The Trouble With Trolls

jane austen bank note

A 21-year-old Manchester man has been arrested for a crime every woman who writes online knows well: "malicious communication." In this case, the man is suspected of harassing UK feminist advocate and journalist Caroline Criado-Perez, who was threatened with hundreds of tweets promising rape and death thanks to her work on a successful campaign to get Jane Austen on the 10 pound note.

After receiving hundreds of horrible messages, Criado-Perez reported the problem to police and took to radio to criticize Twitter for their lack of response to the harassment.  There is a button to report spam on Twitter, but reporting abuse required filling out a form. "If you're someone who's receiving . . . about 50 rape threats an hour, it's just not practical to expect you to go and fill in this form every single tweet. They're on the side of the abusers, not the victims, and they really, really need to get on the side of the victims," she told ABC Radio on Monday. A petition to create a "report abuse" button on Twitter quickly gained 66,000 signatures and now British journalist Caitlin Moran is calling for "nice" people to boycott Twitter for a day on August 4th. 

While the fact that England is taking Twitter harassment seriously enough to arrest someone is good, fighting online harassment by pressing charges against an abuser here and there is a game of Whack-a-Troll. A button to report abuse is a fine idea that's long overdue, as is Facebook's move to crack down on pro-rape language. But neither is a silver bullet and both could be problematic if they're enforced without discretion. The need to block abusers and report abusers is a symptom of a deep misogynistic streak in our society that pops up when people are given any level of anonymity.  

This is a similar issue to the one Women, Action, and Media took on with Facebook in the spring: social networks are our new public spaces and they are far from safe. Though companies like Twitter and Facebook have policies set up to deal with people who intimidate and troll others, the burden of reporting those baddies falls on the people who are being victimized and enforcement of the harassment policies can be slow and spotty. Across the internet, people facing threats and nasty comments are generally expected to suck it up—as if the proper trade-off for being involved in online conversations is personal abuse. This expectation to "grow a thick skin or GTFO" limits who is able to participate in conversations in our most dynamic medium of communication.  

That's why it's both surprising and profound to see this man face legal consequences in real life for alleged online abuse. Police forces have long equated online talk with real-life intentions when it comes to discussion of crimes involving terrorism and property destruction, but it's a shock to see rape threats taken as seriously as off-line harassment. Except for sheer volume of threats (50 tweets an hour, over twelve hours) and the fact that someone was actually arrested, the abuse Criado-Perez endured is typical. What was different here is Criado-Perez has a major platform to speak up about her harassment, she used it courageously and pushed for accountability, and national media paid attention.

I bet many, many female and queer writers have fantasies that some day all the people who threaten us with violence online will be charged with intimidation.  Some Twitter users have pointed that out, noting that people of color and queer folk face harassment for speaking up online and wondering how much of the attention to Criado-Perez's case is due to her being a sympathetic white woman.

This is a system of abuse, a cultural problem that's wrapped up in the way our societies treat women in real life. As Owen Jones said in The Independent, "The attacks on Criado-Perez are essentially about attempting to drive women from public life." 


UPDATE, AUGUST 1: Ana Mardoll over at Shakesville has a great piece about the problems with a Twitter "abuse" button.  

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by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media's online editor. She's interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

Please edit your article; you

Please edit your article; you have conflated "England" with the UK, when these are national policies which have been carried out across the United Kingdom.

And this is one of the good things about living here. Last year, when social media users named a rape survivor in a court case against a footballer (soccer player) who was found guilty, they were also arrested. Baby steps. It's just a shame that the custodial sentences for rape and other forms of sexual assault are so short.

I really do not like to see

I really do not like to see when white women's feminism colludes with the prison-industrial complex and goes running to law enforcement to solve social problems.

But this isn't a social

But this isn't a social problem. It's a legal one.

Raging against everything within range

Okay, so this article acknowledges that individual prosecutions aren't going to solve widespread social misogyny and could be "problematic" if used "without discretion."

Then it says the problem is anonymity. While a well-known journalist presumably accepts the fact that people know who they are and who they work for and can wait for them on their doorstep to ask combative questions—it's a well-worn journalistic practice, after all—I imagine that a lot of feminist activists would prefer that the people threatening them with rape and death not know their real names and can't look up where they live or work. They might choose not to speak out if they couldn't speak anonymously or pseudonymously. (This is why anonymity is protected as part of the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment.)*

"The burden of reporting those baddies falls on the people who are being victimized." I agree that this is a problem; I think Facebook and Twitter employees should be trolling through the millions of posts and private messages women get every minute to screen for harassment. Can they sort my Gmail inbox while they're at it? It wouldn't be much more work, and I'm sure I have nothing to hide. Or was I supposed to infer that the screening should be done by someone who is neither a party to the communications nor an agent of the platform? I suspect Facebook wouldn't have any problems making everyone's messages public so that random strangers can decide if they approve of the content or not. (Random strangers are guaranteed to be feminist, right?) Alternatively, the NSA's job would be much easier if the cops—also reliable feminists—monitored everyone's communications. Or just the outspoken feminist activists' communications. "For their own protection." Or is this merely a complaint about how horrible reality is without any belief that an alternative would be better? Because if so, I'd prefer to talk about things we should change, not things we shouldn't.

"Police forces have long equated online talk with real-life intentions when it comes to discussion of crimes involving terrorism and property destruction." Yeah, just look at all the kids they arrest and charge with felonies for writing dark stories, posting rap lyrics on Facebook, or making tasteless jokes! I'm not sure that's the kind of thing we want to be holding up as an example to follow.

Misogyny is horrible. It's also nothing new; social media hasn't made it worse, it's just put the ugly where people can see it. Some people are justifiably angry at harassment and the fact that it's rarely investigated thoroughly or prosecuted even when it contains threats; we all should be. But getting indiscriminately angry at everything in range isn't a useful response. Anonymity is essential for the activists we like, not just the harassers we don't. While Twitter need a button, the general idea that people are responsible for screening their own communications is the worst method of screening <em>except for all those other methods</em>, as Churchill might put it, and is a vital bulwark against abuse of power. Police underreaction to online threats against people we like doesn't justify holding up security theater in other cases as a role model. Misogynistic abuse is, as the article says, a cultural and social problem, but the article fails to recognize that this means that it requires a social solution, not declaring anonymity guilty by association or implementing a technical change to specific methods of communication. Feminism is good; pressuring the police to respond to online threats is good; the random angry failing at social media &c. that pads out the rest of this article is not.

*As a side note, Disqus did some interesting research on quality signals for real names vs. pseudonyms vs. anonymity. Note how little the negative flags percentage varies (9% to 11%):

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