Caitlin Moran: a response

Being wary of quick fixes for online abuse is not the same as being dismissive of misogyny

02 Aug 2013
Writer Caitlin Moran (Image Demotix/Ken Jack)

Writer Caitlin Moran (Image Demotix/Ken Jack)

Times columnist Caitlin Moran’s blog post on Twitter, threats and free speech this morning has gone viral. As I type, the page has crashed due to traffic overload, and apparently taken the entire Random House website with it.

The past week, online at least, has been dominated by discussions of misogynist abuse and threats on Twitter. I’m fighting a losing battle here in trying not to refer to this behaviour as “trolling”, but I think it’s still important to call abuse and threats what they are, rather than giving them a whole new category because they occur online. Calling it “trolling” undermines both trolling itself, in some ways a noble tradition, and what’s actually happening, which is women being threatened with rape by strangers.

Moran explains the exhausting and scary feeling of being attacked on Twitter, and the despair of being told that nothing can be done about it.

She goes on to quote Telegraph tech blogger Mic Wright, who earlier this week suggested that “This isn’t a technology issue – this is a societal issue”, suggesting he was simply dismissive of the idea that something should be done about misogyny online. Mic’s a friend, and a thoughtful writer. I don’t think he’s nearly as off-hand as Moran suggests, but I’ll leave it to you to read what he actually wrote. (While you’re at the Telegraph site, read Marta Cooper’s excellent piece as well)

Moran suggests “a fairly infallible rule: that anyone who says ‘Hey, guys – what about freedom of speech!’ hasn’t the faintest idea what ‘freedom of speech’ actually means.”

This, I’m afraid, is where it gets personal. As someone who may as well change his name by deed poll to “Hey, guys – what about freedom of speech!”, I can’t help feel Moran’s talking about me. And I think I’ve been a bit more considered, even while shouting about free speech.

Moran says:

“There is no such thing as ‘freedom of speech’ in this country. Since 1998, we’ve had Article 10 of the European Convention on “freedom of expression”, but that still outlaws – amongst many things – obscenity, sedition, glorifying terrorism, incitement of racial hatred, sending articles which are indecent or grossly offensive with an intent to cause anxiety or distress, and threatening, abusive or insulting words like to cause harassment, alarm or distress.”

Well, kind of. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights says this:

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

(Part 2 is kind of depressing, isn’t it?)

What Moran categorises as being outlawed by Article 10 are in fact various other laws, most of which have been around in some form or other long before the 1998 Human Rights Act which established the ECHR in UK law. Laws such as the Communications Act and the Public Order Act which, Lord knows, have their problems, not least for social media users. Ask Paul Chambers.

Moran then says:

“As you can see, if you are suggesting that you are allowed to threaten someone on Twitter with rape or death under “freedom of speech”, then you do not – as predicted – have any idea what “freedom of speech” means. Because it’s prosecutable.”

Two things: One, I’m not sure anyone really has been shouting “free speech for rape threats”. Two, it is possible to shout “freedom of speech” even when things are prosecutable. In fact, it’s what free speech campaigners such as Index, English PEN and Article 19 spend most of our time doing. All governments protect free speech “within the law”. Usually, the law is the problem, as we’ve seen with issues from England’s libel laws right up to Russia’s brand new anti “gay propaganda” law.

Moran identifies a certain cynicism in people who say abuse and threats are simply part and parcel of the web (“NOTHING CAN CHANGE. THE INTERNET JUST IS WHAT IT IS!”) saying what they really mean is that they don’t want things to change.

This strand certainly exists. The old-style keyboard warrior who thinks the web is strictly for arguing and not cat videos and getting strangers to help you with the crossword, or generally doing nice things and learning more about other people and places. The internet, for them is SERIOUS BUSINESS, and girls and pansies who can’t take the heat should get out of the kitchen. Or go back to the kitchen. Definitely something about kitchens.

But there is also a good reason to be wary, or at least hesitant, about calls for changing the web. A lot of time spent defending free speech is not actually about defending what people say, but defending the space in which they can say it (I’ll refrain from misquoting Voltaire here). It may be idealistic, but we genuinely believe that given the space and the opportunity to discuss ideas openly, without fear of retribution, we’ll figure out how to do things better. Censorship holds society back. In fact, it’s the litmus test of a society being held back.

When the cry goes up that “something must be done”, it’s normally exactly the right time to put the brakes on and think very hard about what we actually want to happen. The web is wonderful, and possibly the greatest manifestation of the free speech space we’ve ever had, but it’s also susceptible to control. Governments such as those in China and Iran spend massive resources on controlling the web, and do quite a good job of it. Other states simply slow the connection, making the web a frustrating rather than liberating experience. Some governments simply pull the plug. The whole of YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan for almost a year now, because something had to be done about blasphemous videos. Last month David Cameron announced his plans to take all the bad things away, after the Daily Mail ran a classic something-must-be-done campaign against online porn.

