Crossing the Line: Why Feeding the Trolls Can Turn You Into Something Even Worse

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 3.17.21 PMThe Internet is abuzz with conversation today about an article published in The Guardian yesterday by young adult author Kathleen Hale entitled “‘Am I being catfished?’ An author confronts her number one online critic.”   The article, which is the story of how Hale attempted to confront in person the author of an extremely negative review of her debut novel No One Else Can Have You, is a surprisingly gripping read, and I’m not surprised that it’s spurred the amount of debate (on Twitter and elsewhere) that it has.

At its heart the debate is merely one of choosing sides: who was the greater sinner, here–Hale, or the person behind the Internet persona/catfish who identified herself as “Blythe Harris” (a faker sounding name, I’ve never heard, incidentally)?

Immediately after finishing the article, my sympathies were, for the most part, for Ms. Hale: while I don’t approve of her decision to confront the woman in the way that she did, I do understand, as a writer, the desire to do so.  Ms. “Harris” posted a review on a popular, powerful review website (Goodreads) that was both aggressively negative and, from Hale’s perspective, also inaccurate.  Stepping back from the situation though, I realized that my own biases as an author were probably getting in the way of recognizing the fundamentally immature and inappropriate nature of her response to the situation.  Looking on Twitter to find many people supporting the catfish over the author, I found my own internal compass jerking sharply from one side to another before landing, uncomfortably, in the middle.

This should be a familiar feeling for anyone who watches the MTV show Catfish, whose host and creator Nev Schulman was consulted by Ms. Hale in the process of investigating “Blythe Harris.”  The format for each episode of the reality show is approximately the same: an aggrieved party contacts the show’s producers for help in investigating whether another person, usually one with whom they’ve formed some kind of online romantic relationship, usually through Facebook, is or is not who they say they are.  Combining technical expertise with good old-fashioned investigative techniques and some social engineering, Nev and co-host Max endeavor to discover who the person on the other end of the computer really is and, if possible, draw them out of hiding.  The show’s approach is admirably equitable: although the complaining party, usually someone who has been repeatedly spurned in their attempts to connect with the catfish in real life, is for the most part Nev and Max’s “client,” the catfish him or herself is always given ample opportunity to explain their situation and, if appropriate, to apologize.  Rarely does the show take a definitive side in the debate, and the focus is usually, if possible, an attempt to unite the two parties in understanding if not love or friendship.

The viewing audience, of course, is under no such professional compunctions to understand both sides, and part of the fun of watching the show is having the inevitable “who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy here” discussion.  In many cases, perhaps unsurprisingly, the viewer comes away realizing that both parties are equally sad, pathetic people in their own right, and that choosing a winner and a loser is a futile endeavor.  When a relationship is built on lies, unrealistic expectations, and magical thinking, everybody loses.

So the fact that the Internet has begun choosing sides between Ms. Hale and her own catfish–who seems to undeniably be a catfish, if the statements Ms. Hale makes in the article are true–is to be expected.  However, there are a few points I haven’t seen addressed yet that I think need to be if any constructive discussion of the situation is to be had, points which support arguments for both sides’ points of view.

First, Hale’s initial response to Harris’ negative review on Goodreads was, according to her account in the Guardian, primarily confusion.  The original review is rates the book as one out of five stars and simply says “Fuck this.”  In the comments to the review, Blythe Harris went into greater detail about her problems with the novel:

“it’s the way the entire novel is written and handled, which is in such extremely poor taste. Rape is brushed off as it is nothing; PTSD is referred to insensitively with no drawbacks for the characters whatsoever; domestic abuse is the punchline of a joke, as is mental illness. That’s what I have a huge problem with. If you’re going to incorporate such issues in your novel, treat them with respect. The author of this novel is doing quite possibly the farthest thing from treating each and every one of these issues with respect.”

