I am going to start this with a massive heart out to Jane Martinson, Guardian Women’s Editor, for her patience and trust. Today’s piece in the Guardian Life and Style section, on dealing with online misogyny, follows a rather less auspicious attempt to do something similar back in March.
I say less auspicious because, despite delivering on time (if you’ve never dealt with me journalistically, you should know this: I am a deadline obsessive!), it got eaten by the Guardian junk mail filter, and sadly not regurgitated until after its sell by date.
Still, there is something serendipitous about all this – not least the fact that, had I started to tell this story back then, I might not now be starting in on the real issue that, I suspect, is due to trouble both the Crown Prosecution Service and our legislators over the coming months.
The nature of online abuse: attack of the clowns
Let me explain. Online abuse has been a thing for a while – and particularly online abuse directed at women. It manifests itself in a variety of ways, from appalling postings on Facebook, defended by their (mostly male) authors as “just a joke”, through to the recent nastiness on Twitter.
Contrary to public understanding, there are some pretty good procedures in place to deal with the numbskull who tweets out “you should be raped” to a named individual. Twitter has reporting systems that hoover up one-on-one threatening stuff. The law in England and many other places is also pretty hot on dealing with direct interpersonal threat.
What neither is quite so good at dealing with is generalised nastiness. The sort of stuff that eventually gave rise to the ASBO: not a crime, but, if perpetrated often enough, capable of making life a living hell for those attempting to co-exist with those guilty of anti-social behaviour.
That’s an interesting parallel. In the UK, it was long recognised that some people acted out in ways that effectively barred others from the enjoyment of public – or even, in some cases, their own private – spaces. So, for good or ill, Tony Blair came up with the idea of the ASBO.
Now let’s fast forward to this year. Social media, of which Twitter is a major instance, are a place – I repeat that, A PLACE – where women and other minorities have come together to achieve great stuff. Campaigns. Mutual support. Idea exchange. You name it, its out there.
Yet the greatest enemy of women coming together in such space has been “misogyny”: not, I’d suggest, always a literal hatred of women. But a broader discomfort, on the part of some men, that women are either infiltrating male spaces or – heavens! – creating spaces of their own.
So they interject: they disrupt; they derail. None of which is necessarily threatening. But it’s a thing, all the same.
And it seems to me that the remedy for this is not some appeal to Twitter, which is NOT a feminist organisation, is culturally NOT going to understand how this rudery affects minorities, and is certainly NOT about to put in place the resource to do moderation properly, justly. No: its to use the law which, in the form of various Communication Acts, makes online communication that is grossly offensive, threatening, intimidating, a criminal offence. To set up a report button that directly invokes the police.
The Crown Prosecution Service strikes back
Only this is where we came in. It’s a bit like your average Hollywood sci-fi movie: the heroes shoot down the enemy ship they THINK posed the ultimate threat, only for that to crash out, revealing the even bigger, nastier ship (or monster) behind it.
Writing in March, I would have explained the need for women to jump on top of the online consultation, then ongoing, in which the CPS was asking for views on social media. They were clearly minded, back then, to come down hard on direct threat, but to soft-pedal on the wider anti-social stuff. So the law is the law: but they want prosecutors to set the threshold high before acting over online abuse. Because otherwise, the courts would be bursting!
Writing yesterday, I could report that the consultation had ended and – surprise! surprise! – the CPS now does advise prosecutors to adopt a high threshold before acting on online abuse. I could also report that while the police, in the shape of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) were positive about women’s groups setting up a stand-alone online abuse report button, they had also read the CPS’ guidance.
After speaking to Andy Trotter, a member of ACPO for whom I have the greatest respect, the Press Office came back and passed on the following: “In terms of the issue about swamping we would point to the high threshold set by the CPS guidance as a good starting point.” Ah. Message received and understood.
Except, on this, I think the CPS have called it wrong. Because this is NOT an issue that is about to go away, as the main counter-arguments to doing something are increasingly revealed as hollow.
Revenge of the sexist
On the one hand, “it’s the internet”, and that’s different: just like men’s clubs were different, or the Royal Society, which long excluded leading female scientists, was different or… well, pretty much ANY space once exclusively male, now no longer. It’s a space. Its an important public space. And we do not tolerate the exclusion of women from public spaces. Period.
Second, we should “walk away for a bit”, or “grow a thicker skin” or basically, just learn to change our behaviour to fit with the menz’ way of doing things. Now, where have I heard that one before? Oh, yes: it’s a minor variant on the “she was asking for it” of rape culture now recoded for the internet age. If you go on twitter, you are just asking to receive rape threats. I mean, honestly!
A new hope
And its an argument they are going to lose. Because this conduct affects women. All women, including senior female MP’s, who, I gather, are not best impressed by their online treatment. An online abuse button is likely to do many things – not least, create an opportunity to quantify the level of online abuse directed at women.
A year from now, if that turns out to be significant, as I suspect it will, and it has been met by the level of inaction by the legal authorities that I also suspect it will, then the political pressure for the CPS to think again will become unstoppable.
Today, disgracefully, I learned that an EU initiative on cultural misogyny, including rape, embodied in the 2011 Istanbul Treaty, remains in limbo as so far just four EU states (not including the UK) have agreed to ratify it.
Ah yes: let’s all talk big about violence against women – and all praise to the CPS for running an initiative of its own in this area. So, please: can we now do something to translate fine words into action.
I agree, totally, that if today the police and prosecutors went after every last minor twonk who was even slightly disrespectful online, they’d silt up the court system from here to 2015. But they don’t have to do that.
By all means have a high threshold: but let’s make it a progressively lowering one, with the level of behaviour that is unacceptable gradually lowering, year on year.
Three months from now, look forward to me writing about how women are now reporting this stuff in droves, and the police are not doing much.
A year, two years from now, expect me to be writing about how the law is being changed to make the police act and to clean up online spaces. Online ASBO’s, anyone? That may not be the right solution, but as so often, our law evolves not simply to deal with the crime we have, but also to mop up the mess made by the failure of authorities to act.