Twitter Trolls

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This (above) is a real tweet sent to journalists Caroline Criado-Perez and Helen Lewis last week for voicing feminist opinions. How did sexual threats (or the retraction of) become ‘banter’? And how can it be stopped?

I will rape you tomorrow at 9pm. Shall we meet near your house?” Now that’s romance. This charming vignette was just one of many tweets that Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, had flood her Twitter feed last week when she dared stand up for journalist and campaigner, Caroline Criado-Perez, who too was victim to a deluge of sexually violent threats. Her crime? Celebrating the fact that Jane Austen’s portrait will grace the £10 note in 2017. We know. Controversial stuff, right?

What’s emerged from this latest Twitter crisis (possibly culminating in its nadir last week when newspaper columnists Hadley Freeman and Grace Dent were sent bomb threats via the social networking site) is that there are men and women wandering freely through society who have absolutely no issue with conjuring up the foulest threats possible and sending them to people they’ve never met.

For most of us, it’s a complete mystery as to why. We all harbour negative thoughts about other people. Occasionally these result in an argument or a deep-set dislike. But who goes around threatening to rape, sexually violate and kill women who form opinions on such hard-hitting topics as illustrations on currency? And why does the internet give people the courage (or audacity) to voice the darkest and most twisted of thoughts?

This example has been voiced before but it’s worth repeating; if a man approached a women he didn’t know in the street and told her the exact time he’s planning to rape her, he would be arrested. Social media should be no different – and, in fact, a 25-year-old man has been arrested for sending Criado-Perez and Creasy threatening tweets. The digital realm is one we all occupy in some way or another and it’s a realm in which we’re destined to spend more time (84% of Britain’s population is online and 22% of online time is spent social networking.)

So, surely now is the time to mark the boundaries of what’s acceptable; to set in stone what rules of law govern the virtual world just like those that govern the real world; to ensure that people know the parameters of what’s acceptable and what won’t be tolerated. Yes, we should protect and fight for freedom of speech but terrorising women who dare to voice an opinion with threats of sexual violence is not freedom of speech; it is intimidation. It forces valid opinions into the shadows. It is a completely unacceptable abuse of power. If we don’t act now, we risk descending into some sort of dystopic virtual hinterland that makes Lord Of The Flies seem like a beach holiday.

And while most of us have not yet been subject to torrents of abuse online, if nothing is done on policing online behaviour, it can only be a matter of time. We asked three writers to share their experiences of intimidation and how they deal with faceless trolls.

Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman

“Ask any woman with a public profile, and she can probably reel you off a greatest hits of the abuse she’s received online, just for having an opinion or being visible. Although every writer expects to get criticism and disagreement – not always politely delivered – this is on a completely different level. I had one commenter suggesting I should be made to drink his sperm, and at the weekend, someone told me I was too ugly to rape. (Because that’s what rapists are doing! Paying you a lovely compliment on your appearance!) Another time I found two men who disagreed with my political beliefs having a jokey discussion about dismembering me.

That’s nothing to what Stella Creasy, Caroline Criado-Perez and others have experienced, of course. But there is a common theme: often, online insults are crafted in the most degrading, sexualised way possible – that makes them embarrassing to tell others about, and makes it hard for the media to report them. The classics professor Mary Beard is a hero for repeatedly standing up to the men who tried to bully her online, because who wants to tell everyone people are talking about the ‘capaciousness of my vagina, and the plan to plant a d*** in my mouth’? These insults are designed to be humiliating.

When I first started to get regularly abused in these terms I thought about giving up Twitter, or stopping writing on contentious subjects. I wondered what I had done wrong, and how I could make it stop. Now, individual losers trying to be as offensive as possible just wash over me. In the last 72 hours I have been called a ‘gusset-licking p*sslord’, a ‘slut’, a ‘feminazi’ and a ‘sh*tbag’. But if you receive hundreds of comments in a short space of time, it can be terrifying. You have no idea how many people are out to get you, and whether the attacks on you will turn into a campaign of harassment, as they did with the American critic Anita Sarkeesian and Criado-Perez. That’s why it’s important to keep talking about online abuse: these people want to silence their targets, and I won’t let that happen.”

Elinor Block, online writer at

“I was first trolled four years ago, while I was finishing my MA and I started my first job working for a small publishing company. I was helping out with their social media – planning and writing and also shooting video blogs. I was also presenting a lot of these and, I suppose in some ways, I was the online face of their brand. We posted the videos on YouTube or Vimeo – unfortunately that was also one of the favourite shady domains of the internet troll.

‘You’re f*cking worthless,’ said one of the first comments that flashed up under my latest video blog and our Facebook page. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, stupid whore.’ My first reaction was just numbness. That feeling of adrenaline that rushes through your body when you’re scared or have been humiliated in public just pounded though me. I was indignant but I was also ashamed. They didn’t know me. And while it didn’t go to the extreme of threatening rape like the comments directed at Caroline Criado-Perez and Helen Lewis, there was an underlying sense that they were appalled by me in a very real personal way rather than just disagreeing with the content. And yet I had no clue as to why.

I tried to rationalise it but I couldn’t hide my distress. ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, it’s just a troll,’ explained a colleague. That was the first time I’d ever even heard the term ‘troll’. Up until that point, trolls, to me at least, were naked plastic figures with silly pink, fluffy hair. But once I’d realised what the term was and what it meant, I kept on seeing more and more examples of it everywhere.

I still work online every day, and have seen some really horrific trolling, but from my experience trolls are generally just looking to get a reaction. They’re cowards, hiding behind an avatar. Yes, it’s uncalled for, and yes it’s horrible if you’re on the receiving end, but you have to try to remember it’s not about you, it’s about them. That said, measures need to be put in place to stop and expose trolls.”

Laurie Penny, journalist and author of ebook Cybersexism (Bloomsbury, 2013)

“For three years, since I first developed a professional profile online, writing about politics and feminist issues, I have been on the receiving end of rape fantasies, threatening emails and countless daily attacks from trolls on Twitter, on professional blogs and on organised hate-sites. These attacks have become progressively worse as feminism has become more and more of a force online, and that’s certainly no coincidence.

When it first started, I felt ashamed and frightened – I still do when the attacks get particularly personal about my family. Back then the problem of sexist trolling was just accepted as a hazard of being a woman online. When I finally admitted how much the trolling bothered me, I was told that I should ‘get over it’ or ‘grow a thick skin’. If I didn’t want dozens of anonymous men insulting and threatening me every day, I shouldn’t have become a writer. I like to say that having an opinion is the miniskirt of the internet – if a woman flaunts one in public, she’s asking to be attacked, like it’s her fault for provoking their misogynist rage.

The internet allows closet sexists to say things to women that they would never dare say to our faces, and to do so with complete impunity. There’s clearly a small number of men with a lot of time on their hands, who have a huge problem with women's presence in public life – any woman, especially if she is vocal. There are, equally, a great many men who are horrified by the sexist trolling that goes on and I’ve had a great deal of support from them, as well as from my female supporters.

The encouragement of readers is what gives me the strength to carry on writing and tweeting. And when that fails, when I sometimes want to give up, there's always sheer spite. After all, I don't want to let them beat me! Sexist trolls attack women to silence us and drive us out of public space. We mustn’t let them win.”


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