An Analysis of over 1000 twitter rape threats

Does Jess Phillips MP seriously think that former Liberal MP Jo Swinson sent her a rape threat on twitter?

Probably not but bizarrely there is as much evidence to support this possibility as there is to show that she received ‘thousands of rape threats‘.

EYEconducted an open source analysis of tweets to Jess Phillips MP from the 28th to 31st of May in order to examine the extraordinary reports that she had been sent over five thousand abusive tweets and rape threats over this period.

EYEfound no evidence of rape threats. There was clear evidence of ‘dogpiling’, trolling, criticism and tweets that some may find offensive.

EYEalso established that the West Midlands Police are not actively monitoring Phillips’ twitter account and appear not to be aware of any illegal activity relating to the reported incident.

Judge for yourself:

The Media Reports

On the morning of the 31st May 2016 The Birmingham Mail ran a story with the headline City MP Jess Phillips faces more rape trolling on Twitter

In it they reported that the local MP had been subjected to hundreds of posts on Twitter on the subject of rape overnight after responding to a poster who announced: ‘I wouldn’t even rape you‘.

The majority of UK national papers began covering the story, many of the headlines reported that Phillips had recieved more than 600 rape threats via twitter in one night.  International networks including Russia Today also carried the 600 rape threats headline and the by the end of the day the story had traveled as far as Australia.

The most dramatic headline came from The Sun who reported that the MP had been hit with 5,000 rape threats while the BBC went with Labour MP ‘receives over 5,000 ‘abusive tweets’.

By way of example, The Daily Mail report is typical of the facts presented below the dramatic headline:

  • The wave of abuse was triggered after she replied to one person who tweeted her saying: ‘I wouldn’t even rape you’.
  • She retweeted this comment to her 25,000 Twitter followers.
  • Many of the abusive messages she received told her she wasn’t worthy of being raped.
  • Ms Phillips has been a regular target for Twitter trolls and had previously been subjected to rape threats online last autumn.

Among the abusive messages she received were: “If you were the last woman on earth, I still would not rape you” and “I wouldn’t touch you with OR without consent. Either way I’d lose my dignity and self-respect.” Daily Mail

Phillips gave quite a detailed account of her experience in an interview with the BBC.  She described her abusers as idiots who were saying that ‘they don’t want to rape [her], as if raping is something they would do to someone they liked‘.

She also revealed that the West Midlands Police watch her twitter feed closely and that although most of those involved are from America she is convinced that civil or criminal action is the way to attack these people.

The following day Phillips herself wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph in which she claimed to have received ‘thousands of rape threats‘ and that twitter were colluding with her abusers after they informed her that ‘We reviewed the content and determined that it was not in violation of the Twitter rules’.

‘Until Twitter makes this sort of thing stop happening and stops accepting that this sort of dogpiling and mass bullying can happen, their business model is totally flawed. People who don’t like this feral side of the internet are just going to walk away.’ Jess Phillips

Thousands of Rape Threats?

A review of tweets and mentions to @jessphillips over the period confirms that the MP received a significant amount of direct tweets and mentions from people talking about rape.

threats: 1. a statement of an intention to inflict pain, injury, damage, or other hostile action on someone in retribution for something done or not done. 2. a person or thing likely to cause damage or danger.

As indicated in several of the reports the incident does appear to have been triggered by the following series of events:

1) YouTube Vlogger Sargon of Akkad tweeted Phillips a link to the latest edition of his weekly show ‘This Week in Stupid‘ along with the text:  I wouldn’t even rape you, 

This edition included a critique of Phillips’ Huffington Post blog marking the launch of the Reclaim the Internet Campaign (at the 14 minute mark approximately).

Sargon of Akkad’s weekly show attracts an average of of 200,000 views, his channel has over 300,000 subscribers and has had over 76 million views in total. His videos are about political and sociological topics, he was a prominent figure in the online gamergate movement and often critiques the extremes of fourth wave feminism.

He is not an anonymous troll and he lives in England.

2) Phillips claims to have blocked him from her twitter account over a year ago. Therefore she will not have become aware of his tweet until a second unblocked party joins the conversation….

