What Happens When Trolling Backfires

March 8th 2015

Kathleen Toohill

In the latest example of truly idiotic behavior in the virtual world translating to consequences in the real world, former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling has taken two trolls to task for obscene and violent tweets about his teenage daughter.

On February 25th, Curt Schilling tweeted congratulations to his 17-year-old daughter, Gabby, who will be pitching at Salve Regina this fall. A select number of responses to this tweet were so vulgar that Schilling called out the tweeters on his own blog on March 1st. 

“These boys have yet to understand one of life’s most important lessons,” wrote Schilling. “In the real world you get held accountable for the things you say and if you are not careful that can mean some different things.” 

Schilling identified the two men whose tweets he posted on his blog: Adam Nagel, a student DJ at Brookdale Community College, and the VP of the Theta Xi fraternity at Montclair State University, later identified as Sean McDonald. 

Virtual actions, real consequences

McDonald has since been fired from his part-time job selling tickets for the New York Yankees, and Nagel was suspended, according to a post on Brookdale's Facebook page, part of which reads: "The Twitter comments posted by this student are unacceptable and clearly violate the standards of conduct that are expected of all Brookdale students. The student has been summarily suspended and will be scheduled for a conduct hearing where further disciplinary action will be taken. The Brookdale Police are actively investigating this matter. Brookdale takes this behavior very seriously and does not tolerate any form of harassment." 

Both men have reportedly deleted their social media profiles in the aftermath of Schilling’s March 1st blog post. 

“You don’t think this isn’t going to be a nice compilation that will show up every single time this idiot is Googled the rest of his life?” Schilling wrote in his post. “What happens when a potential woman he’s after Googles and reads this?”

Ours is an era in which Twitter trolls hide behind faux anonymity and seem to believe any actions rendered by mouse and keyboard come free of consequences. Yet those who persist in this belief are clearly harboring delusions: consequences for online harassment and other inappropriate comments range from jail time to job loss to public shaming. 

Remember Justine Sacco? Maybe not, but you likely remember her racially insensitive tweet and the media firestorm she generated over a year ago. Sacco, formerly the senior director of corporate communications at IAC, tweeted shortly before boarding a plane to South Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Eleven hours later, Sacco emerged from her Internet-less plane to a completely different world, one in which the entire Twitter universe had seemingly united against her. Sacco lost her job, and according to a New York Times Magazine profile published in February, struggled with the consequences of her tweet for months after the fact – a tweet, Sacco told the Times Magazine, that she thought others would recognize as a joke. 

Sacco’s ill-conceived tweet, while clearly a reminder to think before you tweet and realize that what you view as a joke may not be interpreted as such by a stranger, is a different beast than the vulgar, violent tweets of the men Schilling sought vengeance against. There were others, in addition to the two that Schilling initially identified, at least seven of whom are reportedly college athletes that Schilling seems to have contacted in advance of his March 1st blog post.

“I found it rather funny at how quickly tone changed when I heard via email from a few athletes who’d been suspended by their coaches,” wrote Schilling. “Gone was the tough guy tweeter, replaced by the 'I’m so sorry' apology used by those only sorry because they got caught.”

On March 5th, Schilling tweeted: “Why would you jeapordize (sic) your entire athletic future sexually harassing a 17 year old?” 

The epidemic of abuse on Twitter

A few writers covering Schilling’s Twitter vigilantism have gone so far as to suggest that Schilling has invited, or at least should expect, such treatment from trolls because of Schilling's outspokenness on social media. Eric Wilbur of Boston.com wrote, “If Schilling actively dispenses opinionated views to strangers and tangles with trolls on Twitter, he has to be prepared to receive this sort of ugly treatment, no matter how uncalled for the disgusting responses may be. That sucks, but it’s the reality of social media if you allow it to become such.”

What Wilbur seems to be overlooking is that many people on Twitter, both those in and out of the public eye, are harassed and threatened on a daily basis, and the majority of these victims are women. Journalist Caitlin Moran once tweeted that she receives as many as 50 violent threats an hour. These targeted women, the majority of which presumably do not have outspoken, major league athlete fathers, are nevertheless treated vilely and made to feel unsafe. By suggesting that the disgusting tweets about Gabby Schilling can be attributed to her father’s outspokenness about his beliefs is to contribute to the misconception that online harassment is not a problem that needs to be confronted. 

Twitter’s CEO recently admitted via company memo that Twitter “sucks at dealing with abuse.” Increased instances of individuals with poor judgment being held accountable for their public actions – because after all, tweets are public, and permanent, in the sense that they are still visible despite these users deleting their entire accounts – may serve as reminders to others that this behavior is not only socially unacceptable, but could very well ruin their futures. 

A recently released extension for Chrome by TweetFired serves as a very concrete reminder of this reality: “You are always one tweet away from being fired.”