Twitter under pressure to monitor users after rape and death threats

How a campaign for Jane Austen summoned the trolls
Leah McLaren
Pride and prejudice
Chris Ratcliffe/Reuters

The U.K.’s Twitter tempest began in late July, when the British journalist and activist Caroline Criado-Perez was successful in her campaign to have Jane Austen’s image placed on the 10-pound note after it emerged that there was no plan to adorn the British currency with a woman (apart from the Queen). Feminists applauded. The government breathed a sigh of relief. Controversy was averted.

That is, until the rape, death and bomb threats began.

After her victory, Criado-Perez revealed that she had been receiving up to 50 rape and death threats an hour from anonymous trolls who were angry at her perceived act of misandry in having Austen’s image installed on the currency. She complained that Twitter’s “convoluted process” for reporting abuse was unnecessarily slow and urged the social media company to take responsibility for the illegal actions of its users.

Then-Labour MP Stella Creasy expressed her support for Criado-Perez and was bombarded with similar attacks. The trolls threatened to rape Creasy, record the act and post the video online. She even received a photo of a masked man wielding a knife. As Criado-Perez did, Creasy took screen grabs and reported her abusers both to Twitter and the authorities. “You send me a rape threat, you morons, I will report you to the police & ensure action is taken,” she wrote. This, in turn, led to Twitter blocking various trolls, some of whom then popped back up to say they’d opened new accounts.

Things got even creepier when several high-profile female columnists—the Times’s India Knight, The New Statesman’s Laurie Penny, the Independent’s Grace Dent and the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman, as well as the historian Mary Beard—all received bomb threats in the space of a few days. The threats, similar in nature, specified there would be a bomb detonated at a determined time across the street from the recipient’s home. “This is definitely going to happen,” read Laurie Penny’s (retweeted) threat. “Make sure your there so u die [sic].”

Twitter then responded with a blog on its website saying it had updated the rules to ensure harassment and abuse would not be tolerated. Extra staff were reportedly put in place and executives promised that a “report abuse” button would be introduced in September. In a statement, Twitter U.K.’s general manager, Tony Wang, said, “We want people to feel safe on Twitter, and we want the Twitter rules to send a clear message to anyone who thought that such behaviour was, or could ever be, acceptable.”

But Steve White, of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said Twitter was effectively “unpoliceable,” and that “social media sites need to think long and hard about being able to prevent [abuse] from happening in the first place.”

The question, really, is whether Twitter is merely a platform or a publisher of content; while the former could be compared to a blameless soapbox, the latter is legally responsible for its content (much like this magazine). Now that the microblogging site is monetizing its operation by selling ads, many argue it falls into the latter category—which means it bears a moral, and possibly legal, responsibility to monitor the anonymous hordes who use it. How Twitter would go about this, however, is anyone’s guess.

To this end, 120,000 people signed a petition urging the site to implement tighter protection processes for users. And in the real world, police arrested three men in connection with the threats.

The Telegraph blogger Toby Young went on TV and radio to rant about freedom of speech and to complain that Twitter was being co-opted by a “feminist agenda.”

It was out of this moral confusion that the idea for a one-day Twitter boycott was born. Spearheaded and promoted by feminist writers such as the Times columnist Caitlin Moran and Suzanne Moore of the Guardian, the idea was to send a message that female users are prepared to walk out on a site that doesn’t take responsibility for its content. Twitter should take heed, Moran threatened, lest it become the next MySpace or Bebo, or simply “another ghost-town, left empty when women, and their good male friends [become] tired of this horrible clown caravel of rape and death and threat and blocking and antagonism and cynicism and the shrugging insistence that this is how it will always be.”

The Day of Silence, when it came, was not the act of earth-shattering solidarity its proponents had hoped for. For one thing, it was hard to gauge if traffic was reduced because people were hopping angry or simply out for a walk in the park. And some critics, such as Criado-Perez, rejected the ban, creating a #shoutback hashtag instead, urging women to voice their concerns rather than stay silent.

It will, however, be interesting to see how the police investigation plays out. In the meantime, the Twittersphere has moved on to the fact that Beyoncé cut her hair, which you will undoubtedly know if you—like me—are a woman who remains on Twitter.