On Activism

By Anna Spargo-Ryan

CW: references to online abuse and hate.

After Donald Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, Twitter made a sweet but false announcement: they had always said they didn’t tolerate threats to someone’s life on the platform. In fact, even just wishing for someone else’s demise had always been against the rules.

The @TwitterSupport account was instantly flooded with replies. Had Twitter even been on Twitter? Messages from women, people of colour, queer people, disabled folk and many others flooded in.

For anyone who didn’t look or act like the President of the United States, the claim was laughable. Many pointed directly at POTUS as evidence of exactly the kind of content Twitter was allegedly condemning. Thousands of stories came through of being abused, threatened, stalked and doxed via social media. As almost any other person knows, it has long felt as though the only people afforded the luxury of not experiencing this are the white supremacists themselves.

Being a disabled woman in online spaces is a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing because these communities are full to the brim with welcoming, helpful, warm people, and because I have made lifelong friends this way, and because it means I can be connected to communities that help me to continue learning and listening.

Sometimes, in fact, it’s so nice that it’s possible to imagine the internet is not also packed with angry conservatives, bigots, predators and plain dull trolls.

My first experience of real internet abuse was, if you can believe it, at the hands of an online mothers’ group in the early 2000s. I don’t remember what the fight was about – I presume something to do with the inferior brand of car seat I had decided to buy – but I do remember the deep wince in my heart when one of the other women found some old photos of me. Naked photos. Pictures I had shared when I was a teenager, which one of the women in the group had inexplicably been able to find and trace back to me.

From there, she found my email address and phone number, then my home address. She looked for details of my income and shared that, too. I was twenty at the time, and my safety online was no longer assured.

I have always been open on the internet. Too open, probably. For more than two decades, I have shared my deep feelings and my shallow feelings, revealed hidden things about myself, uploaded photos of my pets and had wild public breakdowns. This is likely due to a combination of a childhood need to be the centre of attention, easy access to online platforms, and borderline personality disorder.

It’s important to me to extend this openness to my mental illness. Even while writing this essay, I have been repeatedly struck by the great hammer of anxiety and depression.

I hope that because I speak out, someone else might be able to do the same, without fear; that someone might see it’s okay to ask for help; that someone forced to disclose their illness might find a person who understands better, now.

It is essential for me to advocate for better mental health care and support because generally my risk in doing so is low – I’m white, middle-class, self-employed, have a secure home, and have people who know and love me. If there’s one thing I want to do with my own stupid time, it’s to make even a small difference to the way people can seek and receive support for their mental health concerns.

Because of the nature of mental health care, it’s become important to me to try to be a better ally in other ways, too. Inequality is at the root of many mental health issues, both in the illnesses themselves and in the ways they are supported. Unaffordable housing, expensive medical care with long wait times, obstacles to education and literacy, poverty and language barriers are all compounding factors in the complex web of mental illness recovery. While mental illness doesn’t discriminate (in that it is present in all demographics), it is more prevalent and more life-threatening in people of colour, LGBTI+ people, First Nations people, those in remote communities, people with low literacy and those living in poverty. That is, the same people who responded to Twitter’s nonsense about stopping death threats.

And so, it also became important to me to better understand and speak up about those factors. I still have a lot to learn, but I try to make up for it with volume.

Plus, I have two queer teenagers who both experience different kinds of mental health challenges. Nothing is more critical to me than being a fierce defender of their right to a happy and safe life.

Chronic illness frequently prevents me from being a physical activist on these topics. I would love to spend more time shouting at rallies, but a lot of the time, that’s not an option for me. So, I use the voice I have, which is an always-online one. I have a despairingly active Twitter account – almost 300,000 tweets. Nearly two million words of tweets. Too many tweets, in case there was any question.

That’s the back story.

The front story is that one day, a number of years ago now, I logged in to my blog to see an anonymous comment that said this:

They should take your children away.

Hm, I thought. If that isn’t about the most bloody awful thing you could say on a stranger’s blog. I spent a couple of minutes wondering who might have posted it, and a few more minutes internalising the idea that I was a horrible parent who should have her children taken away.

A couple of days later, another comment appeared.

I hope you die by rape.

More comments came through, all from the same IP address. Genuinely mean ones, threats to my family and my life, with evidence that this person knew me personally. Their complaint was that my mental illness was putting my children at risk. And, clearly, that the logical way to remove that risk was for me to die by rape.

I still don’t know who said these things, or really what exactly set them off in this way, but their words stuck with me for much longer than they should have.

A (male) friend did similar to me a few months ago – got drunk and jumped on Twitter to tell me he suspected everything I said was untrue, that I was delusional and had tricked everybody into thinking I’m something I’m not. For a person with complex mental illness, this kind of gaslighting can be clinically damaging. I began to trawl back through my tweets for evidence that I had said something to misrepresent myself without realising.

More recently, a man I had interacted with only in passing got online to remind me that I was a shit writer who never should have been published. A few days later, another stranger had a long, mean rant about my ‘delusions’. People give me armchair diagnoses (often of BPD, which I suppose is at least accurate), say awful things about my kids, tell me I’m a man-hating pig, and make allusions to the fact that they know where I live.

What I cop is comparatively mild. And Twitter – just to remind you – does nothing.

Anonymity is important on the internet for a number of reasons, not least of which is personal safety, especially for – you guessed it – the people not included in Twitter’s farcical ‘existing’-but-actually-new rule. Unfortunately, it’s also a seductive tool for people who want to hide behind aggressive, violent and harmful commentary.

Honestly, I don’t think I do an awful lot to inspire psychological violence, but that’s rarely a factor anyway. Angry anonymous dickheads gonna angry anonymous.

During COVID, when we have all spent more days inside our own thoughts and on our phones, online hate has become more frequent, more targeted and more automated. This has also been a time of horrific violence towards marginalised people, led by an open call-to-arms from a white supremacy figurehead moonlighting as POTUS. Making noise is more important than ever. Being active is more important than ever. Being a productive ally is more important than ever.

Speaking up for fairness brings out these dickheads in droves. They are the enemy of equality and boy, do they have time on their hands to let you know about it.

Copping drive-by criticism is draining. It would be ridiculous to suggest that it just washes over me. Some days, my resilience is very low indeed. The only way through, at a personal level, is to remember what I’m advocating for – good and equitable brain stuff. I don’t mean diagnosing people from my own armchair, because that’s just the other side of the same coin. I mean trying to go forward with empathy.

Holding onto the aggro of trolls and arseholes is the antithesis of good mental health care. I have to try to make my own voice louder and more compassionate than theirs. For every cruel derision hiding behind a stock image, there is a person making a difference in their community. And we are stronger together.

Anna Spargo-Ryan is the Melbourne-based author of The Gulf and The Paper House, and winner of the 2016 Horne Prize. Her work has appeared in The Big IssueIslandThe Saturday PaperMeanjinThe Guardian, and many other places. She is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Deakin University and her new book, a nonfiction work on mental illness, is forthcoming from Picador.

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