It’s been a bad week for women on the internet—but also a clarifying and validating one. British MP Stella Creasy began receiving rape threats on Twitter (in other news: fish are bonkers about water!) after expressing support for feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez, who was also being deluged with misogynist online abuse. Criado-Perez’s crime? Advocating (successfully) for Jane Austen to appear on a £10 banknote. That, obviously, cannot be borne. Doesn’t she know that money is man-paper!? HAS CRIADO-PEREZ NO COMPASSION FOR THE INTERNET’S POOR NERVES!?
After a Change.org petition and widespread outcry from prominent feminist voices including Caitlin Moran, Twitter has announced that they’re working on a “report abuse” button for rape threats and hate speech. (Also, one of Creasy’s online tormentors was actually arrested—a scene so cathartic I might have it drawn on top of a cake and then have sex with it.)
Via the Guardian:
Creasy used Twitter to inform the police of the threats, warn her abusers that she was logging their threats and taking screen grabs as evidence.
“You send me a rape threat you morons I will report you to the police & ensure action taken,” she wrote.
…A [Twitter] spokesman said: “The ability to report individual tweets for abuse is currently available on Twitter for iPhone, and we plan to bring this functionality to other platforms, including Android and the web.
“We don’t comment on individual accounts. However, we have rules which people agree to abide by when they sign up to Twitter.
“We will suspend accounts that, once reported to us, are found to be in breach of our rules. We encourage users to report an account for violation of the Twitter rules by using one of our report forms.”
Right. Well, we’ll see. Unfortunately, the reality of attempting to moderate Twitter isn’t quite so simple:
The danger is that “report abuse” button could easily be used against the people it’s intended to protect. When trolls* created a fake Facebook profile for me during theGreat Rape Joke Kerfuffle of 2013 (mostly to express how much I hate rape and love donuts, because comedy), and I attempted to have it shut down, my genuine account wound up getting reported and suspended in retaliation. At most a minor inconvenience, but needless and irritating nonetheless. The thought of having my Twitter account potentially suspended by abusers in retaliation for fighting back against my own abuse is profoundlyenraging. On the other hand, though, this week someone created a parody account of my dead father to harass me because of my stance on rape jokes (still going on, because COOOMEDYYYYY). And you better fucking believe I wanted a “report abuse” button for that. I can see both sides—though mostly what I see right now is how hard the entire system is rigged to fuck women over.
I used personal examples there, because I happen to have those on hand (so, so many of those), but this isn’t actually about how I, Lindy West, am treated on the internet. This is about how people—particularly women—are treated on the internet when we challenge entrenched power structures.
We are treated like subhuman garbage, and that’s because internet trolling is not random—it is a sentient, directed, strong-armed goon of the status quo. And the more we can hammer that truth through the public consciousness, the sooner we can affect the widespread cultural change we need to begin tamping down online hate speech.
One of the pillars of conventional wisdom about internet trolling is that internet trolling just happens. You hear this all the time, from even the most progressive allies: Oh, well, it’s the internet. There are trolls. Trolls troll the internet. Rape threats are like oxygen. Whatareyagonnadooooo. So, I’m just supposed to accept that psychological abuse is built into my job and I’m some thin-skinned rube if I complain about it? Easy for you to say, Señor Rando. Not only is that framework supremely unsatisfying for me personally, I’d go so far as to say that it’s a dangerous and patently false myth. Internet trolling does not “just happen.” It is not some mysterious, ambient inevitability that affects all internet users indiscriminately.
Internet trolling is a force with a political agenda.
Broadly speaking, the type of violent, choreographed, overwhelming hate speech currently battering Creasy and Criado-Perez is directly aligned with our male-supremacist power structure (race is a deeply salient factor too, and unpacking that deserves its own article). I’m trying to think of an instance when anonymous women descended, spewing violent rape or castration threats, upon a man for expressing an opinion as innocuous as Criado-Perez’s. I can think of instances of funny, political, retaliatory trolling—like when Twitter feminists co-opted the #INeedMasculismBecause hashtag, or when Rick Perry’s Facebook page was deluged with questions about menses. But those are not examples of aggression, they are self-defense. They are not analogous to “I will rape you in an alley” or “Don’t leave your phone at home, sweetie.” They are reactions to misogyny—the same brand of misogyny that fuels internet trolling. They are women speaking to power—the same power structure that empowers and perpetuates anonymous trolls.