3) Phillips retweets this second message to her 26,000 followers and Akkad (who has 82,000 twitter followers) replied. Together theses two tweets were retweeted approximately 200 times….

Phillips receives a significant amount of direct replies in response to her tweet.  She also receives numerous replies to a second tweet inviting other twitter users to check out 600 odd notifications talking about her rape.

An analysis of replies to these two tweets support Phillips’ account that her reaction resulted in a ‘dogpiling’ incident.

Dogpile When many people post unfriendly responses in short order to a single posting.

Many of the responses were supportive however the majority are critical of Ms Phillips and a significant number discuss rape.

Crucially these tweeters have followed Sargon of Akkad’s lead and are expressing a commitment not to rape Ms Phillips.

This appears to have very quickly become a running joke amoungst many of the people involved in the discussion.

Having conducted a fairly detailed review of the relevant period EYEhave been unable to identify one single tweet that could be described as a rape threat with any degree of credibility.

Given the volume of traffic and the possibility that some tweets could have been deleted it is impossible to say with 100% certainty that no rape threats were sent. However it is possible to conclude that reports of between 600 to over 5,000  ‘rape threats’ were grossly inaccurate.

Furthermore,  given that no rape threats have been put into the public domain, the comedic context and the incredible exaggeration that Ms Phillips has associated herself with (for a second time), in my humble subjective opinion, it is reasonable to conclude that there were no rape threats.

5,000 Abusive Tweets?

The next question to consider is whether or not the media reports that Jess Phillips received over 5,000 ‘abusive tweets’ would stand up to reasonable scrutiny.

It seemed pointless to conduct an exact count and I’m happy to be corrected but a very rough and generous estimate would be that significantly less than 100 people tweeted Phillips specifically pledging not to rape her.

Indeed it is actually quite difficult to determine how many ‘abusive’ tweets the MP herself reckons she received.

Her initial tweet involves a very exact form of wording where she claims to have received ‘600 odd notifications talking about my rape in one night‘.

The following day in an interview with the BBC this number had increased dramatically.

Again the language used appears to be very exact and noticeably she corrects Victoria Derbyshire’s assertion that she received around 5,000 tweets from people ‘pretty much referring to raping you or not raping you’.  Phillips clarifies that she had only received around 5,000 notifications or mentions.

This is highly significant. Anyone who understands twitter will understand that a user receives a ‘notification’ most times anything remotely relevant to their account occurs.

Considering the number of replies, ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ connected to Phillips’ two tweets, she will clearly have  received a high number of notifications related to these alone.  When you also factor in notifications related to the two ‘would not rape you’ tweets that Phillips’ retweeted, it seems likely that notifications flowing from these four tweets alone could very easily reach five thousand and beyond

Attempting to estimate the exact number of critical or ‘abusive’ tweets also seemed pointless but it appears quite possible that Phillips has determined her estimate of 5,000 by including every ‘notification’ received throughout the duration of the ‘dogpile’.  Many of these tweets were actually messages of support, including one from Director of Equal Power Consulting Jo Swinson.

In fact given that there is no easy way to separate ‘abusive’ notifications from ‘friendly’ ones this actually seems quite likely.

Hence the possibility that Phillips may have inadvertently inferred that one of her fellow Recl@im the Night campaigners was ‘abusing’ her on twitter.

Trolling and Offensive Behaviour

Based on Phillips’ account alone it seems likely that the 5,000 ‘abusive’ tweets headline has been inflated by ‘likes’, ‘retweets’ and non ‘abusive’ tweets.

Even so there is clear evidence of trolling and tweets that are likely to be offensive to many people.

Troll: One who posts a deliberately provocative message with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument. Anyone who fails to recognize a troll and responds to it with anger or annoyance is said to have been “trolled”.

Anyone reviewing the feed is likely to conclude that Ms Phillips was clearly ‘trolled’ by a significant number of her critics on twitter.  The following tweet sent during the incident does appear to succinctly get to the truth of the matter behind all the dramatic headlines.

After the fuss had died down the so called ‘ringleader’ Sargon of Akkad was interview by The Times and was happy to concede that his actions were provocative and that quite a few people were involved in ‘taking the piss’ out of the Member of Parliament following her response.

