Trolls, Caroline Criado-Perez, and how to tackle the dark side of Twitter

The site should make it easier for users to report rape and death threats

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People in public life have always faced abuse. The more traditionalist approach was for the tormentor to scribble together their rantings (preferably in green ink) and pop it in the post. It’s quite a lot of effort, though: you need to buy envelopes and stamps, and then stomp off cheerfully to the nearest postbox. Then email came along, making howls of abuse cheaper and speedier – though keeping your identity hidden is a bit fiddly.

Today, thanks to social media, quickly and anonymously sending abuse has never been easier. If you have set up a Twitter account, you can tell someone to fuck off and die in seconds. And this is exactly what hordes of furious, frustrated individuals have done – scores of Twitter accounts have been created to hound, intimidate, and abuse. Once, Angry Frustrated Man would screech and yelp at their television when their hate figure appeared. Now, they can beam their frothing hatred into the lives of their targets in an instant. These are popularly known in the cyberworld as “trolls”.

It is an experience that has been driven into the news headlines by Caroline Criado-Perez, a brilliant fighter who led the successful campaign to have a woman appear on the new £10 note. Criado-Perez is part of a new wave of feminism that has taken advantage of social media’s potentially transformative ability to win support for a campaign without it first being vetted by the mainstream press; to communicate with others, foster solidarity, and raise awareness. She and others showed it is possible to fight a campaign using social media and win – other activists take note – and for that, she should be very proud.

Criado-Perez was inundated with messages of congratulation. But then something else happened: she faced a tidal wave of abuse. It went beyond normal trolling: she faced threats to kill and rape her. She has shared examples of these horrifying missives: “This Perez one just needs a good smashing up the arse and she’ll be fine” was one; “Everyone jump on the rape train > @CCriadoPerez is conductor” and so on. Her attackers thought they had found her address, and began to tweet it out.

According to government statistics, one in five women between 16 and 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence, so there is a horrifying chance that many of the women receiving these messages have been attacked. Such tweets emphasise what rape is, which is about power and attempts to force women into submission.

Twitter can quickly and easily project prejudices that linger in our society, translating them into 140 characters of malice. The campaign against Criado-Perez is one symptom of a continuing backlash among too many men at the great strides by women in the struggle for equality. Women have faced subordination and oppression for millennia, and – in the great scope of human history – it is only relatively recently (and still within living memory) that the game-changing breakthroughs against male domination have been won. Large numbers of men have been positively changed by feminism, liberating them from a stultifying, macho form of masculinity, but others still cannot bear to accept a woman as their equal.

The attacks on Criado-Perez are essentially about attempting to drive women from public life. Nothing infuriates misogynists more than a woman with an opinion, particularly those prepared to challenge publicly the status quo and prevailing views. Feminist writers such as Laurie Penny, Caitlin Moran and Helen Lewis have been targets of this campaign; so, it must be said, have right-wingers such as Louise Mensch – misogyny infects left-wingers, too. It doesn’t need saying that we must above all else hear female voices in the battle against this hate – women don’t need male “white knights” – but men must show their solidarity and support, too.

There is a broader issue about how abusive campaigns and trolling can be dealt with. Prominent Muslims, such as Mehdi Hasan, are targeted, too. I’ve faced my own trolling – not anything like the misogynistic bile faced by women who share similar convictions, but largely from those who thought my beliefs had been defeated, and are incandescent they are now being articulated by someone who, in their view, looks like he should be delivering their newspapers. I’ve had tweets suggesting that I be shot, creative ways of injuring me, those wondering why my mother didn’t abort me, and so on. A low point was EDL members sharing my picture on Twitter and Facebook, suggesting sympathisers keep their eyes peeled, when I attend a counter-demonstration.

Trolls generally regard their right to abuse as a civil right. If you block them on Twitter – meaning you will no longer receive their monosyllabic rants – they regard that as an attack on free speech. Presumably they think hanging up on a crank call, or walking away from a conversation, is also curtailing freedom of speech.

There are different ways to deal with trolls. You can just block them, whack-a-mole style; re-tweet their abuse to your followers, the vast majority of whom will be decent people who will deal with them appropriately; send a jokey response (“Oh mum, I wish you’d stop setting up these accounts; call me instead”); or maybe try to calm them down with a YouTube video of a piglet being lowered into a warm bath.

It’s also important to make a distinction between passionate disagreement and trolling. If you’re under attack from a wave of trolls, this is difficult: imagine being in a room full of people yelling at you, while others are just firmly disagreeing with you. It becomes tricky to separate the two, particularly if you are left feeling defensive. But those with power and influence must be held to account, and not insulated  from disagreement.

In the case of Criado-Perez, however, we’re seeing an attempt to terrorise and intimidate. Just expecting her to block her tormentors as they fire each menacing salvo is not acceptable. Twitter needs a button to allow rape and death threats to be registered and dealt with. In the meantime, none of us can stay silent as women who speak out are hounded, degraded, intimidated. These abusers must – and will – be defeated.

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