Berating Women in 140 Characters: Why Won’t Trolls Leave Us Alone?

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.

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The tweet that started the controversy…

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.

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A selection of the tweets I received

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.

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They are not your scapegoats

Updated: 11:13am 14 November 2015

Last nights attacks on various locations in and around Paris, including the Bataclan arts centre, Stade de France, and a restaurant in the 10th arrondissement have left 127 people dead and around 180 injured. We now know that Islamic State have claimed responsibility for the attacks, stating that they were carried out in response to air strikes.

The locations of the attacks.

Last nights events are nothing short of terrifying and horrific, and the fact that anyone has to die at the hands of terrorism is appalling in itself. Yet some people are ignoring the initial horrors at hand and instead choosing to focus on a wider debate of how terrorism links to the current refugee crisis in Europe. The fact that Islamic State carried out the attacks has led some people to, by an illogical extension, blame the general Muslim population. There have been reports that terrorist organisations such as ISIS are infiltrating the journeys of genuine refugees in order to bring its members to carry out terrorist attacks in Europe, and this has ultimately led some to adopt an anti-refugee stance.

Twitter is by no means the place to expect coherent and logical arguments to stem from, but it’s really outdone itself tonight. A number of people have taken to social media to air their views, one tweet reading “the events in Paris are extremely worrying but again this will only happen again until the EU stops this migrant crisis”, another “most Muslims love what happened in Paris tonight”.

To link refugees to the terrorist attacks is undeniably short-sighted and racist. It’s an argument that fails to take into account the very reason why refugees are fleeing their home countries in the first place; to escape the oppressive regimes that are destroying the lives of people who live there. To suggest that borders should be closed is to say that nobody deserves to strive for a better life for themselves and their families. To bring refugees down to the same level of terrorists is to essentially dehumanise them. These are real people with the most horrific and unimaginable problems, yet there are some who are willing to let them suffer under regimes, all under a false pretense of combatting terrorism. I say false pretense because it’s hard to believe that the people who hold these views have any real or logical opinion on how to combat terrorism, but they use it to try and justify their racism and xenophobia.

Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a backlash against the general Muslim population forced Muslims to actively condemn the attack, having being lumped in the same category as terrorists. When the KKK march through the streets of small town America (yes, it still happens), nobody takes to social media to blame all white people for their actions. Yet when a terrorist attack occurs, people everywhere jump to condemn Islam, thus spreading unnecessary fear; which is ultimately one of the primary goals of terrorists themselves. It’s honestly so sad that Muslims feel as though they have to actively come out and condemn an attack that has absolutely no relation to them or their religion. Yet if they simply stay silent, they’re faced with unapologetic Islamophobia that holds them responsible for the actions of a few.

A tragedy such as this one is not a platform for you to promote your political views, your racism and more specifically your Islamophobia and anti-refugee stance. Terrorism has no religion. Refugees are not your scapegoats.

Meritocracy: a nice idea…

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In a liberal state that strives for equality, meritocracy, or rather the gaining of something based on merit, rather than other factors, has become a core principle on which we aim to base our society. If we disregard gender, class, race, ethnicity and background from any job or university application, then in theory we should have people in jobs and universities who have been employed on merit alone. However, this is not the case. Meritocracy simply does not work.

 There are several arguments associated with the flaws of meritocracy including race and gender, however in this article I will be discussing meritocracy in relation to class and wealth in the UK.

 Let us start with education, at the beginning of any determining of merit, at the age of 11. Children have the opportunity to sit the 11+ exam to determine their ability to go to a grammar school which will facilitate a learning environment in which their academic talents will flourish. We see this as the beginning in education. This is a flaw. By the age of 11, a child will have had experiences and opportunities (or lack thereof) which will determine the outcome of a test like the 11+. They might not have  parents who read to them at night or take them on cultural visits. They might have been in a primary school with low level disruption, or incompetent teachers, or even teachers without the adequate classroom resources to teach the lessons they wish they could. Their parents might not encourage them to take the 11+, might not know much about it, or they simply might live too far away from a grammar school as many are situated in privileged areas. The list continues. And so, all too frequently, those with privilege get into grammar schools and not just those with natural abilities, passions or talents.