“I never made any threats. It was a classic example of how the regressive left tries to shame and silence anybody who disagrees with them. Any criticism of a woman by a man is called misogyny. It’s ridiculous.”  Sargon of Akkad

Some of the people who responded to Ms Phillips’ tweets certainly expressed the view that the ‘not rape’ joke was at best in exceedingly  poor taste and at worst extremely offensive.

offensive: causing someone to feel resentful, upset, or annoyed.

To a certain degree (especially outside of a court) ‘offence’ is determined by the feelings of the recipient as apposed to the intention of the sender.  Ms Phillips’ accounts in interviews have been somewhat inconsistent on this point but it seems reasonable to conclude that she was genuinely offended by some of the tweets.

Based on this yardstick alone it is reasonable to conclude that Ms Phillips received tweets that she found offensive.

Ms Phillips’ experienced sexual assault as a teenager and has worked closely with women who have experienced sexual and domestic violence.  Furthermore she has highlighted (albeit in a sweeping manner) that some tweets could be interpreted as insulting her looks and / or insinuating that she is too unattractive to rape.

In fairness such overt comments are in the minority but there is evidence to support this claim.

That said in a diverse society people will have extremely different ‘offence’ thresholds and in a democratic society such as the UK, offending someone is not considered to be a crime.

Indeed despite a relatively brief  time in public office Ms Phillps has herself clearly offended a great number of people, on a number of occassions, including many of her own constituents.

Abusive Tweets and Criminal Activity?

Even if some of the tweets might reasonably be considered offensive, the question remains: were any of them so grossly offensive that they might be considered abusive or criminal?

Abusive: 1. Extremely offensive and insulting. 2. Engaging in or characterized by habitual violence and cruelty.

Phillips concluded her interview with the BBC by stating that it has got to the stage where she believes that ‘legal action, be it civil or criminal is the way to attack these people’.

This view was echoed by a number of people. including Barrister and High Profile Social Justice Commentator Sophia Cannon.

Context is everything obviously but even though many will consider the tweets childish or offensive, it seems unlikely that the CPS could successfully prosecute anyone for pledging not to rape a Member of Parliament.

Satirists like Chris Morris would never work again for a start.

Given Ms Phillips’ claim that the West Midlands Police monitor her social media accounts closely, EYEasked them if they had made an assessment of the incident and determined if it is appropriate to take any action?

Interestingly their response was a tad ambiguous:

We do not monitor individual Twitter accounts, if an offence has been committed and we are aware or made aware of the offence then like any other crime we will take action. West Midlands Police

EYEguess that, at a stretch, this could mean they are in super secret extradition negotiations with the Wiltshire Police but then again it is more likely that the Member for Yardley has been too busy giving interviews to various media outlets and appearing on comedy panel shows to bother her local constabulary with concerns about those ‘thousands of rape threats’.

Perhaps they’ve also read the CPS draft guidelines on prosecuting Social Media Case which list three kinds of online abuse that should be treated as crimes under existing law that “should be prosecuted robustly”:

  1. (ahem) Credible threats of violence to a person or their property.
  2. Communications targeting an individual which may constitute harassment or stalking, controlling or coercive behaviour, revenge pornography, blackmail or another offence.
  3. Communications which breach an existing court order (bail or a restraining order, for example).

The CPS also identify a fourth category: Communications which may be considered grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false. The guidance then goes on to indicate that, even in cases that pass the high evidential threshold required, it is unlikely that prosecution of this category is “in the public interest”.

A communication sent has to be more than simply offensive to be contrary to the criminal law. Just because the content expressed in the communication is in bad taste, controversial or unpopular, and may cause offence to individuals or a specific community, this is not in itself sufficient reason to engage the criminal law.  CPS Guidelines.

For further context,  the Metropolitan Police decided not to charge Jess Phillips after members of the public expressed concern when she ‘threatened to knife’ a member of the Queen’s Privy Council and Leader of the Opposition in the Houses of Parliament.

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So it seem’s a bit rich that she is now demanding the head of a self employed father of two from Swindon for committing not to rape a Member of Parliament notorious for exaggerating ‘rape threats’ and the frequency of sexual assaults in her own city when it’s politically convenient to do so.

