So. Recap. Caroline Criado-Perez runs a campaign to make sure that the forthcoming redesign of British banknotes includes at least one British woman. However, around the time the Bank of England announce that they will, indeed, include Jane Austen on the new tenner, Criado-Perez became the target of a group of Twitter-users, who started sending her messages, threatening to rape her – sometimes numbering up to fifty an hour.

At the time of writing, this has now been going on for six days – despite a 21-year-old man in Manchester being arrested after sending Criado-Perez a threatening Tweet.

I think it would be good to show here the kind of messages Criado-Perez has been getting, as there are those that have discussed these kind of messages as part of “the rough and tumble” of the internet – suggesting women just need to toughen up a bit, and deal with the unpleasantness of the “real world.”

“Everybody jump on the rape train – @CCriadoPerez is conductor.” “I love it when the hate machine swarms.” “Rape rape rape rape rape rape.” “Everyone report @CriadoPerez for rape and murder threats and also being a cunt #malemasterrace.” “Wouldn’t mind tying this bitch to my stove. Hey sweetheart – give me a shout when you’re ready to be put in your place.” “HEY GIRL – WANNA THROW THAT PUSSY TOWARDS THE BLACK MESSIAH?” “Rape threats? Don’t flatter yourself. Call the cops. We’ll rape them too. YOU BITCH! YO PUSSY STANK!”

So that’s fifty of those an hour. For a week now.

In the last 24 hours, these rape-threats have expanded to include MP Stella Creasy, who has been vocal in both defending Criado-Perez, and calling for changes in the way Twitter is run, and Creasy – along with the Independent TV critic Grace Dent and Guardian fashion columnist Hadley Freeman – have received bomb-threats. Again, this is all after an arrest has been made for abuse on Twitter. After.

Many commentators have suggested that, when women – or, indeed, anyone – gets abuse like this on the internet, that the only and best solution is for them to simply “block” the abusers, and get on with their lives.

But consider the logistics of this. If a woman is getting fifty of these messages an hour, blocking all the abusers becomes something of a thankless, full-time job.

By the time a woman has finished defending herself for her abusers, and actually gets around to doing what she came on Twitter to do – to talk, to communicate – she’s already exhausted. And, also, a little more angry, paranoid, defensive and, frankly, rattled than the non-abused people her Tweets appear next to. There’s nothing quite like being repeatedly told you’re violatable and worthless to send you to bed anxious and unhappy.

On top of this, there’s something that would offend most people’s notion of how we want a society to function in the idea that if groups of people – in this case, women – are being regularly attacked, and their voices shut down in public, that – when they ask for help – we shrug, and say, “Sorry. Every woman must deal with this on her own.”

I don’t think most people would want someone they loved to be told to deal with this on their own. And I’m pretty sure most people would agree that this would be a better world if women did not get besieged with threats of rape and death after running a genteel campaign to have a picture of Jane Austen on a bank-note, or reviewing a restaurant or dress.

So: some solutions were suggested. Maybe Twitter could have a “Report Abuse” button? Maybe Twitter could run algorithms, to spot the traits of multi-account-opening trolls? Perhaps, for 24 hours, supporters of Criado-Perez could quit Twitter, to show solidarity – and focus Twitter’s minds on coming up with some solutions of their own?

No-one really had a definitive answer, but there was a “Report Abuse Button” petition – currently signed by 104,000 people – and a general debate on how Criado-Perez, and anyone else like her, shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of thing on their own.

But within 24 hours of this quiet debate starting up, a whole slew of columns and blogs appeared, firmly rejecting the idea of there ever being any curbs on “freedom of speech” on the internet.

“This isn’t a technology issue – this is a societal issue” a Telegraph blogger said – adding, in a later blog, that people who wished for better regulation on Twitter were behaving “like Mary Whitehouse,” and that this was a simple matter of censorship. “This is a curtailment of freedom of speech” was a very popular refrain.

Handily, this neatly abutted with what has, over the years, proven to be a fairly infallible rule: that anyone who says “Hey, guys – what about freedom of speech!” hasn’t the faintest idea what “freedom of speech” actually means.

There is no such thing as “freedom of speech” in this country. Since 1998, we’ve had Article 10 of the European Convention on “freedom of expression”, but that still outlaws – amongst many things – obscenity, sedition, glorifying terrorism, incitement of racial hatred, sending articles which are indecent or grossly offensive with an intent to cause anxiety or distress, and threatening, abusive or insulting words like to cause harassment, alarm or distress.