 Moving on to schooling. Now of course the disparities between private, grammar and comprehensive education are clear in terms of the opportunities to children. But we must remember that it is not even simply the standard of education received itself which can impair the outcomes of children in education. Equal opportunities does not mean equal outcomes. For example, if you live in an overcrowded home then it might be difficult to complete homework at night. A child might not have the right nutrition to concentrate and learn to the best of their ability. 1/3 children in the UK live in poverty and so both of these factors are real issues that British society must face up to.

 And so we come to the point at which the principle of meritocracy, this ever strived for goal, comes into practice. From 16 onwards, people begin to apply to colleges, universities and jobs. In a competitive economy, in theory, the best person for the job should be selected. This will ensure the best outcomes for any organisation, company or academic institute. These privileged groups in society, mainly white, almost always the educated class and often men continue to get the higher positions in organisations and companies or places at the most elite universities. There are of course schemes such as the Sutton Trust which help those from underprivileged backgrounds into top Universities, but many slip through the net. There needs to be a change in mind set, rather than a few gestures to give some, rather than all a chance. We forget that there are many privileges which will have already put certain groups ahead of others in the running. How can meritocracy really be fair, if the merits have been unfairly distributed in the first place?

 It could be argued that, unfortunately, because we must compete in a globalised world then we should just continue to choose those people simply because they have had better outcomes. But simply because on a piece of paper an potential candidate looks like they have more merit, it does not mean we should hire them or give them a place at a university.

 Research has shown that state school students when studying the same degree at the same institution will often outperform their independent school counterparts by up to seven degree points, perhaps something to do with the fact that state school students often have to overcome many challenges within a somewhat lacking education system and are often left to their independent motivation. Working on the basis of meritocracy in the instance of university clearly does not always give the best outcomes. Yet people from private schools continue to take up a disproportionate amount of places at top universities, with Oxbridge taking almost 50% whereas only 7% of the population go to private schools. Simply because you have a better set of grades on your UCAS form does not necessarily give a true reflection of drive, competency, work ethic, passion, or even intellect. Although universities claim to take other factors into account, especially with those from the most underprivileged backgrounds, places continue to go to the most privileged.

 Politics and in particular parliament is one of the most powerful spaces for change, for creating social and public policy that works for the whole population, not just the few at the top. Russell Brand once commented on how the UK political system is essentially created for privately educated students to enter, simply going from one oak panelled hall at their private school, to one at Oxbridge, before ending up in the oak panelled House of Commons. Is it any wonder that almost 1/3 of our MPs and half of the new cabinet are privately educated? Most offered an outstanding education, extra curricular activities such as debating society and MUN, they are in training to be in positions of power from when they first enter school.

 We are a country facing countless problems, but many of these problems are faced by particular groups in society which don’t have a real voice. The MPs in parliament are not the people going to food banks, applying for benefits or worrying about being homeless. These are often the people who the principle of meritocracy lets down, rendering them voiceless in parliament. Of course, activism in the forms of social media and the real free press does offer real people a voice, but in terms of legislative and decision making powers, these lie in the hands of those who rarely have experience of the chaotic lives that many in the UK are living right now. Whilst a “working class quota” is not realistically something that could be put into practice, there needs to be a real effort to get people who truly represent working people into parliament, as opposed to those who have had expensive public speaking tuition and a degree in PPE.

In the job market, and in day to day life, people are employed based on their qualifications and experience, as well as how they come across in person; based on merit. But how about we start to think about things a little differently. How good someone will really be in a position really is not necessarily about how they appear on the surface. Dig a little deeper and the person who seems to be less qualified might really have worked harder, had more talent, more drive, but just been dealt a worse card in life. We need to start questioning what we really class as merit, or we are doomed to put the same sorts of people in the same jobs for the rest of eternity…and that would just be boring.