Women

08.03.13

Taming the Twitter Rape Trolls

British female politicians and journalists have received rape, death, and bomb threats over the past week. In response, a full-day event against trolls is set for August 4 and Twitter has promised to enforce a “report abuse” button—but can it really do any good?

“Don’t feed the trolls” is common Internet rationale. But after a barrage of recent threats on Twitter, female leaders in the U.K. decided they weren’t going to take the abuse quietly.

After a week in which at least seven female politicians and journalists in the U.K. received rape, death, and bombs threats via social media, and after British police made two arrests in connection with the case, Twitter has promised to to start enforcing a “Report Tweet” button on its site. The harassment was apparently spurred by—of all things—a push to put iconic British author Jane Austen on a bank bill.

After journalist and activist Caroline Criado-Perez successfully campaigned for Austen’s likeness to grace Britain’s £10 banknote on June 24, she started receiving about 50 threats per hour for 12 hours via Twitter—some of which are mind-bogglingly offensive—and retweeted them to her followers. User @CarolineIsDead tweeted, “I’m going to pistol whip you over and over until you lose consciousness [...] and then burn ur flesh.” User @FatTonyCologino tweeted, “Everybody jump on the rape train….> @CCriadoPerez is conductor.”

Stella Creasy, a Labour Party member of Parliament, was targeted after she expressed her support for Criado-Perez’s campaign. She received messages such as “You better watch your back ... Im gonna rape your ass at 8pm and put the video all over the internet.” Both Criado-Perez and Creasy contacted police to intervene. According to The Guardian, even after the accounts in question were suspended, a handful of other women, including the social-media manager of AARP, received similar threats.

After writing a column at The Guardian called “How to use the internet without being a total loser,” journalist Hadley Freeman received a bomb threat Wednesday: “A BOMB HAS BEEN PLACED OUTSIDE YOUR HOME. IT WILL GO OFF AT 10:47.” Grace Dent, a columnist for The Independent, and Time’s Europe editor Catherine Mayer, received the same threat.

Two arrests have since been made in connection with the Twitter threats: Manchester police arrested a 21-year-old man Sunday and Metropolitan Police announced they had arrested a 25-year-old man Tuesday in northeastern England on suspicion of harassment.

Right now, all the emphasis is on the victim, often under intense pressure, to report rather than for Twitter to track down the perpetrator and stop them."

After a 110,000-plus supporter-strong petition started circulating, Twitter announced plans to launch a new “Report Tweet” button to deal with abuse. The petition states: “It is time Twitter took a zero tolerance policy on abuse, and learns to tell the difference between abuse and defen[s]e. Women standing up to abuse should not fear having their accounts cancelled because Twitter fail[s] to see the issue at hand.”

But how exactly will Twitter deal with threats?

According to the Twitter Help Center, the new feature is currently only available on iPhones and mobile.twitter.com. (Note: I started seeing the “Report Tweet” option after I updated the Twitter app on my iPhone Friday.) When encountering an abusive tweet, defined as “harassment, copyright or trademark violations, and impersonation,” users will be able to complete a form to submit a report to Twitter. There’s also an option to block a user’s account. When a tweet is reported, it will disappear from a user’s timeline. But “reporting a Tweet does not automatically result in the user being suspended,” according to Twitter.

Twitter did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Some are skeptical of Twitter’s response to the trolling problem, including Criado-Perez. She says even though it offers a more direct avenue to an already-existing abuse form, it is not immediate enough to stop harassment.

“Twitter’s ‘report abuse’ button on the iPhone application goes through to the old reporting form—what we’re looking for is an overhaul of the system which sits behind the button,” she said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “The current process is lengthy, complicated and impossible to use if you’re under sustained attack like I have been. Right now, all the emphasis is on the victim, often under intense pressure, to report rather than for Twitter to track down the perpetrator and stop them. The hard facts are that this will take time, investment and properly trained and paid staff—but it’s crucial they get this right.”

And Twitter’s new button may actually lead to a more convoluted tracking system and widespread misuse. According to The Daily Dot, “The ability to report individual tweets leaves users like Criado-Perez open to false accusations from trolls, meaning that all reports will presumably have to be looked over by an actual human rather than being automatically blocked or deleted. And there will be a lot of abuse reports to read through.” With more than 400 million tweets sent out every day, the effort is a daunting one, especially since it’s so easy to start new accounts.

Even though stopping trolls entirely seems futile, one journalist is aiming for a daylong boycott against the instigators. She suggested an “all self-proclaimed pleasant people leave Twitter to the trolls for 24 hours” day on Twitter, now dubbed “Trolliday” and set for Aug. 4.

Mic Wright at The Telegraph thinks “Trolliday” will do more harm than good, however. “To abandon a space—even Twitter—for even a day, is to give them more power than they deserve,” he wrote. “Ceasing to cross the bridge won’t make trolls stop living under it, they’ll just dance on top in the gleeful realization that they’ve won. Criado-Perez wrote for The Independent that those who are abused online should ‘shout back.’ She’s right. The August 4 boycott won’t be shouting back, it’ll be shutting up.”

In June, Jezebel writer Lindy West was the target of a stream of rape threats after she discussed rape culture on FX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell with comedian Jim Norton. She says that there’s a Catch-22 with trolls: “As soon as we acknowledge them, they win. But if we never acknowledge them, they also win, plus discourse shuts down and we all get dumber.” She encourages targets of trolls to fight back—to do whatever it takes to get these people off the Internet.

“I talk back because the expectation is that when you tell a woman to shut up, she should shut up. I reject that,” West writes. “I talk back because it’s fun, sometimes, to rip an abusive dummy to shreds with my friends. I talk back because my mental health is my priority—not some troll’s personal satisfaction. I talk back because it emboldens other women to talk back online and in real life, and I talk back because women have told me that my responses give them a script for dealing with monsters in their own lives.”