I had an interesting conversation with Caroline Criado-Perez the other day when I met her at the BBC’s 100 women conference. More on that another time (or see this week’s Catholic Universe).
The other Caroline, has had a similar experience with regards to myself in terms of online trolling and obsessions, only her experience seems to have been far more intense, in that following the success of her campaign to get women represented on bank notes, she has been subject to some terrifying threats of immediate violence to her person.
Though I regularly receive comments about my appearance and sex appeal (or lack thereof), these ones are easy to brush off.
What’s not been so easy to brush off however, is the sustained two year hate campaign, which I have regularly written about here and which, at time of writing seems to be still ongoing.
Some insanely vicious stuff has been written. I can’t actually quite process how people could be so spiteful towards a woman who is still physically and mentally dealing with the effects of losing a baby.
Displaying a gross misunderstanding of the human psyche, it is thought that because I am utilising social media, it is therefore open season on me again. In addition it is denied that I was unwell or vulnerable in my previous pregnancy (my daughter was born early at a low birth weight as a result of pre-eclampsia, the stress of a concerted campaign of online hatred being thought to be a determining factor), because I was using social media and because I made some appearances on TV. I suggest those people do some research into high blood pressure in pregnancy before jumping to ill-informed conclusions.
These sentiments are all very telling. According to this logic social media is a rough and ready place, that if one uses it, then one should be prepared to face all sorts of abuse and that a pregnant woman who wishes to avoid stress and who has become visibly very upset and distressed at the relentless spite and appalling insults chucked her way, is being reckless if she engages on social media in any way.
Anyone with an empathetic bone in their body should be able to understand why pregnancy is a vulnerable time for women, not least by dint of the extra hormones sloshing about, adding to natural anxieties that every woman experiences in pregnancy. It’s a time of increased physical and mental stress, which is why women are advised to take measures to take care of themselves.
It says much about contemporary attitudes to social media, if attempting to use Twitter, which many of us need to do not least for work purposes, is thought to be akin to masochism or reckless endangerment.
I saw this in the case of Caroline Criado-Perez, who by her own admission had a mini mental-breakdown as a result of the pressure of relentless abuse. Basically she broke the golden rule, she displayed emotion and furiously shouted back at her critics. Which they revelled in, being able to label her as mad and unstable, in an attempt to grab the moral high ground, with patronising displays of faux pity towards her obvious mental distress, which they used to disenfranchise and silence her. “Poor dear, she’s obviously lost the plot, she really shouldn’t have been so abusive to her critics. If you react like that, then you shouldn’t be on here in the first place”.
Which says what? That social media should only be for the emotionally robust and those who are able to be able to brush off huge amounts of taunting and verbal abuse. As Caroline says, she’s only human and she broke and frankly it’s not surprising after so much pressure. Twitter provides social interaction for many who are otherwise isolated, should we condone disenfranchising the weak? Why is displaying emotion so much more taboo than verbal abuse and open campaigns of bitching, sniping and bullying?
I have enormous sympathy for Caroline. While the threats may be of a different nature, every day it is made extremely clear that my feed is being stalked and trolled. Innocuous comments are seized upon to see if they can be distorted or used as ammunition towards me. One wholly innocent comment I made about those two subversive genius ‘The Two Ronnies’ was screenshotted and copied and pasted to Ruth Gledhill of the Times of all people, by someone who was blocked, in an attempt to stir up some kind of controversy!
It sounds laughable but it’s wearing. Every single day one woman uses my Twitter feed as her source of daily stimulation. Whatever I say, she makes a comment on, deliberately stating the opposite and trying to make issue of. The other thing she will do is spot who has interacted with me and then interact with them herself, although she’s got wise as to the repercussions of constantly using my handle. On one level it’s laughable and doesn’t bother me. I’m obviously an extremely fascinating and compelling figure in what must be a dull grey and lonely life. She’s blocked so I don’t have to experience her madness. Where it gets tiring however is when she uses my handle and therefore incites other people to join in. One then receives a stream of replies with her copied in, meaning that you have to trace back to her original tweet to find out what on earth is being discussed. I had a private message this morning from a friend wondering why this woman who is blocked appeared to have favourited her tweets that mentioned me.
It’s a common tactic, one that was used by a Tweeter who has now fortunately been banned for prolonged spamming of other users. He would take a tweet one had made, take words out of context to distort and misrepresent one’s original point, meaning that you then received a string of outraged and angry responses. It was a technique designed to sap one’s time and energy as well as dent your reputation. The only response was to either reply to those furiously demanding why you had allegedly said xyz, and restate the original point, ensuring that you missed out the blocked protagonist, or to ignore altogether. But it was nonetheless infuriating, a constant irritant to be misrepresented on a daily basis.
I set up a private locked account in order to be able to interact with my friends without the hassle and to avoid the gaze of such people, who proceeded to vociferously complain and then troll and stalk my mentions column which still showed up as public (when you protect your account, your tweets are private but those who interact with you are still visible) publicly attacking anyone who was seen to be saying anything supportive to me. In the end I had to delete the account, a move which was deemed as wise, one person saying that they were too scared to be seen to be my personal friend as they knew that they would be targeted and attacked.
So far I have been to the police on three occasions, to complain about incidents such as my personal details being outed (someone would have needed to have paid the records office or done some serious digging as they are not available anywhere on the net) meaning that I needed to change password details, implied threats of blackmail and recently claims that I was not pregnant and that a miscarriage was ‘convenient’ and an ‘excuse’.
