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.