LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – After weeks of online harassment, rape threats and insults, Caroline Criado-Perez struggled to eat, sleep or work, she told a London conference on cyber stalking and harassment this week.
British journalist and women’s rights advocate Criado-Perez spearheaded a campaign earlier this summer to put women on new UK bank notes after the Bank of England unveiled an all-male lineup of prominent candidates.
The campaign – which succeeded with the choice of Jane Austen as the face on the new £10 note - received a lot of media attention. As a result, Criado-Perez said, she became the target of numerous online threats, many of them involving rape and physical violence.
“I can’t still quite believe this has happened to me,” she told the audience at the conference organised by British charity Women’s Aid. “The psychological fallout is still unravelling. I feel like I’m walking around with a timer about to explode, functioning just under boiling point and it takes so little to make me cry.”
Online stalking and harassment of women is a form of domestic violence that should be dealt with in the same way authorities deal with offline abuse, panelists at the event said.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said that cyber abuse needed to be addressed “as a gender issue….without men feeling like we're accusing all of them, or that this is about some girl feeling like she's a bit of a delicate flower.”
In a survey of 307 survivors of domestic violence, Women’s Aid found that 48 percent had been harassed or abused online by their ex-partner once they had left the relationship and 38 percent reported online stalking.
Moreover, three-quarters of women said they were concerned that police did not know how to address online abuse, while 12 percent said the police had not been helpful when they reported the abuse.
Neate said the police needed better training to address online abuse adequately at a moment when charities helping women victims of online abuse were facing a “severe funding crisis” due to budget cuts.
“A lot of this comes down to training and unless they (the police) have a very specific understanding of what the different facets of women's abuse are, then they might not take this seriously enough, respond properly,” she said. “It also helps the victims who then know the police are equipped and ready to respond.”
Criado-Perez said she received many messages of encouragement from women who themselves had been victims of cyber abuse and that they told her the police had not helped them. They had been told to “lock their accounts” and “stop tweeting controversial things,” she said.
CULTURE OF MISOGYNY
Training the police and pressuring tech companies to do more to stamp out online abuse are important steps in combating the problem, but that alone won’t be enough, experts at the event said.
Widespread misogyny at all levels of society needs to be tackled through education - from pupils’ education in schools to specific training for police forces – and effective legislation.
“It’s important to face up to how much of a problem we still have with widespread misogyny against any women who dare to use their voice in public,” Criado-Perez said.
“We need a new series of protocols that deals with the fact that people are behaving like this online in the same way we have protocols for dealing with it offline. We have got to challenge the idea that this is too complex,” said Stella Creasy, an MP for Walthamstow in London and a victim of rape threats on Twitter.
“ANARCHIC WILD WEST”
In Britain, police refer to a number of laws- such as the Communications Act of 2003 and the Malicious Communications Act on 1988 - to tackle online abuse and Director of Public Prosecution Keir Starmer in June issued guidelines for prosecutions involving social media communications.
“Cyber stalking” is listed in the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) legal guidance on stalking and harassment.
Despite the existence of legal tools such as these, authorities have to navigate what is still a “lawless, bubbling, anarchic Wild West,” as columnist Libby Purves described the internet in the Times.
Software and applications designed to allow people to hide or change the location of their IP address make tracking down “trolls,” or abusive users, a very difficult task.
One idea put forward at the conference was that of recruiting technology experts, with skills similar to those employed by big tech firms like Google, Twitter and Facebook, for the police force.
This sort of “cyber squad” would have the knowledge required to grill companies on the measures they adopt to curb online abuse, determine if they are effective enough and, if not, suggest other solutions.
At the conference, Criado-Perez repeatedly called for the habit of “blaming the victim” to be dropped and for the focus to be shifted onto the abuser.
“I’m still being told not to ‘feed the trolls’,” she said. “I can’t begin to tell you how much I hate that phrase.”
“It completely ignores the actions of the abusers, focusing on the actions of the victim, because that’s what we do in this society, we police victims.”