Diary: Internet trolls, Twitter rape threats and putting Jane Austen on our banknotes

Caroline Criado-Perez starts the week in triumph as the Bank of England agrees to keep women of merit on our banknotes . . . and sinks into despair as trolls on Twitter line up the promises to rape, torture and kill her.

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It’s Wednesday morning and I’m still debating whether or not to wear my Jane Austenesque dress down to Hampshire. I’m about to attend a public announcement by the Bank of England that, in response to three months of campaigning for female representation on banknotes, it is instigating a review of its procedures and will in the meantime confirm Austen for the next tenner.
 
I opt for a simple red dress, concerned that otherwise the media will paint me as some sort of deranged Jane Austen fangirl – which, to be fair, I am. And, as it happens, I end up painted as such in the press anyway.
 
I head off, purged of Regency regalia, to Austen’s house, where I look forward to being able to announce finally what I’ve known for over a week: that we took on an establishment institution and won.
 
Standing next to the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, and the politicians Stella Creasy and Mary Macleod, I think: this is an amazing experience.
 

Torrent of abuse

 
But then, suddenly, it isn’t. Among the many good wishes pouring into my Twitter timeline, one @JackRiley92 has decided to let me know that he has taken umbrage at the outcome of my campaign. And he lets me know in a way used by domineering men down the ages when a woman gets a bit uppity: he makes a threat of rape – to be specific, violent anal rape.
 
This is just the beginning. Over the next couple of weeks I receive a steady stream of violent abuse, including rape and death threats. At its peak I am getting about one threat a minute, with men discussing how they will rape me together, which parts of my body will be penetrated and exactly how they are going to kill me. They are still coming in now – the latest: a death-throughgang- rape threat where I’m told to “KISS YOUR PUSSY GOODBYE AS WE BREAK IT IRREPARABLY”.
 
I feel like pointing out that if I’m dead, the state of my “pussy” will be the least of my concerns, but it seems a bit pedantic. 
 

Knock, knock! Who’s there?

 
The threats are vivid, graphic, horrific. I can’t help visualising them. I stop eating, I can’t sleep, I keep crying from sheer exhaustion and despair at the hatred for women that is pouring relentlessly into my Twitter feed.
 
While I am in this state, the media come knocking – literally. A London Evening Standard journalist turns up on my doorstep at 10.15pm on Sunday night. My first reaction is a surge of adrenalin and fear; my second, fury at the thoughtless insensitivity. Then back to fear, as I wonder how she has found my address.
 
For the most part, though, the media are supportive and understanding, if relentless. I am pleased that they are running the story – what is happening to me has happened to too many other people before, without anyone batting an eyelid. It is good to see it taken seriously and I feel it’s my responsibility to speak to as many journalists as I can, in part to put pressure on platforms such as Twitter, and on the police, to take it seriously. If this has to happen to me, I am determined that I will use it to try as hard as I can to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. It’s vital to make sure no one else is silenced.
 

Asking for it

 
Perhaps inevitably, given the antipathy towards any woman who isn’t a good, quiet little miss, it isn’t long before soi-disant supporters turn on me. “This is getting boring,” I am told. “Enough now.” I am making people uncomfortable. If I continue to “feed the trolls”, I deserve all I get. Never mind that ignoring or blocking only results in new accounts being set up – or the trolls simply finding a new victim. Never mind that my “trolls” are trying to shut me up. Never mind: take this awkward truth away.
 
Given the celebrity-obsessed society we live in, it is no surprise that a regular dripdrip of tweets comes through accusing me of “milking” the threats for fame, as if I had somehow invited them. As if I – as if anyone – could enjoy it. Some people, clearly more enterprising than me, accuse me of making money out of the situation. This is a suggestion that has sadly yet to come to fruition.
 

Now what?

 
The past couple of weeks have been surreal. Before the whirlwind of rape threats and press interviews, I was finishing up my MSc at LSE (now deferred) and campaigning for the use of more women experts in the media through the online directory the Women’s Room. The most high-profile thing I’d ever done was run the banknotes campaign – a campaign I started in a moment of rage at yet another decision wiping out women’s contribution to history, hampering the aspirations of young girls growing up without female role models. I was just another anonymous voice in the melee.
 
Now, I no longer recognise my life. I am suddenly someone with a “platform” and despite the abuse that got me here, this has made me public property. Suddenly I am contacted by anyone and everyone with a grievance or a story to run. I am expected to hold forth on all the ills of the world, I must condemn people and acts on request, and if I don’t, if I am just struggling to keep my head above water right now, I am deemed inadequate – someone to be pilloried.
 
The response from Twitter is initially woeful: the head of journalism and news, Mark Luckie, locks his account and blocks me personally as a result of people contacting him to tell him about the abuse I am receiving. The police are initially quick to respond but then achingly slow to act. Now, no doubt due to the intense media coverage, they are both acting. Twitter has taken some baby steps towards supporting the victims rather than the criminals, and the police have applied the resources they need to the problem and made some arrests. The next step is to make sure that this is a solution for everyone, not just those with a “platform”.
 
