So, Twitter was a big part of the successful campaign to keep women on banknotes, but like any medium it is neutral, and can be used to spread both love and hate. And boy, have the haters come out in droves.
Soon after her banknotes victory Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected to torrents of misogynistic abuse, mostly on Twitter, and also by email. I have seen some of that abuse retweeted, and it is really not for public consumption…we’re not just talking swearing or the “shut up and make me a sandwich” variety (although there’s plenty of that), but a whole lot of graphic, violent, and sexual written abuse and threats. Other prominent women who openly support Caroline have also suffered the same abuse, like the MP Stella Creasy. Police have so far arrested two men over this.
A lot has happened in a week, and is still happening (just Google “feminist twitter abuse” or see Caroline’s Twitter timeline @CCriadoPerez). On the downside, Twitter showed how useless it was in responding to the issue, taking abuse seriously, and having functions and procedures in place for dealing with a barrage of abuse (as opposed to their current lengthy form designed more for individual ‘stalker-type’ harassment).
On the upside, though, this has highlighted just how much we still need feminism. It’s important to note that this person (and others who dare to have an opinion and speak out about misogyny) is receiving abuse, and abuse of a disgusting and violent nature, *because* she is a woman; a woman who dared to have an opinion out loud, to display her intelligence, to challenge an established institution (over an equality issue, no less), and to actually make a change. The aim of misogynistic abuse is to silence women, and put them in their ‘place’. Well, too bad, because this is the thing: this woman is shouting back very loudly, retweeting and calling out her abusers, and encouraging others to do the same. No sighing and shutting up here.
On top of all this, there are those who may not make threats, but choose to respond in ways that range from irritating to offensive, all in the vein of “you’re just seeking attention”, “don’t feed the trolls, you’re giving them what they want”, “you should just leave twitter”. This is called victim blaming. Stop victim blaming. If you choose not to participate in online media, that’s your choice. But don’t go around ‘helpfully’ telling others that they should put up with abuse quietly or leave because of it (or that they’re enjoying the drama! Seriously?!!). There is a difference between ignoring snarky comments and dealing with a sustained attack (8 days now!) by a hoarde of abusers, where you can’t tell whose threats might be acted on, in between the piles of ‘standard’ spite.
Also, do people even realise just how much open social platforms like Twitter and Facebook are a part of communities, societies, and economies? For some people it’s more than just social; sometimes livelihoods depend on an online presence – should people have to give that up because of abusive behaviour from others? In this society, in this day and age? Twitter is not some ‘dodgy bar you should avoid’, Twitter is the world, virtualised. Someone who is attacked on the street can’t be expected to stay at home for the rest of their lives, why should they?
Misogyny is rife in the real world, and the Twitterverse reflects the real world. But at the same time, the real world can also reflect attitude shifts in the online world. There has been a lot of support in all of this, and other campaigners and journalists have come out to say they’ve suffered this sort of abuse for years too, even before the days of the internet. I’m coming at this from the point of view of a feminist issue, but it’s also a human rights issue. The right to freedom of speech comes with the responsibility to respect others while you express yourself. Abuse and threats do not fall under free speech in any way, shape, or form.
Societies and organisations function only when there are rules and when those rules are enforced. In the same way social media providers can’t just “set it up and walk away“, they need to take responsibility for their platforms and how people use them. And if Twitter needs any help thinking through how they might do this, there’s no shortage of suggestions, like this really insightful piece.
In the mean time, if you agree that Twitter needs to do more to protect its users, then sign the petition here. A “report abuse” button isn’t going to make misogyny and abuse go away, but a simple reporting method monitored by human intelligence can certainly help users deal with this sort of targeted abuse, and in doing so actually show the abusers, and society as a whole, that this is absolutely unacceptable.