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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Who wants War?

So we’re dropping bombs in Syria now, which you’ve probably heard about unless you don’t read the news or use social media, in which case you wouldn’t be reading this anyway. Now I’m no IR expert, I changed my degree because I’m really not, but I do want to make some reflections on the responses to the ‘politics’ of this as such.

Now, I sat on and off for the vast majority of Thursday watching the House of Commons debate. And it depressed me, for several reasons.

On a personal level, I will not shy away from the fact that, yes, it does depress me that we are bombing Syria. I don’t believe that bombing Syria is the answer, but not because I’m necessarily ‘anti interventionist’, but because I don’t believe we should be nonchalantly doing things by halves. We should have considered all of our options, including a full scale ground war, which will not happen in my opinion, because of lack of political motivation to do so. I don’t want people to lose their lives when they could have been saved by a better solution. However, and this is the crucial point, neither do politicians who voted for air strikes yesterday.

Yvette Cooper, Stella Creasy, Tom Watson, Hilary Benn and the 393 others who voted “aye” yesterday are not monsters. They are not blood thirsty murderers and they are not war mongerers. They are people, who made a decision that they believed was right for the people of Britain and the people of Syria. I don’t believe anybody in that chamber wanted to bomb anyone, but they made a difficult decision, and they made it in the belief that that was what was best. If I had not watched that debate, or attended talks, or researched it, I would be staunchly anti intervention. But when presented with the arguments from both sides, it becomes a difficult decision and no one can deny that. It’s complex. It’s nuanced. Inaction does not mean no one dies here; that dichotomy must be destroyed on the radical left. 

Just because maybe you, or I, disagree with those decisions does not give people the right to attack MPs over twitter, or protestors the right to go outside Stella Creasy’s home. There is a distinct difference between disagreeing with the decision to drop bombs on Syria and abusing MPs. Anger, sadness, frustration, infuriation; all of these are natural feelings for someone who was against the decision yesterday, believe me, I felt all of them. But there is no excuse to abuse MPs who were democratically elected and believed they were doing their best. At the end of the day, yes they are elected to represent the people, but they are often the experts.

People were dying before we were dropping bombs and they will continue to die after. My heart was breaking for Syrians before the vote, and it continues to break now. I believe that to be the case for many MPs too. And just because some MPs voted for intervention doesn’t mean they necessarily care about Syrians any less. In a perfect world, we would stop the arms trade and there would be no weapons or wars. We would all sit round a table and resolve our differences. But this isn’t WWII. We aren’t going to create the UN 2.0 out of this. This is a threat like no other and unfortunately, something has to be done. People are beheaded, raped, tortured and murdered by ISIS on a daily basis whilst the world sits back and uncomfortably turns it’s head. Yes, we can do our bit and help refugees, but there are many who don’t even have the means to leave. What do we do about them? Let them die?

To believe that this decision was easy, is naive. To believe that those MPs don’t think twice about dropping bombs, is unfair. To live in a world where terrorism exists and people die on a daily basis, is truly abhorrent. No, I don’t agree with dropping bombs on Syria, but it’s time to stop, and think, that maybe people, with the same aims, might just come up with different solutions.

An Open Letter to Scottish Nationalism

***DISCLAIMER: When I talk about Nationalism, I talk about the political Nationalism that has emerged in Scotland regarding independence and devolution, not cultural Nationalism, because, you know, I love Scotland and all that***

I often hear that Scottish Nationalism has nothing to do with the ‘bloody English’. After all, if a country and its people choose to determine their own destiny, then what has that got to do with anyone else, right? Wrong. Politically charged Nationalism is harming the whole of the UK, not least of all, us ‘bloody English’.

The Barnett Formula has been in operation since the 1970s, and it is what determines how much money Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales get through devolution. It was not meant to last this long; it is out dated and even its creator has admitted so. Each country gets a block grant, with which it can choose how to spend it. This does not cover all areas of spending. For example, reserved areas such as defence and pensions, are not included. However, housing, health and education are all amongst areas where we see devolution alter patterns of spending. And what is so wrong with countries choosing what they spend their money on? I hear you ask. Well, nothing in theory, but in practice, a whole lot.

