When it comes to protecting rape victims’ identities, Twitter – and the police – are failing miserably

At present, 149 posts are still live on Twitter that ‘out’ three women known by the police and the social media site to be sex offence complainants.

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“The police were saying it was a ‘sexual offence’, but I was like ‘No, I’d done nothing of the sort.’ I had no idea what I’d done. It must have been some mistake.” It was an early January morning, and Matthew*, 17-years-old and wearing nothing but his underwear, was being arrested under the Sexual Offences Act.

Matthew dressed quickly, then the three police officers, his mum Debbie* explains, “threw him in the back of a car and put him in a police cell for the rest of the day.”

By the late afternoon, Debbie found out what her son, who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, had been arrested for: he had named the complainant in a rape trial on Twitter. Over the phone, he now recalls the officers explaining to him: “If someone is meant to be anonymous, then you can’t say their name, even if they’re proved to have not been a victim.” A minor, Matthew was cautioned and released without charge.

The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act prohibits people from breaking the lifelong anonymity given to sex offence complainants. Punishment includes fines of up to £5,000. The law was introduced in 1992, and was, as described by District Judge Wendy Lloyd this week, “designed for newspapers but is now superseded by the fact we publish from laptops and mobile phones”. Lloyd was sentencing 19-year-old Sophie Turner to 18 weeks’ imprisonment after she was found guilty of four charges: two of harassment without violence and two of publishing the names of the complainants of a sexual offence. 

According to Katie Russell, a spokesperson for Rape Crisis, social media posts naming complainants “have very serious repercussions on the lives of sexual violence survivors who have already been through so much”. 

Why, then, do people post the names of sex offence complainants online? And what’s being done to stop them? And what retribution faces the social media companies hosting these illegal posts? I found 149 posts on Twitter outing three women whom the relevant police forces and Twitter know to be sex offence complainants. One, a reality star who was raped in a hotel room in 2012, is currently named 64 times. Another, a woman who alleged a sex assault at a train station, is currently named 86 times.

A third is currently named once – by a Twitter user whose other post naming the same complainant was previously deleted after being reported to Twitter. A fourth woman, whose name stayed posted online for 19 months after police and Twitter were informed, is finally no longer outed on the site as of this week.

***

For the sake of anonymising the complainant named by Matthew, I have also concealed the identity of the defendant in the case, a high-profile sports player acquitted of one charge of rape. “His name was trending on Twitter so I clicked and had a look,” Matthew tells the New Statesman, “And I wasn’t sure if that was [the complainant’s] name because Twitter’s just Twitter and if someone makes up a name it can circulate. So I typed it into Google and it came up with a forum, and the person on the forum said they’d got the name from Sky [News].

“I thought ‘What’s going on with Sky, then?’ so googled something about Sky posting a name and it came up that they’d apologised, but no one got into trouble for it.”

Indeed, in 2012, Sky News apologised after accidentally making the complainant’s name visible – ironically, in screen grabs illustrating a report about members of the public naming the complainant online. The next year, the Daily Mirror was ordered to pay just £1,200 for mistakenly publishing the name of a sex assault complainant. And in 2016, the Telegraph was fined £80,000 after publishing a blurred image of an underage sex assault victim that, a court found, could still identify her.

Matthew’s tweet wasn’t a mistake, though. He explains his thought process: “I guess if everyone was free to criticise [the defendant], and call him loads of stuff, then there [should be] two sides to every argument."

“I hear of a lot of stories of guys getting into trouble for what they didn’t do,” he adds. But how does a perceived injustice lead to publicly naming the complainant? “It was a kind of note to self . . . it wasn’t really for anyone else to see because I didn’t have many followers.”

Matthew didn’t expect the arrest, which happened months after he posted the tweet. “I thought maybe at worst someone will ring or knock on the door and say ‘don’t do it again’. It’s just a name, it’s just a tweet, and I don’t have many followers, I’m not inciting violence, I’m not doing anything horrible.”

“Twitter used to be one of the most free places from about 2012 until recently,” he says. “But now, you know, if it’s even remotely over the top in someone’s eyes then you can get in trouble for it.”

He feels sorry for Mark Meechan, known online as “Count Dankula” and now convicted of posting to YouTube video of him chanting anti-Semitic slogans to his girlfriend’s pet pug, which he’d trained to do a Hitler salute. Matthew also feels for Ant McPartlin, now convicted for drink-driving offences, because “there’s videos online of him, of stuff he wouldn’t like”.

This empathy, for whatever reason, stops short of the young woman Matthew named. Even when I mention her emigrating to escape her fear of reprisals, he responds: “It would make sense if she’s got all that money.”

The money, according to Matthew, is her motivation for alleging rape. “I heard stories of her getting some money from the government for the case and she was buying cars for friends,” Matthew says. When asked why he referred to the complainant as a “mong” in his Twitter post, he insists: “it wasn’t a sign of any malice… it’s one of the lightest insults you can use”.

