Last Friday night I did something I hadn’t done since childhood—I slept with the lights on.
I was spooked because of a threat I received via Twitter, about a month after launching my new blog, Onward and F-Word. As a feminist writer and reproductive activist, I’ve often encountered negative reactions to my opinions, but they’ve always been directed at my work or my perspective—not my physical being, my body, or my life. They’ve never invaded my personal space.
This time was different.
After tweeting a handwritten note that said “Happy #FeministFriday!” on August 30, I began receiving a slew of incoherent tweets from a textbook Twitter troll who frequents the #Fem2 and #ProChoice hashtags, catch-alls for feminist and pro-choice communication. Despite blocking this user’s account, I kept receiving “mentions” from him, an indication that he was still tweeting at me. Curious and increasingly alarmed at his persistence, I temporarily unblocked his account and found a tweet at me that included the following language:
“Men gonna kill wo/men...women gonna kill prenatals, screw mens minds & ruin girls for generations.”
Later that evening I would learn that this was not the harasser’s only Twitter account—in fact, he wears many masks to stalk and harass women on Twitter and Facebook. As a pro-life watchman, he creates new accounts when his others are suspended by Twitter, a virtual slap on the wrist that does nothing to discourage or stop his abuse. Since Friday he has tweeted at me from three accounts, one of which was finally suspended by Twitter yesterday after I reported it as abusive five days ago. But as of last night, the account was, incredibly, active again.
During the ordeal, I tweeted to @Support, Twitter’s support account, asking for help. I did not receive a response.
I’ve contacted the NYPD twice since his threats toward me began—once to inquire about a police report and again after he tweeted at me four times within 15 minutes. The officer I spoke to during my first call felt that the threat was not imminent and therefore a report could not be filed. When I called again hours later, I spoke to a detective who delivered a similar monologue to that of the first officer. During both calls, I was told that his Twitter threats likely couldn’t amount to much because “it could be some 12-year-old kid sitting in front of his computer.” I felt legally disarmed and defenseless.
What is most striking about this event is that not one of the mediums with which I sought safety, Twitter and the NYPD, took immediate action. Sure, Twitter eventually suspended one of his accounts, but they do that all the time. As of press time, his primary account had been reactivated, his other accounts are still up, and he will surely continue to troll the #Fem2 and #ProChoice hashtags, seeking his next victim.
The NYPD, rather than taking my concerns seriously, tried to placate my anxiety with the notion that this guy is not perfectly capable of causing serious and real harm, a claim they have no way of validating without a proper investigation.
The failings of Twitter and the NYPD to take this type of harassment seriously shed light on the larger issue of the Internet being an unsafe place for women. Just recently, feminist and Women’s Room co-founder Caroline Criado-Perez received rape and death threats on Twitter after she successfully campaigned for the Bank of England to put Jane Austen on Britain’s £5 note. Twitter responded in a largely unacceptable manner that England’s shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, decried as “simply directing Caroline away from Twitter towards the police, and, belatedly, directing users to abuse reporting forms on Twitter.” Since then Twitter has created a “report abuse” button, but some say it won’t deter abusive behavior. CIO.com blogger Bill Snyder notes:
“Twitter accounts are linked to e-mail addresses. If a user’s account is locked or disabled by Twitter for abuse, it’s not hard to simply create a new e-mail address and link it to a new Twitter account. Then the abuser is back in business.”
And this is just what my harasser does.
Here, we see virtual reality impose on actual reality—this guy’s persistent harassment of myself and others isn’t confined to whatever device I’m using when I receive his threats. I close my laptop, and I carry with me the very real sense that because of the work I do, because I believe that women have a right to make decisions about our bodies, that someone wants me to die.
I was once told that my initiation into feminism would come when I received my first threat, a move that would give credence to my work. That I should touch a nerve so deeply that it would induce rage placated only by death is a very real example of pro-life and anti-choice extremism. Forget the hypocrisy in praising life yet supporting the death of your ideological rivals—the fact that these attitudes are tolerated and even rewarded by inaction should cause distress. In After Tiller, a documentary about four late-term abortion providers, we see the obstacles that pro-choice and reproductive-justice advocates face in an increasingly polarizing environment that often places our lives in danger.
The Internet allows people like my harasser to hide behind a mask of anonymity, using the Web as a vehicle for threats and fear. It gives him a platform to cause chaos and disruption and instill anxiety, leaving victims to wonder: Does he know where we live? Can he really hurt us?
It’s essentially important to take online threats and abuse seriously, not only for self-protection, but because these threats do not have to be part of our work. What’s equally important is for Twitter to take steps to dismantle abusive accounts permanently and ban specific IP addresses in light of persistent abuse. And of course, it’s also important for the NYPD to take victims’ concerns seriously, for they have no way of knowing whether someone poses an imminent threat unless proven otherwise.
And now, some parting words for my harasser and others who use fear as a tool of oppression: