Wendellen Li, a Chinese American in Singapore, attended one of the afterparty live streams for Club Quarantine on Trans Day. The Zoom links to these afterparties get distributed, and it usually features the DJ and other attendees doing what clubgoers would normally do post-party: drinking together, doing drugs to keep their bodies from reaching physical exhaustion, and chatting, though in this case, only virtually. Li had been watching the stream with around 180 others when, suddenly, the screen was flashed with gay porn. At first people didn’t realize what was happening—it was gay porn at a queer party. Until, abruptly, the video switched to child porn and they knew they were getting trolled.
The party closed and reopened a few times before the party figured out what to do. “Vibe stayed strong,” Li tells me. In the chat, people offered suggestions on how to block the trolls, until they collectively figured out the screenshare settings that had allowed the trolls to take over to begin with. Each time the party reopened, fewer rejoined, but eventually it grew back. The harassment kept returning each time under a new screen name, but by then the chat had bonded together to identify the trolls before they could spam too hard, so the party just kept going.
This is only one outtake from the spontaneous online rave cultures that have spawned as livestreams during the quarantine. While the club traditionally has served as a safe space for marginalized people before the lockdown, these same communities have had to find each other online in hopes to recuperate those same safe spaces, with chosen families—though the “safety” has not exactly meant security. Party-crashing cyberbullies, emboldened by the anonymity of a chatroom, seem to be more prevalent and pestilent than ever.
Months ago, after a YouTube livestream, DJ Fart in The Club, who is Korean, shared an Instagram post of a graphic she designed from a compilation of hateful comments she got from trolls. In the Instagram post, she writes: “This is what happens when an Asian DJ decides to go for a livestream at your local radio station just like anyone else.” She channeled her anger and frustration at the racist messages aimed at her into the Instagram collage, adding, “all I could do with these comments was just [to create a different] pile of shit.”
While her graphic was certainly a witty response to trolls, it also provided a stark reminder of the wider trend of anti-Asian violence that has been happening all around the world. According to the New York Times, “San Francisco State University found a 50 percent rise in the number of news articles related to the coronavirus and anti-Asian discrimination between Feb. 9 and March 7.” The article goes on to report that, “NextShark, a website focused on Asian-American news, said the site used to get a few tips a day. Now it is dozens.”
Some of these attacks include ones such as in New York, when an Asian woman was punched by another on the street, after shouting “You’ve got coronavirus!” Others report being spit on, or having acid thrown at their face. In Texas, a man cut and stabbed an Asian family at a Sam’s Club.
As the physical violence mounts, digital trolling has also risen. In April, Whitney Wei, the Editor-in-Chief of Electronic Beats, was hosting the Instagram live series TEB Cribs, with DJ Kikelomo, with live commenting enabled. Given the frequent trolling on Boiler Room streams, Wei was wary of interviewing at the same time as having to moderate real-time comments. Sure enough, she was made the subject of racist comments towards the end of the stream. One user’s remark, “that girl looks like she could give a good footjob,” popped up on screen. “He—I could only assume the ‘incel’ was a ‘he,’” she says, “—perfectly nailed the intersection of racism and sexism in one sentence. I was astonished, that’s quite skillful,” she jokes. At the moment the comment dropped in the video, she and Kike paused, and then decided to wrap up the interview which was hitting its 50-minute mark.
With each of these instances, the question arises of what exactly to do with these trolls. In a time when Donald Trump stokes anti-Asian racism around the world by his insistence on referring to coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” online harassment has become rampant. This should make calls to show one’s race and sexuality double down in visibility, try not to engage, try not to get triggered. Part of the troll psychology is that these people feel deeply alienated—even if this often does come from entitlement—and treating them with compassion and humane attention can walk them off the edge. Not that they are owed any empathy or compassion—minorities don’t have to be the ones who are always tasked with understanding and affect labor. But taking up a policy to at least not take offense and find humor in it can be a way of coping.
I spoke to the 19-year old influencer Fabian Grischkat, who is queer, in how he deals with homophobic trolls online. He started making YouTube videos in Germany when he was 12, so he has several years on his belt in dealing with trolls. When I ask him about what negative comments he gets, he tells me some criticize his body, such as “Go to the gym. You look like a stick.” or, plainly, trolls calling him a “faggot.” In one instance, a neo-Nazi account on Twitter doxxed him: Finding the address to his mother’s house, posting it on Twitter, and threatening to pay her a “visit.”
While getting doxxed was a scary experience, Fabian says he likes to take everything in good humor. Similarly, DJ Fart in the Club used humor to respond (instead of react, there’s a difference) to the trolls, not giving into them and maintaining an active position. To not give power to the trolls by allotting them energy and reaction. Like terrorism: don’t engage. Though you only get the energy to ignore trolls if you feel convicted in your practice, and for Fabian, it’s important that he is visible as a queer teenager for other queer teenagers who think they are alone.
When I ask him about how he sees his activism, he says that being queer and visible is enough because, having grown up in a provincial town, if he was 12 and saw someone like him on YouTube, he would at least know that he wasn’t alone. It’s the knowledge that he could be inspiring young teenagers anywhere that drives him to continue doing what he does, despite trolls.
Visibility politics is a tricky subject to navigate. How much online harassment can a brave-faced recipient tolerate before becoming a martyr to their own identity? Visibility politics also risks enabling rampant narcissism with the excuse of empowerment. But those of us who are minorities in the culture sector, we have to continually ask ourselves this: who are we empowering? Ourselves or a community? As long as we are positive about ourselves, and positive about the community we are seeking to bring up with us, that’s empowerment. There is a real strength in visibility, which is deep and sustaining, with a tenacity and energy one would hope lasts longer than the fleeting thrills of negative trolling. And, in the age where most of us live online, this is more important now than ever.