Tweeters down tools to protest abuse

by Toby Manhire / 06 August, 2013
Led by Caitlin Moran, British users stage #twittersilence - but not everyone likes it.
Caitlin Moran. Photo/Getty Images

Freelance British journalist Caroline Criado-Perez’s campaign to ensure that a woman (other than the Queen) featured on at least one British banknote has succeeded, with Austen destined for the new £10. But it also created something much uglier: a flurry of misogynistic tweets, including rape threats.

Lots of them.

In a blog post at the New Statesman on July 27, Criado-Perez wrote:

This has been my life for the past three days: a mixture of overwhelming pride at what we can achieve when we stick together – and overwhelming horror at the vehement hatred some men still feel for women who don’t “know their place”.

The rape threats started on Thursday, and have continued for the past forty-eight hours. And this experience is by no means unique to me. Amid the abuse, I have received countless messages from women telling me of their experiences. The head of WHO called violence against women a “global health problem of epidemic proportions”; she should take a look at twitter, where we have our own nasty little epidemic: an epidemic of misogynistic men who feel so threatened by any woman speaking up, that they feel they must immediately silence her with a threat of sexual violence.

She added that in this instance the “don’t feed the trolls” adage was no good. “Let’s start shouting back, and show them that we’re not going away, that we won’t be defeated,” she wrote. Fresh abuse, including bomb threats were directed at Criado-Perez and her supporters. At least two arrests followed.

It also prompted an original online protest. The 24-hour #twittersilence, explained its initiator, author and columnist Caitlin Moran, was both a “symbolic act of solidarity” and an attempt to “focus minds at Twitter to come up with their own solution to the abuses of their private company”.

Suzanne Moore added in her Guardian column:

The past week has opened a can of worms. Some of the worms get off on each other. This strange goon squad of sub-Clarksons, bedroom anarchists, useful idiots and hardcore woman haters gives most of us the creeps and they will be slithering about on Sunday.

In cyberspace, as in the real world, they will not prevail. Join us or don't. The boycott has already worked. Because Twitter, the company, is nervy and watching its back. Hello? That's how it feels when strangers abuse you en masse

The downing of Twitter tools was not to everyone’s taste, with some arguing the very act of “silencing” was misguided and free-speech purists warning of the consequences of censorship.

Others accused Moran of hypocrisy, given the flavour of some of her tweets of the past. She responded pretty decisively here.

And the silliest criticism came, reliably, from the British media’s best self-parodist, Samantha Brick, in the Daily Mail.

But the clamour appeared to work, to some degree at least.

Extracting its head from the sand, Twitter UK responded on the eve of the #twittersilence, promising in a blog post to expedite roll-out of a “report abuse” button. It began: “It comes down to this: people deserve to feel safe on Twitter.”


One of the most interesting of the dozens of commentaries on the verbal violence tweeted at women is by longtime columnist and broadcaster Libby Purves, in the Times (paid).

The first female presenter on BBC radio’s Today programme, in the 1970s, “the days of green-ink letters”, she adopted a novel approach to abuse.

I amused myself, unbeknownst to my employers, with a standard reply to any correspondence that was couched in rudely misogynist terms (many men gave their real address, so secure were they in the patriarchy).

I'd write: ‘Thank you for your interesting letter. I am sure you will not mind my passing it on to Professor (Fictional name) of the Cambridge University Institute of Psychosexual Medicine, who has a research study about men who write strongly-worded letters to women in public life.’ I had several panicky replies forbidding me to pass on their name and even apologising.

Nothing scares a nasty bloke more than the thought of someone knowing all about him. Digital technology doesn't change that.

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