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.”