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?

Azeem Ward
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Living the Meme: What happened to Azeem Ward and his flute?

In the first of a new series investigating what happens to people after they become memes, we speak to Azeem Ward, whose flute recital went viral in 2015.

The Sixties had Woodstock. The Nineties had Lollapalooza. The Tens – and, if we’re being honest, just a single year of them – had Azeem's Senior Flute Recital.

If you were inactive on the internet between 12 and 16 May 2015, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing who Azeem Ward is. After setting up a Facebook page for his end of year flute performance, the University of California student was inundated with over 100,000 RSVPs from the United Kindom, along with multiple requests to fly to England and play (for no apparent reason) Darude’s “Sandstorm” in Nando’s. After international news coverage, Ward – as all memes inevitably do – appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to discuss his newfound fame. On 16 May, he had to turn hordes of people away from the 500 seat recital hall, and over 55,000 individuals tuned into a livestream of the event. Then, Ward disappeared. Not from social media, and not from the world, but from the internet’s collective consciousness.

Search interest in "Azeem Ward" over time

“I’d say no,” answers Ward, when I ask him whether, one and a half years later, he still receives any special attention or has any fan interactions. “I’m just regular Azeem now, and I’m okay with that. Regular me is a more focussed person that is not reacting to things that are happening around me.”

Ward is Skyping me from his home in Iowa, where he is getting his master’s degree in flute performance. He spends his time composing flute beatbox songs, learning how to produce music, and teaching a class on flute fundamentals at the university. “A lot of [the students] here in Iowa know what happened but they don’t go like: ‘Oh my God! It’s Azeem!’. It’s just like, ‘Hey, what’s up man? I saw that one thing about you on Jimmy Kimmel’.”  

The original Facebook event page

Ward regained his anonymity when he moved to Iowa, as many of his fellow undergraduate students in California recognised him because he was on the local news. “But the whole viral thing was a UK thing,” he explains, “It wasn’t really around the whole US.”

An Azeem meme

Four months after his famed flute recital, Ward did come to the UK and toured the country to perform as part of various university freshers’ weeks. “That was a crazy time,” he says, “I was over there for five weeks and played 22 shows in 12 different cities, all the way from London to Scotland.” His concerts were popular, though most people came to take a selfie or ask about how the recital happened, and only a few wanted to talk to him about music. Still, Ward profited from the events. “We did make some pretty good money," he says, admitting he earnt around $5,000. 

Despite clearly enjoying this time, Ward seems unfazed that his viral fame is now over. His only regrets, he says, are that he didn’t make any connections in the music business while in the UK, and that he didn’t have any social media accounts set up before he went viral, so there was nowhere for people to go to listen to his music. “When you go viral people hold onto that rather than taking you seriously as a musician,” he says. “Sometimes it annoyed me but sometimes I realised that I wouldn’t be there in the first place if it wasn’t for going viral.”

Azeem now, photo courtesy of Azeem Ward

So what advice would Ward give to the next person who finds themselves, unwittingly, the object of the internet’s affection?

“I'd say don't lose sight of what you've already been doing in your life, like keep your focus. I'd say that sometimes in your head you're like ‘Oh man, I have to do this now’, but you've just got to stay focussed on your goals. When you have your own path and you go viral you have a lot of people asking you to do all these different things. It was pretty intense – I’m not used to having a lot of people look at me and my actions, so I was pretty anxious at first. In the end I realised that I came to do what I came to do, and I had to go do it.”

Although Ward doesn’t miss being internet-famous, it is clear that going viral had an impact on him. He recalls the peak of the madness with telling clarity, sharing specific details such as "256 people” clicked attending in "four hours", and “then 512”, before 12,000 people RSVP’d overnight. Mostly, however, he seems very grounded, though he acknowledges it was “out of control” and “really crazy”.

Perhaps Ward feels this way because he received little in the way of negativity or hate. He fondly discusses memes that were created and art that was drawn about him, and the support of his family and friends. “Even though there were a lot of silly things going on, I managed to make it positive for the school,” he says. “I had no haters. Everyone was like ‘Damn, Azeem. Good job, man’.”

One day, Ward hopes to come back to London, although he is wary of returning. Not because of his viral fame, nor the number of selfies he might have to take with Nando's customers, but because of Brexit. Our conversation, like all post-June conversations, turns swiftly to the topic, and Ward asks me about the economy. “I was thinking about trying to do a doctorate over in London, but if things aren't going to be so good in a few years...” 

Ward admits he wouldn’t be bothered if he never went viral again. “When I think of something going viral, I think it has a point in time where there’s so much interest and then it goes away. I’d like to produce material and the attention to keep going up.” So do you want to be famous, I ask? “Do I really want to be famous?” he ponders. “Being famous is okay, I guess. But I want to be is respected and appreciated.”

To listen to Azeem’s music visit soundcloud.com/azeem-ward or Like his Facebook page.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, reach out to Amelia on Twitter.

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