Reading this review, I was reminded of the unusual tendency of Goodreaders to review/rate a book before they’ve finished reading it (or decided not to finish, or DNF the book).  When called out on the fact that she was reviewing it so negatively, Ms. Harris admits that she was only reading it to get to a scene she had been told about by friends, and responds to the commenter’s suggestion that a productive discussion of the novel’s merits would include her at least trying to understand the author’s motivations with invective:

“I think this book is awfully written and offensive; its execution in regards to all aspects is horrible and honestly, non-existent. The characters have not, and as I’ve been told, will not learn anything from their offensive comments, and because of this I can say with utmost certainty that this is one of the worst books I’ve read this year, maybe my life.

Is that productive enough of a conversation for you?”

The problems Harris had with No One Else Can Have You appear to be primarily three: (1) that the author at one point refers to a character’s PTSD, flippantly, as a “post-war flipout,” (2) that the protagonist at one point lies about being in an abusive relationship, and (3) that the book contains a scene of (statutory) rape.  Now, post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic abuse, and rape of any kind are obviously all of them serious issues that may be very triggering for a variety of people.  I certainly take no issue with Harris disliking the book because of the character’s attitudes on these issues–that’s her right.  What does concern me, however, is her apparent motivation, one might even say desire, from the very beginning, to view the book extremely negatively.  She gave it the lowest rating possible before she had even finished reading it, and her response to the commenter above seems to indicate a level of hostility about these issues caused by something beyond just this YA novel.  Which, again, is fine; people are supposed to respond emotionally to art, and sometimes those emotional responses are negative.  Maybe Ms. Harris was a victim of one of the types of abuse or illness mentioned above; maybe she simply cares about someone who was.  Maybe they’re just trigger issues for her for a far more subtle or complicated reason.  I don’t know; I don’t know this person.

All of which brings me to my ultimate point, here: no one knows who Blythe Harris is except the person pretending to be Blythe Harris, and no one except that person has any right to know her, or to understand her reasons.  She’s entitled to say whatever the hell she wants for almost any reason (excepting, of course, that which falls into the relatively narrow exceptions to freedom of speech in the US and similarly democratic nations).

I don’t like people who catfish others.  I think they’re cowards.  I think it’s an abuse of the freedom and anonymity that the Internet gives us.  I don’t like that the person claiming to be Blythe Harris lied about who she was in such a public and confrontational way, a way seemingly intended to get attention and enjoy the freedom to act in whatever way she wanted with absolutely no real consequences to her own real life or reputation.  But under these circumstances especially, I also don’t contest her absolute right to do all of the things she did.  She hasn’t defrauded anyone, or said anything libelous; she merely hated a book.

Despite my initial sympathy for Kathleen Hale, the more time I spend considering it, the more I shake my head and sigh.  I’ll give her credit for one thing: she was honest, in the Guardian, about the fact that her obsession with the situation was just as dysfunctional (more so, I would say) as Blythe Harris’ screeds and manipulative behavior.  But at the end of the day, she’s still someone who is too immature to realize that if you put yourself out into the public sphere by publishing a book, you are inviting–not merely passively allowing, but actively inviting–criticism of all types, positive, negative, rational, and irrational.

The big difference here between this situation and the typical episode of Catfish is that the relationship between Kathleen Hale and “Blythe Harris” is a public, professional one, not a personal one.  I might have more sympathy if they were online lovers; the people on the show, they’ve allowed themselves to fall for fictional characters, for the most part, and their most intimate emotions have been manipulated.  There has been an unacceptable breach of trust in a lot of those situations–promises made and broken, confidences shared and violated.

That’s not the case here.  Hale published a book, and Harris reviewed it.  You don’t get to show up on a reviewer’s doorstep, invade her privacy that way, because she gave your novel a bad review on a public website.  As frustrating and hurtful as it must be to receive a review of the kind she did, and as pathetic as it might be that this person engages with the public with lies and manipulation, it’s far more inappropriate to intrude on someone else’s private life and space because your feelings are hurt.

We’ve got a word for people like that–they’re called stalkers.

4 thoughts on “Crossing the Line: Why Feeding the Trolls Can Turn You Into Something Even Worse

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