As you can see, if you are suggesting that you are allowed to threaten someone on Twitter with rape or death under “freedom of speech”, then you do not – as predicted – have any idea what “freedom of speech” means. Because it’s prosecutable.

Anyway, let’s move on – for if we got upset with bloggers and columnists who chucked around portentous-sounding phrases they’d heard on Legally Blonde without really knowing what they meant, we’d be here all day. The key thing here is the odd, underlying attitude that has permeated so much of this debate about women being harassed – to the point of paranoia and exhaustion – on social media. There is an air about this that is bizarrely … exhausted, and cynical.

Currently, an air of jaded world-weariness drives the debate about what we want the internet to be – an affectedly sardonic edge, which the practitioners seem to wear as if it were a black biker jacket, or an edgy nasal piercing.

Wielding what amounts to a massive cynicism boners, these people are adamant when they say, “NOTHING CAN CHANGE. THE INTERNET JUST IS WHAT IT IS!”

People who, in 2013, who say, with utter certainty, “nothing can change!” are one of the more discombobulating developments of recent years. I’ll be frank – it does my head in to see someone who lives in a democracy, wears artificial fibers, drives a car, has a wife who can vote and children whom it is illegal to send to work up a chimney, saying, on the internet – invented in 1971!!!! – “NOTHING CAN CHANGE!”

Dude, everyone in the Western world lives an existence wholly defined by constant change. – change that was brought about by people going, “I tire of people dying young. That sucks. I will invent antibiotics,” or “I have thought of a marvellous thing – global communication, via a glorified typewriter!”

It is a particular quirk of egotism/a lack of any sense of history or perspective to say, confidently and crushingly, “Things cannot change.” What someone who says “Things cannot change” means, more often that not, is “I do not want things to change.”

There is a neat squaring of the circle when you notice that, on this issue, those who say “Things cannot change” are, in the overwhelming majority, men – and that the people they are trying to shut down who are saying, repeatedly, “Things must change,” are women.

And this is all particularly inappropriate when the conversation is about how, of all things, it is the internet that cannot change. The internet, which was invented, within our lifetimes, by hippies. Tim Berners-Lee, who gave away the coding for free, with the words “This is for everyone” – the sentence that was so astonishing and inspiring when it lit up the stadium at the Olympics Opening Ceremony.

In short, the internet was invented, very recently, for people, by people, and founded in optimism and idealism.

For this odd new groundswell of commentators to start claiming that the internet is inherently dark, cruel and cynical is a gross misappropriation of one of the wonders of the modern age. It misunderstands what it was, is and, most importantly, could be.

Shame on anyone whose argument basically boils down to saying that “The thing about the internet is, it’s a place where hundreds of anonymous men can threaten to rape women – and that is how it will always be.”

That is in an odd, dark denial of the fundamental decency of human nature and the law. It is illegal to act in this manner on the internet, and the social networking sites on which it happens need to be reminded of that unambiguously. As Andy Trotter said on Monday, of internet platform providers, such as Twitter, “ You can’t just set them up, and then walk away.”

I’m pro the mooted 24-hour walk-out on 4th of August, because not only is it a symbolic act of solidarity – which are my favourite kinds of symbolic acts – but because it will also focus minds at Twitter to come up with their own solution to the abuses of their private company.

You know – the popularity of social networking sites waxes and wanes with ferocious rapidity. Twitter might currently be the hot thing – but it only takes a couple of bad months for it to become the new Friends Reunited, the new MySpace, the new Bebo. Another ghost-town, left empty when women, and their good male friends, tired of this horrible clown caravel of rape and death and threat and blocking and antagonism and cynicism and the shrugging insistence that this is how is will always be.

If 52% of Twitters customers – women – see other women being repeatedly left to deal with abuse on their own, then when a new social networking site appears that has addressed this issue appears, then I suspect they will drain away from Twitter in a way that makes a 24-hour walk-out look like a mere bagatelle.

The main compass to steer by, as this whole thing rages on, doubtless for some months to come, is this: to maintain the spirit that the internet was conceived and born in – one of absolute optimism that the future will be better than the past. And that the future will be better than the past because internet is the best shot we’ve had yet for billions of people to communicate equally, and peacefully, and with the additional ability to post pictures of thatched houses that look “surprised.”

32 responses to “BY CAITLIN MORAN”

  1. Ali says:

    Brilliant xx

  2. Phil says:

    The freedom of speech thing is dumb.

