Is Twitter Doing Enough To Combat Rape Tweets?

In a review of the recent furor over rape threats on Twitter against a campaigner, the question must be asked: Is Twitter doing enough?

A disturbing development out of the UK has been unraveling in recent days in regards to something as simple as a banknote.  Caroline Criado-Perez, a feminist campaigner, was recently revealed to be the key player in putting famous author Jane Austen on the £10 bill.  However, it came to light that after she became known, Criado-Perez received rape threats on Twitter at a rate of "up to 50 tweets an hour."  This is for no other reason than for putting a woman on a banknote.  Within hours of this revelation, many British users of Twitter fought back, calling for a boycott of the service on Sunday, August 4.

Particularly leading this effort is Labour MP Stella Creasy, who has written extensively on the subject: 

"Twitter tell [sic] me we should simply block those who "offend us", as though a rape threat is matter of bad manners, not criminal behaviour. When you push them, as I did, they say report it to the police who can "accurately" assess a threat, implying victims may be overreacting. New legislation passed last year gave prosecutors powers to address cyber harassment, yet this casual attitude to the safety of the majority of their users – 53% of Twitter account holders are female – show how little attention companies themselves are paying to helping end violence against women."

She even pushed back against right-wing journalists such as Toby Young over the matter, pointing out their own misogyny in a recent newscast on the BBC.  However, the relentlessness of the abusive tweeters has extended to Creasy herself.  In a news report to NBC News, MP Creasy explained that she had received rape threats from a few particular accounts, prompting her to call the police:

"What I do when people are misogynistic towards me, I call them out on it. Why have I called the police now? Because these people have made direct threats to rape and to kill me," she said.

"It's not a new crime, it's a very old crime -- hatred of women," she added. "I see these things as a function of an unequal society."

Twitter, for its part, is trying to alleviate the fury by announcing new measures to simplify reporting abuse:

However, it may not be enough.  At last posting, the boycott is still on.  Clementine Ford of Australian publication Daily Life points out the damage being done through these tweets:

The result is twofold. Firstly, women become superficially immune to the pain of being told in minute detail what it is we deserve to have done to us as punishment for the crime of speaking. It still surprises me when I hear gasps from groups as I reveal some of the things that have been said to me in the past, and urges me to remind myself that this experience of dehumanisation is not the rent a woman must pay for being given a spot at the table.  

But there is deeper damage being done, an erosion of the sense of self. One can only be exposed to this sheer hatred so many times before it begins to seep into your core. You read it and hear it and see it without flinching, and then suddenly without warning find yourself standing in the shower one evening feeling broken yet unable to cry because you’ve been steeling yourself against vulnerability for so long that you don’t seem to know how to do it anymore. It is a theft of emotion, and it is unforgiveable.

We in America are not immune to this unfortunate phenomenon.  In the fallout from her tweeting about inappropriate comments by two developers at a tech conference, consultant Adria Richards received rape threats.  In 2010, when rape victims and feminists criticized the use of a rape joke in the popular webcomic Penny Arcade, not only were they shouted down by the comic's artist and his fanbase, but also were threatened with rape, and victims even had their stories questioned by said fanbase.  That Twitter has done little to address the abuse since its introduction 6 years ago, despite these incidents and the fact that a majority of Twitter users are female, underscores a bigger problem in Silicon Valley: The belief that tech can save everything, but if it cannot, then it's not important.  Now, that belief is hitting reality, in full force.

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