On Online Abuse

I think I once – in a more arrogant period – described this blog using a Bill Hicks quote, “Chomskey with dick jokes”. Generally there is some attempt to be funny about things that are happening in the world today.

Today’s blog post will be humour free, like all the others you might suggest? but this one is purposefully so.

If you don’t like it, don’t read it. I am planning an article on Cameron banning porn which will be full of wanking jokes; that will probably go up next time I am in a brief sober period. So if you purely want cock jokes, come again soon. This, however, is a more delicate subject so I shall be keeping onanism references to a minimum.

Twitter and Hate Speech

Twitter is an excellent tool for communication, debate, for building friendship groups and support networks. You can use twitter how you wish, some people don’t tweet at all, preferring to simply follow others and find out what Graham Linehan thinks about geese or some shit. Others might chose to use it as a tool to talk to friends or loved ones, presumably favouring twitter’s format or usability over Facebook or text. Still others might chose to engage – or attempt to engage – with people they like, revere and respect, telling Graham Linehan what exactly they think of geese. A subset of this group is those that choose to engage with those with a profile in a more negative manner, perhaps telling Graham Linehan that they like geese and that the IT Crowd was shit and that he once made out with a hot dog.

It is clear that a platform such as twitter that easily allows someone with a wholly anonymous account that can be easily created in about a minute or two to send messages to whomever you wish will encourage certain people to send about as nasty shit as it is humanly possible to. It is also true that in a society which is insanely homophobic, misogynist, racist, ableist, transphobic and classist then much of that abuse will be bigoted in its very nature. It is also interesting how this is coming to light just now, despite the fact that the routine abuse has been something women online have had to deal with for years.

The Story Thus Far

The hateful remarks aimed at a young woman on twitter have been news for a day or so now but for those of you who may have missed it I shall attempt to re-cap.

Following a decision by the Bank of England to replace Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on a fiver – something that would leave women wholly unrepresented on bank notes – a number of reasonably high profile feminists with a strong twitter presence took it upon themselves to fight what they saw as a white-washing of women’s history. A campaign was launched to rectify this that drew noticeable media coverage and a few months later it was revealed that the Bank of England would be putting Jane Austen on ten pounds notes instead of Charles Darwin. Those involved in the campaign claimed victory. Others pointed to evidence suggesting that the decision had already been made prior to the campaign and that furthermore the campaign did little to actually address serious issues affecting women.

It’s not really my place to comment on whether putting women on banknotes will end a form of systematic oppression that I am never going to be the victim of. My two cents would merely be that I quite like Jane Austen’s work, I think Northanger Abbey is an excellent satire of gothic tropes and if as a result of this someone fancies reading some Austen then it will have introduced them to a fine writer.

In response to a successful – in their eyes – campaign those involved took to twitter for the web 2.0 equivalent of a glass of champers. Pleased with what they felt they had achieved they were celebratory and tweeted their pride in their achievements/

The story immediately becomes a lot darker at this point, one of the women involved in the campaign, Caroline Criado-Perez, was subjected to foul abuse. The sheer volume of hatred aimed this woman is pretty difficult to describe. I will provide a link to a site that has collated this information so you only have to view these comments if you wish to. Trigger Warnings for misogyny, homophobia, sexual violence, violence against women and, well, pretty much everything.

Link 1 2 3

Now, these people clearly represent a multitude of utter shits. Scared, pathetic men abusing a woman from behind a keyboard. Twitter user and blogger on “equality, politics, tech, illness, ranting and swearing” Latent Existence (well worth a follow if you have twitter, playing a huge part in the attempt to correct media narrative over disability and bring ATOS to account) has written well on how embarrassed he feels as a man reading this shit.

I wholeheartedly add my voice to those decrying this virulent misogyny online. For evil to prevail it is necessary the good do nothing; if, as a straight cis man, you’re not prepared to add your voice to this condemnation then you’re enabling it to happen.

What’s To Be Done?

Whenever anything awful happens comes to the media’s attention people understandably want something to be done. However it is interesting to note that this has only come to the media’s attention now, despite the fact it has been going on since twitter existed. This seems to be largely because this time the victim met a few pre-determined criteria to be deemed important enough for the press to take an interest in.

