Don’t Feed The Trolls

Feb 20, 2019 - 1:25 PM

A few days ago I was scrolling through Facebook when an infuriating post stopped me. Dressage Hub was at it again, tearing down a professional dressage rider in the worst “mean girls” kind of way. (Disclaimer: I don’t follow Dressage Hub, but a friend of mine had posted screenshots of the nastiness.)

I’ll spare you the pain of having to go look it up. Long story short, she blasted a Grand Prix CDI winner for her ride and said the judges clearly only pinned her first because she was pregnant. Another “classy” post mocked this same rider’s impending birth announcement.

This kind of vitriol has been ongoing for years. Many Dressage Hub Facebook posts show exercises or rides, motivational sayings and dressage memes. Some of them are riding critiques. But every now and then the owner of the website, Susan Wachowich, shoves the knife in and really goes to town on someone in a mean-spirited and hurtful way.

She has more than 43,000 likes on her Facebook page, almost 18,500 YouTube subscribers with over 4 million views of her videos, and a Patreon site where she is asking for money in order to create more content.

Before you shout, “bullying” and “SafeSport” and “harassment,” know that most, if not all, of what this individual is doing doesn’t quite fit those categories. Is it mean? Absolutely. But she’s not in a position of power over those she’s attacking, nor is she a teammate. She’s exercising her right to free speech to call it as she sees it.

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You have the right to critique what you see online, but what purpose does it serve to do it in an unkind and hurtful way? Kat Netzler Photo

As a journalist, I care a lot about free speech. I understand that just because I think someone is saying something unkind, untrue and unnecessary doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to say it. While we at the Chronicle hardly ever post on our popular online forums, we do find ourselves in the position of defending people’s rights to free speech there on a regular basis. Like Facebook, we provide a public platform for conversation. And while we do moderate our forums, if someone wants to criticize a public performance, they’re allowed to do that. We just aim to keep the conversation legal and horse-related.

So I hesitated to even address the DressageHub situation. After all, the first advice we give people upset about something on the forums is not to engage with their attacker. That just tends to provoke more nasty responses.

But then how do you hold her accountable for the things she says? Especially when, unlike the COTH forums, Wachowich can delete comments that disagree with her point of view, and those she’s attacking can’t defend themselves. (Although it’s worth noting that she is at least putting her name behind her words unlike the thousands of anonymous keyboard jockeys around the world.) While she may not have the power to put someone on a team, her actions certainly take an emotional toll on the people she targets, and quite likely a professional one as well, as your reputation is everything in the horse business.

This isn’t a problem unique to the horse world. Internet trolls are a fact of life in 2019, and I’ve read about far more vindictive campaigns to ruin someone’s life or business than decrying their ability to ride a horse. Even when people call out someone who is doing something blatantly wrong, the resulting pile-on can have equally negative consequences. After a video went viral showing Bernhard Maier hitting his horse repeatedly during a show jumping round, the Austrian show jumper was suspended for five years by his federation. He received an avalanche of negative comments via social media, including death threats, and he took his life in November of 2018.

Robert Dover commented on one of the Facebook conversations about DressageHub, disassociating himself with the site and wondering if there was a way to demand the videos featuring him be removed. So I asked the six-time Olympian and former chef d’equipe and technical advisor to the U.S. dressage team what he thought of the situation.

He told me about a junior who had participated in the USEF Robert Dover Horsemastership week. “The kid was on a borrowed horse she had never ridden—ridden it one day—she came into the clinic, and it was edgy, and she touched it to get into the canter, and it kicked out against the spur one time, and that was caught on video, and then she was trashed by that same person [Susan Wachowich] who went out online. And that’s a little kid.”

Dover also pointed to other individuals around the world who make a practice of attacking riders. He said he’d physically put his staff in front of someone videoing the warm-up in Aachen, Germany.

“The horse would be behind the bridle for a second. The horse would have an open mouth for a second. The horse would have an issue for a second. They don’t realize that, in any given second, they’re animals,” he said. “They can have a moment where they may be tense. But that doesn’t mean that there is a lack of true love for the horse and that the rider’s intention is not to be as good as they possibly can when they get up in the morning.”

Robert Dover has witnessed many vicious online attacks on riders, from juniors in his clinics to team riders in the ring. Kimberly Loushin Photo

Dover contended that most riders, judges and people in general are doing the best they can with what they know. “That doesn’t mean that there isn’t one bad apple once in a while,” he said. “[But] I think that for somebody who just wants to go around and find the flaws and the worst in people when these people are really good and kind and love their animals—that is a sad state of affairs.”

So what can we do, and how should we respond, if at all? The real power Wachowich and others like her have is the power of viewership. Attention, be it negative or positive, increases web traffic. As the internet saying goes: Don’t feed the trolls.

“Let’s take away their power by saying out loud to everyone that these people who are like that—who are so negative and unkind, lacking in generosity—do not need to have a platform,” said Dover. “It does not mean that they don’t have the right to continue doing what they’re doing. But we have the right to not look at it. And not give it any power.”

The horse world is a small community, and the combined reach of dressage enthusiasts everywhere should be greater than one angry lady posting unkind things on Facebook.

She’s already been banned from the Adequan Global Dressage  Festival showgrounds in Wellington, Florida, for her antics. If she is posting a video from a clinic where no video was allowed, then, by all means, alert the proper authorities.

But mostly the thing we can do is not give her an audience. (And yes, I realize the irony of calling attention to her posts in order to tell everyone not to give them the power of attention, but I also believe it’s important to speak up when you see something that seems really wrong.)

“If it were only [educational videos] it would not be a terrible place to go to,” said Dover. “But, obviously, it is so much more than that. And that’s where the rubber meets the road. When somebody starts something like [an educational website], that’s not enough to make a living off of, but something scandalous makes more money, and she thinks that it’s helpful to her site—that she brings more people to it by creating this kind of conflict.”

I can’t fix the internet or make people be nice to each other. But I can use my position as a member of the press to say, “We here in the horse world can do better than this.”

Unkindness will always find an audience. But don’t give her an audience. Don’t follow her; ask your friends not to follow her, and don’t click on her links. If no one engages, the content—and vitriol—loses its power.

Categories: Columns, Dressage
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