Faith In Feminism

Vicky writes: Trolling & Feminism

Vicky Beeching August 16, 2013 2 Comments on Vicky writes: Trolling & Feminism

Bank notes 3

One of the things that pre-empted me to start this site was my involvement in a specific feminist campaign in the UK – a protest at the Bank of England announcing that they’d remove the only remaining woman featured on our bank notes.

On Friday 5th July a group of us dressed up as ‘inspiring women from history’ and presented a box of 33k signatures to the Bank of England asking them to keep women on our banknotes. The campaign was led by my friend Caroline Criado-Perez, pictured here wearing a white lab coat.

I dressed up as Boudicca – I’d never worn a cape, sword and shield before so it was a rather surreal experience! Read about it here in the Guardian.

Bank notes 1After this, the Bank announced they would put Jane Austen on the next £10 note. We celebrated, but the joy was short lived. Suddenly many of us got bombarded with online abuse.

// Don’t feed the trolls?

I spoke about bank-notes, Caroline’s bravery and social media trolling on Sky News last week. You can watch that interview here. We discussed trolling in particular. Many complain that retweeting is not the way to deal with it: “don’t feed the trolls!” they say. But this advice means abuse happens in private. Shining a light on it by RTing some of the comments means the rest of social media have to see it and are made aware. It also means networks like Twitter can benefit from peer-to-peer ‘policing’ rather than just top-down authorities stepping in.

// Lads Mags

Many of us women have had to normalise online abuse. Obviously it goes to a totally different and criminal level when it’s rape or death threats; these should never be shrugged off. But general vile abuse is something many of us feminists just have to accept. Chatting with Laura Bates from Everyday Sexism and Lucy Holmes from NoMorePage3 the amount of nastiness we all get sent is horrible. It just seems to go with the territory – but it shouldn’t have to.

Today when raising my voice for Lose The Lads Mags, as I have with the No More Page 3 Campaign, I decided I would start retweeting some of the abuse. It stemmed from me expressing some personally vulnerable stuff about the negative effects of seeing ‘soft porn’ magazines in newsagents and in general public places when I was younger.

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I would say that seeing those images of women on men’s pin-up calendars, on the accidentally-left-open Sun’s Page 3 and on the high up shelves of newsagents when browsing the kids comics had the following effects:

– It damaged my understanding of what it means to be a woman; the lie that we are only worth as much as the attractiveness of our bodies.

– It taught me from a tiny age that to get men’s attention, women “have” to look a certain way and that becoming physically attractive should be our all-consuming task.

– It hit me with the reality that women are sex objects within culture and this must just be accepted not challenged. Even though this deeply upset me as a little girl I already felt like I was faced with the need to accept this as the norm.

– It actually made me not want to be a woman as I felt like my ‘lot’ in life was a terrible one: that I was destined to spend my days fighting to look attractive only in order to be used as some kind of object.

Opening up about how “deeply disturbing” these magazines and their images were was met by a torrent of abuse. I’ve censored out most but I’ll include a few here [warning: offensive language]

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// Even tough cookies break

The Twittersphere is often a nasty place. I fell in love with social media back when I lived in California and the social media revolution was first born on the West Coast. I quickly fell out of love with social media when the police had to move me out of my apartment overnight due to rape and death threats. These were sparked by me simply being a woman who put her head above the parapet on issues of gender equality.

Far from home, those nasty messages wrecked me. I’m a pretty tough cookie but when men started showing up in my neighbourhood asking for my address, telling me online exactly what they “planned to do to me” and began attending my public lectures as the addresses were public, I just broke. My manager and I had a file inches thick, full of names, threats and incidents, mainly sparked by social media.

The American authorities were pretty much useless as they said the threats didn’t fall under a geographical jurisdiction – and six years ago the policing of social media threats was far less developed than today. Trolling, abuse and sexual threats were a large part of the reason I moved back to the UK three years ago – I just felt too vulnerable in a foreign country by myself.

