Sexist and misogynistic “trolling”, particularly on social networking site Twitter, is in the news.
A few years ago, an internet “troll” was someone who wrote things online for no other reason than to annoy people or elicit a reaction. “Don’t feed the troll” was a common expression, meaning, “Don’t end up in arguments with people whose only aim is to piss you off”.
“Troll” has since come to mean something else — “someone who acts maliciously or nastily on the internet”.
Equality campaigners, socialists and members of oppressed groups are often sent vile material because of their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or progressive political views.
High profile women such as academic Mary Beard and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez have recently been the recipients of abusive tweets.
Caroline Criado-Perez successfully campaigned for Jane Austen’s face to be featured on the new ten pound note. Something fairly benign? Not so to hundreds of vile online misogynists, who sent her murder and rape threats. According to Criado-Perez, she received fifty such abusive tweets every hour for twelve hours.
Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, received rape threats after defending Criado-Perez from online abuse. She has argued for tougher measures to be put in place on Twitter to stop this happening, including a “Report Abuse” function.
Classics professor Mary Beard was called “a dirty old slut” with “a filthy vagina” by a Twitter user. Beard chose to deal with this by publicly taking the troll on. He has since apologised.
Even as a pretty anonymous woman with a largely obscure political blog, I have received threats and misogynistic insults in the past. I’m sure this is the same for any woman who has a blog that has a slightly wider reach than close friends and political allies.
Online sexist abuse is nothing new.
Recently I have seen “Shame Your Ex” groups being set up on Facebook (though they are generally quickly shut down). When I last checked, “Shame Your Ex Hull”, “Name and Shame Your Ex Bristol” and “Name and Shame Your Ex Wales” were still online. They consist of men calling their ex-girlfriends ugly, slutty or bad in bed.
A few months ago there was the “Rate Your Shag” phenomenon — groups linked to gangs of students at various universities. They petered out after much criticism and a barrage of complaints.
And let’s not forget “Confessions of a Uni Student”, “The Lad Bible”, or “UniLad”. Lad Bible promoted such gems of wisdom as “Any female proving hard to bed shall be referred to as a Nobstacle course”.
UniLad came under heavy scrutiny after they posted a “joke” encouraging men to ignore women’s knock-backs, on the basis that “85% of rapes go unreported”.
Online misogyny can also come from women. Popular YouTube user Jenna Marbles posted a video last December called “What I Don’t Understand About Girls Part Two: Slut Edition”, which was a mess of victim-blaming, internalised misogyny and poor arguments.
There are some interesting questions arising out of the experiences of women who use the internet.
Does the internet “breed” misogyny or just reflect the world around us? What are the differences between sexist behaviour online and sexist behaviour offline? Do people act differently online? What should be done to combat abusive messages and tweets?
There’s no evidence that the internet breeds misogyny more than any other medium. Like the printing press, it could be used to spread socialist-feminist ideas just as it could be used to spread sexist or rightwing ones. It entirely depends on the message internet users wish to spread.
It has been said that people feel more able to express bigoted ideas they already hold if they are able to be anonymous and not come face-to-face with people they are offending or oppressing (it dampens human empathy).
But internet anonymity can be a good thing too! It allows activists to have a voice when they may not normally be able to, for example some sex workers, some LGBTQ people and feminists who live in a place hostile to feminism.
More broadly speaking, those living under strict political censorship laws may be able to get around them through internet anonymity: to some extent this happened with activists on Twitter during the Arab spring.
Socialist-feminists are usually against censorship because it often stops us from being able to spread our ideas or from being able to organise.
Marginalised groups are often affected negatively by censorship, or censorship laws are used as an excuse to crack down on them.
In response to abuse and rape and death threats, some commentators and activists have championed a “Report Abuse” button, which Twitter have already have implemented on their new iPhone App.
People who are receiving rape threats should be able to do something about that, including reporting the person who is sending them. Misogynists and abusive internet users should have to face consequences for their actions. At least they should be stopped from sending those messages and re-educated on what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.
As a socialist I would generally advocate community moderation more than police power, although the choice of whether or not to go to the police should be up to those receiving threats.
Despite the best intentions of those advocating it, the “Report Abuse” button is likely to have either no effect on the current situation, or could even make it worse.
Such a button will not prevent misogyny. It will not stop trolls setting up multiple accounts using multiple email addresses, and simply moving on to the next one after their account being taken down.
Unfortunately, the button could also be misused. Report functions on social networking sites are already heavily misused and abused by those in positions of relative power.
It could be used to shut down the opinions of radicals and marginalised people. The “Report Spam” button has been used against anti-fascist groups and sex worker advocacy groups, and “Report Abuse” could be used in the same way.
There could be misinterpretation of silly but sarcastic tweets, which might have very serious consequences, such as the “Twitter Joke Trial”.
After the third appeal, the conviction was quashed, but a man was seriously fined, given a criminal record and lost his job after tweeting, “Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” A comprehensively unfunny tweet, but clearly not a serious threat.
Challenging people for oppressive attitudes could result in activists’ Twitter accounts being suspended or taken down altogether.
As popular leftwing tweeter @Stavvers says, “We would be drowning in white male tears, and Twitter would bow down before one could finish typing ‘your a dick’ to a well-known evolutionary biologist”. (She is referring to Richard Dawkins, and the misspelling of ‘you’re’ is part of the joke.)
We might also, very regrettably, see the decline of funny and rude tweets being sent to rightwing politicians. Twitter user @halfabear has had some good moments, including tweeting George Osborne the following: “I hope your next bottle of Moet is served to you warm, and when you ask for red wine as a replacement, it’s cold”.
There isn’t a quick fix solution to stopping online abuse and misogyny.
Increasing bosses’ control over communication is likely to have a negative effect, if any at all.
Workers’ control of the means of production would help to bring some of the internet under community moderation. Educating ourselves and others on oppressive behaviour and actions would be of great help.
We need to continue the work we do as feminists, as socialists and as socialist-feminists in challenging bigotry and reactionary ideas.