There are, as Moran rightly points out, laws against threatening people with rape. Perhaps the police and the CPS should take these threats more seriously (I only say “perhaps” because I don’t know exactly what the various police forces have been doing about the various threats in the past week, not because I think it’s arguable that the police and CPS should take rape threats less seriously), but I’m wary of demanding more action on things that are already illegal. Some of the proposed Twitter fixes are interesting, but their implications need to be thought through, particularly how they could be used against people we like as well as people we don’t like.

After outlining her support for a boycott of Twitter on Sunday 4 August, Moran concludes:

“The main compass to steer by, as this whole thing rages on, doubtless for some months to come, is this: to maintain the spirit that the internet was conceived and born in – one of absolute optimism that the future will be better than the past. And that the future will be better than the past because internet is the best shot we’ve had yet for billions of people to communicate equally, and peacefully, and with the additional ability to post pictures of thatched houses that look ‘surprised.’”

On this, I agree absolutely. In fact, I pretty much wrote the same thing last week:

The current debate in the UK portrays the web overwhelmingly as the habitat of trolls, predators, bullies and pornmongers. And that, plus the police are watching too, ready to arrest you for saying the wrong thing.

I can’t help feeling that all this doom-mongering could be self fulfilling. If we keep thinking of the web as the badlands, that’s how it will be, like a child beset by endless criticism and low expectations. We need to talk more about the positive side of life online – the conversations, the friendships, the opportunities – if we’re going to get the most out of it.

We do need to protect and promote the good parts of life online. But we should be very careful of the idea that we can simply block out the negative aspects without having a knock-on effect. We’re in uncharted territory. The wrong turn could be very, very costly.

Padraig Reidy

15 responses to “Caitlin Moran: a response”

  1. Newsfox says:

    This is the nub: “But we should be very careful of the idea that we can simply block out the negative aspects without having a knock-on effect”

    The policies are there to ban these users and Twitter just needs to apply them.

    You have to ask why campaigners are demanding more and people are entitled to think there’s a wider agenda here. There’s a strain of the Left happy to push for censorship of ‘things they don’t like’ like the Sun Page 3 campaign.

    So I think it is pefectly reasonable to be concerned. The bigoted attacks on those who dare to question the PC Left are specifically designed to stop the debate and put the fear of God into anyone who might be tempted to weigh in. I thought that was the trolls’ tactics.

    Indeed no-one is talking about the injustice caused by Twitter prosecutions thus far or the potential injustice and hypocrisy that they will cause in the future. In that regard, the ‘silence’ campaign is quite catastrophic.

  2. James says:

    The abuse I receive is from far left loons who also have criminal convictions (usually for caring too much), mostly women but they have a few male slaves who do dish out their threats for them.
    Most recent one was something along the lines of pouring bleach down my throat and removing my testicles with a fork. Charming ladies they are.

    There is a solution to this, there are word-filters that can replace all nasty words with puppy dogs and flowers. My current word-filter switches “bastard” for “charming young man”, I blush every time I read my twitter feed.

  3. Muggins says:

    Yeah let’s not forget that Bidisha said something very similar,

    as did Sharon Osbourne, very famously, in a studio full of women, and how they laughed. Castration is great fun.

    But I’m sure they’ll explain to us how this is not “hate-speech”, and how anything directed at women is…

  4. Sharon says:

    Excellent piece – absolutely agree. Trolling isn’t new (nor is it big or clever), but fortunately for us all it remains a minority pursuit.

    We all ought to be very careful that we don’t lose so many of the positive things the web can brings – and the anonymity the web gives us – in a desperate bid to “DO SOMETHING” about trolling.

    I’ve quoted your post in something I wrote today on why we need to be wary of sacrificing internet anonymity.

  5. Ann Kittenplan says:

    Proletter: As described, these sound like real threats which would cause real harm and distress, and with very good reason. There are laws in place to deal with them. All of this makes your experience a real issue that anyone genuinely concerned about rape should be focusing on doing something about.

    In the matter at hand though, the more I see the original tweets, the more I agree with moth in the post above.

    One of the tweets said something like:

    “Bring the police. We’ll rape them too.”

    Is that a threat to rape the police? Are the associated tweets genuine threats?

    If you think it is and they are, then perhaps all the moral outrage makes sense.

    If you think it isn’t and they aren’t, then it emphatically does not.

