Another day, another flurry of rape threats levied at a woman who raised her voice online. Another social media powerhouse using “free speech” as an excuse to do nothing.
It was only a few months ago that Facebook came under fire for its slowness to address posts celebrating domestic violence and rape (apparently, its moderators were too busy censoring images of post-mastectomy female breasts). This time around, it’s Twitter that is under scrutiny, following a round-the-clock barrage of threatening tweets sent to Caroline Criado-Perez, a feminist activist, freelance writer, and co-founder of The Women’s Room. In response, tens of thousands of angry users have signed a petition demanding that the social network streamline the process for reporting abusive behavior. And while the site has since announced plans to install a "report abuse" button, plans for a worldwide boycott of the service on August 4 are still underway in the hopes that Twitter will undertake a broader review of its policies.
Below are just a few of the tweets to which Criado-Perez, as well as her allies and defenders, have been subjected in the past few days. They are not for the faint of heart.
If you’re wondering what Criado-Perez could possibly have done to generate such anger, look no further than your wallet. Last week, Criado-Perez won her fight to have Jane Austen featured on the Bank of England’s 2017 £10 note. Yes, you read that correctly — all that vitriol and hatred is being expended on a debate about whose face you’ll see for the five seconds it takes you to transfer your money from your purse to the cashier’s hand.
In reality, of course, the backlash has nothing to do with currency. As Criado-Perez herself has said, women in highly visible positions are likely to be attacked simply because they are women. In fact, even the people perpetrating the abuse are likely to admit as much when pushed. When Emma Barnett asked one man directly why he felt Criado-Perez “deserved” the threats, he replied, “If you put your head above the parapet, like she has, then you deserve this type of abuse. It’s what you get when you are a woman shouting about something.” It is surely not a coincidence that so much of the abuse hurled at women online is sexual in nature. Rape threats are the misogynistic equivalent of a racial epithet or a homophobic slur and often overlap with either or both, as tweet #3 in the above list makes clear. They should thus be treated every bit as seriously as other forms of hate speech.
And while apologists for this kind of language often attempt to write off such language as part of a broader pattern of annoying but harmless incivility, consider the following: According to data collected by the Ministry of Justice, Office for National Statistics, and the Home Office, one in five British women will experience some form of sexual violence. Rates in the United States are disputed but comparable according to most studies. So before you hit the send button, consider that there’s an alarmingly high probability that the rape threat you’re emailing, posting, or tweeting is aimed at a woman who has already been sexually assaulted.
Well-intentioned advice about “ignoring” such comments is thus less than helpful in reality. As Clementine Ford points out, being repeatedly harassed and abused and saying nothing in return does not stop the attacks. What it does do, over time, is make one feel “invaded, powerless…and vaguely paranoid.” And while Criado-Perez’s own resolution to “shout back” can be empowering in the moment, it can prove exhausting in the long run. I speak from experience when I say that you quickly begin to lose faith in humanity when every statement you make — whether civil or belligerent — is met with more cries of “bitch” and “slut.”
Which is precisely why the proposed boycott of Twitter is so important. In an ideal world, of course, the offenders themselves could be made to understood the real import of their threats, but in the meantime, pressure needs to be put on sites like Twitter to do their part in curbing such violent language. And to say that such restrictions are a violation of free speech is absurd for more reasons than one. I could point out that speech has never been and will never be completely free — we all know, after all, not to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. But I would rather focus, as Clementine Ford does, on the spirit rather than the letter of the law. What, Ford asks, is truly more damaging to free discourse — the curtailment of bigoted ad hominem attacks inciting violence, or the total absence of civil and reasoned debate that those very attacks lead to? If nothing else, it’s a question that a service claiming to facilitate mass communication would do well to consider.