I don’t know where my life will go from here. I wonder whether the abuse will ever stop. I wonder if I am for ever doomed to be “that rapey girl off Twitter”. I wonder if I will ever gain control over my life again.
Caroline Criado-Perez (right) with Mary Macleod, Mark Carney and Stella Creasy unveiling the new Jane Austen £10 note. Photo: Getty

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Is there any truth in the rumours of a YouTube “paedophile ring”?

Talk among high-profile YouTube users of paedophilic activity on the video-sharing site began spreading late last week.

“Hi, internet friends. There is a paedophile ring on YouTube.”

So starts a five-minute-long video by YouTuber ReallyGraceful, a romance author who makes tri-weekly videos “diving down the rabbit hole of truth”. ReallyGraceful created her video after a Reddit post claimed that child pornography could be found on YouTube if a user searched the words “Webcam video from”.

Since then, many big name YouTubers have followed suit in trying to expose an alleged paedophile ring on the site. Last week, Pyrocynical, a British YouTuber with over one and a half million subscribers, created a video called “Child Exploitation on YouTube”, discussing “Webcam video from” videos of children twerking or filmed from sexually suggestive angles, many of which had accumulated millions of views and hundreds of predatory comments. He notes that none of the videos contained actual nudity.

“This is essentially softcore child porn,” he says in the video, before later adding: “YouTube has the ability to crack down on this shit but they choose not to.”

If you search “Webcam video from” on YouTube today, no such videos will be found. YouTube relies on a system of users and “trusted flaggers” to highlight videos that violate its policies, and it appears that, after the videos were exposed by top YouTubers, the content has been removed.

“YouTube has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual content involving minors,” a YouTube spokesperson says. “Engaging in any type of activity that sexualises minors – including leaving inappropriate comments – will immediately result in an account termination. We encourage users to flag videos or comments for our review.”

Although it is apparent that some sexually suggestive content was hosted on YouTube, and that predators also aggregated innocent videos of children, is there any truth to rumours that “Webcam video from” is a secret code for paedophiles, and that a ring – which is to say, a group of people acting together to find, upload, and share the content – is operating on the site?

YouTube’s “webcam capture” feature was discontinued at the beginning of 2016, but it previously allowed users to upload content directly from their webcams which would then be titled “Webcam video from” followed by the date and time. Most of these videos were innocent, though it is apparent from comments posted on such videos – with the “Webcam video from” title – that predators used the search term to find content of children. Accusations that paedophiles downloaded, reuploaded and monetised these videos are hard to prove or disprove, though it is possible, considering how long such videos were left up. Most of these videos were – before they were removed – a few years old, and the trend seems to be an obsolete one that was only discovered recently.

Comments from “Webcam video from” videos, via Imgur

This wouldn't be the first time that paedophilic activity has been discovered on YouTube. Last April, a spate of “mummy vloggers” stopped filming their children after discovering that their videos were embedded into paedophilic playlists on the video-sharing site.

“Before the internet, someone with a sexual interest in children had to take lots of risks,” Karl Hopwood, a member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, told me at the time. “They needed to loiter near schools, go to the beach or park. Now, they can browse huge amounts of content from the privacy of their own homes, and no one knows they have done it.”

It is clear, then, that predatory users can abuse YouTube to find, aggregate, and share content of children, but the term “paedophile ring” muddies the story slightly. The phrase implies some sort of organisation or central power, and ReallyGraceful connected it to “Pizzagate”, the conspiracy theory, favoured by some Donald Trump supporters, that a pizza shop in Washington DC is a front for a Democratic paedophile ring visited by Hillary Clinton.

“You can say all day that this has nothing to do with Pizzgate but clearly it has everything to do with Pizzagate because there is a paedophile ring out in the freaking open on YouTube,” she said in her video.  

ReallyGraceful also uses her channel to spread stories about “#TwitterGate”, an alleged paedophile ring on Twitter. “The story that broke this morning involves the very platform that was trying to supress Pizzagate,” she says in her video on the topic. In her video about YouTube’s “paedophile ring” she says: “The second one of us uploads a Pizzagate video to YouTube, we get flagged for some ridiculous reason.” ReallyGraceful voted for Trump and has previously created videos questioning Barack Obama's birth certificate

The rhetoric of “paedophile rings” has been seized as a political tool by some US right-wingers to argue for their cause, as well as attack their enemies and generate hysteria about the need to “drain the swamp”. This new-found trend of “exposing” paedophile rings and using this exposure to bolster one’s own political beliefs can obscure legitimate concerns about children’s online safety. While predators may in the past have used YouTube to prey on children, the sensationalism of a handful of professional YouTubers in telling the story has obscured a real and important issue.

If you identify troubling content on YouTube, click the flag underneath the video or the three dots next to the comment in question. A staff of specialists monitor all reports 24/7 and will take action to remove any offending content. If you are concerned about a child’s online safety, you can find advice or make a report to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre at: ceop.police.uk.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.