For the Barnett Formula is becoming increasingly unpopular as it favours certain countries, and disadvantages others. This is not a needs based system, but rather an out dated, politicised one. Evidence demonstrates that whilst Scotland gets funding that exceeds its needs as a country, Wales gets less than it needs. England’s spending, which has no devolution (as of yet), does not meet the needs of its people either. With Sturgeon promising another referendum, coupled with the fact that Scotland could, in theory, economically support itself, Scotland is a political threat to the union. Upsetting Scotland is just not in Westminster’s interests. Wales on the other hand, does not have full legislative powers and could not sustain their level of provision of services if they chose to go independent. To disadvantage Wales is not much of a problem to Westminster. It makes political sense to maintain a system which appeases the country which threatens the UK.

Much of Scottish Nationalism angers me (surprise, surprise). It presumes that you cross a border and the people of Scotland face infinitely bigger struggles than those faced in England, and so they must have more money to solve said issues. The reality is, that Scottish people are gaining the most out of anyone in the Union from the Barnett Formula and the current state of devolution. People in the North of England’s needs have been proven to be higher, yet they receive much less. Devolution, contrary to popular belief, is far from a needs based system.

Much of Scottish Nationalism presumes that disillusionment is determined by the number of miles away from Westminster you are, whereas in reality, people who live a few miles away from the Houses of Parliament in London are just as disillusioned with the government; it is absurd to presume otherwise. I still hate David Cameron just as much living in Edinburgh as I did when I lived in Warrington. I don’t gain a little more respect for tax credit cuts when I get on a train 200 miles closer to London.

Hating English people because you think they are taking money from you is a fallacy hidden behind a facade of Nationalism. In reality, the people of England, especially in the North, have needs greater than much of Scotland. Insulting us on the basis that “English people are all privileged” is again, wrong. And I’d urge you to think carefully about your free University Education compared to my £50,000 of debt. Your free prescriptions compared to the £8.20 I have to spend on every item I need at a pharmacy. This is not a competition. I am not saying that England has it worse than Scotland, but rather that the facade created mainly by the SNP of “English privilege” must be lifted with a bit of perspective.

Scottish Nationalism is my issue, as much as it is anyone else’s in the UK, and I refuse to be told otherwise.

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.

Pride and Party Politics

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It was 5am, May 8th, and I was on the phone to my Mum. I was angry, upset, devastated. The thought of five more years of a Conservative government scared me. And so I did something about it, and joined the Labour Party.

I have always been a leftie. With a mother who swears mainly about David Cameron and a father who calls himself a Marxist, how couldn’t I be? As a Politics student, of course I am interested in the UK government. I study politics in order to hopefully one day be part of the change I want to see in the world. However, back in May I just didn’t know which Party I wanted to cast my vote for.

I considered the Greens, SNP and Labour. Green policies appealed to me; they were so radically left, but quite frankly far too idealistic and many not so well thought out. What is more, Natalie Bennett really did lack any of the qualities of a Prime Minister, not least to convey her passion and be inspiring, which through failed interviews and stuttered answers, did not come across.

The SNP was a party I seriously considered for a while, but I think even then I was sceptical of whether the left wing rhetoric they espoused would translate into left wing policy.

It was Labour that got my vote in the end, but it saddens me to say that this was not because I truly believed in their policies or found Ed Miliband inspiring. Rather, the goal with my vote was to keep Britain free from harsh Tory policy making, and the Labour Party were realistically the only viable option to potentially hold office. Still, I could not help feeling like I had cast a vote for the lesser of two evils.

This article could very easily be about Jeremy Corbyn, but it is not. I’m a far left social justice warrior feminist, of course Corbyn definitely gives me hope for a future I want. In many ways, it was Corbyn who inspired me to become more active in the Labour Party, because he represented so much of what I truly believe in. However, I can’t often help but feel distant from him as a leader. He is someone who is set in their views and often unwilling to compromise or put much effort in to uniting the party in the way it so desperately needs to be.

If I am really honest, his Shadow Cabinet appointments were alienating. Goals of socialism, such as equality, liberation, justice and fairness, are goals we simply cannot achieve without the input of oppressed groups in society. To see no women in positions of power is something you would expect from a right wing government, not the socialist paradise that Corbyn’s leadership is supposed to be. The Conservatives are putting more women in positions of real power than Labour, which is terribly disconcerting.

