CREDIT: Chris Ratcliffe/PA Wire
Twitter’s general manager in the United Kingdom has announced that the social media giant will work to streamline the process for reporting abusive tweets, after tens of thousands of people signed onto a petition asking Twitter to take that type of online abuse more seriously. The recent groundswell of activism came in response to a British feminist who has received a series of rape threats over the past several days.
Caroline Criado-Perez, a freelance journalist and activist, received a flurry of abusive and threatening tweets last week after successfully campaigning the Bank of England to make Jane Austen the new face of the £10 note. Criado-Perez suddenly got a flood of rape threats from hundreds of Twitter users — including tweets asking, “Can I rape you?” as well as tweets from users who promised to find her and abuse her — and believes she was the subject of a coordinated attack. So far, one man has been arrested for making threats against the journalist.
She told the Guardian that her experience highlights the social media site’s inability to adequately monitor this type of threatening speech. “If you get an abusive message, you can fill in an online form and make a complaint,” she explained. “But if you’re subject to hundreds of tweets, it’s not practical… Twitter does not understand the nature of abuse online.”
A Change.org petition quickly sprung up to pressure Twitter to change that. As of Monday, over 61,000 people had signed on to ask Twitter to add a “report abuse” button to individual tweets on the site. “We need Twitter to recognize that its current reporting system is below required standards,” the petition states, citing the “complexity of violence against women, and the multiple oppressions women face.”
A female member of Parliament (MP) also took up the cause. After MP Stella Creasy publicly defended Criado-Perez, she received the same type of rape threats on Twitter — such as tweets stating, “You better watch your back. I’m gonna rape your ass and out the video all over the internet,” and “i will rape you tomorrow at 9pm. Shall we meet near your house?????” The female lawmaker reported the threats to the police on Monday, but she has been frustrated that Twitter has been so slow to respond to her complaints.
On Monday morning, Twitter officials addressed the growing controversy. “We’re testing ways to simplify reporting, e.g. within a Tweet by using the ‘Report Tweet’ button in our iPhone app and on mobile Web,” Twitter’s general manager in the UK, Tony Wang, tweeted.
Critics have suggested that Criado-Perez and Creasy are ultimately working to censor Twitter users’ free speech. But the two women point out they simply want an avenue to easily report criminal behavior. Since rape threats are illegal in the real world, they expect the online world to be held to the same standard. Creasy noted that the issue of online rape threats is “not for women to accommodate — it’s for society to stamp out.”
The female MP also acknowledged that this issue ultimately runs much deeper than her current problem with Twitter. “It’s not just me. Women who speak out in public life, especially if they champion equality, get serious abuse. I get comments about my sexuality, I get comments about my attractiveness, my intelligence — we get random abusive messages every time we speak up about something,” Creasy told the London Evening Standard. “But one of the things you can do as an MP is say, ‘this is not OK and there will be consequences for it’.”
“This is something that happens specifically to women, and it’s to make them shut up, because there is a certain type of man who doesn’t like women speaking and they don’t like women speaking back to them,” Criado-Perez pointed out.
The pressure for Twitter to crack down on violence against women comes on the heels of similar successful online campaigns that have pressured another social media giant, Facebook, to strengthen its policies in this area. In May, Facebook agreed to update its policy to allow users to better report content that makes light of rape and domestic abuse. And in June, the site announced it would amend its standards for classifying inappropriate content in an attempt to prevent images of women’s breast cancer scars from being treated like pornography.