[DIGITAL] Bless and Block the Trolls #BlessandBlock

Yesterday, after being on BBC Breakfast, as expected, I received a couple of negative comments about my weight (particularly aware because of my involvement in Beyond Chocolate, and the #HAES hashtag). Despite so many positive comments any time I appear on TV, I still remember that when I was on The One Show, sat next to Mel Giedroyc, and someone tweeted that ‘Sue Perkins next to her seems to have porked out somewhat’. People need to remember this:

As I tweeted, I expected that a programme of such high profile, would attract someone who’s focus was on my weight, rather than my expertise.

As I wrote in a piece about someone who trolled the McCanns, but was then pushed into the glare of the media:

…the Malicious Communications Act 1988, which covers Twitter, notes that it is an offence to send messages to another person which are “indecent or grossly offensive”, threatening or false. If the message is intended to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient, they breach the law.

As written in a piece on Psychology Today “Why do people think it’s okay to say racist, inflammatory, or otherwise socially inappropriate things online?”. Most of the time I’d ignore trolls , but this time, I decided I’d respond to the (thankfully only) two that I received/noted on the hashtag.

The first was this, which thankfully a friend had seen and nicely responded to:

*I realise that those who are determined can find out who these people are, but I don’t want a pile on so I have blanked all accounts out for now.

As I wrote in my book (p119), my friend is refusing to be a bystander:

The role of bystanders is often ignored in discussions about online bullying, but they can play an important role in encouraging children to take action. Don’t forget the famous saying attributed to Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” When a situation is already difficult, the real-time nature of social media can feed the situation, but it can also be used to ease tension and allow friends of the victim to declare themselves as “digital allies”. If someone spots a hurtful comment, three others can then come in and protest against the posting.

I posted about this on Facebook, and said that I was tempted to post back with the image of the following badge which had just arrived in the post – and then decided to!

Fred (as this is what he called himself, though clearly not his name) wanted to know why he should care, to which I responded:

To which I received the following response:

A lot of my friends are pretty digitally literate (and listen to my rants about interacting positively, and using social media with wisdom, etc.), and a few more responses came in:

To which I said:

And another friend posted:

Some brought some beautiful responses from our troll *language warning:

In fact you’ll see that our troll is very ‘eloquent’ in his responses:

Another response from a friend gets even more eloquence:

I decided it was worth engaging a couple of times, but clearly he was a ‘proper troll’, and not to be engaged with, so I followed the example of my friend Kate, and went for the ‘Bless and Block’ approach (I’m not quite sure what the second response meant, but…).

Whilst I was at it, I reported the account, and soon after it was suspended. I was surprised that that had happened so fast, though algorithms could be looking for specific insulting words in reported users?!

As Michelle Obama famously said:

I saw this later in the day and thought it summed up how some people approach Twitter – not with reasoned debate, but looking for a snarling fight:

The other person I interacted with, however, demonstrated that it’s sometimes worth trying (he’d posted something about the fact that I should have been down the gym, rather than on Twitter…):

His excuse was:

I am not a fan of excusing anything as ‘Bantz’ because it usually covers up a whole load of unacceptable things (as this misuse of Keep Calm demonstrates):

Fortunately, I also had a load of lovely comments from friends (known and unknown), and this is a good mantra.

It does bug, but basically, it’s not someone’s opinion who I care about, but does continue to drive my passion for continuing to seek ways to make online interactions (and the whole of life) more inclusive, and a more positive space to be!


Love this 🙂

A post shared by Bex Lewis (@drbexl) on

Media & Press Media - Visual

[MEDIA] Discussing online trolling with @looknorthBBC

Find the video here, I am the second half of the interview, from last night on BBC Look North:

Taken from BBC iPlayer (only available for 24 hours)

Academic Event

[EVENT] #TrollingtheArtist with @MsMapes and @NatashaCaruana. A @RedEyeNetwork Event

I’ve just returned from an interesting, and challenging evening at RISE Manchester, at an event organised by the RedEye Photography Network. I was asked to chair the session, in which photographic artists Sarah Maple and Natasha Caruana discussed their work, and the impact of trolling – both being trolled, and being the troll, has impacted their work as they seek to provoke conversation and discussion.

I introduced the artists, largely drawn from the biographies they had given on the site – I had also visited their sites – but with a family funeral not leaving much time for research – went for the ‘respond to the material as in front of me’ approach, as I scribbled away in the talks – one side for notes, the other side for potential questions (you know me – right tool for the job, and tonight pen/paper was the right tool).

Sarah Maple: Pound Shop Exhibitionist

sarah-mapleSarah introduced us to where her interest in challenging feminist work started, with a piece of work at Art School, which caused controversy and offence, and seemed to highlight the split in expectations between men and women.

