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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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

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