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July 31, 2013

“Wake-up call” for Twitter from Jane Austen bank note campaigner


Stella Creasy and Caroline Criado-Perez stand side by side on the right. The aftermath of the campaign has evolved into an international petition to change Twitter’s rules and protect users from harassment.

Caroline Criado-Perez ran a successful three-month campaign for Jane Austen to appear on a £10 note, and in the wake of her bank note victory, a sustained attack against her on Twitter has grown personal and increasingly violent. Criado-Perez is dissatisfied with the site’s response to the threats made against her; her supporters are calling for new harassment prevention measures from Twitter, including the implementation of a “report abuse” button.

Last Wednesday, Criado-Perez’s Jane campaign was a success, making Austen the only woman aside from the Queen to appear on sterling bank notes. Criado-Perez wrote in The Independent, “I was overwhelmed. We had taken on a huge institution, a bastion of white male power and privilege, and we had won. I looked forward to future banknotes featuring Mary Seacole and Rosalind Franklin. I looked forward to these notes very publicly: on TV; on radio; and in the papers.”

But in days that followed, dissenters approached the activist at an alarming rate. On Twitter, Criado-Perez received “up to fifty threats per hour” for twelve hours, a frightening number of which called for her death or rape. The attackers used the public platform to rally people against her: “This Perez one just needs a good smashing up the arse and she’ll be fine”; “Everyone jump on the rape train > @CCriadoPerez is conductor.” The handles seemed to be created specifically for this target abuse, with names like @rapehernow. Her attackers even disseminated what they believed to be her home address.

There’s something uniquely ugly about these Twitter users turning against Criado-Perez so soon after she’d successfully employed several social media sites to spread the word about her Austen campaign. The tool she’d used adeptly in previous weeks to communicate with her many supporters was suddenly pointed against her.

Labor MP Stella Creasy spoke out in support of Criado-Perez and she too received death and rape threats, including specific times and dates of planned attacks. Both women retweeted the threats as long as they could keep up. At one point, Criado-Perez was dealing with 100 to 200 tweets per minute, and she eventually wrote to followers, “I actually can’t keep up with the screen-capping & reporting—rape threats thick and fast now. If anyone wants to report the tweets to Twitter.” Twitter users filed reports and rallied behind her, with hashtags like #takebacktwitter and #shoutingback.

The authorities acted fast. A twenty-one year old man in Manchester was arrested on Sunday on suspicion of harassment, and a twenty-five year old man from South Shields was arrested on Tuesday for the same, according to the BBC.

The Twitter team didn’t respond as quickly as the police. “They were first contacted on Thursday, but it’s taken them until Monday to set up a meeting with me,” Criado-Perez told the Huffington Post.

Criado-Perez contacted Mark Luckie, Twitter’s manager of journalism and news, to discuss the attacks over Twitter. In response, she reports that Luckie blocked her. “It’s unbelievable from a PR and a media point of view to block the woman trying to communicate concerns… I think he should lose his job,” she told the Guardian.

Luckie, who is the author of The Digital Journalist’s Handbook, tweeted on Saturday, “The comments I received turned abusive and I temporarily protected my account.”

Andy Trotter, chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) communications advisory group in the UK, told the Guardian,”We want social media companies to take steps to stop this happening. It’s on their platforms this is occurring. They must accept responsibility for what’s happening on their platforms. They can’t just set it up and walk away. We don’t want to be in this arena. They are ingenious people, it can’t be beyond their wit to stop these crimes, particularly those particularly serious allegations we have heard of over the weekend.”

It would help the police force, certainly, but Twitter as a company takes no responsibility for offensive or menacing tweeting according to its terms of service, though there is a way to report abuse through its support page. (The Guardian recently put together a timeline of Twitter users and the law.)

Calling this moment “a wake-up call for Twitter,” Criado-Perez said the social network is ill-equipped to handle episodes of sustained abuse. For instance, if an abuser’s is suspended, that person can create a new account on the site within seconds and begin again with a clean slate. One user with the Twitter handle @killcreasynow made specific death threats against Creasy and threatened sexual violence in graphic detail. When the account was suspended after thirty minutes, an account from the same individual called @eatcreasynow appeared instantly to pick up the stream of threats where the first had left off.

“This is not about Twitter, this is about hatred of women and hatred of women who speak up. And indeed, some of those people sending the messages have been absolutely explicit about that. Twitter needs to be explicit that sexual violence and sexual aggression will not be tolerated as part of their user terms and conditions,” Creasy said in an interview with the BBC.

We may not hear Twitter address the issue directly, but users have found a way to use the site as a weapon, waging a public battle in an attempt to drive two articulate women out of the public sphere. Twitter needs to address this event publicly as soon as possible. As Ariel Levy pointed out in her story “Trial by Twitter” in The New Yorker this week, “By the norms of social media there is little difference between confidentiality and obfuscation; if something isn’t broadcast, it must be furtive.”

In response to the attacks, organizer Kim Graham created an online petition on for the site to add a “report abuse” button. It attracted the signatures of thousands of Twitter users within a few hours.

Others have shown their support beyond the petition, addressing Twitter executives directly. On Monday, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper wrote to Tony Wang, the General Manager of Twitter UK, “I urge you to go further and ensure that Twitter carries out a full review of all its policies on abusive behavior, threats and crimes, including more help for Twitter users who experience abuse, a clear complaints process and clear action from Twitter to tackle this kind of persecution… The response by Twitter has clearly been inadequate and fails not only Caroline, but many more women and girls who have faced similar abuse on your social network.”

Wang responded to questions of the report button on Twitter, but would not speak about the issue specifically:

Del Harvey, Senior Director of Trust and Safety at Twitter, responded in a blog post, “Three weeks ago, we rolled out the ability to file reports from an individual Tweet on our iPhone app and the mobile version of our site, and we plan to bring this functionality to Android and desktop web users.”

No release date for the new “report abuse” button has yet been released. There have been calls for a Twitter boycott on August 4th.

In a piece for the Independent, Criado-Perez wrote, “We don’t have to put up with this. Trolls don’t run the internet; neither do abusive men who issue rape threats to get women to shut up. We are the majority. And if we stand firm, and shout back as one, we will win. I hope you’ll join me in shouting back.”

Let’s face it: Criado-Perez didn’t sign up to become a public figure, she just wanted to put a female author on a £10 note. Now she’s fighting for a response from the company, and after a full week the abuse has not ceased. There has to be a way to give each user some power when she is under a sustained attack through social media.

Violence against women may persist, and the number of trolls out there may be infinite, but Twitter needs to make it clear that it will not become the chosen platform for users who want to publicly announce their intent to rape or murder other users. If threats exist and the user has notified administrators, the company has to respond in a prompt manner. It may not be responsible for users’ words, but Twitter needs to respond directly to Criado-Perez’s abuse in a public forum.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.