I felt dehumanised, mildly depressed, anxious and body dysmorphic [after people were] swept up in the sport of being cruel on Twitter…. Polly Vernon
For the Uninitiated, Polly Vernon is a fashion journalist and columnist who has written for Vogue, the Guardian and the Evening Standard amongst others. She is currently Grazia’s Editor at Large and also writes for the Saturday Times.
Polly experienced her ‘twitter breakdown’ in the summer of 2015 after the publication of her book Hot Feminist.
Following a succession of bad reviews she ‘suffered a steady stream of low-level abuse‘ on twitter which ultimately lead to her abandoning the social media platform in the run up to the publication of the paperback version in January.
Three months later the Political editor of the Guardian wrote about Vernon’s experience as part of web we want series addressing online abuse.
Anushka Asthana‘s article primarily focused on Labour MP Yvette Cooper’s call for greater monitoring of online misogyny but she used Vernon’s experience as a mini case study about how online abuse isn’t ‘just about things that were unlawful’.
Cooper agreed that there was a risk that people were being driven offline when the internet ought to be a “forum for wild and wonderful debate, passionate argument and free speech. The silencing of women daring to speak their mind ought to be of great concern“. Anushka Asthana
In previous posts EYEreviewed the credibility of three high profile examples of online abuse that Cooper has used to promote her Reclaim the Internet campaign. Each have been described as examples of ‘high level abuse’ involving illegal behaviour such as the communication of death threats, rape threats, anti-antisemitism and sexual harassment.
Polly’s experience wasn’t presented as a matter that could or should reasonably justify wasting the time and resources of her majesty’s constabulary but was presented as being entirely relevant to a debate about ‘policing the internet‘.
In particular it was highlighted in the context of demands that social media providers have a moral duty to robustly police their platforms on behalf of it’s more sensitive service users.
[I was] destabilized by Twitter’s rush to shame me. Shame: such a distinct, old-fashioned – old – feeling. Exactly the sort of thing you might feel, if hundreds of disembodied voices turned on you, denounced you, shunned you. Polly Vernon
The Guardian’s political editor had to ignore two extremely inconvenient truths about Vernon’s experience in order to get her tale to fit within the narcissistically narrow narrative promoted by Cooper’s campaign.
Over the summer of 2015, I developed anxiety issues. Foul dreams; fantasies that strangers I passed in the street were poised to attack me. My self-confidence flatlined. I ducked writing commissions, because publishing seemed like a risky venture. I became convinced there was something very wrong with my face.
Leaving my flat became – if not a major struggle, then certainly effortful. Life felt syrupy-heavy, the sky seemed claustrophobically low. I realised I’d become depressed, but didn’t understand why. I’d published the book I’d really wanted to write, everyone had talked about it. What did I have to be depressed about?
Asthana decided to completely ignore the fact that Vernon’s ‘abusers’ were almost exclusively women, or to be more specific, they were exclusively people identifying as feminists.
What’s more, whilst she alludes to the fact that the ‘dogpiling’ incident occurred after ‘columnists wrote negatively about Vernon’s book’, she completely ignores the not insignificant fact that the harshest and most significant critical mauling occurred in the pages of her own newspaper.
The whole marketing strategy of this book relies on winding people like me up. What you cannot do is rewrite feminism into a sloppy self-help movement whose main aim is to make you feel better about your thighs. Helen Lewis – Guardian
Polly Vernon’s book is part biography, part presentation of her own personal perspective of modern feminism (with style and without judgment). She acknowledged that the title ‘Hot Feminist’ was intended to spark debate but hadn’t anticipated and certainly didn’t want “the overwhelming barrage of hate”, mainly from people who hadn’t even bothered to read the book but were basing their vitriol on the various scathing reviews.
“A spectacular belt, is like an exclamation point holding up your pants.” And if you think that sentence is pure Alan Partridge, try this on for size: “I truly learned the importance of listening later when I started working as an interviewer.” Or perhaps this: “Eat avocado, whenever and wherever it’s an option. Tastes like heaven, plumps out the epidermis.” Helen Lewis
Ironically a major component of her thesis is that modern feminism has become too judgy and intent on man-bashing, as evidenced by the various ‘twitter storms’ in recent years that have impacted on the lives of men such as Scientist Matt Taylor and sports journalist Ian Cohen.
