I’m writing to you on the 6th of August 2013. I imagine you to be so far past Twitter that it seems to you as cassette tapes seem to me. (Google it.)
When we were little, your great-aunt Kiki and I used to fly from Geneva back to Northern Ireland with your great-grandparents every summer. (I wonder where you live?) We would make jokes about how often people told us they remembered us when we were this high and my oh my, how we’d grown.
The social media revolution is still this high. We’re still learning how to work and communicate and live well with this great tool. We’re learning that “with great power comes great responsibility” (have you seen Spiderman?) and we are learning how to deal with this responsibility.
Well, these past few weeks have been very busy in our journey of learning. In chatting with my friend Mel last week I realised just how how exciting it is to be a part of it.
You already know that I spent some of my years speaking out against exploitation. Human trafficking is a big problem these days and researching it started me on a journey activism in which I also focused on ways to prevent people being exploited and devalued in other ways – through the spread of pornography, for example, or language used in the media.
The last month has been pretty big for us. As a result of campaigning that involved social media, David Cameron (our Prime Minister: who is PM now?) announced that each household in the UK would have to opt-in to access online pornography. The same week, the Bank of England announced that Jane Austen – I hope she’s one of your favourites, too – would feature on £10 notes. Then last week, the Co-op promised to only sell lads’ mags (again, Google them) in store if they were covered – and Tesco followed suite just last week.
These things seem silly to you now, I hope. I hope you live in a world where men and women are treated as whole human beings and feel safe in whatever space they find themselves.
But the things I write to you about came at a price. We fought hard. Men and women, from different countries and different backgrounds, on the internet and in physical places.
I mentioned the bank note story: Caroline Criado-Perez led courageously the fight with a petition that gained 35,000 signatures. I’m sure there are a lot of other inspirational women on banknotes, now…but this was quite the battle. And it was a great victory. But soon after, Caroline began to face abuse. She received threats of murder and rape that birthed a revolution against what was called ‘trolling’.
Yes, we call the people who send abusive tweets trolls – I know, right? The name reminds me of these funny creatures. Before I tell you about them, though, remember one thing: they are people, too. They are abusers and must be dealt with as such: we must understand that they are real as we consider their actions and thus respond to them really. In doing this, we must ask why they think and act the way they do. They are also abusers who act in a ‘new’ way given this fairly recent platform they use, and we are now thinking about how to respond to this. I hope, for example, that you have been given thorough training in media literacy.
‘Trolls’ have been around for a while. They pop up, sometimes using anonymous accounts, and send threatening and abusive messaged aimed to silence those who receive them: mostly, and sadly, women. Initially, our response was #dontfeedthetrolls. (Do you still use hashtags? Some of my friends talk in hashtags…”hashtag totes emosh” is a particular favourite.) But then we decided to #shoutback.
Twitter became both the battlefield and the object of the battle itself. Women speaking out against exploitation and inequality being silenced (or, so the trolls hoped) on a platform that was representative of the rest of the world. My wise friend Tanya said that “if Twitter is society’s mouthpiece, then our collective heart is very sick.”
Caroline’s friend Vicky also received some terrible threats. She dealt with them with intelligence and poise. Her trolls were angry at her involvement in the Lose the Lads’ Mags campaign. In case you didn’t Google them earlier, lads’ mags were magazines that included sexualised images of women intended to stimulate their readership. They were, at one time, sold in shops and visible to children (crazy, huh?). The petition, with which we’re still campaigning, asks for a total ban of the sale of lads mags in main stores.
I also heard from the trolls when I spoke in favour of Lose the Lads’ Mags online and in other media outlets. The tweets telling me to get “back to the kitchen” or commenting on my appearance/sexuality didn’t phase me, at first, but did become a little jarring. I did, however, enjoy the delicious irony of receiving them as I popped a chocolate cake in the oven (in the kitchen) and my lovely boyfriend shared the petition with his Facebook friends. But this wasn’t the only issue over which I received abusive tweets: they were a little more threatening when I began to speak out against human trafficking and against the exploitation of people in sex work. It was suggested to me that the anonymity Twitter offered was used by people who had a personal interest silencing me.
Anonymity is one of the strongest tools the trolls have. Just today, we heard that 14 year old Hannah Smith killed herself because of the abuse nameless and faceless people issued to her. It’s important to remember that what appears on Twitter or other sites is not part of a separate universe, or somehow not a part of the ‘real world’. No, what happens on-stage – whether anonymously or not – is reflective of thoughts and attitudes and things that, whilst perhaps magnified on it, occur off-stage as well.
And that is why it has been important to respond. We spent a while #SHOUTINGBACK. It worked. Some of the trolls collided with the consequences of their actions and were arrested or fired. Twitter listened: they apologised to those who had been abused and promised to strengthen their safety processes. The threats continue, for now, though – and so we are still shouting and asking for more.
It’s tiring, and brings sorrow to see the state the world is in sometimes. But we gather strength when we are together, and each one is needed in the fight. The noise we make is loud and the steps we make are forward.
The trolls will not win in silencing those who speak out against injustice. Nor shall other weapons aimed at us.
The world you live in will be equipped to prevent cyber-bullying and trolling. You will see women’s faces on banknotes and not think twice. You will not see pornography when you go to the grocery shop. You will not live in the world I do.
But there will be things that are wrong with yours, as well. You can and you must work to make it better. Remember to always fight to uphold the value of human beings.
Seamus Heaney once wrote, “So, hope; believe that a further shore is reachable from here.”
You are on my further shore. Where is yours?
I hope you reach it.