29/07/2013 11:15 BST | Updated 27/09/2013 06:12 BST

Netizens Come Together Against Online Harassment of women



"If your friends survived rape they weren't raped properly."

From all the abusive tweets recently posted on Caroline Criado-Perez's Twitter account, this one startled me. No, it wasn't really worse than the others. But it managed to encompass threats of rape, murder and harming Caroline's relatives - all in less then 10 words. Anonymously.

Caroline, the feminist activist who led the campaign for more female figures on British banknotes, is now under pressure of rape threats for the 5th consecutive day. Unfortunately, what she is going through is nothing new.

Virtually every woman who publicly contributes to a political debate is subjected to virulent and largely anonymous online invective, or "trolling". But it is far more than simply readers' feedback. Trolling is intended to make women shut up - and to remind them their primary purpose is to be there for male sexual pleasure. Or not to be in public life at all.

It now seems to be an established fact: women who speak publicly get threatened with rape, physical violence, harming their relatives and murder. It is not just a bit of fun. Many are stalked and get their home addresses published. And it doesn't really matter whether those threats will subsequently come true - they are already an act of violence.

Internet has offered women new ways to express themselves. But it has also enabled some misogynistic men to open the floodgates of hate and - cocooned in online anonymity - to bully women who have penetrated traditionally male-dominated public life.

The worst thing is that the strategy of harassing and intimidating female journalists, bloggers and other female public figures, was often sucessful. Some journalists, like Linda Grant, admits she stopped writing her regular column for the Guardian, because of violent threats. Some bloggers think twice before publishing a post. And even in their offline life, women are often afraid to speak up for themselves for fear of being insulted, belittled and harassed.

But since 2011, when journalist Laurie Penny spoke out about the violent sexual threats she regularly receives, things are perhaps starting to change. Others joined her initiative and testimonies started to flow. More recently, American feminist Soraya Chemaly published a bone-chilling post about death threats she received via Facebook and Twitter.

Now thousands of women have joined their voices worldwide in online campaigns like #shoutingback, #silentnomore, and @EverydaySexism, to mention only a few.

It was at about time that the online violence against female public figures starts to be taken seriously. Since Caroline Criado-Perez published the rape threats on her Twitter account, her supporters created an online petition that collected over 6,000 signatures within 3 hours, according to The Independent. Activists asked Twitter to create a new tool allowing users to deal with abusive tweets more efficiently than the currently available lengthy 'report form'. The social networking giant responded within hours by adding a 'Report abuse' button, displayed directly under every tweet.

This initiative sparked a heated discussion on the social network. Opponents denounce the move as an attack on free speech, while some others argue that the new tool is inefficient and suggest other solutions.

Whatever the outcome, this netizens display of solidarity sends an incredibly positive message to all women who publicly speak up against abuse. As Soraya Chemaly put it, "this isn't about censoring people, it's about changing norms for what is acceptable."