Misogyny, intimidation, silencing – the realities of online bullying

The aggregated effect of floods of negative comments online can be enough to put opinionated women off appearing in public.

Last night I was chatting online, offering support to a friend who had just been bullied off Twitter. Nobody famous. Just an ordinary, everyday sort of woman who has taken the nastiness that life has dealt her over the last few years and come through it. Smiling? Mostly. But also vulnerable.

As an active feminist, she deals with anonymous abuse – she gets a fair bit of that, from the EDL and their hangers-on – and though it’s not nice, she copes. What got to her this time, though, was the viciousness of "friends" when called out on their refusal to condemn violence against women and joke polls about "people you'd most like to kill".

Hilarious. Only she is far from alone. My own friends list is full of people – mostly women – whose activism has led to them being targeted: whose failure to "get a joke" turns them instantly into the butt of one themselves. I've been on the receiving end, too, very recently. Of online abuse. Of intimidation. Though nowhere on the scale of that endured by better known columnists such as Julie Bindel, who has been threatened yet again this past weekend.

So forgive me if I don't join with those suggesting Suzanne Moore "man up" in response to the latest batch of online abuse. Or dissing Mary Beard, who has come in for abuse following her appearance on Question Time last week, as an online wimp. It’s an issue – and the simplistic analysis I have seen of it so far doesn't go a fraction of the way to address it.

First up, there is something disturbingly misogynistic about online bullying. Yes: blokes, male columnists, undoubtedly get it too. But it feels as though there is something far more vicious, gender-related with respect to what women have to endure.

Beard makes the point well, in a blog responding to her own online treatment. It is clear that she is no stranger to tired old jokes about her appearance – but even she has been shocked about the response she evoked, describing the level of misogyny as “truly gobsmacking”. The focus of much of the abuse is sexual, sadistic even and, she adds: “it would be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public, contributing to political debate”.

In other words, it is silencing, something I get very well from personal experience. I’ve opted out of contributing online for periods ranging from hours to a couple of weeks after being subjected to this sort of online nastiness. Not just me. Many far braver women with serious contributions to make to public discourse on violence and abuse have suffered similar: been silenced simply for having an opinion.

Some of this is just “mobbing” – I use the word deliberately – in the sense of birds flocking together to repel a common threat. It’s pretty apposite for Twitter, whose name and language (tweeting) both allude to birdy origins. There is no plan: no organising mind. Usually.

Though, of course, with social networking being what it is nowadays, it is hard, at times, to distinguish deliberate organisation from rabbles roused through incendiary comments on shared interest groups and forums.

Individual comments may be strong but otherwise innocuous. However, it is their aggregate effect that is pernicious. One adverse comment I can cope with. Ten I’ll manage. A hundred flooding my various online access points is intimidating, even if most aren’t meant that way.

And some comments ARE deliberately intimidating. There has been criticism of Suzanne Moore for referring some of her detractors to the police. I don’t share that criticism, having involved the police more than once in response to threats received. Not just direct threats. But the ones that reference my whereabouts.

Why? Because even though I’m not hard to find, the fact of tweeting that information, in any form, is more sinister. It shows that the poster did some research about me and, having researched, is now proudly boasting: “I know where you live”. That’s creepy in any language: doubly so when you think of the intended target.

Ok. I’ll be charitable. Maybe it’s the same sort of thing as walking behind a woman late at night – and the way some guys just don’t get that that is intimidating: think it is about THEIR rights, THEIR freedoms. But, I’ll say it again: this is a bigger issue than many are prepared to admit.

It’s about misogyny. It’s about intimidation. It’s about silencing.

I don’t know the answer. Rather, it seems, we are looking at the balance between two mirror-image issues. “Above-the-line”, in the mainstream press, the real issue is not so much freedom as access: the ability of minorities to make themselves heard.

“Below-the-line”, in comments, on Twitter, the problem is the opposite. Too many voices, raised in angry clamour, with little thought for their effect on others. How we regulate that – or not – will in time determine who actually gets to have a voice on many issues.

Twitter can play host to extreme "mobbing", where users flock together to try and expel a perceived "threat". Photograph: Getty Images

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt