Activists have held protests against online hate speech targeting women, using the hashtag #twittersilence and #inspiringwomen on Twitter to draw attention to structural misogyny and promote women’s voices online.
British author Caitlin Moran called for a 24-hour silence on the social network on Sunday, which morphed into a vociferous campaign, in response to the online threats prominent women in the UK have received since activist Caroline Criado-Perez successfully campaigned for Jane Austen’s face to appear on bank notes.
Several high-profile women, including Mary Beard, a classics professor at the University of Cambridge, received tweets from someone threatening to bomb their homes, while others were threatened with rape.
In the last few weeks, I've seen women on Twitter being run to exhaustion by the volume of anonymous rape and violence tweets they've received - so many that even just blocking them is a full time job
“In the last few weeks, I’ve seen women on Twitter being run to exhaustion by the volume of anonymous rape and violence tweets they’ve received – so many that even just blocking them is a full time job,” Moran wrote on her blog.
Some feminist activists supported the action, while others, like Zerlina Maxwell, a political analyst and writer for Feministing, remarked that remaining silent on abuse “isn’t helpful”.
“#twittersilence isn’t helpful. The whole idea is to NOT be silenced,” tweeted Maxwell on Sunday.
Laurie Penny, a British writer and feminist, told Al Jazeera that “everybody should be able to say what they want on the Internet, but freedom of speech is not the same thing as the freedom to abuse”.
“The really important thing here is that people were finally talking about the problem of online misogyny,” Penny added, who called the debate “somewhat of a watershed”.
On Tuesday, police arrested a 25-year-old man in northeastern England following allegations he had harassed Stella Creasy, a member of parliament, as well as Criado-Perez, two days after a 21-year-old man was detained near Manchester for similar offenses, UK-based newspaper The Guardian reported.
Twitter updated its harassment policies on Saturday and introduced a report button that would make it easier to alert the company of abusive behavior. Twitter issued an apology after managers had come under increasing pressure to react.
“I personally apologise to the women who have experienced abuse on Twitter and for what they have gone through,” Tony Wang, general manager of Twitter UK, said on his own Twitter feed.
“The abuse they’ve received is simply not acceptable. It’s not acceptable in the real world, and it’s not acceptable on Twitter,” he said.
‘Pressure on victim’
In a statement issued after Wang’s apology, Criado-Perez welcomed the new measures announced by Twitter UK, but said a more profound overhaul of the social network’s system for handling abuse was needed.
“Right now, all the emphasis is on the victim, often under intense pressure, to report, rather than for Twitter to track down the perpetrator and stop them,” she said.
Penny said that the problem is bigger than one platform.
“Women have been receiving these threats in the UK for years,” she said. The online abuse is a reflection of “structural misogyny” that is “a huge cultural problem”, she tweeted.
In 2010, the Global Media Monitoring Project conducted a survey on the contributions of women to news media in 108 countries and found that “women’s visibility in the news was extremely and uniformly low”.
Last year, women writers published an FPwomerati list in response to the minimal presence of female Twitter users on Foreign Policy’s 2012 Twitterati 100 list, which consisted of almost 90 percent men.
In May, activists criticised Facebook for not doing enough to curb the problem of hate speech against women online, following its removal of pro-rape pages, such as, “I Know a Silly Little Bitch That Needs a Good Slap,” which campaigners at change.org asked to be deleted.
“We have been working over the past several months to improve our systems to respond to reports of violations, but the guidelines used by these systems have failed to capture all the content that violates our standards. We need to do better – and we will,” Facebook said in the post.
Social media have also become popular tools for online vigilantes, who try to shame perpetrators and trawl the Internet for evidence of their crimes.
In 2012, a feminist blogger helped expose crimes in a rape case in the US city of Steubenville, using tweets and pictures the victim’s perpetrators had posted online during the assault.