For the Uninitiated: Reclaim the Internet

Recl@im the Internet: is a campaign for action to challenge abuse online lead by a cross party coalition of UK politicians.  It’s purpose is to build a campaign for action against misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, intimidation and abuse online.

reclaim

It was initially launched by Labour MP and former Cabinet Minister Yvette Cooper in December 2015. During a series of media interviews Cooper called for people to sign up to the campaign via their website and explained that the campaign was inspired by the Reclaim the Night marches of the 1970’s.

The official launch followed in May 2016 when Cooper chaired a panel including the former Tory minister Maria Miller, former Liberal MP Jo Swinson and Labour’s Jess Phillips.  This involved a second wave of media coverage and the launch of a two month online public consultation aimed at crowdsourcing ideas to address the growing scale of online abuse.

Outcomes are expected later in the year.

The internet must be a forum for freedom of speech. But that also means that every voice should matter. It’s possible to both champion freedom of speech and argue for greater responsibility from everyone, so that voices aren’t silenced by abuse online. Recl@im the Internet

In principle the campaign is concerned with all types of online intimidation including sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia, however the primary focus is to address the concerns that woman’s voices are being silenced by a culture of online misogyny.

This was highlighted on the day of the launch by the release of some specially commissioned research which the Guardian reported revealed the huge scale of online social media misogyny aimed at women and backed up similar findings in their own research.

This is what misogynist trolls look like (to the Guardian)
This is what misogynist trolls look like (to the Guardian)

Although generally welcomed and promoted by mainstream media platforms and high profile feminist activists, the campaign has received significant criticism  for a number of reasons.

After it’s initial launch the #reclaimtheinternet hashtag was widely ridiculed by twitter users highlighting some perceived double standards and posing the question who exactly do they want to reclaim the internet from and for?

On of the most immediate concerns was that Politicians were attempting to co-opt social justice concerns and complaints of modern networked activism, such as the everydaysexism project, into a seemingly benevolent campaign calling for more censorship and control over social and web based media.

Three months prior to the launch of the campaign Yvette Cooper had experienced a resounding defeat to Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party leadership contest and then opted to return to the back benches after declining to work with him in a unified cabinet.

Some critics suspected that this campaign was as much about maintaining a media profile for herself while she waited for a change in leadership as it was about championing the cause of bullied children and vulnerable adults.

The extremely narrow and ‘exclusive’ scope of the campaign was also questioned. The entire focus has been on ‘misogyny’ and despite being presented as a cross party coalition campaign, their choice of the Anarcha feminism fist clearly signaled that radical feminism was the driving political ideology behind the campaign.

Although a thin veil of intersectionality has been included in some statements (also concerned about homophobia, racism etc), to date the entire focus has been about abuse and harassment on women, especially prominent and often controversial feminists, by men.

The most comprehensive research conducted on online bullying to date  shows that a diverse cross section of people are affected by the phenomenon for a diverse range of reasons.  Teenage girls were identified as especially at risk, as were teenage boys.

By contrast the research commissioned by Recl@im the Internet that was presented at the Parliamentary launch focused solely on perceptions of misogyny.

Demos analysed the use of the words ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ by UK Twitter users over a three-week period and found that 6,500 unique users were targeted by 10,000 explicitly ‘aggressive and misogynistic tweets’.

The researchers had expected to find that the typical profile of an ‘abuser’ would be a white middle aged man however the results showed a much more diverse population.  Most surprisingly Demos found that of the 90% of accounts that could be identified by gender the majority of abusers (62%) were actually women.

This is what misogynist trolls look like (according to Demos)
This is what misogynist trolls look like (according to Demos)

Based on the narrow criteria investigated Demos found that ‘misogynistic abusers’ were most likely to be young women who follow Beyoncé, One Direction and Justin Bieber and that the most high profile victim of misogynistic abuse was American Rapper Azeelia Banks, who is currently suspended from twitter for making frequent homophobic and racist comments.

Despite these extraordinary findings high profile supporters were quick to dismiss the findings for various reasons including research methodology, sock puppetry and the inevitability that women would be victims of internalized misogyny in a patriarchal world.  MP Jess Phillips even evoked the same perspective as disgraced UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom  when she told Women’s Hour listeners that in her household a ‘slut’ was ‘someone who doesn’t wash behind their fridge.’

Critics also point out that supporters of the campaign appear to only be interested in pushing a specific narrative and that they are more interested in demonizing and silencing voices critical of modern networked feminist extremes as they are about empowering women and girls.

For example, there has been little mention of 2014 Demos research which found that male public figures are several times more likely than female public figures to receive abuse on Twitter.

Another example of this type of glass blind spot can be seen in the interview with Yvette Cooper by the Guardian’s Political Editor published in the run up to the campaign launch.

In the interview they discussed the experience of fashion journalist Polly Vernon who was left feeling ‘dehumanised, depressed, anxious and body dysmorphic” after people were “swept up in the sport of being cruel on Twitter”.  What they failed to mention is that Vernon claims that ‘all of the online aggression came from women, all of whom identified as feminists’ or indeed that the incident was largely triggered by the the critical mauling her book ‘Hot Feminist’ received from the Guardian.

Critics also point to the fact that some of the most vocal ‘victims’ of abuse can often behave in an extremely aggressive and provocative manner themselves. Indeed Cooper’s motivations have also been called into question given some of the examples of ‘online misogynistic abuse’ she has chosen to highlight in the campaign to date.

EYEconducted open source analyses of three of the most high profile incidents highlighted by the campaign in an attempt to establish the frequency and seriousness of the ‘abuse’ these individuals received.

All three examples show clear evidence that notions of ‘abuse’ have been conflated with a significant amount of criticism communicated by members of the public in the immediate aftermath of controversial, provocative, ill informed or potentially chauvinistic statements made by all three of the public figures concerned.

This behavior continued in the week following the launch when Cooper helped to promote Labour colleague  Jess Phillips’ questionable claims about receiving ‘thousands of rape threats on twitter’ while completely ignoring reports that police were actively investigating vicious racist online abuse directed at a 15 London year old school girl.

To date the campaign has struggled to recruit an especially broad coalition of public support.  Despite two significant bursts of media promotion the campaign twitter feed has just over 1,000 followers and only about 100 people have signed up to participate in the crowd sourcing initiative.

Many of those participants have been critical of the campaign, echoing public concerns about political bias, ignoring abusive behaviour by feminists, gendered language and the often voiced concern that the people behind the campaign don’t want to reclaim the internet, they just want to claim it.

The campaign organisers have yet to acknowledge concerns that one of their Members of Parliament has grossly exaggerated claims about receiving ‘rape threats’. However on the day that the Sun was reporting that MP Jess Phillips had received over 5,000 rape threats from twitter users, moderators on the Reclaim the Internet discussion board closed down a thread posing the question do exaggerated claims about online internet abuse ultimately harm genuine victims and scare people off social media?

The campaign consultation process continues but is Ms Cooper really interested in hearing your voice?

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Gender Mereology

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