    Being incessantly talked over, shouted down and interrupted by people making boring, nonsensical or offensive noises and claiming freedom of speech acts like a regulation on free speech anyway, right? One that stops the sane people from being heard.

    Can we protect freedom of worthwhile speech instead?

    I’ll quit Twitter on the 4th to help make this point.

  3. John says:

    Once again Madam Moran, you get right to the core of the issue and with clarity and entainment. I only wish you and the ladies ran things, I’m sure the world would be a nicer place.

  4. Becky says:

    Thank you for this. The rules, etiquette and understanding of how we use social media haven’t yet been written, so those who say “There can be no change” are foolish.

    I’m sure in time that a decent way of behaving and incorporating social media into our lives will be established, but we need to campaign like this to ensure that the ground rules/etiquette established is open, fair, safe, decent and positive.

    Social media is currently like a toddler in the Terrible Two’s. We need to get SuperNanny on it and establish proper behaviour, not leave it to grow up into a monster.



  5. Edward says:

    Very Well Said! Freedom of speech might exist but so does the ability to prosecute. And these troglodytes should be pursued and dealt with in the appropriate manner. Stan Collymore retweets and reports every racist comment and threat he receives on twitter and it is the same lowest common denominator type of people doing that that are abusing Carolie Criado-Perez. If you couldn’t say it to someone on the street or in a bar, without consequence then why should you be able to do it online? I seriously worry about the kinds of things my daughter will have to put up with just because she is female.

  6. Richard says:

    This is a brilliant post. I used to be someone who said ‘the Internet cannot change’ but to mean that it should be free of corporate influences and monopolies. Then I found others saying the same thing but meaning something very different, just as you point out here. It is proclaimed by many that humanity has evolved a high morality but the behaviour we have seen lately by many debunks this notion. What we say is born out of the heart of our being and it seems many of these men have an impoverished inner-life and a rapist’s heart. Count me in on the 4/8 in the Twitter black-out.

  7. Shona says:

    I for one WILL NOT part in the trolliday. I believe that by staying off of Twitter we are allowing these subhumans free reign on social media. Blocking & reporting(on a simplified system) taking screengrabs for evidence. Most important of all DO NOT RESPOND TO THEM. Be dignified and also don’t troll the trolls using your followers as the baying mob with torches and pitchforks at them ad this is precisely what they want and need.

  8. Neil Fletcher says:

    I don’t remember ever reading anything written by Caitlin that I disagreed with.
    I love this woman.

  9. Lynn says:

    What someone who says “Things cannot change” means, more often that not, is “I do not want things to change.”

    Never a truer word. Great article!

  10. Chris says:

    Great article. The abuse has been disgusting and so has the repsonse to it from Twitter. Not much of a consolation but I’m sure that for every misogynistic arsehole there are hundreds of right minded men who have been as saddened as I have by all this. I certainly want a better, fairer, more equal and civilised internet.

  11. liz says:

    Well done and well said!

  12. Diane says:

    Oh bravo. Once again you hit the nail right on the head with clear and correct facts to support your arguments. Thank you for your always intelligent comment.. Diane

  13. Yardley says:

    Good blog, many insightful points well made.

    I especially liked the part about the law and “freedom of expression”. If only more people understood this!

    And yes indeed one day I’m sure twitter will mean nothing. A day I’m looking forward to.

    Perhaps instead of a 1 day boycott, we all leave – and don’t come back. Do you have the strength? Surely we can all leave something we didn’t care about only a few years ago?

  14. Scary says:

    I agree, and i like the article, and I didn’t know about the strike so thanks for telling me.

    Bit unsure about the internet facts though: not sure how you’d slice it to get a start date of ’71, and Tim Berners-Lee didn’t ‘give away the coding [of the internet] for free’ singlehanded: there were hundreds of people, all working on different levels of the net, without which it wouldn’t have happened. They did all make it free though.

  15. Dmitry says:

    Hi Caitlin, thanks for such a great article. One idea that no one seems to be discussing – is while there may be a point in saying that twitter itself should not play the role of the moderator. The danger of that is – they would impose their views or opinions on the network, which is why they were so reluctant to do it I suppose. There is a better way of doing that I think. The job of moderator needs to be in the hands of the entire audience of the network. This way it can not be blamed for stifling the freedom of expression. If someone is choosing to be a nuisance or worse, as in the case of latest events, choosing to do something outright criminal – the whole network of people can take action. This was one of the driving ideas behind building our network. We are in now way Twitter’s competition – we are more focused on unrestricted length publications, but if you do decide to walk out – we would be happy to welcome you. (almost forgot – the site is Apologies if this does sound like self promotion, but I really do think we found a better way, so want people to know about it.

