Why Creasy has given the Twitter trolls exactly what they want

The tweets sent to two high profile women were misogynist, shocking and illegal, but the retweet button isn’t the way to beat them

@AvoidComments is immeasurably wise. A feed devoted to tweets reminding web users not ‘to read the comment sections for, we, pretty much anything, ever’. And what fine advice it is. For unless, like me, you only go onto the Daily Mail’s (or as the bio says, most other sites) comments section for a quiet titter at the great displays of ignorance that people feel obliged to shove into their three lines of emotion and hate-filled messages, you are going to get offended and frustrated. You may even lose faith in the whole humanity biz and join a Scottish hippy commune.

But apparently when people comment on Twitter, this rule doesn’t apply. I’m sure you’ve caught wind of the debate over the tweets that two women received last week. In case you haven’t, Caroline Criado Perez was targeted after her successful campaign to have Jane Austen on a banknote, and MP Stella Creasy when she stood up for her. Tweets range from the offensive to the criminal, with numerous threats of rape and murder, particularly gruesome as they named specific times and places. They are shocking, illegal, misogynist, and I’m sure to some extent, for those receiving them, terrifying. But they are clearly empty.

So what if we just… ignored them?

And by ignore them I mean quietly block them from your timeline and, if they are in breach of the law, pass the account name and any other information to the police. The trolls wouldn’t have their publicity (most have precisely zero followers) and they wouldn’t get their kick at getting a reaction. The women involved (and countless other high profile tweeters) were perfectly within their rights to express outrage at the tweets, but now it’s all over the news. If you were a troll, you’d have wanted nothing more than to watch Creasy on Newsnight last night. ‘Sometimes I just send them pictures of kittens, because that’s the kind of level these people are on’, she said with glee, because she’s so amusing. But otherwise she ranted like a spoilt child.

She pointed to these tweets as evidence of widespread sexism is society. I’m certainly not one to deny that this exists, but these tweets aren’t its incarnation. They are the lone actions of the few, the impact of which has been blown up by the response of social media, and particularly by those people who originally publicized them.

Next on my newsfeed last night was the Two Minutes Hate directed at the spokeswoman for Twitter. But in reality, what can Twitter really do about it? If they ban users’ accounts then trolls will only be further encouraged. With an extremely basic knowledge of programming you can make hundreds accounts all tweeting abuse automatically. There are an awful lot of Twitter users and not very many staff – which, sounds like a fun game for someone whos gets kicks out of vacuous rape threats.

One thing Twitter could do is make use of crowd-sourced ‘block lists’. These are made up of known offenders, and could be instituted across Twitter. But then would Twitter be right to place such trust in unknown techies? Next is the button to report tweets, already rolled out on Mobile and iOS platforms. This will give Twitter more immediate notice of offending accounts, but it still leaves the question of staff numbers if a culture of targeted threats grows.

What this all comes down to is that knee-jerk outrage at the tweets has fuelled the flames. It has made a problem that may become too big for Twitter to battle by itself. It has probably incited many more to fire tweets of this nature off… ‘Who knows my tweet might end up on the news?’

Nobody deserves to be exposed to these kinds of threats. But if the original victims had just quietly deleted those tweets and blocked the accounts, the public wouldn’t know anything about it and the offenders wouldn’t have got their moment of glory. Indeed, after hitting ‘Tweet’ they wouldn’t have known anything about it, until they got a rap on the door from Monsieur le Plod, equipped with a suitable warrant. Perhaps the @AvoidComments’ bio needs an update.

2 comments

  1. I take your point that the most important thing is that all cases are reported to relevant authorities and the trolls given less of the attention they want and more of the sort they don’t, from Monsieur le Plod et al. The problem with what you suggest is that in cases where people receive hundreds of abusive tweets, ‘quietly deleting’ them will be a very time consuming (and deeply unpleasant) task. We can’t reasonably expect the victims of abuse to waste hours of their time in to diffusing the situation which has been thrust upon them by these trolls.

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  2. Sure, they shouldn’t have to deal with the hundreds of threats that the trolls have thrust upon them. But the number they receive has only been extrapolated by the fact they have given the trolls publicity – reacting to a troll is exactly what they want. If you ignore the initial few, and don’t react, then others won’t join in after they see the ‘success’ of the other trolls.

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