FIRST, a word in defence of Twitter. The social networking site may have its faults, but for most of us who use it on a regular basis, they are more than outweighed by its virtues, and not just because it’s a great way to find pictures of Boris Johnson looking like an orang-utan.
Though I had to be dragged to the party, I’ve found it to be the most vibrant of hubs, allowing people from diverse backgrounds to share their experiences, and acting as a melting pot for the most interesting comments on the big issues of the day.
In particular, I like Twitter’s democratic nature, the way anyone from anywhere can contact anyone else; there’s a kind of humanising effect to that. On Twitter, a cat may not only look at a king (although, given its fixation with funny felines, it’s more likely to be the other way round), it can also chip into his conversation.
As with many things, however, Twitter’s greatest asset is also its greatest weakness: universal (and often anonymous) access is easily exploited by those who are interested only in spreading bile, as the victims of last week’s hate-fest know only too well.
Having used the site to promote her campaign for a woman to appear on a bank-note, Caroline Criado-Perez had doubtless braced herself for an onslaught of hostility. If you voice strong opinions on a public forum, you expect some people to disagree with you. If, like columnist Caitlin Moran, who was also targeted, you express yourself in an irreverent and sweary manner, it is likely that disagreement will be couched in similar terms.
However, there is a point at which a rebuttal of an individual’s opinion ceases to be an acceptable part of the cut-and- thrust of debate and turns into harassment, and you don’t have to make rape or bomb threats (although several people have) to reach it. Those who have tried to turn the victims’ demands for action into a censorship issue, have suggested there’s a fine line between the two, but that’s nonsense. “Your execrable campaign represents everything that is wrong with modern feminism” is a world away from: “Why don’t you f*** off, you ugly whore?”
The first is a legitimate expression of dissent, the second is abuse – and no-one should have to put up with it. Nor should victims of such campaigns be criticised for advertising the graphic nature of insults they have received; blocking offenders may be effective in the short-term (while endlessly retweeting may fuel the frenzy) but really you’re just shunting the problem on to someone else’s timeline.
The question is, what can be done to tackle this criminal behaviour? Last week, some of the suspected culprits were arrested; if convictions follow, it may lead to a hiatus in the stream of vitriol, but the trolls will eventually come creeping back out from under their stones, so we need to take a long, hard look at whose responsibility it is to control them. I don’t think it makes sense for the burden of rooting them out to fall on the police. However unpleasant it is to receive an online threat, it doesn’t place the recipient in immediate danger. It figures, then, that the duty lies with Twitter itself. Like jewellery shops which invest in sophisticated alarms and CCTV, the site needs to devise a security system which will stop people offending or at least catch them quickly.
When Criado-Perez first started receiving the threats, those in charge of Twitter couldn’t have been less interested, with one manager locking his account to block out her complaints. But yesterday the site’s UK general manager, Tony Wang, apologised for the angst caused and announced the site would be updating its rules to clamp down on the problem. There are plans to introduce an in-tweet report button and employ additional staff to deal with the extra workload.
This, albeit belated, response is a defiant middle finger to all those who insisted that, by taking a stand, Criado-Perez, MP Stella Creasy and others were making matters worse. Instead, they have wrought a change which should help protect other opinionated women: isn’t that what feminism is all about?
But it has also given the lie to those who suggested nothing could or should be done to address harassment. Indeed, the way in which a cabal of male commentators – Toby Young, Dan Hodges, James Delingpole – have exploited the furore over the abuse to peddle their own insidious brand of sexism, has been one of the most depressing features of the whole saga.
However repellent their actions, trolls operate at the margins of society. But Young et al are part of the establishment; they have education, power and a mainstream platform from which to spout their “considered” opinions. Last week those opinions encompassed Young describing those who want lads magazines to be covered up as “loony left feminist campaigners” and Hodges’ comparing Criado-Perez, Creasy and MP Mary Macleod to “three schoolgirls who had won a Blue Peter competition”.
For me, men who mock feminism for failing to overturn centuries of discrimination while enjoying all the advantages of the patriarchy are as much of a threat to the cause of equality than the no-marks who get off on branding women bitches or MILFs. While we should, of course, keep up the fight against those who send offensive tweets, we should not forget that it is other, more respectable, figures who are responsible for creating the broader climate of misogyny in which such disrespect flourishes. «