Twits and Twitter Rules

Phillips may have decided to not to waste the West Midland Police’s time over the matter but she definitely complained to Twitter about her user experience.

Twitter reviewed the incident and concluded that no twitter rules had been breached which lead Phillips to accuse Twitter of colluding with her ‘abusers’.

We believe in freedom of expression and in speaking truth to power, but that means little as an underlying philosophy if voices are silenced because people are afraid to speak up. We do not tolerate behavior that crosses the line into abuse, including behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice. The Twitter Rules

The modern networked-feminist movement have been lauded for ‘speaking truth to power‘ on twitter but they are far from the first or only ones to do so.  Another vital piece of context relevant to Ms Phillips’ experience is that although the ‘dogpile’ appears to have been spontaneous, as apposed to co-ordinated, it was clearly related to her leadership role in the extremely dubious Recl@im the Internet campaign.

Given the power dynamic involved, not to mention Phillips ability to ‘throw shade’ herself, it seems fair to ask at what point does an MP’s outrageously exaggerated claims that all so conveniently serve to deflect criticism and demonise political opponents cross the line of her own House rules?

Dude don’t a douche on the internet and Dogpiling

Personally EYEthought the ‘not rape jokes’ were in poor taste. Clearly many people may find them offensive, including victims of rape and sexual violence.  That said, there are lots of offensive things to be found on twitter (especially if you go looking for them) and I expect that many victims of rape and sexual violence will also find Ms Phillips’ politically convenient claims grossly offensive.

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Sargon of Akkad

Even so, this incident is a good example of ‘dogpiling’ on social media and as the #distractinglysexy incident underlined, the fact is that, no matter how well intended or spontaneous, dogpiling can have very serious real world consequences for the people involved.

In amoungst all the bluster, Jess Phillips has made a seemingly sensible suggestion  about how Twitter could at least equip users with more control over how they control their own personal notification feed and while it’s not a perfect solution it could especially be beneficial to users during the short term incidents when they experience a sudden jump in traffic.

And if elected public officials want to use the technology to screen out / ignore criticism from constituents then so be it. Anyone else who wants to discuss matters of the day would still be free to do so for as long as criticism isn’t a crime in this country.

Conspiracy of Silence?

It does seem quite remarkable that a Member of Parliament should make such inflated claims about something as serious as rape threats, especially a Member of Parliament who used to manage a Woman’s Aid refuge, served on the West Midlands Police and Crime Panel and currently styles herself as Labour’s spokesperson for victims of domestic and sexual violence.

What’s even more remarkable is that the entire British press appear to have happily regurgitated the claims and even amplified the exaggeration.

It’s tempting to write this all off as sloppy click and paste sensational journalism but with the exception of Breitbart’s more realistic British MP Who Laughed at Male Suicide Trolled After Trying To Reclaim the Internet headline, coverage across the board has been entirely uncritical of Ms Phillips’ role in this affair and embarrassingly hysterical.

Given some of the dubious examples of  ‘online misogyny’ that Yvette Cooper has chosen to highlight to date, it’s hardly surprising that both she and Reclaim the Internet have also made the very conscious choice to completely ignore the numerous twitter notifications they have received flagging concerns about the Member for Yardley’s account of the matter.

Predictably enough, on the same day that the Sun was reporting that an Member of the UK Parliament 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?

What’s harder to fathom is the fact that not one politician from across the political spectrum has stepped up to take the penalty kick at an open goal that the Labour MP has so generously provided.

It’s possible, at least, that Jeremy Corbyn and the Momentum wing of the Labour party are genuinely shackled by the clear and present danger of being branded misogynist for daring to criticse a woman.  But are the rest of the political and media classes really so restrained by political correctness that no one has dared step up?

Social media is changing the balance of power, it is threatening the monopoly and control of olde media and it is helping to make the olde establishment more accountable and transparent.

You can understand why they might be keen to recl@im it and why it might be helpful to portray cultural libertarians and so called men’s right’s activists as virtual enemies of the state while they try.

EYEsuspect that someone will eventually step up to take that penalty kick when Ms Phillips has outlived her usefulness but until then any male members in the House may want to tread very carefully.

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