. Again: Where is the line drawn when it comes to the difference between hate speech, free speech, and lies being peddled as facts?

With social media platforms being the ultimate connection in social globalism, we have to take care of this before entire populations of people are being misinformed or just plain mean.

We can’t just shrug it off anymore.

Sara Elizabeth Grossman is the communications director for the Matthew Shepard Foundation and The Dru Project. She is also a Survivor Fellow for Everytown for Gun Safety and speaks out about common sense gun legislation, hate crime reporting, and LGBTQ+ youth.

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