What really inspired me to take action beyond my vote and my Labour Party member card, was the Scottish Labour Party. I came away from the Scottish Labour Conference at the weekend feeling something I had never felt before for a political party: an immense feeling of pride and solidarity. This was a party I believed in. This was a party I wanted to see in government. This was a party who could deliver real change. Together, Ian Murray MP and Kezia Dugdale MSP carry the Scottish Labour Party with a vision that simply did not exist at Westminster on May 7th with Miliband. It is their commitment to true Social Democratic values and confidence in the abilities of the Labour Party that makes the party one I feel proud of.

Kez’s speech at Conference gave me chills. I had never felt so impassioned by a political speech before then, and I came away awestruck. This was a woman I could trust to do everything in her power to deliver Labour seats in Scottish Parliament next year. Unlike Jeremy, whose passion can sometimes err on the side of aggression, Kez was personable. She is someone I can identify with.

As a woman in the world of politics, seeing a woman as the Leader of a Party is inspiring in itself. The line “We don’t just need women in positions of power, we need Feminists in positions of influence” was bold and resonated with me. Kez went where very few politicians dare to go, identifying with a word that is often seen as dirty and tarnished. She committed herself to gender equality and the liberation of women within the realm of politics; a difficult and commendable stance to take.

As some one from a state school, I have seen first hand our failing education system. It upsets me that in UK general elections, education is never really on the agenda. It is even ignored in discourse by Corbyn. Like Kez said, “if there is a silver bullet to slay the monsters of poverty, inequality and ignorance, then it is education”, yet we never seem to talk about it in politics. This is a woman who is putting the most important tool available to humanity back on the agenda. And not because it is politically sound, because it clearly is not ‘on trend’ in current affairs, but because she truly cares. That is the attitude of a woman I want to see leading not just the Scottish Labour Party, but the country.

In May, I voted to keep Tories out. The Scottish Labour conference inspired me to make the decision that, next year, I will be registering to vote up in Edinburgh for the Scottish Parliamentary Elections. When I voted for Miliband in the General Election in May, it was a vote in my mind for the lesser of two evils. When I use my two votes for Labour in Scotland next year, it will be a vote for values I am proud to believe in.

The Personal is the Political

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Self-centred bitch. That’s what I think of as the title for this article; slightly ironically admittedly. Still, the very fact that I think that writing an article about putting myself and my needs first makes my mind jump to this title is wholly problematic. The fact I worry about people’s thoughts and opinions when I write this and talk yet again, about female pleasure, makes me feel uncomfortable and angry. I think about the people who will think I hate men for expressing my feelings towards gender inequality and oppression and I think about not publishing this.

I’m sitting at a flat party. It’s getting to the time of the night where every one is suitably intoxicated to speak to one another without feeling awkward. And so I start speaking to a guy. It’s going OK, until I realise that I am probably speaking for about 15% of the time, whilst he speaks for about 85% of the time. For his 85%, I listen intently, nodding along, laughing and adding the odd “yes” or “I know what you mean”. For my 15%, I try and keep what I say to a minimum because it is becoming obvious that this guy doesn’t give a shit about what I am telling him. And I mean, who wouldn’t want to listen to me talking about the importance of social policy for underprivileged groups? Instead, his mind clearly wanders, as he is either looking around the room or at my exposed legs or my tits.

As I came to this slow realisation, I begin to distance myself. Making an excuse to leave and chatting to other people, whilst he still appears very much interested. And then it hits me…the wave of guilt. The guilt for rejecting someone who quite literally let me speak for 15% of a conversation, barely asked me anything about myself and didn’t even look at my face when speaking to me. I woke up in the morning, having left the party alone, and felt an overwhelming sense of relief and gladness that nothing had happened between us. But it got me thinking about what might have happened if I had invited him back and something had occurred between us, and the links started establishing themselves, the wires connecting in my head.

Despite considering myself a confident person, I can almost wholly predict that whatever sexual encounter might have happened between us, would have been on his terms and for his pleasure. If the sex we had was non-penetrative, I would feel that guilt that ‘pleasuring a woman takes too long’ and slowly become self conscious about this and stop enjoying it. If it was penetrative sex, then that sex would be over as soon as he came. And it is this conceptualisation of the ‘end of sex’ which is one of the most problematic things in a heterosexual encounter. In porn, films, literature, and real life, it is depicted and accepted generally that sex ends when a man ejaculates. Put quite simply, this epitomises the argument that women’s pleasure is secondary in the vast majority of depictions of sex. The female orgasm is an extra, a gift, a favour. It is not a right in the way that the male orgasm is. And no, it is not made ok just because men get “blue balls”. Do not try and tell me that the only reason we wait only for a man to orgasm is nothing to do with personal pleasure. Women do not leave sexual encounters where they haven’t reached orgasm feeling a-ok physically either. It is just that mentally, we have been taught to accept this as a norm. The female orgasm just isn’t that important, so we are taught.