***

The online disinhibition effect has long been blamed for the workaday expectation that people will post comments online they may not say in real life. Psychotherapist Aaron Balick, who wrote The Psychodynamics of Social Networking, explains: “If a guy is feeling a lack of power when he reads about the case, he might then go on the attack and use this woman as an object.”

Thus, the villain is cast and the story becomes a springboard for the guy’s own feelings. “He’ll use her as a way to lash out at his own identification with the story without even considering her subjectivity. The sad part is, because it’s his own psychology, he’ll be less aware that it’s having an effect on the real person at the end of that tweet.”

Additionally, Balick notes that we can’t always reconcile being physically alone with existing in a public digital space: “It’s revealing that he said it’s a ‘note to self’, as if there’s nobody else involved. When you’re tweeting by yourself, all the indicators are that nobody’s paying attention, but you are still putting it out there.”

In the past two months, Twitter has deleted over 100 tweets in which the poster was insulting the complainant, but that is not always the case. In the 64 tweets remaining online which name a reality star who was raped, the posters – mostly women – profess empathy with the victim, despite illegally naming her. The tone is: “How could X have been raped?” or “I hope whoever raped X gets jail for life”.

“The women might identify with someone who is being victimised, almost like they’re talking from their own experience.” explains Balick. “They would have wanted to feel supported, so they’re expressing the support they imagine that person would appreciate.”

The root psychology of this doesn’t much differ from the vengeful posters, though, Balick continues: “Even if you’re not being vindictive and you’re on the more supportive side, you’re expressing your own need for comfort above what this other person needs, you’re breaking their privacy in order to express something that’s really about you.”

Stories of rape and sex offences have long provoked outrage and public debate about sexual mores and consent, which can often result in policies designed to clamp down on such behaviour. But using others’ emotional turmoil as a conduit for our own experience has ethical limitations. In this case, the public’s entitlement to others’ internality is disrupting the way justice should be done.

***

Matthew is unsure whose responsibility it is to ensure that others don’t repeat his mistakes, but his mother Debbie is steadfast: “I don’t think [he] should ever have been arrested. He wasn’t a danger to anyone.” And Mark*, Matthew’s father – who felt “relief, like, is that it?” when he learned what Matthew was arrested for – insists: “Something’s wrong with the law if you have to go round arresting and prosecuting dozens of people for mentioning the girl’s name. It’s a tripwire.

“It’s down to the media platforms to control what’s published. At the end of the day, they’re the publisher, not the actual person who tweets or posts on Facebook.”

Social media companies can, of course, largely control what content features on their sites. Copyright claims regularly see content taken down at the request of corporations, but individuals who might have already experienced the re-traumatisation of a sex offences trial are perhaps less likely to have the fiscal or emotional capacity to make a similar request.

As for the reporting system, it can often be extremely patchy. Since they were reported to Twitter last month for a news story in the Times, 209 tweets outing rape complainants have been removed. However, these deletions are piecemeal, and 149 tweets still identify complainants whose names are known to both Twitter and the relevant police authorities.

In the case of the complainant Matthew named, all six mentions of her name in relation to the case have been deleted – one, which Twitter had been aware of for over a year, was only deleted after the relevant police force was notified for the purposes of this article.

In the case of one underage victim, a tweet naming her – which refers to her as a “slut” – remains online, despite the same poster’s other tweet about the victim having been deleted.

In the case of the reality star who was raped, 15 tweets identifying her in relation to the term “rape” have been deleted. Of the 149 tweets naming her in relation to the term “raped”, 64 remain online.

In the case of a woman who alleged sexual assault, of the 222 tweets naming her to have been reported, 185 were deleted, a further 37 remain online, alongside another 54 tweets, which were posted in defiance of the deletion of the original 185 posts. The remaining posts contain violent language.

In several of the latter posts, Twitter’s method for removal, as confirmed by the company, runs as follows: suspend offending users’ accounts, making their tweets invisible to others and their accounts inaccessible; then send an email to the user instructing them that they may re-access their account once they’ve checked a box to remove the offending tweet. The offending tweet and its content is repeated in this email.

In many cases, users have complied with the request as hoped. But in others, the user has publicised the enforced deletion, either re-posting the offending content or liaising with alt-right bloggers to encourage en masse, “I am Spartacus” style re-posting of the illegal content.

***

Perhaps more stringent regulation of social media could fix this issue. Earlier this month, Labour MP Jess Phillips called for personal IDs to be linked to social media accounts, saying that she had received over 600 rape threats on Twitter. The government seems to be on board, with security minister Ben Wallace showing his support for online IDs and Theresa May using the G7 summit to call for tech companies to stop attacks on women.

However, the answer might be simpler – and faster – than wholesale social media clampdowns, because posting the name of a complainant is already illegal, and tech companies should be able to pay heed to that. Twitter already uses AI to remove terrorist material from British users’ timelines.

