The Crown Prosecution Service has made the welcome announcement that online hate crime is to be taken as seriously as that which happens face to face. Racist, homophobic abuse, hate crime on grounds of religious belief, disability or gender identity are all addressed by the new guidance. But the eagle-eyed amongst you will spot that misogyny – i.e. the hatred of women – is omitted from this list (so too, incidentally, is age). That is because our hate crime legislation does not currently require misogyny to be recorded as a hate crime (something that Fawcett is campaigning to change). Funny that, as there is so much of it about. You only need to spend a few hours idly on Twitter to find it. If you are lucky enough to be a woman it will probably come and find you.
Now let’s be clear, I think we owe the creators of our social media platforms a debt of gratiude. They had the vision to use technology to bring people together, to help them to connect. They are right as few would disagree that the internet and social media platforms have been a force for the good. Enabling people to find solidarity with others, opening up political debate, enabling the mobilisation of movements, including the revival of the women’s movement and putting power and influence in the hands of individuals. But the truth is that in Twitter’s case they are still proving not to be up to the job of dealing with the uglier side to individual freedom that is enabled by and permitted on their platform.
This is rather different from the picture they painted in their evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee earlier this year when Twitter said they:
“Prohibit posts that promote “violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.” They also claimed to have procedures for users to report abusive content and that they had a way of dealing with ‘dogpiling’ – the practice where a large number of users abuse or harass an individual simultaneously.
So in partnership with the Reclaim the Internet campaign Fawcett put these systems to the test. We reviewed a range of abusive, violent content on Twitter, including racist and sexist abuse, content calling for a woman to be raped, extremely violent language – it took just a few hours to find a range of posts which all contravened Twitter’s own community standards. We then reported them via individual user accounts. And then we waited. We waited to see what would happen next. The answer was nothing. The posts remained up online a week later. The accounts which reported the abuse received no further communication. This is consistent with the experience of women who responded to a Fawcett survey earlier this year. Most did not report online abuse but of those who did just 9% saw Twitter taking action in response.
There are over 6,000 tweets per second. What kind of self-regulated reporting system is going to be able to deal with that? But deal with it, it must. Because otherwise the haters win and women are crowded out of online spaces. Yvette Cooper MP, who founded the Reclaim the Internet campaign, and I have written to Twitter asking a series of questions, challenging them on the resources allocated to address online abuse and harassment and demanding a 24-hour turnaround time in response to reported cases. Unreasonable? Not when you consider that a tweet is instantaneous, within seconds it can be retweeted thousands of times, in minutes it can go viral. 24 hours is almost too long.
Twitter claim to have improved their act in recent months – which is some good news – but based on what we have found here the platform is still failing too many women experiencing online harassment and abuse. The online world is our high street, our public space, yet many women are being drowned out or driven out.
The CPS acknowledges that online abuse is as serious as offline, yet little is changing. In my view this is because of a potent mix of complacency and a lack of commitment to address it combined with a misguided view that free speech somehow justifies all the ugliness. But as they said in Charlottesville, hate speech is not free speech. Intimidation, harassment, abuse and threats have nothing to do with freedom at all but are rather concerned with curtailing the freedoms of others. We can all play our part in defending our online spaces. But come on Twitter, in case you missed it, it is time to play yours.
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