This anecdote is no personal attack, but rather an example to illustrate feelings I have felt for years. It is about how gender affects what kind of sex you will get and the distribution of pleasure you will receive. It is about an unfair balance of power that exists not only in the streets, but in the sheets. It is about the fact that women feel inequalities even in one of the most natural of human activities. When we discuss women’s rights/liberation, we focus on what is public, when in many ways some of the most obvious inequalities and oppressions that exist, are things that remain taboo. The personal is the political. 

It’s about time we started talking about this and changing people’s attitudes towards sex. It’s time for real sex education for men and women that includes sex for pleasure of all genders, not just sex for reproduction. For, as long as women are having shitty sex, they will never be equal or liberated.

Apathetic? You Wish.

Youth apathy – it’s a stereotype favoured by the British media and politicians alike. A quick Google search of the term returns no less than 847,000 results, including headlines that read “Apathetic and Disaffected: The Generation Who May Never Vote”, while another asks “Has Our Generation Lost Faith?” Only 43% of people aged 18-24 voted in May’s election, the lowest turnout of any age group, but with young people increasingly at the forefront of social media and grassroots activism, are voting statistics really the fairest way to determine the enthusiasm of British youth?

Since the general election, anti-austerity marches have lined the streets of many cities up and down the country, from Leeds to Liverpool to London. Among the protestors were hundreds of students who will arguably be some of the hardest hit by new Conservative Party measures. Regardless of whether these people voted or not, their involvement in these events undoubtedly demonstrated their willingness to engage with politics, be it directly or indirectly.

One of the most frustrating and unfortunate things that young people have to deal with as they engage with the world of politics is the constant backlash from other voters telling them they’re too young to understand how politics works. It seems that young people just can’t win; first they’re stereotyped as apathetic, yet when they do engage in politics their views are rendered irrelevant.

In the lead up to the General Election, Abby Tomlinson came to prominence as the leader of the “Milifandom”, something she describes as a “movement against the distorted media portrayals of Ed Miliband”. At 17, she isn’t currently eligible to vote, but that hasn’t stopped her from writing about politics day in day out, whether it be on her Twitter (@twcuddleston), or for newspapers and websites such as the Guardian, and the Huffington Post. Having met Abby at one of the Labour hustings in July, it’s not hard to see that she’s someone who knows what she’s talking about. She’s had the opportunity to interview all of the Labour leadership and deputy leadership candidates, and she’s appeared on BBC and Sky News alongside the likes of political writer and war veteran Harry Leslie Smith. Yet she’s still experienced an ardent amount of online abuse, most of which uses her age as the main insulting factor. One tweet reads: “who cares what @twcuddleston says? She isn’t even 18 yet. Talk to her about One Direction and alcopops”, another: “since when did the political opinion of little girls matter enough to air on the news?”

What is conveniently forgotten amid such backlash is the numerous things that young people can legally do before they’re 18. At 16 years old, teenagers can legally have sex, join the army, leave home, and have a full-time job. For those who choose to exercise these new rights, they can be huge steps; steps that arguably put teenagers on the path towards adulthood. Yet in the world of politics, they’re still seen, and spoken to, as children who have no experience of the real world.

The aforementioned Conservative austerity measures won’t necessarily have the heaviest impact on those who currently sit in the 18-24 age bracket. Instead, measures such as the reform of maintenance grants, and cuts to housing benefits will have a drastic impact on those who weren’t even able to defend their voice in May’s General Election. There is no better case for reducing the voting age to 16 than knowing that young people will finally get to have a say on the matters that affect them the most.

The media, politicians, and what seems to be just about everyone on social media has got it wrong about young people. They do care. Some have no faith in a political system that speaks to them, not for them. Some are too young to be allowed to express their opinion. Some are simply too afraid to speak out in a world that constantly tells them that their opinions are irrelevant. But make no mistake about it, whether it be by campaigning on the streets or debating on social media, young people are going to stop at nothing to ensure that their voices will be heard.