It started with a simple idea. Could Summer Brennan stop trolls in their tracks by changing her Twitter profile pic to a photo of her brother?
Brennan, an award-winning journalist and author based in Brooklyn, is highly active on the social media platform. Since joining in 2009, she’s shared more than 30,000 tweets with nearly 28,000 followers.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s shock electoral victory, Brennan has upped her game and increasingly turned her focus toward “live-tweeting the resistance, apparently,” as she states in her Twitter bio, by drawing attention to and weighing in on Trump’s mounting conflicts of interest, surprise cabinet picks and incendiary tweets. Her 140-character dispatches are as thought-provoking as they are informative—Brennan has done two stints as a communications consultant at the United Nations (2008-10 and 2011-15), where she handled political issues ranging from decolonization, atomic radiation, space tech, disarmament, international security and the Middle East.
But not everyone welcomes her tweets. Since she started speaking out more vocally against Trump, Brennan has received intense attacks by trolls and troll botnets (a hijacked network of malware-infected, remote-controlled computers that send spam messages).
Needed a break from violent imagery & non-stop trolls so I’m using my brother’s pic temporarily. I guess it’s not as fun to abuse him as me.
— Summer Brennan (@summerbrennan) December 1, 2016
“There has been a significant increase in my Twitter traffic in general, but with that came what was for me an unprecedented troll onslaught,” Brennan told FLARE. “Much of it was just juvenile taunting, like calling me a ‘special snowflake’ or a ‘libtard,’ but there were also violent drawings of women being beaten or killed, and threats to my life, safety and privacy.” She was also told that she “belonged in an oven” and “should be euthanized,” and she was sent photos of Hitler alongside words like that.
Brennan began to notice a common thread to the insults she received: her online abuse was incredibly gendered. To see if she could avoid the attacks, Brennan decided to try a Twitter experiment: if the trolls could assume anonymous avatars, why couldn’t she play with her online persona?
“I wondered if changing my picture to that of a man would lessen the flow of abuse,” says Brennan. “So I decided to change my photo to that of my brother, and picked a photo in which he was wearing a tie—a white collar white guy. I didn’t use a random photo because I figured, well, this is what I’d probably look like if I were born a man, so, I’ll use that.”
Reminder that the random white dude in your feed is actually a redheaded lady undercover to get a troll break. Thanks.
— Summer Brennan (@summerbrennan) December 1, 2016
On December 1, Brennan uploaded her brother’s photo to her Twitter account (a bit of Twelfth Night, or What You Will) and reduced her first name to “S.C.”—but kept the same handle.
For 48 hours, the effect on her mentions was astounding.
“The stream of abuse stopped almost immediately,” says Brennan. “There was probably a 99-percent reduction in trolling.”
Brennan was open with her followers about what she doing, and didn’t change her Twitter banner (which proudly displays her latest book and identifies her as a female author). Apparently assuming a new profile photo was enough to silence the trolls.
“During my two days ‘in drag’ as it were, I only received four or five comments that could really be considered ‘trolling,’ rather than the usual hundreds,” she says. “Even these few were relatively tame. One troll said that I had ‘probably failed an IQ test,’ for example. Another called me a ‘genius’ with obvious sarcasm.”
Brennan’s conclusion: “It seemed clear to me that it was not as much fun to hurl abuse at a white male avatar, even if they knew a woman was running the account.”
She had other realizations, too. Some of her followers sheepishly admitted that they found her tweets to be more authoritative when the text appeared beside a photo of a man in a tie, she says. Others disagreed, and told her they kept scrolling past her tweets “wondering who is this random white dude.”
“Most people were very shocked to learn how different my experience was tweeting as a ‘man’ versus tweeting as myself,” says Brennan. “I learned that men have a much, much easier time on social media. It’s truly astounding. I really got the sense that the trolls target women specifically, even when the subject isn’t about gender, and that many must enjoy hurting women—or at least the feeling that they are hurting the picture of a woman that they see on their screen.”
Within less than 48 hours, Brennan reverted back to her own Twitter pic.
I’m prepared for my mentions to spike, for random strangers to explain their opinions to me, to receive violent imagery & threats to my life
— Summer Brennan (@summerbrennan) December 2, 2016
And thus, the trolls recommenced their attacks, but Brennan isn’t engaging.
“The best approach is to never respond, not ever,” she says. “There is no productive conversation that can be had with a true troll. Their only goal is to sidetrack you, upset you, and get you to disappear from the public discussion. Mute or block early and often.”
“Trolls want your response, because they want to waste your time,” she continues. “I think it’s important for people who disagree with one another to have productive discussions, but such productive discussions rarely happen online. It’s better to move it offline, or not engage at all.”