“There are resourcing issue in terms of the criminal justice system the voluntary sector and specialist agencies like ours,” says Russell, “but Twitter is ultimately a profit-making company, and a very successful one at that. They will cite some logistical difficulties and surely some technical considerations, but there are solutions, it’s just showing the will to find them.”

That will may need to be forced upon them. “Goodwill doesn’t seem to be working,” Russell continues. “There need to be sanctions for breaching the law or for not taking action on breaching the law.”

However, Twitter insists, in a statement to the New Statesman, that it only enacts a country-wide ban on content following an “official and valid legal request from a law enforcement agency”.

***

Social media interactions and the sheer amount of evidence they can create have caused issues for police with regard to sex offences. In January, after digital evidence of several defendants’ innocence was only provided close to the respective trial dates, the CPS urgently reviewed all of Scotland Yard’s rape cases. Yet proof of naming a sex offence complainant online is just one easily screen-grabbable post, alongside evidence to prove who owns that account. No previous or subsequent interaction, no matter how hard an officer searches, will exonerate the poster, unless it is a complainant waiving their own anonymity.

In Matthew’s case, the offending tweet remained online from the moment he posted it until, months later, he returned from his day in the police cell and deleted it.

Around the time of Matthew’s arrest, the same force oversaw the arrests of a further nine people – six juveniles and four adults in total – and cautioned them all for naming the complainant. A police spokesperson claims the decision, not publicised at the time, was made “following consultation with the victim and with the Crown Prosecution Service,” but when asked the CPS claims to have only ever been informed of this decision, rather than consulted.

Why were these suspected namers simply cautioned rather than arrested and charged? The commissioner for the police force which arrested Matthew tells the New Statesman that the factors taken into account included “previous offending of the suspect and, more importantly, whether a caution is better suited to protecting the victim from further online abuse and breaches of anonymity”.

While it is understandable that sex offence complainants may never report to the police for fear of reprisals from their attacker/s, the idea of police holding back from making charges for the same reason is alarming. The police are meant to be made of sterner stuff, explains Vera Baird, the Northumbria police commissioner who has campaigned to make sex offence trials fairer for victims: “There is no excuse for the police not referring every case where this law is broken for prosecution to the Attorney General,” she says in an interview. “Police work on increasing confidence, and increasing levels of this very under-reported but hugely damaging crime will be undermined if this law is not strictly enforced.”

Baird agrees with Lloyd, the district judge, that to truly stop re-offending in this manner, penalties should skew higher, not lower: “There is a good case, because of recent events, to increase the penalty to include imprisonment.” The Ministry of Justice refused the New Statesman’s request for comment, but it is worth noting that Justice Secretary David Gauke recently called short-term prison sentences “a last resort”.

The National Police Chief’s Council did not respond to a request about police holding back from charging suspected offenders. It did, though, reply to the New Statesman’s query as to whether police should be encouraged to notify Twitter of complainants’ names so appropriate country-wide bans could be instated: “Protecting the identity of rape victims at a time when technology is rapidly changing is always a challenge. We will continue to work with internet companies to make sure that every step is taken to preserve victims’ anonymity.”

In a statement, the Metropolitan Police said it was “clear in its ambition to become a world leading digital police service. Social media presents a number of challenges where victims and suspects are named prior to any trial or prosecution. We are working with our partners such as the Crown Prosecution Service and social media sites to intervene and remove those posts and pursue offenders were possible. We are aware of the report made to the Met by the New Statesman reporter and enquiries continue.”

***

What Matthew did is reprehensible, but Twitter getting away with allowing other users to do similar is far more sinister.

A spokesperson for Twitter reiterates to the New Statesman that the company “regularly engage[s] policing and justice organisations to ensure they’re up to speed on how we operate”. The spokesperson defended the company’s methodology of asking users to remove posts containing illegal content – or “content violations” – on the basis that it is “to ensure that we are not being overly harsh with an otherwise healthy account that made a mistake and violated our Rules.”

Society should certainly do away with the misogyny inherent in the debunked myth that women have a habit of making up sex offence complaints in order to get “compo”, as 19-year-old Turner phrased it in the posts for which she was jailed. Labour MP Stella Creasy’s suggestion of making misogyny a hate crime along with homophobia, transphobia, racism and anti-religious hatred, is a good long-term solution. But this law, just like the introduction of IDs on social media, will only be useful if Twitter – a company which, on this year’s International Women’s Day promised to “stand with women around the world to make their voices heard” – plays ball.

At present, Twitter does not seem to be following the same laws as its users. And the police seem unable or unwilling to monitor the repeated online naming of high-profile complainants. The Metropolitan Police in particular has not responded adequately to the New Statesman’s repeated requests for comment.

The #MeToo era, bolstered by online conversations, is effective enough to see victims of sexual violence feeling increasingly confident in coming forward. But as 149 tweets currently show, there are ways of unsettling this confidence.

*Some names have been changed to protect identities.

Sophie Wilkinson is a freelance journalist. She tweets @sophwilkinson