Ultimately this seems to come down whether the victim is someone who is recognised as a “worthy victim”. This means that are, preferably a member of the commentariat, and if not that they aren’t threatening to any of the white, cis, privileged sorts that make up the vast bulk of that cosy commentariat. This is why the abuse aimed at Caroline Criado-Perez – white, Oxbridge, in the media – hit the news whereas the tidal wave of abuse aimed at women online before this hasn’t. The media’s selective coverage of online abuse aimed at women seems to have effectively decided that abuse aimed at some women isn’t worthy of their coverage and, implicitly, that those women aren’t worthy themselves. This is a sickening state of affairs that seems to suggest a media class that believe some women either don’t receive abuse or that abuse aimed at these women is somehow less problematic. So much of the talk regarding online abuse centers on the notion that this is something that “high profile” people suffer. This is simply not true. There are women online – some of whom I would consider to be close friends – who suffer this level of abuse everyday, without the handwringing articles in the Indie Voices. In fact not only do people without a media profile find themselves victims of misogynist, racist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist abuse they are also less likely to have support networks online to deal with this level of abuse. It is not to diminish the vulgarity of what was said to Caroline Criado-Perez to point out that many victims of hate speech online can’t rely on a supportive message from Caitlin Moran or Stella Creasy.

It also seems to be the case that there are people in the public eye exploiting the current attention being given to this incident to support measures to ensure they are not held accountable for their views. There has been what I believe to be a purposeful attempt to conflate clearly unacceptable threats of rape and violence with “people disagreeing with me” by a host of the usual suspects.

They can do this as the way the media reports online “trolling” or “haters” is hugely favoured towards the privileged. There is noticeably less media outcry when Ricky Gervais uses his enormous twitter clout to bully those that call him up on his offensive tweets. There was very little when Noel Fielding called a woman with Cyclothymic disorder “big nose” before shepherding his followers into abusing her until she tried (thankfully unsuccessfully) to take her own life. Both these cases are covered in more detail in this excellent article. They are far from the only cases of this happening; I pick them merely as I believe Fielding and Gervais to be the most egregious offenders from my time on twitter. In every discussion of online trolling I have seen it has always featured someone in the media being attacked by an anonymous account with 140-odd followers; the instances where celebrities use their position to destroy people’s lives are not well documented. Those in media circles do not wish to antagonise someone they may rely on at some point for a gig or a place in a film.

The faulty narrative – that abuse is received primarily by those with significant media exposure – the media are pursuing has led, as all faulty diagnosis do, to a faulty cure being proffered.

The first proposed remedy for twitter’s ills is to end online anonymity. Again this is total horseshit. The effect this would have on people living under repressive regimes, sex workers, people discussing their mental health online and scores more groups whose voices need to be heard more than anyone’s is obvious. Hell, even I might want to go anon at some point as if I’m going for a job I don’t want a quick google of my name by an employer to reveal a) I’m a Marxist who believes in the power of organised labour to defend worker’s rights b) I tweet a lot about wanking. Neither of those things scream “dream employee” to many big corporations.

The next bad idea comes from Caitlin Moran and is openly offensive. She suggests charging a £30 annual fee to use twitter because… poor people are evil? To be clear I would be one of the people gentrified from twitter under this current scheme, £30 is three quarters of what I live on a week, I could not justify spending that much on a social network. Nor could many who are on the dole, disabled or working poor, at precisely the time when we need these people’s voices to ring loudest in order that they can describe the sustained attack they are under by this Government. The fact that Moran feels this is a way to oppose rape threats on twitter says something about her. It means she thinks misogyny (and presumably other forms of bigotry that Moran disagrees with, which are not as many as you would hope) is the preserve of the poor. From anyone that is a sickening suggestion but from someone who plays heavily on her working-class upbringing and who was deservedly commended for her attempt to reverse the media narrative on benefits claimants following the Phil Potts case it is baffling. Does Moran seriously think that due to the fact I’m poor I’m going to sit at home and think, “can’t afford the pub tonight, off to twitter to make rape threats”? Or does she just think us povvos are some sort of under-class that can’t be trusted to talk to people with Times columns? This argument also serves to switch the argument about how oppression works on its head, as opposed to oppression being the result of existing power structures being used against those that lack power Moran would have us believe oppression is the product of the proles. Why a privileged person such as her would seek to recast the privileged as victims of, not perpetrators of, patriarchal power structures should not need explaining.

