30/07/2013 10:02 BST | Updated 29/09/2013 06:12 BST

The Real Silent Majority Can Take Back Twitter


At first, the reaction was muted. Stalling from Twitter. Stalling from the police. And, perhaps most worryingly, a stream of patronising comments from onlookers. 'Just ignore it.' 'If you can't take the heat, get off Twitter!' 'What did you expect?' 'You stirred the pot.' 'You poked the trolls.'

As hours turned into days and the story began to dominate the headlines, some commenters became increasingly irritated. 'Aren't you overreacting a bit?' 'Talk about drama queen!' 'She just wants attention.' 'This isn't really news.' 'This isn't worth police time.' 'This isn't worth my time.' And the dreaded Cameron-esque 'Calm down, dear.'

Much has been written - quite rightly - about the vile individuals who choose to target women like Caroline Criado-Perez in such a cowardly, even criminal fashion, but perhaps we should also consider the fact that it has taken almost a week of relentless abuse directed at high-profile figures and subsequent national media attention to persuade many observers that this merits real action.

What kind of message does that send out to other victims? If you get the online equivalent of a black eye, just ignore it. No one will take you seriously. Another black eye? It was probably your fault. You were asking for it. Serious, sustained injuries? Well, perhaps we could intervene now, but it's such a hassle. It would be far easier for everyone if you just stopped talking about it. If you just disappeared.

Stella Creasy noted that the rape threats she has been receiving are not about sex, but about power. Many of these people are motivated by the thought that if they hurl enough obscenities at those they disagree with, they can intimidate them into silence. This is not rousing debate, nor should it be defended as the price you pay for joining Twitter, for voicing an opinion, for raising your head above the parapet. This is the modern equivalent of 'I don't like what she's saying. Quick, burn her! She's a witch!'

When words are used, cynically, deliberately, cruelly, as weapons to terrorise another human being, they can no longer be classified simply as 'free speech'. That justification is an insult to those who campaign for free speech around the world, and we must be careful to separate the real abusers from the pack, just as the Leveson judgement should be used as a guide to prosecute criminal individuals, not all of the media.

However, many online abusers assume their actions are permitted not just by the establishment (with the police, politicians and social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook passing responsibility back and forth like a hot potato), but also by general society. That makes them feel safe, even tacitly encouraged, to continue. To escalate. The abusers feel that they have all the power.

The most important message we can send out is that they do not. If they commit criminal acts, they will be arrested. If they attempt to hide behind the anonymity of the internet, they will be exposed, as Mary Beard demonstrated so brilliantly. But most importantly, they will learn that they are not part of an assumed silent majority. The majority of us - men and women - abhor their behaviour and will not stand for it. And we are breaking our silence.