‘This American Life’ Episode Humanizes Internet Trolling as Only Radio Can

Just about every writer whose work is posted on the Internet has to deal with the bane of the comments section, but for Lindy West, a former Jezebel staffer who currently writes for publications like GQ and The Guardian, the comments section has become a war zone. She’s candid and funny, unafraid to criticize rape jokes or explain how airlines discriminate against fat people, and her fearlessness has made her one of the most notable voices on the Internet.

According to this week’s episode of This American Life, “If You Don’t Have Something Nice to Say, Say It in ALL CAPS” — along with plenty of other writing West has done — it has also made her a magnet for trolls. As she puts it in this must-listen-to episode, “I said I think a lot of male comedians are careless about rape,” and then we hear her read just what some of the comments said:

“I love how the bitch complaining about rape is the exact kind of bitch that would never be raped.” “Holes like this make me want to commit rape out of anger.” “I just want to rape her with a traffic cone.” “No one would want to rape that fat disgusting mess.” “Kill yourself.” “I want to put an apple into that mouth of yours and take a huge stick and slide it through your body and roast you.” “That big bitch is bitter that no one wants to rape her.”

We read, discuss, and even engage with cruel comments like this online, with terrifying frequency. Words this violent should matter. But the way that comments — and the Internet — have developed, the Pandora’s box is open. People can threaten and insult whoever they want, with few to no consequences (as Amanda Hess’ important, National Magazine Award-nominated Pacific Standard cover story “Why Women Aren’t Welcome On the Internet” details). The word “rape,” in particular is thrown around so casually online that it’s in danger of losing its real-life seriousness. Women like West, who work online are required to “just deal” with the comments as part of their job, whether it’s by trying to ignore them and “not feed the trolls” or by wading into morass, which takes a psychic toll.

West’s story takes an wild turn when she confronts one troll who went so far as to take on the persona of West’s late father, using facts gleaned from the Internet. West’s father passed away in 2011, and the pain and loss of that is still present in her voice as she tells her story. How the troll reacts to West is a surprise you’ll have to listen to the piece to find out — let’s just say it’s a case where the humanity of the radio medium makes what begins as frustrating but necessary story into something extraordinary.

The Internet rarely helps us see humanity in all its complexity and vulnerability. It flattens us out, makes us two-dimensional, plays on our sentimentality (and, if it’s Upworthy, reduces that performance to one note). It can be a cruel, vicious place as well. Hearing West’s story — hearing her human voice bend and crack, hearing it weighted with all the bullshit she’s had to absorb — might just be what it takes to change a troll, or at least inspire some self-reflection. There are people behind the stories we read online, real people. What West’s This American Life story makes clear, in the most literal sense, is that we all could stand to hear them as such.