'Twitter Silence' Campaign Brings Out the Worst in Everyone

Prominent British feminist writer Caitlin Moran spearheaded a symbolic day of "Twitter silence" last Sunday to protest the rape and bomb threats a number of high-profile UK women recently received after suggesting Jane Austen be featured on a £10 note. (Misandry!!!) It turns out that giving bullies what they want — silence — only leads to more death threats and a whole lot of ineffective infighting.

Here's a quick recap of what #twittersilence is all about (check out the Guardian's coverage for more): after journalist and women's rights advocate Caroline Criado-Perez successfully campaigned to put Jane Austen on the next £10 bank note, she received dozens of tweets from strangers who said they planned to rape and/or kill her. When Labour MP Stella Creasy voiced support for Criado-Perez, she was subjected to more of the same; Historian Mary Beard also received a bomb threat.

Advertisement

Tony Wang, general manager of Twitter UK, tweeted that the abuse was "simply not acceptable" and pledged to do more to protect users. That's nice. But the internet has been a scary, shitty place for women and other marginalized groups since long before the Austen drama. How do you deal with anonymous trolls who say they want to rape your corpse? Twitter said it planned to add extra staff to the teams that handle abuse reports and expand access to its new "in-tweet" report abuse button. But that's not a quick-fix solution, either; trolls know how to click buttons, too, and — if Facebook's apparent lack of interest in cracking down on hate speech is any indication — big tech companies suck at identifying harassment.

Moran had another idea: "walk out" on Twitter to prove people won't use a service that takes abuse lightly. She wrote on her blog:

I’m pro the mooted 24-hour walk-out on 4th of August, because not only is it a symbolic act of solidarity – which are my favourite kinds of symbolic acts – but because it will also focus minds at Twitter to come up with their own solution to the abuses of their private company.

You know – the popularity of social networking sites waxes and wanes with ferocious rapidity. Twitter might currently be the hot thing – but it only takes a couple of bad months for it to become the new Friends Reunited, the new MySpace, the new Bebo. Another ghost-town, left empty when women, and their good male friends, tired of this horrible clown caravel of rape and death and threat and blocking and antagonism and cynicism and the shrugging insistence that this is how is will always be.

If 52% of Twitters customers – women – see other women being repeatedly left to deal with abuse on their own, then when a new social networking site appears that has addressed this issue appears, then I suspect they will drain away from Twitter in a way that makes a 24-hour walk-out look like a mere bagatelle.

I thought this was a pretty useless plan; the trolls who threaten me do so with the express purpose of shutting me up. Why should I make it easier for them? Twitter isn't the problem — hatred of women who dare to be seen and heard is the problem.

Many others agreed, but I was disappointed to see the discussion devolve into a prolonged controversy over how many times Moran has used the word "retard" (an issue she addresses here). Meanwhile, the bomb threats haven't stopped, which proves that neither silence nor reactionary tweets do much for the cause.

"Something pretty frightening is happening Britain right now," said writer Laurie Penny, who had to call the police and find somewhere else to stay for the night after she received a bomb threat today. "Obviously, abuse and harassment of women online is no respecter of borders, but there is a particular species of sexism going on in the UK that has been facilitated, rather than caused, by platforms like Twitter. The mainstream press, which has long fostered a news economy of misogyny, must bear some responsibility for this - our cultural understanding of debate is particularly adversarial and slides easily into bullying, and what's going on on Twitter right now reflects that tendency."

By all means, let's talk about how it's easier to "stay silent" if you have a massive platform at your disposal, but I'm more in favor of doing your own thing than spending an excessive amount of time railing against an already futile cause. That's what Criado-Perez did — she introduced a #shoutback hashtag, tweeting that #twittersilence "is not how I choose to react. I choose 2 remain on twitter. I choose 2 #shoutback. And I choose not 2 stop even 4 a day."

One positive result of all this: two men have been arrested (but not charged) in connection with the Twitter threats against Creasy and Criado-Perez. That never would've happened if they had stayed silent.