THE BLOG

Enough Weasel Words and Deflection - Time for Twitter to Stand Up for the Women Abused on Its Own Site

29/07/2013 17:56 BST | Updated 28/09/2013 10:12 BST
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Imagine how you'd feel after taking on one of Britain's most powerful organisations. And won. Elated, delirious, vindicated. Now imagine how you'd feel if less than 24 hours later - still basking in the warm glow of having made a difference - you were subject to a sustained campaign of online abuse.

Abuse that ranges from the sexist to the outright threatening. We're not talking about a few nasty comments. We're not even talking about things which are offensive or even downright cruel. Not even the work of a few pathetic trolls with nothing better to do with their time than wind somebody up. No, this is much worse. The abuse that the indefatigable Caroline Criado-Perez has received - moments after she succeeded in getting the Bank of England to perform the u-turn of all u-turns in ensuring a woman will continue to grace England's bank notes - is something no person would ever want to be privy to.

Not just the misogyny, (an inevitable consequence of being politically active and a woman. Heaven forbid) but the sexual abuse. The threats of rape, of other forms of sexual violence. Spurred on by others of a similar sick mindset, these people hunt in packs. They pick their latest victim and unleash a tide of the most hideous and twisted abuse.

Women being targeted and threatened with all manner of abuse is of course nothing new. The internet and social media has given these perpetrators the notoriety and platform some of them crave.

So, what are people like Caroline and many many other women like her supposed to do in response? The answer is simple: nothing. They shouldn't have to do anything. It shouldn't be up to victims to have to badger (for want of a better word) Twitter, and its collection of directors, to take action. They should be doing something already. It's not good enough to fob women off and tell them to report the abuse to the police. Yes, the police need to act too, but they will inevitably have to work in conjunction with Twitter. Twitter holds the details of all its users, their email addresses, it monitors their tweets.

It's about time big organisations acknowledged their responsibility and yes, a duty of care, to its users, and those subjected to campaign after campaign of abuse. Too often very rich CEOs hide away pleading impotence. We'll suspend their account. Temporarily. This seems to be the best they're willing to do. But, it's not enough. It's not nearly enough. Many of these people are breaking the law. You are not allowed to threaten people in "real life." If the laws of libel are the same offline as they are online, this must surely apply to the above.

Twitter needs to permanently disable these users' accounts and ensure that any attempt to set up another (many online abusers operate from multiple accounts) from the same email address, even better from the same computer, is similarly declined.

Yesterday, I sent Caroline a message advising she took a break from Twitter. If only to preserve her own sanity and not have to read anymore of this stuff. In response she said: "nope, not backing down. This is the last time a woman puts up with this." I instantly felt bad, and a bit stupid for what I'd said. Said with the best of intentions, but probably a little insensitive, because I knew Caroline was right. Why should she be the one who hides away and is driven from Twitter? As she says, time to stand up to these people and time to stand up to Twitter.

There's also part of me that takes the "don't feed the trolls" approach. I don't mean not responding to their abuse, but not retweeting it. These people love the publicity. Some of them get off on it. No doubt, literally. Retweeting it alerts their fellow abusers who use it as a chance to re-double their efforts. But I completely understand why people do retweet. If only to draw attention to the threats, show other people that they are not alone, and in the (vague) hope that Twitter and/or the police do something.

Incredibly, Caroline had her own account temporarily suspended by Twitter. For having the audacity to bring her users' attention to what she was having to put up with. Whilst the abusers had free rein to continue. The logic of blaming the rape victim for going out and daring to wear a short skirt in public. Rather than tackle the abusers head on, Twitter reverted to self-preservation: its reputation meant silencing the abused. When Caroline alerted Twitter's manager of news and journalism, rather than offer to help, he locked his account so only people he followed could communicate with him.

Part of me would like to see an end to anonymity on sites such as Twitter and Facebook. I'd extend that to people leaving comments on newspapers online and blogs. I realise some choose the anonymity to protect themselves. Unfortunately others use it to say things they may not have had the guts to say without the mask.

It's important that male users of forums like Twitter stand up in solidarity with women having to face this torrent of abuse on an almost daily basis. Yes, men sometimes find themselves on the receiving end, but it's nothing compared to what women have to put up with. I know several who have been scared away from contributing to blogs or any online conversations due to the experience of others. But, we can only do so much.

Most critically, it's time for Twitter, like Facebook before it, to get a grip with what's being written on its site. Weasel words, deflecting responsibility, cowering behind the police won't do. You control the site. You pull the strings. You can pull the plug. You have a moral duty to protect all of your users. Get the names of all those who abuse women, who threaten to rape and do other unspeakable things to them, and work with the police to ensure they receive the maximum possible punishment. Because women like Caroline aren't going anywhere sometime soon. And nor should they.

This blog was first published on the cross-part blog Speaker's Chair