By Jane Fae
Yesterday I sat and listened, with mounting horror, to a speech by women’s rights campaigner and journalist Caroline Criado-Perez. If truth be told, I'd rather not have been there. Had I been sat closer to the back of the hall, I might well have snuck out briefly.
That is no reflection on Caroline. Rather, it is one of the reasons why Women's Aid assembled an event to look at the effect that cyber-stalking and online abuse have on women and to question whether the response by society, by business and above all government, was enough. The depressing answer appears to be a loud, resounding no.
Caroline’s presentation [Note: the speech which this hyperlink leads to contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence] led the day. She told of online reaction to what she otherwise considered a minor victory for commonsense and equality. She objected to the Bank of England removing women entirely from the list of personalities featured on our bank notes, called them out on it and, after online campaigning and a few well-placed legal threats, won the day. Justice served: no big deal.
What she was not prepared for, what she gave us all a taste of yesterday morning, was the absolute, mostly male, fury which followed online. For five minutes she read out a litany of threats and insults. Rape, rape and rape again was the pervading theme. Individuals were going to rape her. Kill her then rape her. Rape her while dead. Some posters made it very clear they had her address – were encouraging others to do the deed they dared not do.
Like many others in the hall, I was close to tears. It was awful stuff and we endured just five minutes worth. Caroline put up with weeks of it.
Why not go offline, some commentators asked – as some police officers also suggested to her. Because then, they – the bigots, the haters, the misogynists – would have won, would have done so with the collusion of the authorities.
The conference heard, too, from groups such as @misogyny_online, who have now started to document this hatred, which is targeted not simply at occasional individuals like Caroline, but at any woman who dares speak out. Stella Creasey MP, for instance, supported Caroline and then found herself subject to much the same abuse.
The techniques used by these online abusers are clever, ranging from use of multiple accounts to incitement of others. They practice 'mobbing' and 'doxxing' – the act of giving out someone's personal details publically, thereby converting supposed online threat to real.
That distinction, as online security expert Jennifer Perry of Digital Stalking and Laura Richards of stalker victim support group Paladin said, is an illusion. Many perpetrators of actual abuse and violence slip easily, seamlessly, from shouting online to committing actual harm.
And besides, where is the dividing line nowadays between 'real' and 'virtual'? So much of most people’s lives, both social and work, is lived online. Arguing that people should bow to the pressure and 'take a break' is akin to the age old arguments about how women, to avoid rape, should stay inside at night. Perhaps they should wear long skirts and cover their faces while they are at it.
The mounting evidence, provided by Hilary Fisher of Women’s Aid, is that the mere presence of women in what some men see as 'men's space' is enough to provoke violent response. As for women who dare to talk back or contradict? That is unbearable.
Yes: men, too, suffer online abuse. But the scale and nature of it pales into insignificance by comparison with what women receive. This is a problem that has been around for a while. Scarcely a woman present did not have a tale to tell of online abuse and of being silenced: going offline for an hour, a day, a week or two, because she could not endure any more.
Unfortunately, the problem looks likely to get worse, and there are three vectors making this so. The first is technology itself, which is moving, changing and evolving far faster than society, the law or police can keep pace with. The sheer volume of information we are all unwittingly publishing through our online activity is frightening. Facebook alone has moved from most information hidden some seven years ago, to around 95% of our personal information 'out there'.
New Google apps mean we can be found, tracked and stalked with terrifying ease. The 'dark net' places much nastiness beyond everyday policing. New 'snapchat' apps mean that abuse can be delivered in neat self-destructing packages that leave scarcely a trace. This is specialist stuff that most police forces are woefully unprepared to deal with.
Second is the arrogance and bullying of the technology companies themselves, made all the easier by the fact that the average politician knows little of the technology and is constantly outmanoeuvred by plausible sounding technicians telling them what can't be done. Some things – like sensible net filtering – probably can’t, while others - like timely and appropriate handling of abuse reports - almost certainly could.
Perry complained of how, in a high level meeting with members of one technology giant, she had been 'shushed'. An old boys' network is far happier to listen to lobbyists and lawyers than 'hysterical' advocates or charities.
Last up is the much wider issue of cultural and institutional response. The fact that police should even think to advise a woman abused to amend her behaviour – outright victim-blaming – or to suggest an individual 'lighten up' or learn not to take things so seriously is outrageous, but sadly typical of a widespread lack of victim support in this area. The authorities appear to lack the skills to 'think victim-centric'. In some areas, they are even behind the times in respect of the legal situation: changes to the law last year introduced two new stalking offences. A show of hands suggested that information on this change has yet to percolate down to those working in the field of domestic violence.
Even if the police did more, this is unlikely to be supported by a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) that continues to prosecute single offences out of a catalogue of intimidation, thereby denying courts the opportunity to take into account a perpetrator's full behaviour. In June of this year, the CPS also advised the police to act on online abuse only where there the offence meets a 'high threshold' test.
Parliament itself continues to treat this piecemeal, reacting and wringing its hands in horror when cases such as those of Criado-Perez or Mary Beard hit the headlines - but otherwise focussing on the easy moral panic over porn and doing little to protect women from online violence. Depressingly, Women's Aid chair Polly Neate revealed, there have been major cutbacks in services to tackle these problems, with government's much-vaunted campaign against domestic violence focussed on 'high-risk individuals' only.
As conferences go, it was informative, valuable and positive in the initiatives likely to go forward (including a transcript of the event to the Home Office itself). It was also deeply depressing and troubling that in this day and age women are having to explain why it is that a tirade of rape threats is problematic. It is for society, business and government to change their ways – not women.
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