// Trying to fight back

Returning to the UK I decided on a way I could fight back. I started doing a PhD which I’m currently in the middle of. My topic is “Internet Ethics”. So it gives me an outlet for my angst! I’m researching how we can use social media more ethically. I’ve spoken about my research on Radio 4 “Sunday” and “The Moral Maze” and in the Independent if you’re bored one day and want to check those out!

Lads’ mags

Lose the lads mags!

// Don’t just walk on by

Social media ethics are a crucial topic to consider. Questions of privacy, free speech, how we handle the powers of anonymity and when and how to switch off.

However, there is a real risk these discussions can become academic rather than rooted in personal life experience.

For my Twitter followers, I hope the messages I RTd today have given you a glimpse into the lewdness and degrading nature of trolling. Yes they are offensive and I had complaints for promulgating that bad language online. Yet I feel awareness is more important in this case.

Please continue to support anyone you see receiving abuse on Twitter. If someone were being beaten on the pavement, you probably wouldn’t just walk on by. Especially if the abuse contains criminal threats of death or violence. Please add your voice to important campaigns like Lose The Lads Mags or No More Page 3 if you agree. If you don’t agree with these campaigns, then at least stand up for those who you see trolled online.

If enough of us do it, we CAN make a difference.

More on this in a couple of TV interviews I’ve done lately, below.

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About The Author

Vicky Beeching is a theologian, writer and broadcaster who focuses on the areas of religion, feminism and technology. She is a regular on TV and radio discussing her areas of interest. Vicky is currently doing PhD research on the ethics of the Internet, exploring how online technology is shaping society. She lives in central London.

2 Comments

  1. Mark August 25, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    I should be absolutely clear about this, because I don’t want it to be taken wrongly. The rape threats during the recent Twitter abuse scandal were completely wrong and the perpetrators deserved to be investigated.

    Then it seems to me, there are degrees of what constitutes an abusive/derogatory comment.
    Most of the tweeted examples given above fall into the nasty/abusive category, but there seem to be a few that, although a bit rude and could perhaps be taken as personal, are misguided, and could be articulated much better as an argument against your stand. These are the ones by Loader and Brooke. A little text is cut off the page, but I think I get the gist.
    Are those ones really abuse? I’ll have to assume that there was no follow-up or clarification as to what was meant. Maybe there was.

    I had the feeling over the recent abuse debates, that the rape threats were obvious, but then the line of “abuse” was getting greyer, and much is down to personal interpretation as to what constitutes an “abusive troll”. I doubt there is a complete definition.

    From a personal perspective, I had to wonder at which point disagreement with a view, however made, could bring about an accusation of abuse.
    Like I say, I think the examples I gave above were badly put, misguided argument, and I’d never write like that, but I might attempt irony sometimes, and that got a little worrying. What if I’ve misjudged how someone might understand that? Could I find my tweet being labelled abusive somewhere, if the recipient was annoyed by it, but didn’t ask for clarity?

    I heard the Clare Balding radio interview, where you likened abusive trolling to ‘something people would otherwise probably be arrested for’ (paraphrased). I doubt a few of the examples above fall into that category.

    Here’s an example of initial confusion.
    Some days ago, you posted a quote from Gandhi. Then retweeted someone’s reply about it “being tough on the bedsheets.” Because RTing doesn’t come with an “I do/do not endorse” tag, and you had been retweeting abuse, I stopped and wondered what was meant by that retweet. Was it an example of abuse? It turned out not to be, but maybe you see what I mean.

    Overall, I’d hope that if in reply, I’d use irony/satire, and the receiver took it as an affront, they would perhaps clarify with me what I actually meant, before treating it as abuse, otherwise bad misjudgements can be made, on both sides.

  2. Mark August 25, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    On re-reading I should have said that I found the retweeted comment about Gandhi funny.

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