She spoke of her personal experience of being brought up as a Muslim in a Catholic school post 9/11. She mentioned how ‘old-fashioned abuse’ was received pre-Twitter for her artworks – how ‘feminism’ was not really the thing it was now, but how her work got the conversation going – you can read a lot of her ideas in a Guardian article – which she mentioned in the talk – in which she wasn’t sure whether reading the comments ‘below the line’ would help or hinder her thinking.

Sarah questioned whether there had been a platform like this before, which allows public shaming and humiliation of artists? She talks about having moved from a position in which she felt complicit with berating women to work that is outspoken and political … but which many critique as an attention-seeking, silly girl. She hackneyedhas taken that response and turned it into art, turning comments into billboards – but it didn’t work as expected as a performance because having seen her face-to-face, the ‘mob mentality’ and its associated cruelty didn’t come to the fore. Sarah was due to post another blog with the Guardian re trolling, but ironically, the Guardian decided not to run it because of the expected negative backlash … therefore changing the narrative and limiting the conversation.

Sarah moved onto talking about her work ‘Anti Rape Cloak‘, questioning victim blaming, and coping with comments such as ‘with a face like that, no one would want to’, etc. She’s currently working on looking at ‘freedom of speech’, and questioned whether it was right for moderators/sites to delete comments – where are the boundaries? She referred to the number of feminists who have given up seeking to change the conversation, because the backlash is too difficult – therefore returning to a place where the discourse is controlled.

Sarah referred to the way that Disney has shaped so much of the narrative around women, showing them as passive characters, whilst men are active (and the enduring popularity of old images), problematic GAP campaigns, and Page 3, which have all shaped our environment. In 2013 she responded to the case of Caroline Criado-Perez and the abuse that she got on Twitter, with a video ‘Freedom of Speech‘, which she showed as a final piece – in which she responded to slaps around the face with increasing emotion, and increasing difficulty in speaking. The room was left in complete silence at the end.


Natasha Curuana: Married Man, etc.


Natasha started with a notion of being both trolled, and how that gave her the confidence to use trolling in some of her work – what does it look like from both sides of the screen? She questioned the performative techniques that we use, and our perceptions of betrayal. Having grown up in the circus, life has been constructed as a performance.

In 2008/9, Natasha’s work went global with her work ‘The Married Man‘, leading to a huge amount of discussion – both positive and negative. She had been reading a magazine at an appointment, and came across an advert for rekonnect “your affairs are our business”, offering you the opportunity to “be a mistress too”. At the time she was also reading Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, reading how if things are repeated, they become pleasurable – and was becoming interested in how technology is changing relationships.

exhibitionShe started meeting with married men who were looking for affairs, going on 80 dates with 54 men, having had conversations with hundreds online, several phone-calls and then face-to-face. She took photographs on the first dates, with a disposable camera (the men knew the photos were being taken – and didn’t include their faces). She soon found, that unlike the romance, etc that is depicted in material about affairs, she was being treated as a counsellor by men who felt lonely, and that they had no place – unlike their wives (often as mothers). By the end she was meeting 3-4 men a day, trying to manage to remember names when most had used a pseudonym online and then a different one in emails, and then confessed their ‘true’ name once met face-to-face. Natasha’s performance was to mirror what they wanted. She felt she was playing with power roles, and in questioning the ethics of what she was doing, she considered that they were cheating, but then so was she in the role she was in. She was clear on her boundaries, was not targeting (nor seeking to reveal) individual men – so it was more of an anthropological approach. She always met for coffee, with the table becoming the ‘theatre of desires’ – but also a barrier. The work was exhibited in galleries, as a slideshow, and online – one photo for each of the 54 men she dated – offering a fragmented insight into the experience. Natasha described this as this being about the audience and their friends and family – provoking conversation, and removing herself from the process. We listened to an audio piece from recordings at meetings – this piece is only ever shown live and is not online – it is intentionally gritty/not clean, and gaps can be made up from the imagination. Words such as trust, fun, and disposible came through, as did the man who said there were many prostitutes in London (but he wanted something else).

The press (e.g. Telegraph) has given many opinions on her work, but Natasha never ‘explains’ what her work means, she just lets it exist. This means that when she gets online abuse, she has to let it be, and not respond. This included criticisms about the ‘quality’ of the photographs, questioned her professional authority – including her ability to teach students photography. There was a strong sense of how people see photography and ‘what it should be’ – she decided to turn this criticism into inspiration, questioning expectations of a certain aesthetic.


