EYE Review: Virtual Abuse

EYEreflect on twelve months of investigating disturbingly dubious and disingenuous internet abuse claims.

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Whatever your views about locking people up for using offensive language or expressing extreme hateful views, EYEsuspect that everybody reading this will accept and acknowledge the fact that ‘online abuse’ can have very real world consequences for those on the receiving end.

Recently the MP Luciana Berger talked about how a protracted campaign of vitriol and hate had a deep impact’ on her and on the people around her, leaving her fearing for her safety, cancelling public events and reducing her social media presence.

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A twelve person Jury took just over an hour to find a 24 year old man guilty of racially-aggravated harassment after they consider evidence of a cruel campaign of vile racist abuse against Ms Berger which at it’s height 2,500 anti-semetic messages over a three day period.

Some of the messages were conveyed using the hashtag #FilithyJewBitch, one included a photo-shopped image of her clothed as a ‘Jewish concentration camp prisoner’ while others included violent or sexual imagery and even included death threats.

‘Today’s verdict demonstrates that under British law those who perpetrate these horrific crimes can and will be brought to justice, and it recognises that the British values of equality, tolerance and mutual respect that we hold dear, apply as much on the internet as they do offline. Mr Justice Spencer

On the day of sentencing the Labour MP talked to Radio 5 Live Presenter Emma Barnett in some detail about the ‘emotional and damaging’ experience in some detail.

This discussion also prompted the talkradio host to set the scene for her daily phone in by inviting listeners to consider:  ‘Who’s responsibility is it to protect people from online abuse and is enough being done to create an environment online that is safe for people to express themselves without being reprimanded for something that they are?’

Reassuringly Berger acknowledged that the law is very clear about what harassment is and that this  conviction shows that such extreme behaviour doesn’t go unpunished.

Nevertheless Bartlett’s 16 year old guest producer for the day emphasized the fact that habitual horrific headlines about high profile internet abuse is creating a significant chill factor for young people thinking about expressing their opinions online.

Our research has found that half of girls are aware of the sexist abuse of high profile women online and say that this negatively affects how they act and feel related to social media and speaking out. This includes girls saying they are scared they will also receive abuse if they speak out on social media, just because they are a girl. The internet should be a place where young women are encouraged to speak out on issues that are important to them, not receive online abuse for voicing an opinion. Girl Guiding Advocate Pannel

Over the past twelve months EYEhas taken a close interest in one particular aspect of the online abuse phenomenon and indeed highlighted that very same statistic when covering Yvette Cooper’s Reclaim the Internet conference back in June.

Whilst fully acknowledging that online stalking and harassment is a genuine issue to be tackled, one of the key conclusions arising from my research is that high profile and influential feminists participating in public life need to show some responsible leadership and reflect on the possibility that their own behaviour (or ignorance) may be significantly contributing towards the creation of the aforementioned and extremely unwelcome online chill factor.

It may seem ridiculous to suggest that some of the most high profile or outspoken ‘victims’ of online trolling or abuse must in fact take some considerable responsibility for scaring girl guides off the internet.  No doubt some will even consider such a notion to be classic ‘ victim blaming‘ but before you judge me too harshly, or dismiss me as part of the problem, please take a moment to consider the actual facts.

One of the most high profile ‘internet abuse‘ incidents this year involved the quite extraordinary claim that a sitting Member of Parliament was subjected to anywhere between 600 and 5000 rape threats online over a period of just 24 hours.

EYEis not a legal expert but, before even considering broader harassment laws etc, it strikes me as possible that even one serious written threat of sexual assault could result in a police caution, or possibly even a conviction under section nine (preparatory offences) of the Sexual Offences Act 2003

And yet despite widespread media coverage of the incident, the professional assessment of the local constabulary for MP involved (Jess Phillips) was that they were not aware of any crime being committed.  What’s more after seeking action from twitter and demanding sanctions against the perceived misogynistic trolls running wild on their platform she was advised that after a thorough review of the ‘offending’ content they had determined that it was not in violation of the Twitter rules.

How can this be? Quite simply because it seems highly likely that there were no rape threats.

Indeed it’s not the first time Phillips has doubled down on dubious declarations about torrents of abuse and perhaps it’s about time that she takes a quiet adult moment to reflect on the possibility that, as a highly paid public servant, she should take some considerable responsibility for June’s relatively childish backlash against her own abusive, censorious and opportunistic, self promoting behaviour.

If you consider my assessment of the incident you may still argue that, despite obvious nuances, Phillips did receive a volley of offensive tweets which is fair enough as far as it’s fair enough but certainly doesn’t justify such incredibly inaccurate news headlines and, in my humble subjective opinion, certainly doesn’t excuse a former Equality Minister making excuses for them.

Long after the dust had settled experienced journalist’s like Cathy Newman were repeating the myth about over 600 rape threats in one night.  Perhaps Newman simply didn’t bother to read below her own paper’s inaccurate headline but then again sometimes journalists have the remarkable ability to see what they want to see when it suits their purpose.

Last month EYEexamined Cathy Newman’s own claims about receiving ‘a torrent of misogynistic abuse’ and found them to fall considerably short of the sort of objective and accurate standards of reporting  one would expect from a Channel 4 News Anchor.

Of all the claims EYEhave investigated Newman’s offered the most evidence of overt misogynistic language but it was hardly a torrent and the most remarkable thing about her narrative was the fact that she completely ignored the significantly larger and nastier narrative of hate directed towards her interview guest. Including violent thoughts from a Member of Parliament who sponsored the proposed Malicious Communications (Social Media) Bill and even a kneecapping call from one of her Channel 4 News Colleagues.

Over and above questions about journalistic integrity and encouraging Orwellian thought police hubs to reclaim the internet for fragile feminists, the most troubling thing about such exaggerated or disingenuous claims is that ultimately they both undermine and exploit genuine victims of abuse while also potentially distracting the spotlight from where it really should be.

Take the example of the 15 year old London school girl who’s experience of vile abuse received considerably less coverage over the same period that Jess Phillips MP wasn’t receiving a torrent of rape threats on twitter.

An examination of abuse claims by Sky News pundits Kate Smurthwaite  and Dr Emily Grossman both point to a phenomenon of fragile ego’s, either consciously or unconsciously, conflating constructive criticism with hate crimes all the while distracting from the notion of taking personal responsibility for their own inflammatory or incompetent performances.

And while politicians and olde media exploit such tales to demand thought crime interventions or that their competitors are shut down, it’s significant to note that many of these high profile ‘victims’ have literally profited from the ‘abuse’ that has helped to boost or redeem their public profile.

Possibly the most incredible example EYEcame across this year was a story about harsh words exchanged between fellow female feminists that the Guardian somehow managed to spin into their blindsided narrative about online misogyny.

Again it could be argued that most of the ‘abuse’ was really relatively polite constructive criticism.  Specifically criticism about a book on fashionable feminism from fashion writer Polly Vernon which got some scathing reviews.  Interestingly when the time came to promote the paperback, Polly’s preferred to push a poor me abuse narrative over one about bad reviews.

As Emma Barnett’s teenage producer testified, such trending tales of twitter terror do have very real world consequences, one of them is shutting down open democratic debate and another is scaring girl guides off the internet.

Maybe it’s time for some women who’s voices aren’t silenced so easily to speak out against a disturbing trend that is becoming a recurring theme in British politics?

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