Twitter and trolls go together like jam and cake, but over the past week the Twittersphere has witnessed the kind of uber trolling that we haven’t really seen that often before – and it has been quite a shock. Bizarrely, the action that caused freelance journalist Caroline Criado-Perez to be on the receiving end of all this unpleasantness was simply campaigning to ensure that British currency represented more women than just the queen. Criado-Perez successfully lobbied for Jane Austen’s face to replace Elizabeth Fry on the newly designed £10 note, rather than Winston Churchill. Although perhaps this might have riled those of a more misogynist persuasion, the outpouring of abuse against Criado-Perez has shocked even the most world weary Twitter users. The common thread between much of the trolling has been rape threats, death threats and derogatory comments about women in general.
Those who have supported Criado-Perez in her crusade to try and get Twitter to do something about the threats have also found themselves on the receiving end – the most recent being Stella Creasy MP who has also been threatened with rape and murder. Now, however, serious pressure is being brought to bear on Twitter to actually tackle the abuse, which seems to have crossed the line from standard trolling into something much more sinister. Some have suggested a ‘report abuse’ button be installed on Twitter accounts and others have criticised the hopelessly slow response times of the Twitter administration, as well as the lack of facility for reporting any kind of mass trolling like this.
Whilst the arrival of Twitter was enormously exciting, allowing for marketing, networking, social interaction and the lowering of all sorts of boundaries in a way that hasn’t really been seen before, it’s becoming clear that those behind the system either didn’t envisage a situation like this, or simply assumed it wouldn’t be their problem. All along, any communication from the company has been to press those affected to go to the police – which they have and one arrest has now been made – but the question that is being debated all over the internet is whether or not Twitter has a responsibility to police itself in a situation like this, or whether they should be able to rely on referring people to the authorities.
On a practical level, it’s easy to see how self-policing might be hard to do. As was demonstrated with several of the offending accounts, as soon as Twitter suspended an account, the perpetrator simply opened a new one and began the same series of ugly threats and comments. However, the appeal of Twitter for many is that it has been a forum in which opinions can be aired and debate stirred on subjects in a relatively civilised manner. No matter what the logistical issues that it faces, Twitter needs to find a way to return itself to being a safe space in which opinions can be shared without people being abused in this way. If it isn’t able to do that then the strength of public opinion – and all the negative press coverage – raises the question of whether Twitter itself will start to lose followers as people look for other platforms to air their opinions in safety.