Natasha now collects comments as part of the artistic process – questioning whether this is an important time to make art – including what is said, and the user names shown. Deliberate choices related to ethics included allowing 3 years to lapse between collecting the photos (2008), and showing it in 2011-12.

Between 2011-13, Natasha starting collecting ‘Fairytale for Sale‘ – in which she became a troll. She questioned whether the work of a troll, and the work of an artist, to provoke comment from the world, is the same. Starting from images seen on sales sites, of women selling their wedding dresses (but blanking out their faces) – she contacted them asking for high-res photos of them in the image (posing as a bride looking for a dress), preferably in ‘the trophy moment’ (demonstrating everlasting happiness), asking for fine detail on the dress (whilst looking at the masking techniques used, and the accompanying conversations). Natasha described building up relationships ‘that would not have happened in real life’, noting that this was built up around the time of Kate/Wills wedding, when women wanted to ‘be a princess too’. Unlike in the past, however, the dress was not a treasured item – but a disposable/performance piece – once the day had been documented, it could be sold on (not always immediately). With the faces of the bride (and groom) masked, the focus of the observer could move to other objects in the photo – what narrative are they telling (why is that groom holding a suitcase – where is he going?). She created a typology and trends – noting that the sea (or green spaces) were typically the trophy location.

wedding-dressesNatasha describes what she was doing as ‘trolling’ because she was using an anonymous pseudonym, and asked all why they were selling (posing as a bride to be, who was somewhat superstitious). The trolling in this exercise was inspired by her experience of being trolled with The Married Man – maybe she didn’t need to reveal who she really was. She questioned whether trolls are ‘agents of online digestion’ who ‘weaponise exploitative material’. She collected together examples of the photographs that she had collected, along with a tag cloud of reasons for why people were selling their dresses (size, diet, space and dust seem to feature large).

Natasha is currently working with the Open Data Institute (set up by Tim Berners-Lee – who can still remember when he knew every page on the www). This includes looking at divorce data – which, ironically – seaside towns is where the highest numbers are (so why was the sea so heavily featured in wedding photos?!)



After the two presentations, I settled in for a conversation with Sarah and Natasha, drawing in questions from the audience. I introduced myself as someone who is an advocate for shaping a more positive environment online, a space that is a part of ‘real life’, so echoes commonly held beliefs, but also brings out specific behaviours. I mentioned the importance of ‘disinhibition’ in shaping behaviours that people see as ‘OK’ online, often forgetting that they are dealing with human beings, and bringing their vision of ‘normal’ to bear on the comments. In 2013 I started a piece on anonymity online, which I hope to pick up again next year, and included this quote from Caroline Criado-Perez:

If we don’t like what social media is presenting us [with], we should look at society instead, not just the tool they communicate with. (Interhactives)

Some links:

We talked about links between Natasha and Sarah’s work, the dark humour evident, questioned whether the digital allowed better responses to trolling and not just suffering more at the hands of it, whether online reflects offline power status, the difference between cyberbullying and trolling (if there is one), how far works were curated/scripted, including the problems with constructions of masculinity and femininity (and our expectations). Most of the conversation was captured on Periscope:


[BOOK REVIEW] This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (re online trolling)

30596_This-is-Why-We-Cant-Have-Nice-Things-Mapping-the-Relationship-Between-Online-Trolling-and-Mainstream-Culture-by-Whitney-PhillipsThis looks really interesting:

Why do trolls exist? How can such hostile online behaviour be understood intellectually, culturally and socially? Put another way: is the notorious Pedobear character “lulz” (hilarious) or an ambivalent tour guide through child pornography?

For her recent doctorate, communications scholar Whitney Phillips conducted an ethnography of these groups by entering the trolling subculture. Drawing on that research, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things considers whether trolling is a deviant subculture or a more universalised online practice. As is common in digital media studies, while Phillips argues for the generalisability of trolling attitudes and practices, her dataset is restricted to the US.

Her book, which will be useful for theorists of digital ethnography, considers the subcultural origins of trolling (2003-07), its golden years (2008-11) as well as a transitional period (2012-15). Phillips is concerned with “the self-identifying, subcultural troll”, drawing a distinction between these practices and simple online cyberbullying. Her challenge was to study this community but not to “replicate trolls’ racist, sexist, homophobic, and ableist output”, which prompts a wider intellectual question about how to create a space for researching social patterns that cause harm to others

Read full review, and see piece I wrote on social media trolling last year.

Media & Press Media - Text

[PUBLICATION] Restorative justice: how can it help with online trolling? for @RJCouncil


I wrote this piece for ‘Resolution‘, the magazine of the Restorative Justice Council, which has just been published. It’s a different angle on the Brenda Leyland ‘trolling’ story.