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Thursday, January 09, 2014 

Revisiting the Twitter hate machine.

There has been, shall we say, an interesting response to the convictions this week of two of those who abused Caroline Criado-Perez on Twitter following her campaign for a woman to appear on a banknote.  At the time we were told repeatedly this was proof positive of how many women are treated when they dare to raise their voices in public for such causes, of the most vile misogyny, and how there needed to be a change in attitude by both social networks and the police to such incidents.  Some of us cautioned that the first two views especially seemed to ignore how trolling had developed, as well as how those who had previously been exposed as trolls tended to be rather pathetic individuals. Unlike political bloggers. Ahem.

Without saying the guilty pleas of John Nimmo and Isabella Sorley vindicate that stance, as it's evident that some of those behind the over 80 accounts who attacked Criado-Perez were motivated by little more than outright sexism, it doesn't exactly stand up the misogyny explanation either, something most of those commentating have curiously omitted from their write-ups. We shouldn't of course take the mitigating statements made by their solicitors completely at face value, but it doesn't surprise Nimmo was described as a pathetic friendless failure, whose only interaction with the outside world was to abuse public figures in an attempt to get online kudos.  Sorley meanwhile blamed her behaviour on both boredom and being drunk, the latter at least backed up by a string of convictions for being drunk and disorderly.

While you certainly can be a woman and a misogynist, Criado-Perez's explanation that our society is "so steeped in misogyny" that women joining in shouldn't be a surprise doesn't really cut it. Just as any ideology can blind you to far more prosaic explanations of behaviour, Criado-Perez's feminism seems to have stopped her from considering whether it might just be that Sorley is an immature person who's made some extremely bad decisions.  Going back through her tweets over the past six months, that certainly seems the more reasonable conclusion to draw.

Helen Lewis writes that the debate has been held back by how the abuse directed against Criado-Perez was so awful that it can't be quoted pre-watershed.  This seems a red herring: was the debate really held back?  I don't think it was; if anything, the response last July/August from the media was ridiculously over-the-top and misinformed precisely because those reporting on it were too closely linked to the people being abused.  I can more than empathise with Criado-Perez being deeply upset and changed by the nature of the worst of the abuse; a long, long time ago (we're talking over a decade ago) someone managed to find my address and threatened to come and beat me up, which even if extremely unlikely did cause me some worry.  No one deserves to be threatened in such an obscene way, yet they are just words, words delivered through a computer screen, and which are constructed precisely to garner such a reaction.  Feminists being threatened with rape or worse isn't instantly misogyny; it's pure trolling, the troll knowing that bringing rape into it is bound to result in a reaction.

Which is where I think so many have got it so wrong.  As Isabella Sorley tweeted, and I think we can take her word for it, "these people don't hate her, they are after a reaction and she is giving them one!"  The abuse went on and got worse precisely because it was bitten back against over and over, receiving such wide media attention.  Ignoring it completely obviously isn't an answer, but it's a better one than expecting either the police or Twitter to be capable of tracking down every individual who wrote something beyond the pale.  Wanting the police to investigate every instance as Criado-Perez seems to isn't just impossible, it would mean them also having to track down those who threaten racists, feminists who attack feminists, as well as those who tweet their disgust at the construct they've just witnessed on their TV screens.

Fundamentally, it does come back to the other point, the confusing of the internet you would like there to be with the one there actually is.  Some of those who took part in last summer's boycott were deeply shocked when they found that the part of the internet they occupied could be infiltrated by those from outside it.  Fact is that some users out there don't care for who you are, and are more than prepared to tell you about it.  Helen Lewis says we can't ignore what's happening and asks whether it will be enough to make us act, yet she doesn't suggest what we should do.  If that's because there is no real answer, and most of the suggestions as to how to deal with it either wouldn't work or would destroy fundamental online freedoms, as restricting anonymity would, then good.  If not, we either haven't learned anything, or simply don't want to.

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