  16. Dan says:

    The concern I have about rushing to legislate, which is what we have done, is that prosecution is not a deterrent, as it has not been and continues not to be, on this or many other issues. Legislation, it seems, is not the way to make the future a better place than the past when it comes to the negative behaviour of individuals.

    Of course legislation has effected many good things, such as voting and employment rights. But these examples are of laws which aim to secure the ‘public’ rights of individuals in the face of those who would curb them, rather than change the behaviour of individuals whose ‘private’ actions impact negatively on others.

    So laws against murder, rape etc have not stopped those things happening; education, healthcare and other things that reduce poverty and isolation can claim much more credit.

    This may seem a fine distinction, as one could argue that, for example, laws against sending children up chimneys aimed to change the behaviour of unscrupulous exploitative adults. But the motive for the creation of the legislation was a concern to protect the child, not punish the employer, and that is an all important difference.

    In the current instance, prosecuting individuals for online abuse simply will not work, as it hasn’t. Blocking and closing of accounts won’t work, as it’s so easy to open another.

    What, then, can be done to protect the individual from such abuse? The removal of the abuser from the equation, yes, but by some other mechanism than locking them out of the system or prosecuting them as we currently do (both of which leave the abuser existing anyway, and without their online outlet who is to say what they may turn to, especially given recidivism rates).

    Which seems to me to leave three options: increase the penalty, treat the individual or prevent any more such individuals being created.

    Increasing the penalty will not work: see the death penalty for murder and rising prison population.

    Removing the individual from society and treating them for their mental state would probably work for many, although not all. Unfortunately I doubt there is much appetite for such an approach. And it is unfortunate because treating and – importantly – subsequently learning from such people is important if we want to prevent any more of them being created.

    Which we should, because it is the only sure way to protect ourselves from abuse, in any form: create a society in which nobody wishes to abuse.

    But, again, unfortunately, central to the achievement of that aim is the desire to understand why someone ends up wanting to abuse others. Unfortunate because there appears to be absolutely no appetite for that, as all want to be seen to be either for free speech or against abuse, neither camp considering who these abusers really are, why they are, or what they are really revealing about themselves through their abuse – they are simply ‘trolls’, even to defenders of free speech, a term which removes their humanity, renders them ‘other’ and declares them unchangeable.

    I say this not solely to defend their humanity for its own sake – because every human, however unpalatable, warrants such a defence – but, more importantly, because I wish to see an end to such abuse, and without such an understanding of its perpetrators that aim will not be achieved. It is regarding offenders and mentally ill people as still human which has led to the progress we have made in the last century or two. It is no different to treating an illness: you can stick as many leeches on someone as you like, but if you don’t understand what the disease is and how it works you’ll never achieve the result you want.

    This may be seen as idealism; I hear the cries of “that’ll never happen” quite clearly. But if we aim for the ideal, maybe we’ll achieve more than if we didn’t. And, in any case, what harm could it do?

  17. Rob says:

    The internet wasn’t invented by hippies “for the people”. It was invented by the US military. The fact that “the people” took it over is an even more beautiful piece of symbolism.

  18. Danny says:

    Good article – but would have have been a whole lot easier to ready if you had a line space between each para!

  19. Aime says:

    Excellent piece! I think it’s interesting that you draw attention to the fact that these ‘Trolls’ have no idea of what ‘freedom of speech’ actually IS, even though they hide behind it as some sort of cloak of invisibility. Like Super-Ignorant Heroes who have a very slim grasp of their own arguments and power, they hurtle ever-forward into territory in which they WILL be outnumbered, they WILL be answered and they WILL be brought to justice if they continue to take action that is ILLEGAL. Should we feed the trolls? In my opinion, no. But boycotting Twitter for a day is more about standing up against the people who run it that are not paying attention to or taking responsibility for how it is used. They must take their lead from the people who are being trolled and participate fully in the human race, standing up for what they believe in even if others disagree. To say that nothing will change is wholly ridiculous. As you so rightly point out, change is constant in today’s world and it’s what we thrive on. I think the most challenging part now, for us decent people, just want to give everyone a big cuddle and say what we think about stuff every now and then but-it’s-cool-if-you-think-something-different people, is to find ways to accept that these new and constantly improving platforms for opinion give a voice to those people who hold archaic views and who want to harm others or cause them distress. Rape is the one thing that men feel they can do to women that we can’t do to them, so it’s the go-to weapon of choice for the extreme misogynist. Will that change? Probably not anytime soon. Can we ensure that these people are brought to the attention of the Police and stopped? Yes. SO – let’s all band together and do just that. Doing what’s right isn’t easy, but it will make a difference. It has to.

  20. Peter says:

    Well said – let’s make that change happen

  21. Colin says:

    Great piece from the lady writer.

  22. Sakthi says:

    Astute, insightful, and enlightening as always Ms Moran. I also just want to add my two cents worth in response to the commenter who said the ‘trolliday’ on the 4th is giving the trolls what they want. I disagree. The point of the strike is to make a statement and hurt the operations of the thing we are striking about. We are not striking for the trolls, we are striking over Twitter not doing enough to govern their platform and make horridness easier to handle by the normal users.

    Never forget that we are not just Twitter users, we are also Twitter’s product, that they sell to advertisers. If we deny them their product for 24 hours, that’s a big hit to the pocket, making the statement that this is just how much and how many people care about this issue.

    PS. I love the term trolliday!

  23. Andrea says:

    Well said – totally reasonable and inspiring too.

    Surely crowd-moderation for Twitter is a way forward: three ‘reports’ and you’re out – you have the right to appeal if you think you were unfairly treated or are being ‘shut up’ by corporates or PR companies. Individuals on the receiving end of appalling abuse might feel supported if others cleared out the messages on their behalf.

  24. Steve says:

    Brilliantly put. ‘Freedom’ is the most dangerous word in some people’s mouths, used

  25. Steve says:

    Brilliantly put. ‘Freedom.. of’ is the most dangerous expression in some people’s mouths, used to justify all sorts of evil. I prefer ‘Freedom from… exploitation, abuse, violence etc. Keep up the good work

  26. Jim says:

    I don’t think the sensible end of the debate has really been about the boundaries between free speech / expression and abuse, but about whether Twitter can do much about the problem.

    Some people have quite rightly said that the actions Twitter can take are quite limited – ultimately, blocking accounts and reporting to the police are the maximum we can expect from them. Helpful, but limited.

    For me the much more disturbing aspect is that victims of abuse simply assume the police will not do anything: and the police say they don’t wish to do anything.

    Yet in many circumstances, we talking about crimes like harassment and threatening behaviour. If someone walks into a police station, they should not expect the police to say “have you talked to twitter” or “there’s not much we can do”.

    In fact, most of the time, tracing abusers is quite easy. Their behaviour is fully documented and companies like Twitter and the relevant ISP can be compelled to reveal key information showing who they are.

    Part of the problem also comes from the fact that the police have arrested people for jokes, offensive comments about British soldiers, and sick jokes. This has left many people wary of the police’s ability to separate offence from irrelevance: these “section 127” offences are not directed at individuals. Inasmuch as they are crimes, they are nevertheless victimless, unlike the current cases, where people are being targeted.

    The police are the only people who can investigate so the CPS can prosecute. Across the board with Internet offences (including phishing, DDOS, etc) they often feel they cannot cope and lack the resources. If anyone is creating a ‘Wild West’, it is the police, and their paymasters, the government, for failing to give them the money they need.

  27. Jane W says:

    Excellent article, as ever, from the amazing Caitlin. Couldn’t agree more regarding the arguments of ‘free speech’, why it is so difficult for some people to understand the difference between freedom of expression and abuse / harassment which are illegal activities I do not know. A coordinated,zero tolerance approach is needed by the police and social media platforms to deal with those who choose to break the law. It is not an easy task but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try – things do change, all the time and things we once felt were impossible do become reality. Let’s look forward to progress and change, thanks Caitlin!

  28. Brendan says:

    Well I think it’s simple. I have deactivated my twitter account and don’t intend to return until twitter takes a public stand AGAINST abuse and vows to do something about it. They have the technology. But all they care about is the perception of whether or not they are doing something right. This has nothing to do with free speech. It’s about removing myself from a system that sits idly by and allows people the right to do whatever they like, even if its against the law.

  29. Danni says:

    I totally agree that something needs to be done but are you people really tweeting so much where it is an action of significance to not tweet for a day?

  30. Eric says:

    You have my two thumbs up! What more can I say?

  31. Heather says:

    My daughter just brought home your book and I have binge-read half already. I love your writing. Having had a very successful activist mother (in the Southern US, no less!) my motto is, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” So I very much appreciate your point about people who say that things can’t change. Yes they can. Great work. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.