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?

Photo: Getty
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2017 is the year we realise we've been doing the Internet wrong

Networks can distribute power or they can centralise it.

A couple of years ago I visited Manchester tech start up Reason Digital. They were developing an app to help keep sex workers safe. The nature of sex work means workers are often vulnerable to crime, crimes which can be particularly difficult to solve because witnesses are reluctant to come forward and crime scenes often public and subject to interference.

Reason Digital thought if they could alert sex workers of relevant incidents in their vicinity – harassment, a foiled attack – that would help sex workers protect themselves.

So, of course, they created an app which tracked the location and habits of all sex workers in Manchester in a central database and sent out alerts based on where they were and what they were doing, right?

Did they hell.

They knew a real-time centralised, location database would immediately be a target for the very people they wanted to help protect sex workers from. Moreover, they wanted their app to empower sex workers, to put them in control. And they knew that sex workers would be reluctant to hand over any part of their hard fought privacy.

So the Reason Digital app kept the location and other data on the sex workers’ smart phone and let it decide which alerts were relevant and what information to share.

That is the kind of distributed, autonomous app putting people in control we just don’t see on the Net.  No, all the apps that improve our lives – from Facebook to Uber to match.com – cull the intelligence and data from the user and stick it in the vaults of a company or, occasionally, a government.

Thankfully, the majority of us are nowhere near as vulnerable as the majority of sex workers – to physical crime at least.

But we are increasingly vulnerable to cybercrime, a vulnerability which will increase exponentially once everything is connected to the Internet of Things.

And we are vulnerable to the exploitation of our data, whether through data mining or algorithmic determinism. Google’s search engine can be “gamed” by extremists, used to strengthen hatred and spread stereotypes. I have also been told one major dating site optimises it matchmaking algorithm for short term relationships – it means more return business. And Uber have admitted it knows you’re likely to pay more for a ride if your battery is low – which it also knows. Our data is what drives services and profits on the Net - but we’re unable to reap the rewards of the value we create.

That’s why 2017 will be the year we realise we got the Net wrong.

Not the underlying internet, designed by the public and third sectors in the seventies to be as distributed and autonomous as possible.

Or even the World Wide Web, invented in the nineties by the public and private sectors, again without central control.

But the apps developed in the last couple of decades to use the infrastructure of the internet to deliver services.

Networks can distribute power – like the electricity power grid –  or they can centralise it – like old boys networks.

Increasingly, I fear the Net is doing the latter.  And for three main reasons.

Firstly, a technical legacy of the early internet: in the days of slow broadband and unreliable devices it made sense to transmit as little as possible and control your user experience by centralising it. That problem is by and large history, but the centralisation remains.

Secondly these apps were mainly developed by a small group of privileged people – white, male, relatively well-off engineers. That’s why, for example, the biggest campaign of the early  internet pioneers was against porn filtering. Yes, for many years the most inspirational internet civil rights struggle was for rich western men to have absolutely untrammelled access to porn. So often I was the only woman at the conference table as this issue was raised again and again, thinking ‘is this really the biggest issue the tech community faces’?

But there is a seam of libertarianism in technology which sees it as above and beyond the state in general and regulation in particular. Even as a replacement for it. Who needs a public sector if you have dual core processing?  When tech was the poor relation in the global economy that could be interesting and disruptive. Now tech is the global economy, it is self-serving.

And thirdly these apps were developed in a time of neoliberal consensus. The state was beaten and bowed, shrunk to its role of uprooting barriers and getting out of the way of the brilliant, innovative, invisible hand of the private sector.  When I was at Ofcom in the 2000s we strove valiantly, day and night, to avoid any regulation of the internet, even where that included consumer rights and fairer power distribution.

As a consequence now the Net is distributing power but to the wrong people.

  • It’s not empowering the poor and dispossessed but the rich and self-possessed.
  • It’s not empowering sex workers in Manchester but criminal cartels in China.
  • It’s not empowering the  cabbie in Coventry but the $62Billion Uber everywhere.
  • It’s not empowering the plucky little startup in rural Hexhamshire but the global enterprise headquartered in Bermuda.
  • It’s not empowering the Nigerian market woman with a yam to sell but the Wall Street stockbroker with your data to market.
  • It’s not empowering the Iranian dissident but the Russian state.

That’s a betrayal of the power and original purpose of the net: for greater human empowerment.

To be sure some of that is happening. The Arab Spring, for example  Campaigns for the tampon tax and Black Lives Matter are enhanced by the web. Apps such as Pol.is and MassLBP look to make 

digital democracy work. Institutes like Newcastle’s Digital Civics Institute are working at systems to enable real democratic collaboration. Groups and enterprises such as Medical Confidential, MySociety, Cap Collectif and Delib try to deliver control back to the citizen consumer. European research project d-cent has helped develop tools that can make deliberative democracy work.

But against that we have the rapacious data centralisation of big companies and, at times, the state.

What we need is a government that is capable of leading and inspiring the tech sector to empower citizens and consumers. Ignoring the libertarian technocrats who say it’s for them to determine how tech power is distributed and remembering that the white heat of technology should be at the service of the people, not the other way round.  This government has neither the capacity nor the will to take on that mission. As part of our review of industrial strategy, Labour will be examining ways in which tech can be empowered to deliver the economy we want, and people empowered to make the best use of it.

Tech and politics are the twin drivers of progress, and I’m lucky enough to have worked in both. If there is one thing we have seen it is that as people become richer they have fewer children, more education and a greater sense of privacy and autonomy.  2017 is the year to start giving back to the people the data and control they should never have lost.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.