Attack of the internet trolls


Madison Newingham, April 7, 2017 as she leads the, “I Defy” March for Planned Parenthood. 

Gershon Harrell

Madison Newingham, a liberal political activist and junior double majoring in political science and history, wrote for The Kent Stater as a columnist, where the expression of her views led to unwanted and frightening internet trolls.

For women and people of color in the media — where trolling often occurs — making their content public makes them easier targets of trolling.

“People would call me an idiot and stupid and a lot more vulgar words,” Newingham said. “I was appalled. I had no idea people would attack my character because of my beliefs.”

Newingham’s political journey began at the age of 8 after a conversation she had with her father.

“I don’t think I would feel comfortable with you dating a black man,” she remembered him saying.

That statement left her appalled, disgusted and confused. By 12, she knew her goal was to be an attorney and fight for marginalized people.

“My parents told me that they don’t think I should go into that field because it’s a male-dominated field, and they don’t think I’ll be successful,” Newingham said. “So I was like, ‘No, that’s stupid,’ so then I decided to join mock trial and started to become more politically aware.”

Trolling began for Newingham with Facebook, where she would post her political views. She said she would cite her sources so her posts wouldn’t be just opinion-based.

“A lot of people, instead of posting their opinions, would attack my integrity instead of what I was saying, which was very weird,” Newingham said. “A lot of people would start with ‘because I was too young’ or literally because I was a woman and I didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about.”

Newingham recalls her time at the Kent Stater, where most of her trolls were younger men or “baby boomer men.”

“I wrote an article about sexual assault and, one guy literally told me he hopes I was assaulted,” Newingham said. “I was kind of like, ‘Ha! Jokes on you, I was!’”

During her time at the Kent Stater, Newingham wrote a #MeToo article, where she was telling men they had nothing to be afraid of and talked about what sexual assault is and what “clearly defined consent” looks like.

“This guy emailed and accused me of going on a witch hunt, and then I’m not sure how the KKK came into this,” Newingham said.

It was the most alarming email she ever received and caused her to go to the local authorities and then the FBI.

The email Newingham received from David Anthony, a KKK supporter, mentions the hanging of black people as part of his ‘southernly duty.’ He refers to Newingham as a male in the email.

“If you can’t stand with the race in their defense of our beautiful white woman then you have no right to call yourself a man,” Anthony wrote. “Your words about the sexual misconduct witch hunt are in the same as ku klux klansmen justifying the lynchings of black men.”

Followed by the email, Newingham hosted a forum on women’s liberation in the Kiva where she saw a man who looked out of place.

“I felt bad stereotyping,” Newingham said. “But he looked like someone who would not agree with the message, who is totally against women’s equity, I just felt really uncomfortable in that space.”

Newingham said she was advised to have campus police escort her around campus.

“I stayed off campus as much as I could,” Newingham said.

To combat trolls and situations like Newingham’s, Michelle Ferrier, a journalism professor at Ohio University, created a website called “Trollbusters.”

Internet Trolls

“I don’t use the term internet trolls because the term disguises these different types of actors — hate groups, political operatives, anonymous hackers and others that perpetrate online attacks,” Ferrier said. 

Trollbusters comes from a project called “Spot-Hate” that Ferrier started 13 years ago.

“The idea was to map the racial hate indecencies that were beginning to rise in the U.S.,” Ferrier said. 

Because she was still close to her emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress from her own experience with trolling, she shut down the project.

Ferrier was a lifestyle columnist at a newspaper who wrote about her experiences raising a family.

“They were heartfelt, intimate conversations with my readers about being a mother — a black mother in a southern Florida town,” Ferrier said. “Those stories were garnering a huge audience. That was threatening because it was bringing people together and sharing those intimate experiences.”

She said the unification was a threat to people who felt like they weren’t being heard, including white supremacists.

She came up with the idea of Trollbusters three years ago at a hack-a-thon for women publishers, and it began as an anti-gamergate tool.

“I was much aware of women being targeted in the gaming industry as a result of some of their speaking out against misogyny in the industry,” Ferrier said. “So I felt like — given some of the ways they were attacked on social media — that maybe we could solve for that and come up with a tool that would be able to help them preserve their voice online in the face of an attack.”  

Now, Trollbusters is being used as a way to protect women journalists and journalists of color in the media.

Ferrier mentioned there has been an erosion of public confidence in the press, which has led to a silencing effect among journalists.

“Their inability or unwillingness to engage in social media, cover certain kinds of stories, because of the attacks that are happening … leads to certain stories and voices not being represented well in the news media,” Ferrier said.

As a professor, Ferrier said she encourages her students to think about how they use social media and consider changing their names as they move on through the industry.

“We’ve actually seen attacks and activity against student media particularly targeting women of color and student journalists of color, as well as women journalists; attempting to derail you in your career aspiration before you even begun,” Ferrier said.

Ferrier asks people to think about how their names are being used and where they are disclosing their physical information so that they can stop the physical effects that begin online.

“These threats have an effect, so being able to collect the data on the report to Trollbusters, so that we’re able to collect the data and demonstrate to law enforcement, to legislatures and to platforms the kind of activity that we’re seeing online,” Ferrier said.

Ferrier said one of the things they try to do at Trollbusters is educate students and trainers on what they should do if this should ever occur.  

“We produce an infographic that details the types of threats that journalists experience online which is very different from the general population,” Ferrier said.

Trollbusters gives step by step instructions on how they can handle those kinds of threats.

“We’ll try and help you on how you should navigate and respond online in order to be able to protect your reputation and allow you to continue to communicate online,” Ferrier said.

Internet Trolls

“I don’t use the term Internet trolls because the term disguises these different types of actors — hate groups, political operatives, anonymous hackers and others that perpetrate online attacks,” Ferrier said. 

Trollbusters Team

  • Michelle Ferrier — Chief Executive Officer

  • James Chisholm — Chief Operating Officer

  • Liz Mays — Chief Marketing Officer

  • Yael Grauer — Director of Education

  • Luc Riesbeck — Social Media Manager

  • Rachel Rose — Graphic Designer

Trollbusters Advisory Board

  • Elisa Lee Munoz, Executive Director, International Women’s Media Foundation
  • Hannah Storm, Director, International News Safety Institute
  • Alexandra Pascalidou, Greek Swedish Columnist and Producer
  • Harlo Holmes, Director of Newsroom Digital Security, Freedom of Press Foundation
  • Sandra Ordonez, Director of Outreach & Community, Open Technology Fund
  • Geneva Overholser, Senior Fellow, Democracy Fund
  • Francine Hardaway, Co-Founder, Stealthmode Partners


Gershon Harrell is the diversity reporter. Contact him at [email protected].