Robin Williams’s daughter Zelda driven off Twitter by vicious trolls

In yet another demonstration of the Internet’s bottomless lows — and of Twitter’s still-uncontrolled abuse problems — Robin Williams’s daughter signed off Twitter for “a good long time” Tuesday night after receiving menacing messages from two trolls on the service.

The trolls’ accounts, @PimpStory and @MrGoosebuster, have since been suspended by Twitter, but not before tweeting Photoshopped images of Williams that appeared to show him with bruises around his neck, as if he were in a morgue. @PimpStory also tweeted “look at what he … did to himself because of you” and called Zelda a “heartless b****.” That message was retweeted 21 times.


A redacted screenshot of the tweet, from Topsy. (Topsy)

“Please report @PimpStory @MrGoosebuster. I’m shaking. I can’t. Please,” Zelda Williams wrote in a message she later deleted. “Twitter requires a link and I won’t open it. Don’t either. Please.”

The messages represented a tiny minority of the tweets she received last night; per Topsy, an analytics service, thousands of well-wishers have tweeted their condolences to Williams’s daughter in the time since news of his death broke, and several dozen reported her abusers to Twitter.

But regardless of the support she received from followers, and the accounts’ eventual suspension, the incident demonstrates a painful, common criticism of Twitter and of the web, more generally: Women in the online eye, no matter how blameless, are constant targets for harassment and misogynistic abuse. According to one study from the University of Maryland, reported in Pacific Standard, the average female chatroom-user receives 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day; the average man receives fewer than four.

In fact — perhaps unsurprisingly — this wasn’t Zelda Williams’s first brush with Internet haters. The 25-year-old, who is an actress in her own right, maintains popular accounts on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr, where she has a combined 280,000 followers. In June, she posted an infuriated note to Tumblr titled “Dear Trolls,” which went on to defend against commenters who called her “a man in drag” and other slurs. As she notes:

Freedom of Speech is your right, but what you’ve misunderstood on your punch drunk mission to make being an insufferable [expletive] excusable is that it does NOT protect you from someone telling you you’re a racist, bigoted, bored [expletive] giddily looking for digital excitement beyond furiously masturbating and crying.

Both Twitter and Tumblr have responded to these problems; after a series of high-profile harassment cases last August, Twitter even added an in-tweet “report abuse” button to help victims flag harassment more easily. But as Williams pointed out, Twitter’s report process requires victims to fill out a detailed report on each incident, individually, which can be impractical when users receive many @-replies. The report-button fix has also not stopped calls for a technical solution that could head off hate speech before it’s sent, not after, kind of like a spam filter.


(Twitter)

In either case, it still sadly seems like abuse and harassment are occupational hazards of being a woman on the Internet — regardless of how tragic, and sympathy-worthy, your circumstances.

“I will be leaving this account for a but while I heal and decide if I’ll be deleting it or not,” Zelda Williams wrote on Instagram, minutes after the Twitter incident. “In this difficult time, please try to be respectful of the accounts of myself, my family and my friends.”

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · August 12