Lord Rennard (r), who denies the allegations against him, with Sir Menzies Campbell at Lib Dem Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on the "Lord Grope" case: a system that discriminates against women

Systematic abuse happens when the system is abusive.

Sexual abuse is like every other abuse of power. It assumes that those who have power are entitled to do what they like to those who don’t, and it runs through the British establishment like veins of rot through stinking cheese. This week, when my editor asked me if I might write about “Lord Grope” – aka Chris Rennard, the Lib Dem peer at the centre of the latest high-profile (denied) allegations of sexual harassment – I hesitated. I’ve spent a solid month writing about sexual abuse and women’s rights – and young female writers who talk too much about “lady problems” often find ourselves edged away from talking about “serious politics”. Unfortunately, the fact that the sexual abuse and violence at the heart of the political establishment are not considered “serious politics” is precisely the problem.

Unless you’ve spent the past decade living in the bottom drawer of an elderly lecher’s bedside table, nesting down among the used tissues and copies of Razzle from 1983, you will probably have noticed that the way we understand sex and power is undergoing a vertiginous shift. Across the rainy vistas of the establishment, whether it’s the church, the media, politics or entertainment, sexual abuse by powerful people has suddenly become unacceptable, where for years it was tacitly condoned.

Now panic is setting in. Those with their own dirty bottom drawers are hoping like hell that throwing a few handsy pseudocelebrities to the tabloids to be torn apart will be enough. In the case of “Lord Grope”, it has become clear that Nick Clegg was made aware of complaints about his party’s chief executive years ago but did nothing. Why would he? Until extremely recently, it has been politically expedient to ignore such complaints. Nobody wants to be the next Anita Hill.

The scale and importance of sexual abuse, the difference between a naughty scandal and a rape allegation – these are things that the British public is more than intelligent enough to understand. We just don’t seem to want to. Just this past week I was invited on to ITV’s This Morning to explain to Phillip Schofield whether it is ever appropriate to grab a woman’s bottom. This taught me two things: first, that mainstream sexual discourse still struggles like a dying fish with the notions of context and consent, and second, that you’re not allowed to say “arse” on live television before lunchtime. You’re allowed to talk scurrilously about scandals, but not seriously about rape, abuse, or trauma. That might frighten the kiddies or, worse, the electorate.

Right now, we’re undergoing a small revolution in our understanding of what sexual and social abuse looks like. I do not use the word “revolution” lightly. In a courageous blog post, the Channel 4 journalist Jon Snow described how the Savile case brought back memories of his own experience of childhood abuse and explained that British society is undergoing a “sexual watershed”, where routine exploitation of women and children by those in authority is finally spoken about in public.

“This is a dramatic moment in the affairs of men and women; we shall all be tested,” Snow writes. “And while we in broadcasting, in the law, in parliament, in education, and in wider society must tread with diligence and great care to both accuser and accused, we owe it to those who suffered in a hopefully departing age to have the full protection of us all in ensuring that their claims [are] thoroughly investigated and responded to.”

The question is: are we ready to deal with the warped attitude to power and gender that underpins exploitation, or is bringing down a few gropers going to satisfy us?

In 2013, almost everywhere you look – from the Socialist Workers Party’s wincingly suspicious “rape tribunal”, to the Pollard report on the Savile inquiry, to Father Fiddly being kicked out of the Catholic Church – men who never expected to be held to account for exploiting younger, less powerful women and children are having to deal with the consequences of their actions. What links these cases, apart from a gobsmacking institutional acceptance of sexism, is that the accusations quickly become questions of discretion, discipline and protocol, not of routine exploitation of the vulnerable. The establishment is dealing with the new backlash against sexual and sexist abuse the only way it knows how – by talking to itself.

The voices of women are quickly muted in the press; what might begin as a case of “he said, she said” quickly becomes “he said, he said”. Issues of abuse and exploitation, after all, are “lady problems”, not “serious politics”. Serious politics, politics that makes and keeps headlines, is what happens when women shut up and let the men fight it out like dogs over an inappropriate boner.

When people keep asking themselves a question to which the answer is obvious, it usually means the answer is uncomfortable. Every time the newspapers ask themselves – on the pages opposite images of topless models soundlessly mouthing the editor’s opinions – how decades of sexual abuse of women and children have gone unchecked, they ignore the plain fact that sexual exploitation and sexist discrimination were and remain the background noise of power.

Systematic abuse happens when the system is abusive. It happens when those in power are allowed to exploit and dehumanise those less powerful than themselves without facing any consequences. And it won’t change until it is challenged.

UPDATE 28 February 2013 14:40:

Following a productive debate on Twitter, I'd like to remind readers that, although systematic sexism plays an enormous role in the normalisation of sexual harassment, it is not only women and children who are victims of institutional abuse. Some people felt that this piece didn't reflect this adequately, and I'm happy to make the point clear.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

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