When you step from the shadows into the sunlight, you become more vulnerable to attacks by all sorts of creeps. That’s what Caroline Criado-Perez found out recently. Criado-Perez is the feminist activist who campaigned to have Charles Darwin’s image replaced by that of Jane Austen on the British £10 banknote. She is considered a heroic figure by some, and, by others, a horrid troublemaker who deserves to be raped and killed. She has been congratulated through her Twitter account by many, but has received hundreds of disgusting tweets from “trolls” – those cowards who misuse the internet to blindly and crudely strike out at anyone who displeases them. One troll wrote “I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do, you’re pathetic, kill yourself before I do.” The same threats were hurled at Stella Creasy, a member of Parliament, when she spoke out in support of Criado-Perez.
So, how do you respond to obscene threats? One way is to get the police involved. Another is to retweet the threats, as Criado-Perez and Creasy do, to everyone who follows you on Twitter. That can be effective because the trolls may be recognized and outed by other Twitter users. In fact Mary Beard, a renowned University of Cambridge classicist who retweets odious messages, quickly received an apology from one offending troll. Why? Because someone recognized him when Beard retweeted his message and threatened to tell his mother what he was doing.
Clementine Ford characterized the trolls well in a Daily Life article: “And when the trolls are found out, what do they do? They scurry away and hide, delete their accounts, protect their tweets, complain about how women can’t take a joke and whinge [whine] that feminists are trying to censor them. Mostly, they bank on the fact that no one will find them out – that their real life personas, complete with jobs, partners, children and friends will remain separate from the online one where they use handles like RapeCr3w and talk about how ‘consent’ is irrelevant.”
As long as there is freedom of speech, there will be those who will abuse it. The best we can do is to make the penalty as high as possible for their misdeeds.