Despite several people, including serving policeman friends confirming that though these are serious breaches of the law, because no specific threat of violence is being made, I have to put up with it because there are inadequate resources to prosecute. The police don’t believe that prosecuting those who are using the internet and social media to drive someone to the brink of a nervous breakdown in a concerted campaign of intimidation, is in the public interest.
I recently posted a video of my daughter singing the Salve Regina to a sock puppet online, in attempt to laugh at some of the madness which has seen me being publicly accused of being an ex-pat who runs a blog about his donkey sanctuary in Spain! My children always sing the Salve at bedtime, they also love playing with sock-puppets, it was an impromptu moment when I caught my daughter practising her ‘ventriloquism’ and so I caught it on camera and shared in an attempt to make people smile and share how we try to incorporate the faith into our daily lives.
This video has been touted as proof of my being sinister, evil, pathological and dangerous and sent to various professional colleagues in an attempt to have work assignments removed! Plus I’ve been criticised for sharing footage of my children, such is society’s pre-Victorian attitude to children which seeks to lock them up and keep them out of public view for fear that some sexual predator might gain some excitment from them. (Although there’s a whole other issue).
Like anyone I should be able to use the internet and social media on my own terms. I should be able to log on to Twitter, shoot the breeze, engage in some online discussion or apologetics, post some interesting links, do my stuff then click off. I dip in and out of Twitter on my phone when I get a free five or ten minutes. While all of us should be aware that we are in the public square and ought to act appropriately, especially if our profile denotes the company for whom we work or an organisation with which we are involved, a certain courtesy does not mean that we should be needing to look over our shoulder every five minutes.
If we want to make social media an universal safe space then one of the things that should happen is that Twitter should implement a block function that is similar to that of Facebook. If you block someone then Twitter should take steps to ensure that not only can you escape their rantings but also that they are blocked from being able to see your tweets or what people say to you.
For those who say that this is not in the original spirit of the thing which was originally an open platform for the free exchange of ideas, I think we have to accept that like all digital platforms, it needs to evolve and adapt. New users are automatically given an element of trust, but if a certain person invades our privacy, breaches our trust and makes us feel unsafe, rather than withdrawing from the platform itself (which in itself puts the responsibility and blame for the abuse on the abused) we should have the option to stop those from having access to us, for the sake of their mental health and ours.
With online abuse and cyber-bullying becoming an increasing problem, the police cannot be expected to prosecute for breakdown in relationships and all too often social media is wielded as a real weapon of attack able to do serious damage. There’s been a spate of teen suicides related to online abuse, this is going to be an increasing phenomenon, alongside us being taught how to keep ourselves safe and develop online strategies, the social media platforms need to play their part.
Blocking someone sends them a message, it says, look I don’t want contact with you, please leave me alone. Using Twitter should not mean that you are held responsible for someone else’s fixation upon you. One of the thing that I have learnt through my experience of being online stalked is that very often the victim, the person being obsessed about, can become as obsessed as the perpetrator. It’s understandable because one is always looking over one’s shoulder, trying to pre-empt or anticipate what on earth the aggressor might do next and also a way of trying to gain control of the situation. It takes an immense amount of strength to emotionally detach and not care and when people are engaged in criminal acts of harassment, evidence needs to be garnered in able to put a stop to the situation. Especially when the medium of the internet allows for the rapid dissemination of information, for good or evil.
We know that internet and online addiction is becoming a issue in society. At present Twitter enables and feeds the obsessions which is not healthy for either party. I have become the target or obsession of a tiny cabal of people for some time now. It’s telling that whenever a fresh item of spite is served up, it’s always the same small group people serving up steaming dollops of nastiness and spewing new poison. Being at the end of such vitriol is extremely trying and the extent of the campaign should not be underestimated. But at moments where I am driven to the depths of anger and despair, what pulls me up is imaging the hell and torment that these people must be experiencing to take such gleeful pleasure in attacking a woman, a mother of four young children and laughing at her visible torment when, to use the words of my husband, they urinate all over the grief of our dead baby.
If you tell someone that you wish for them not to contact you, even if it’s only for a brief period of time to give you some equilibrium, then they should respect that. If you tell someone that you wish them to leave you alone, then they should not claim that your existence gives them licence to continue pestering you.
Twitter needs to be able to help users to help themselves and each other, by respecting that a block button means that you want privacy. We shouldn’t need to lock our accounts which then hinders our interactions with the world at large, but we should be able to ban certain users from seeing what we are up to, if they abuse our trust. Most trolls are lazy, not bothering with creating multiple accounts. In addition most of the persistent abusers revel in their identity and obsession regardless of whether or not this is real or assumed.
Today my troll, with typical lack of self awareness, blustered “let’s hope for a drama free day on Twitter”. Amen sister. If you can’t stop yourself from spying on my feed, screen shotting it and generally making insulting, derogatory comments and lying about me, then Twitter should help you to help yourself. We all want an end to the drama. If you can’t stop feeding your unhealthy cycle of co-dependence then Twitter should do it for your own sake and all those of your ilk. That way a lot of heartache and drama can be avoided and we can all enjoy a healthier experience.
The internet is a new tool. No-one foresaw its addictive and self-destructive potential.