    CCP found herself in one of the darker corners of the internet and took offence at what she saw.

    She set a bandwagon rolling and it’s now in danger of trampling full steam all over some fundamental freedoms.

  6. Jim says:

    I was most amused to see Caitlin Moran discussing with Helen Lewis, Penny Red and others who they might like to debate with. In other words, they were trying to think of someone they could be sure to win an argument against and failing to come with anyone. I’m sure they’re still looking.

    It’s also a little depressing hearing her bash on about Tim Berners-Lee inventing the internet as though she knows what she’s talking about. He came up with markup language and the hyper text transfer protocol which form the backbone of the world wide web, not the internet. It would be nice to think that someone who seeks to control the web actually knew what the hell it is.

  7. Hugh says:

    “There is no such thing as ‘freedom of speech’ in this country. Since 1998, we’ve had Article 10 of the European Convention on “freedom of expression”, but that still outlaws – amongst many things – obscenity, sedition, glorifying terrorism…”

    Interestingly, anyone who can write that genuinely does have no idea idea about freedom of speech in this country – or constitutional law in general. Civil rights in this country are not granted by law, only limited by it. She’s right that there’s no freedom to threaten people; wrong to say that there’s no freedom of speech concern in asking for greater controls to tackle something that’s already illegal.

  8. moth says:

    The unwillingness not to call a Troll a Troll is just another sign that this is another opinion from another internet Newbie who has never set foot in the darker corners of the internet where you will not survive five minutes without a thick skin. If some people want a censored version of Twitter which is only soft and cuddly they should set up their own and police it themselves. Until then, you need to learn to reply to Trolls “FOAD” and block them; not after they have sent you 100 rape/death/bomb threats (which obviously are not real) but after the first.

    The ignorance amongst journalists and politicians about the internet is a joke but we are nearly tired of laughing at you. Isn’t there a “Survive the Internet for Dummies” you can download and read on your Kindle?


    • Dr Evil says:

      Spot on! You have it exactly. Why is it ‘wimmin’ always wingeing about this nonsense?

  9. Andy says:

    Nice considered article.

    Your statement “I don’t know exactly what the various police forces have been doing about the various threats in the past week” is itself rather telling. If the police are not *seen* to be responding – even if they are – then the effectiveness of any deterrent is significantly diminished… :-(

  10. branespeaks says:

    I nearly burst an irony vessel when I read Caitlin Moran saying that other people didn’t understand what they were talking about.

    This is interesting and good too:

    • Kieran Benn says:

      Absolutely and wholeheartedly agree. It’s the ‘message’ NOT the medium which is to blame. Is there not some accepted rule about NOT shooting the messenger – ie. Twitter, the ‘messenger’ in this case.
      I also wonder how far back down the chain of delivery services we go ? Tweets, texts, letters ? I seem to recall that Roman politicians had a big problem – never yet resolved anywhere, anytime ! – with Graffiti. Are we to satisfy the cravings of people whose objection to ‘freedom of speech’ is more about ‘Don’t say anything bad or mean to/about me or my friends!’
      than any real issue. Gotta say also agree with ‘moth’ above comment, but maybe we need to “F.O.A.D.” some people who want ‘F of S’ to ONLY apply to them, or “the well educated middle classes dahling who know what to say and how to say it”.
      Maybe they should all change their names to Margo’The Good Life’ Leadbetter !

  11. John says:

    A point worth considering – and I’m in no way suggesting this justifies the abuse – but I wonder how quickly this would have blown over if Moran & Criado-Perez had followed half of the internet’s advice and just ignored it?

    Trolling, by definition, is attempting to provoke an emotional response. Essentially, what we used to call “winding someone up”.

    Now, perhaps I’m being optimistic, but I find it hard to believe that due to a campaign for more women on banknotes, tens of thousands of men were so outraged they felt the need – completely unprompted – to start sending threats to Criado-Perez.

    However, considering what trolling is, I *can* believe that tens of thousands of people saw a huge reaction to a few people’s threats and saw a person who would give them *exactly* what they wanted – an emotional response.

    It’s exactly why sayings like “ignore them and they’ll go away” exist. You wind someone up because you want a reaction. If they don’t react, you get bored and move on to something else. Give them what they want and they’ll hang around. Publicize that you’re giving them what they want, and more will come. It’s just a snowball effect.

    Again, to clarify, I’m not saying that Criado-Perez’s reaction to the abuse is justification – but, from what I know of the internet and trolling, it’s like she’s tried to get rid of a rat by throwing rotten meat at it, and now she’s complaining more rats are showing up.

  12. not thinking says:

    she enjoys a bit of abuse herself – threatening castration…