So I was originally going to write a story updating you all about the campaign to keep women on British banknotes which I covered a few weeks ago. The Bank of England had planned to replace Elizabeth Fry with Sir Winston Churchill on the five pound note, meaning that there wouldn’t be a single woman on any of our money.
Caroline Criado-Perez mounted an amazing campaign – mostly through social media – to get the Bank to change its mind and it worked. Jane Austen will now be replacing Charles Darwin on the tenner come 2017 – something they claim they were going to do anyway (hmm) and proving that social media can be a force for good.
Using Twitter, Facebook and the Women’s Room website, Caroline managed to gather thousands of signatures and thousands of pounds in a matter of days, and that money will now be donated to charities The Fawcett Society, Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis, as it won’t be needed to fight a legal battle with the Bank of England. Result.
Over a couple of days Caroline’s Twitter account became inundated with explicit, abusive tweets – seemingly in a coordinated campaign designed to drive her off the social media platform. Her ‘crime’ was to campaign for fair representation for women in the public eye, on our currency.
Pretty much anyone who’s ever written anything on the internet, ever, will have experienced some form of unpleasantness. I’ve had it in the mildest form, from feminists who thought I was ‘getting feminism wrong’. If they’d confined their comments to criticism of my arguments instead of my appearance and my name, I would have accepted it (begrudgingly, I'm only human!), but when it's personal, it hurts.
Which isn’t to say journalists and those in the public eye should be protected from the faintest whiff of criticism lest it offend our delicate sensibilities – of course not. But I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be subjected to a tsunami of ‘virtual’ (as if that means it doesn’t count) abuse and threats on a platform like Twitter, as Caroline has.
She has gained huge support from private individuals, celebrities and MPs who are putting pressure on Twitter to improve its rather feeble systems for reporting abuse. You can see the kind of things that Caroline and the women who are supporting her are experiencing here and you can sign the petition to get Twitter to add a report button to tweets here.
Some talk about the right to freedom of speech and how there’s no room for censorship on the internet and people should be able to say whatever they like, no matter how vile. Well I’m sorry but with rights come responsibilities, and no-one has the ‘right’ to attempt to silence another individual’s freedom of speech with threats of sexual violence.
Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms can be a tool for making positive changes in our society – they’re a direct channel of communication with brands, institutions and individuals who were previously out of reach. Now we can tell a beauty brand that we’re going to stop buying their products until they pressure Facebook to take down pages that incite violence against women. We can share stories of everyday sexism to build up a picture of how endemic the problem is and to make those who’ve experienced it realise they’re not alone.
One idea is to boycott Twitter for a day, on August 4th to make them realise that their lack of action will harm their business. I asked Caroline how she feels about this approach. She told me she won't be in the country on the 4th so "I am probably boycotting by default! I think the boycott could be a powerful symbol, and I think everyone has to respond in whatever way works for them. Personally, a boycott isn't what I would choose to do: I intend to stay on Twitter to show the trolls they won't win."
*I know an internet 'troll' is someone who mischievously posts deliberately contrary comments to incite a response, and the abuse Caroline and other women have experienced online isn't technically 'trolling', but I don't want to get sidetracked by semantics so am using the term in the way it's commonly (mis)understood.