Without debate, the world would probably be an easier but perhaps a less exciting place. It’s completely within someone’s rights to disagree with your opinion, but what happens when the debate turns ugly? While social media can be a great thing, whether it’s being used to catch up old friends or keep up to date with the news. But its increased use has given way to a darker side whereby anonymous trolls are constantly on the lookout to attack anyone who dares voice an opinion.
These so-called trolls will attack anyone if it means that they can get a reaction, but the most high profile cases of online harassment in recent years have been against feminist campaigners, activists, and politicians. In 2013, whilst campaigning to have a woman featured on a banknote, activist and journalist Caroline Criado-Perez received an overwhelming number of threats, including one that told her to “fuck off and die”. Another one read, “I will find you and rape your nice ass”. For Caroline, the constant abuse understandably took over her life, yet Twitter refused to accept any responsibility for the malicious tweets. Later that year, two suspects appeared in court and were charged, but the effects of their words are unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry.
During the Labour leadership campaign earlier this year, trolls also attacked candidate Liz Kendall, with some suggesting that just because she isn’t married with children, she somehow wasn’t fit to lead the Labour Party. Other trolls went as far as to call her the anti-Christ. Whilst Kendall shook off the abuse, refusing the drop out of the race, she still recognised that the abuse she received was nothing less than vitriolic and appalling. Some may argue that people in the public eye should expect some degree of scrutiny, but when scrutiny includes rape and death threats, why should we be so passive towards it?
As I said, trolls don’t just attack people in the public eye; it’s all about engaging with as many people as possible and seeing if they can incite a reaction. For example, in light of the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month, and after reading tweet upon tweet of hate directed against Muslims (because apparently it’s now fair to punish everyone for the actions of a few?) I tweeted: “these terrorist attacks are not a platform for you to promote your racism, Islamophobia, and anti-refugee stance”. What I thought was a fairly uncontroversial statement was quickly met not just with racism and Islamophobia (ironic), but also with a great deal of sexism directed towards me.
How dare I, a woman, have an opinion on current affairs and social issues? Surely I should be spending my time in the kitchen, or gossiping about boys with my friends as we sit and watch the latest rom-com? Joking aside, the messages I got were nothing short of terrifying and frankly demeaning. One tweet read: “I’d like to see you make that same speech standing in a refugee camp wearing a miniskirt. They like miniskirts”. Another told me to “stop talking absolute nonsense little girl and open your eyes and ears”. Whilst it was great that people stepped in and defended me, I couldn’t help feeling that it was exactly what the trolls wanted; a bigger audience for their tweets, and potential future targets.
In the days following the attacks I received around 50 tweets from people telling me that I was wrong, all containing at least a hint of sexism and a dash of racism for good measure. Perhaps the thing that annoyed me the most was my reaction to it all. Here I was, reading rape threats and other disgusting comments, yet it had no effect on me at all. If someone had walked up to me in the street, screaming in my face that I was a “silly little dopey student girlie” (one of the less eloquent tweets I received), perhaps I would be genuinely offended. Yet when I was faced with the exact same thing on my laptop screen, all I could do was laugh. Maybe it was that I felt a little bit sorry for the people who choose to spend their days anonymously attacking strangers on the internet, but I also feel as though the normalisation of harassment against women played a role in the way I reacted.
One reason for my complete lack of emotion may have been that many of the trolls who replied to my tweets remained anonymous. It might sound stupid, but if I knew that they were real people, using real names, I might have been more inclined to challenge them on their views, hoping that there was a small chance that they might change their mind. But when there’s no way of identifying them, and no way of knowing if they actually hold these opinions or whether they’re just trying to get a reaction out of me, it seems kind of pointless to fight back.
Each time I asked the trolls why they were anonymous, I was met with responses like “Twitter affords anonymity”. But when anonymity is being used to harass people, surely social media giants should be doing more to protect the people it affects?
Social media is by no means a true representation of our actual society, but it does go a long way to demonstrate the ways in which women are silenced on an everyday basis, and how it’s become so normalised that we often fail to challenge it. Whether we’re being catcalled in the street or shot down when we speak out on feminism (or any issue for that matter), sometimes the fear of what will happen if we fight back stops us from doing just that. One thing is for sure; no matter how often it happens, being harassed online is never normal. Fighting back, both in defence of ourselves and in defence of others, might not stop the harassment altogether, but at least it sends a clear message that the trolls are in the wrong, not us.