Peter Hapak for TIME
August 18, 2016 7:12 AM EDT

The summer of 2016, a season of uncivil unrest, invites some soul-searching about how we talk in private and in public, to friends and strangers alike. Who foresaw a presidential campaign whose vernacular involves slurs we once punished our children for using? Depending on whom you ask, this descent into vitriol is either a triumph over political correctness or an affront to basic decency. But if it feels shocking in our public spaces, it has long coursed through our digital ones, especially precincts where anonymity ferments cruelty.

Columnist Joel Stein set out to explore the culture of Internet hate: the trolls who’ve created it, the people most hurt by it, and what if anything can be done to stop it. He encountered trolls who defended themselves as the last truth tellers, and those who would never describe themselves as trolls but don’t hesitate to hurl abuse at people whose opinions annoy them. As part of his reporting, Joel polled the TIME staff, and the responses were chilling. Fifty-three percent said they had received a violent message as a result of their work. “I’ve had the usual online trolls call me horrible names and say I am biased and stupid and deserve to be raped,” one respondent said. “I don’t think men realize how normal that is for women on the Internet.” An overwhelming majority said they had come to view online abuse as part of their job and sometimes avoid discussing certain subjects online because of fear about the response. “It’s interesting how unfettered speech causes sensitive and vulnerable people to stop speaking,” Joel says. “It’s the equivalent of the Founding Fathers’ concern that unfettered democracy would trample the rights of minorities.”

Joel, who ended up confronting one of his Twitter critics in person, knows that he has set himself up for abuse by exploring this terrain. “I’m going to try to stay off Twitter for a while,” he says. “And I’m hoping this story doesn’t have a comments section. If it does, don’t tell me about it.”

Nancy Gibbs, EDITOR


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This appears in the August 29, 2016 issue of TIME.

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