Over the last week or so several of my favourite female journalists and writers have been tackling the issue of internet trolling, in particular sexist and misogynist remarks made towards them via email, twitter and comments on online news sites. The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore and The New Statesman’s Laurie Penny and Helen Lewis-Hasteley have all written really interesting articles highlighting the abuse they have suffered through anonymous comments. By bringing these horrible comments and threats to light, they hope to promote debate on the issue and hopefully encourage news sites, internet service providers and the police to take these threats more seriously.
One story that particularly horrified me was in Suzanne Moore’s article. She highlighted the abuse faced by sex writer Petra Davies who has had repeated threats of rape and sexual violence in reaction to her work. In one case, the abuser set up a website full of images of sexually mutilated women that advertised her services as a sex worker, making some pretty horrendous threats to cut her open and make her scream.
This got me thinking about another instance of online abuse that really upset me at the time. During the Ryan Giggs injunction media frenzy, Imogen Thomas got vilified in the press and by posters online, with several threatening to go to her house and make her scream. The girl slept with a footballer and may or may not have been trying to sell the story to the press. Ryan Giggs did some morally suspect things but I don’t recall people threatening to rape or kill him. Why does a certain (small) section of society feel the need to bring gender and sexual violence into it? They were both in the wrong but why does only one of them get blamed in such a harsh and vicious way? Is it because women are expected to conform to such double standards? Society wants them to be constantly sexually alluring and available, but once they open their mouths, especially about sexual and gender issues, they are condemned as whores and sluts.
Obviously this type of behaviour has been going on long before the internet and it is going to take more than cracking down on internet trolls to end sexism and misogyny in our society but I feel that taking online threats as seriously as threats in person is a good place to start. It was refreshing to see internet troll Sean Duffy jailed earlier this year for his hateful remarks about dead teenagers online. If something would be illegal in real life, it’s time for the authorities to bring laws up to date to make the same things illegal online. Threats of murder and rape should be severly punished, like they would be if they were made on the street.
Newspaper sites who encourage underhand, malicious and sometimes offensive comments in the quest for hits really have something to answer too as well. They would protect their writers from hate mail and wouldn’t publish ridiculously politically incorrect views in their letters section in the print edition, so why do they allow them to be published online?
The internet can be a great and democratic place for everyone to access information and to share their views. However, for all the positives it sadly enables sad lonely people to sit in their bedrooms and hurl anonymous abuse at whoever they choose. Part of the problem is that this anonymity makes people think it is not only acceptable, but that they have the right to say whatever offensive, hurtful things they want to.
Anyone whose job it is to moderate the comments on sites online will tell you how much time they spend every day deleting offensive comments only to have those people come back and demand that their views be allowed to stay. I have friends who work for big brands and charities who tell me some of the awful comments they have to moderate and the abuse they get when they do. For example a friend at a major fashion brand gets daily comments about how ‘disgusting’ the models are and how much they hate the clothes (with several expletives thrown in). Would these people go into the store and shout these things at a sales assistant? Another friend works for a major charity and has to delete racist and sexist comments all the time and these people keep coming back to complain that they have the right to be heard. Why do people think that these brands and charities have a duty to be a platform for their hateful views? The same can be said for bloggers. They pay for their domains and put a lot of work into their sites, so why shouldn’t they delete abusive comments? The internet gives us a chance to have free speech, but whatever your opinion, if you can’t convey it in a sensible and non-offensive way then the rest of us really shouldn’t have to be subjected to it.
With the internet changing the way we communicate, it’s high time our politicians and police change they way they deal with online threats and racist and sexist abuse. There are so many stories online of female bloggers getting emails that quote their address and with threats to come round and rape them where the police have been reluctant to do anything. How hard can it be to trace these people’s IP addresses and find them? The problem is that the police just don’t take online threats seriously. I think that in the future, someone who makes online threats will be dealt with as seriously as if they made them in person. I just hope we can get there sooner rather than later.