The most commonly accepted medicine for the ills of online abuse seems to be twitter having a better and easier system for reporting abuse. Like all dangerous ideas it seems at the outset to be fair. Why shouldn’t people be able to be easily report abuse on twitter then for twitter to actively shut down accounts? The problem lies in what people would regard as abuse and how those with power would use this system. To best illustrate this it might be sensible to look at an incident that happened not so long ago and then to imagine what might have happened had such a feature existed on twitter during the time that this incident occurred.

Suzanne Moore wrote an article in the New Statesman featuring the claim that men want women to look like “Brazilian transsexuals”. Understandably people reacted angrily to this racism and transphobia and immediately took Suzanne Moore to task over her language. Moore claimed she was being “bullied” and “harassed” by those who were calling her to account over her language. Much of the mainstream media accepted this narrative, that calling out a white, cis, middle-class woman with a successful media career was in fact bullying. Few bothered to question how bullying in fact involves a power dynamic and perhaps the true face of bullying is a privileged woman using her considerable voice to further demonise a still marginalised and oppressed group of women. No member of the commentariat would wish to do this as there’s a good chance one of them might bump into Moore at a dinner party, literary festival or awards gala. Simply put when you are on a plush, well-catered for yacht you do not jeopardise your place by rocking the boat.

Yet despite many furrowed brows at CiF (which published a defence of Moore by Julie Burchill that was possibly one of the most offensive things I have read in a nominally liberal-left newspaper) those who were involved in calling Moore to account were free to do so. Under new proposals Moore could simply use a twitter abuse button and due to the societal power afforded to her by her media profile have those who disagreed with her vanquished from the site.

As Zoe Stavvri says in her blog post on the issue of a twitter abuse button

I use rude words and tell people to choke on various bodily secretions. I don’t let things drop. I hold people to account, sometimes seriously and sometimes by gleefully engaging in some pure, unadulterated puerile trolling. I subtweet shade, leaving it where it can be found by the vanity searchers, and I’m not afraid to call out the racists, the misogynists, the transphobes and homophobes and ableists of the world. That would get me banned pretty fucking quickly, only taking a few powerful people to get pissed off at me. And my goodness, I piss off the powerful.

I don’t want people gone from twitter who piss off the powerful. I don’t want bigots to be able to silence those that call them on it using their position of power to remove the voices of those they have slighted.

I’ll finish with a genuine tweet that I read on this subject today.

It’s hardly conducive to coming up with solutions if people are too afraid to throw ideas out for fear of being torn apart by detractors.

No. That’s bullshit and it’s dangerous, dangerous bullshit. Bad ideas should be torn apart as I have done my best to do here. Whilst I’m angry at how the media have ignored abuse being aimed at my friends for so long as they did not fit into a preconceived notion of what they wanted from their victim I am happy that they are finally waking up to what women are expected to put up with online. It would be awful if as a result of this nothing was done. However it would be worst if the wrong thing was done and the situation regarding abuse directed towards othered groups deteriorated even further.

I am aware that I have offered no solutions myself, the reason for that is I can’t think of any that wouldn’t cause more damage than they would prevent. I do however hope that this attempt to correct the false narratives that surround this issue might lead to much cleverer people than me coming up with a good solution.

Also I don’t usually blog on issues as delicate as this so if there is anything here anyone thinks is particularly problematic feel free to tweet me or whatever to correct me.

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One Response to On Online Abuse

  1. benitoaramando says:

    Surely Caitlin Moran’s idea was that a small but significant charge would prevent trolls and the like from creating accounts just to abuse people? It’s akin to the proposal to charge 1p to send an email in order to prevent spam. I very much doubt she was thinking that the idea was to exclude anyone but the abusive. And, although mistaken, it’s not crazy of her to think that £30 would not be a barrier to the less well-off; after all, it is less than 60p per week, and it generally costs a lot more than that just to get access to the internet in the first place. I still think her proposal is a terrible one for a number of reasons, but you can’t make the leap to saying that she thinks it’s a good idea to exclude the hard-up, so I think you’ve been too hard on her here.

    Apart from that, good post, and I certainly don’t blame you for not offering any potential solutions! It’s an incredibly tough nut to crack.

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