It’s no secret that there appears to be a special brand of Twitter vitriol reserved for women who express opinions online, and that it often comes in the form of rape and death threats. It happened to Anita Sarkeesian when she launched a Kickstarter campaign to look at gender roles in popular video games. It happened to blogger Lindy West when she went on a televised debate to talk about rape jokes. And then it happened to British activist Caroline Criado-Perez when she successfully lobbied the Bank of England to include a female face onto the $10 banknote (replacing Charles Darwin with Jane Austen).
Days after the Bank of England’s announcement last week, a corner of the Internet started flinging hate at Criado-Perez. The activist reported receiving "up to 50 rape threats an hour" on Twitter in the 48 hours following the news, and a female member of parliament who supported Criado-Perez’s campaign started getting graphic rape threats as well.
"I felt sick," Criado-Perez told the U.K. Huffington Post on Monday. "Reading something like that brings a very vivid image to your head and the senses of your body."
Criado-Perez says she first reported the issue to Twitter on Thursday, but the abuse continued. Then, over the weekend, a Change.org petition circulated, asking Twitter to implement the "report abuse" button that’s been available for the past three weeks in Twitter’s latest mobile version across all platforms. On Sunday, British authorities arrested one of Criado-Perez’ suspected harassers, and on Monday, Criado-Perez finally met with the social media company.
As a result of that meeting, and increased scrutiny of Twitter’s abuse reporting mechanisms, Del Harvey, Twitter’s director of Trust and Safety, announced on Twitter’s U.K. blog Monday night that Android and desktop users would soon be able to file abuse reports about individual tweets. Twitter confirmed to Co.Exist that these tools would be made available worldwide, and not just in the U.K.
"We are constantly talking with our users, advocacy groups, and government officials to see how we can improve Twitter, and will continue to do so," Harvey wrote. "We hope the public understands the balances we’re trying to strike as we continue to work to make our systems and processes better."
Still, the problem of specific and graphic rape threats being made online goes far beyond Twitter’s ability to address them in a responsible way—though problems with the latter certainly contribute to a culture of permissiveness. Why is it that, in 2013, threatening to rape somebody over a female face on a banknote is not uncommon in the first place?
Creating a good abuse reporting tool is only one part of a comprehensive solution to an ongoing problem. The underlying causes of the rage, the violence, and the abuse heaped on women expressing opinions online is a much knottier, entrenched social issue that won’t be undone with just press of a button.