Twitter, rape threats and why do trolls, troll?

Jane Austen on the new ten pound note, that’s where I came in. To summarise: following an announcement that Winston Churchill would replace Elizabeth Fry on the five-pound note, journalist Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned to have the Pride and Prejudice author’s portrait on a bank note, and following 35,000 signatures, meetings with the Bank of England and a committed campaign it was confirmed last week that from 2017 Jane Austen will indeed grace the new ten-pound note.

Good news, admirable citizenry, and productive activism which was not specifically about Jane Austen but rather the ‘microcosm of female representation’. Over the last few days though, the story of this well-intentioned campaign was hijacked by some odious internet trolls – specifically Twitter users who, it would seem overwhelmed with self-loathing, stupidity and brimming with pathetic vitriol, issued rape and death threats to Caroline Criado-Perez and a supporter, Labour MP Stella Creasy.

Twitter responded abysmally slowly – the Police responded quicker, but acted slowly. Unusually, BBC Newsnight has covered the story, with its Economics Editor, Paul Mason, for three consecutive nights, with Del Harvey, Senior Director, Trust and Safety at Twitter appearing on the BBC 2 program on Tuesday night, a night after Caroline Criado-Perez herself appeared, and we know that least two arrests have been made by police investigating the matter.  In a nutshell – that’s how we got to here and I think here, is the point the where online life has pierced the thin, pliable skin that separates our real-world lives from our digital personalities. 
Has Twitter been not just slow but lethargic and woefully ill-prepared? The Police certainly acted slowly and as Paul Mason suggested to Newsnight viewers, if the threats “were on a handwritten note” the police would have been right round knocking on the door. Although technology like tablets and social media have become tools used daily by the police – the investigation and response to online crime or threats leaves forces, not just in Britain, but in much of the world, floundering. Last evening it was clear that even days on, investigating police do not know how many perpetrators are involved.

Under-resourced police forces need training and expertise to ‘skill-up’ for online crime but they already have the legislation needed to respond but why did it take a tech leader like Twitter so long to respond though and act on the complaints made by Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy? With hundreds of millions of users Twitter has become a source of news, entertainment and my favourite social-network. It works brilliantly. The CEO  Dick Costolo is the internet boss the technology industry admires most for both his strategy and philosophy, their general counsel, Alex Macgillivray is the only lawyer I know who makes me feel good about corporate policy, and Twitter are the only internet giant to come out of the NSA Prism story with an aura of integrity.  CEO Costolo said in an interview with Deborah Kan of the Wall Street Journal this week that the ‘conversation is the canvas’ – a phrase that resonates given the events of the last week. Caroline Criado-Perez’s campaign has become a canvas, but what we’ve seen drawn is a stark portrait of 21st century misogyny. What about social media, technology and access to communications empowering us, nation speaking unto nation, and us all being equal? Costolo also recently remarked that Twitter was the ‘soundtrack to television’ and it is uniquely placed in the media as a sort of intersection of comment and culture.

Let’s start feeding the trolls. Let’s start shouting back, and show them that we’re not going away, that we won’t be defeated. Let’s take them on. And let’s win. CAROLINE CRIADO-PEREZ- New Statesman

For a while  I’ve thought that Twitter would even move towards channels – not just feeds of what interests you, but defined channels of content – malleable, but suggested by Twitter and consumed by you and me, like a Content Pyramid of social; news, sports, television – separate streams but related, suggested and fiercely quick to adjust to real-world, real-time events. Real-time is where Twitter’s dilemma lies as it’s impossible to police Twitter in real-time. Trolls come, they spit their filth, they go. They may be back. The person on the receiving end sometimes ignores, laughs or shrugs off a malintentioned comment, but ominous threats can leave people truly upset, hurt and threatened and some are put in genuine fear for their lives. To report the matter to Twitter, a user can fill in a 14 question form to identify the Tweet and the sender – but I’m unsure how long that generally takes to be acted upon. As of last Saturday, too long it seems, which is Twitter’s real failing in this matter – take concerns seriously and the public will bear with you. Much of this is new for us users and new for Twitter corporately, but not listening to us is far worse than making a mistake in how they respond. [Read More ]

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