By the time she’d recovered enough to talk about her own social shaming experience (in time to promote the paperback) she claimed to have left twitter because It’s the only way she could bear to write about the things she truly believes.
Given that she has consequently returned to the platform with a resilient vengeance, it is tempting to suspect that her abuse story has an element of spin attached to it. But based on Vernon’s own frank account, I do think it’s fair to conclude that she genuinely experienced something of a breakdown in the months following the publication of ‘Hot Feminist’.
EYEbelieve that every person’s perspective and experience is personal and unique to themselves. EYEdon’t seek to question the validity or reality of Vernon’s trauma but for one very important reason I do think it is fair to question it’s cause.
That reason is of course that her experience has been used to call for the curtailment of people’s freedoms and right to express an opinion in a public forum.
If you tell people off for being mean on social media- there is a good chance they’ll respond, by being mean to you, on social media. Hundreds and hundreds of comments, over days, which became weeks; all of them from women, all of whom identified as feminists. I’d become a legitimate target, one of those women it’s just completely OK for other women to slag off – even if you think of yourself as a feminist.
This new incarnation of feminism seems as occupied with shutting down any voices it finds uncomfortable, as it is with proactive change. That’s bad. It’s bad because ideas and ideologies need to be tested. How do you know you still believe in the things you’re so sure you believe in, if you never have to argue in their favour?
I marvelled at the extraordinary combination of self-congratulation, narcissism and bile in evidence all masquerading as feminist commentary.
Who is responsible?
Writing a book must be quite an experience, a biography even more so. Even if most people who take the time to do so don’t necessarily expect it to be a critical success and / or sell by the bucket load, I think it is probably fair to say that most people would at least like to think that it might.
“Had somebody told me before: ‘Lots of people will read your book, there’ll be lots of lovely stuff and some horrible stuff’, I’d have thought: ‘Brilliant!’, a debate is what I wanted. But when it came to it, I could only hear the horrible stuff, I couldn’t hear the lovely stuff at all, and it was very, very unpleasant.”
It struck me that Polly may have unconsciously empowered the significance of faceless twitter trolls by displacing some of the negative impact that must have come from receiving such poor reviews from her professional peers.
So EYEdecided to take a look at her twitter timeline for the seven day period following the critical mauling that ‘Hot Feminist’ received in the pages of the Guardian. EYEalso examined tweets for the entire month of June 2015 and genuinely struggled to find evidence of an ‘overwhelming barrage of hate’. In fact the majority of tweets over the immediate period proceeding the publication of her book were positive with some offering sympathy for the criticism it had received.
I have no interest in challenging Vernon’s account and am happy to accept her claim that by the autumn of 2015 she had received approximately 200 critical tweets (or facebook posts etc).
My only question is how much responsibility should the children of twitter realistically have to shoulder for Vernon’s breakdown? And should the adults of olde media like the Guardian take some responsibility for publishing articles that lead to twitter dogpiles?
Vernon tries to pre-empt any potential criticism by insisting that contemporary feminism is too judgmental. Criticising the book not only marks you out as not hot (not even hot like a hot potato) but also unsisterly. Well, sorry. Contemporary feminism can feel brutally critical, but that is partly a feature, not a bug. There are hard conversations to be had within any radical movement about how much accommodation with the status quo is desirable, or even necessary. Helen Lewis
EYElike to see the good in people and try my best to see the humanity in every circumstance. EYEdon’t doubt the reality of Vernon’s experience I just think it is important to question whether it is reasonable or fair to conflate experiences like this with calls to police politeness and an expectation that service providers like twitter should kick someone off their platform just because someone else doesn’t like what they say or the way they say it.
Like Kate Smuthwaite before her, Polly Veron has attributed fears for her personal safety directly to her experience of criticism on social media. If we are to assume that they both mean this genuinely and ordinarily have the mental capacity to effectively recognize danger in proportion to reality then EYEthink that newspapers like The Guardian should consider if they are over-egging the scale of this phenomenon and also take more responsibility for their own role in inspiring people to send harsh electronic words to fellow human beings.