(trigger warning for content)
Violent threats of physical and sexual violence and general abusive messages are a common occurrence for women online. Identifying as a feminist makes women more visible targets for abuse. As a member of Mumsnet, I have received a death threat from a member of Fathers4Justice who suggested I needed to be shot in the face for questioning a libellous ad F4J had published. Through my personal blog, My Elegant Gathering of White Snows, I have received numerous threats of rape from misogynist rights activists. A man objected to my post on Pixar and their problems with gender stereotyping by suggesting I needed to be “gang-raped by Congolese savages”. I have been called stupid, insane, unfuckable, fat, ugly, and a Nazi. In terms of online abuse, the threats I have received have been few and on the low end of the spectrum of violence. I am one of the lucky feminists, which is a ridiculous statement to make having received a death threat. It’s just that abuse is so common that the abuse that I have personally received isn’t even worth mentioning. I certainly never reported it to the police as I assumed they would ignore it. From what I understand, Caroline has had very supportive help from a female police officer who took the original threat seriously. I know a number of other feminists [including @Judeinlondon] who have reported similar abuse to twitter and the police and no action was taken. Jude, who is Black and tweets frequently about white supremacy, was told by the police to protect her account and change her picture. Her experience seems to the more common one when reporting twitter threats to the police. That happened about 4 months ago so it may be that the police have changed policy since then or that racism played a part in Jude’s experience.
Social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, have simply made it easier for women to be targets for abusive behaviour as these sites are frequently unwilling to take responsibility for the abuse posted on them. Soraya Chemaly and Laura Bates recent Facebook campaign followed their refusal to remove images of sexual violence. In the face of the campaign, Facebook has removed advertising from pages encouraging and posting images of sexual violence. The pages themselves should have been removed but targeting advertising is a good start. Removing the pages themselves is the next step.
It was almost inevitable that a similar campaign would target twitter. It started two days ago, sparked by the vitriolic abuse targeted at feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez who runs The Women’s Room UK. Criado Perez’ crime?: a successful campaign on cultural femicide forcing the Bank of England to follow the legislation in the 2010 Equality Act which requires every public body “pay due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and equality.” The campaign began after the Bank of England chose to remove the only woman on English banknotes and replace them with another white male. The banknotes campaign was small with a specific outcome, which they achieved: in 2017, Jane Austen will be the face on the new £10 note.
Criado Perez has been receiving abuse since the campaign started, frequently by men calling her stupid for not noticing that the Queen is on banknotes. The difference between being on a banknote via an accident of birth and being on a banknote because of personal achievement has been missed by a lot of the usual trolls. The abuse got worse when the Bank of England announced the decision for the new £10 note. Criado Perez reported one rape threat to the police who took the threat seriously. The response from twitter: a massive 24-hour backlash of misogynistic slurs, threats of physical violence and rape:
@FatTonyCologino : Everybody jump on the rape train … is the conductor.
@SultanofPing You wanna rape with me
@Beccas43 : RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE JEW JEW JEW RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE JEW JEW JEW
@VizFoSho If you force sex on a prostitute is it rape or shoplifting?
@VizFoSho what do 9/10 people enjoy? Gang rape.
This is only a small selection of what was tweeted at Criado Perez and some of the least offensive tweets More examples are available at the blog I will not put up with this [http://iwillnotputupwiththis.blogspot.mx/] . The trolls have since targeted Laura Bates’ organisation Everyday Sexism for similar abusive threats.
Numerous people have suggested that Criado Perez ignore the trolls and their threats of sexual violence, however this does not stop abusive behaviour from trolls. If anything, it encourages them to attack others with the knowledge that no one will stand up to stop them. Ignoring trolls only serves to silence their victims. It gives them a platform for them to continue abusing women. Whilst it is considered “conventional wisdom”, it is not helpful to ending violence against women and girls.
What did help was the feminist #shoutback and #fightback which immediately started with women standing up to the misogynistic abuse and mass reporting abusive tweets to twitter. While it remains heartening to see so many women refusing to be silenced in the face of serious threats of sexual violence, twitter’s response has been deeply disappointing. A senior member of twitter closed his account when activists tweeted him links to the rape threats. The twitter “how to report abusive behaviour” page has been closed most of this morning, whether that is due to mass reporting or their choice to take down the page remains to be seen but the point is the only way to report abuse was not functioning.
Of course, people can only report abusive behaviour if they know where to find the information. Twitter’s “how to report abusive behaviour” page is notoriously difficult to find and is quite time consuming. It is very difficult to keep up with reporting when facing an onslaught of abuse. Whilst many women did take the time to screencap and report the abuse, the process of reporting resulted in numerous hours of abuse from specific people before their accounts were suspended. Criado Perez is collating and reporting all of the abusive messages to the police, who are taking the threats seriously. Twitter, however, is unwilling to take responsibility for the abuse they are hosting.
The violent threats and misogynistic abuse that Criado Perez has been subjected to over the past few days are similar to the abuse all women experience online and in real life. What has been different is the number of women (and men) who have stood beside Criado Perez and refused to be silenced. Hopefully, this one event will be the catalyst which forces twitter to install a “report abusive behaviour button” similar to that of their spam button as well as help change all social media so that threatening violence is considered an immediate banning offence. Frankly, it already should be.
There is a petition here requesting that twitter install an “report abusive behaviour” button: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/twitter-add-a-report-abuse-button-to-tweets
Louise Pennington is a feminist writer and historian with a background in education. She blogs for the Huffington Post and her personal blog, My Elegant Gathering of White Snows [http://therealsgm.blogspot.co.uk/], is part of the Mumsnet bloggers network.