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In 2019 we can defeat the online trolls

I challenged the controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and received a torrent of online abuse
December 10, 2018

Not so long ago I posted an innocuous tweet about the book I’ve just written, and received a reply from a man who said that every time he looked at me he felt he was looking at the devil. Charitably, someone replied: “Should have gone to Specsavers.” It was a reminder of how toxic social media has become, but also how many kind souls are out there, determined to make it a more civilised place.

We have recently had a bit of a reality check about the online world that many of us, however grudgingly, inhabit. At Channel 4 News we reported extensively on the politically-motivated harvesting of millions of Facebook users’ data. We’ve started to get a sense of the scale of manipulation and fakery of news. And some of us have learnt the hard way about co-ordinated abuse of women, in particular, online.

In February the eminent classicist Mary Beard posted a picture of herself online, crying. She’d been mercilessly hounded after a comment she made about Haiti. She tweeted: “I speak from the heart (and of course I may be wrong). But the crap I get in response just isn’t on; really it isn’t.” She was quite right.

Research—most recently from the Law Commission—has shown that while men are targeted (and women sometimes do online “trolling”), the vast majority of the victims of online abuse are women.  The Labour MP Jess Phillips revealed earlier this year that she had 600 rape threats in a single night. Ethnic minority women are often singled out. Phillips’s colleague Diane Abbott, for example, received almost half of the abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the 2017 general election campaign.

“When you’re being targeted by a campaign, there’s such a torrent of misinformation, the truth gets washed away in the flood”

Sadly, I have personal experience of all this too. At the beginning of the year I challenged the controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson about the gender pay gap, among other things. Afterwards, his army of online followers, many hailing from the alt-right, aimed all the verbal weapons they had at me—from “cunt,” “bitch,” “whore,” to specific threats to come and execute me. My home address was publicised. I was targeted on every single platform, so my teenage daughter saw a pornographic meme about me circulating on Instagram.

We called in security experts, who said it appeared that some of the trolls were bots, who were perhaps being funded by misogynist groups overseas. We called in the police, but so many of the threats emanated from accounts based in America and Canada, there was nothing the British police could do.

The effect of the onslaught was corrosive. It was tempting to come offline to preserve my sanity. But then of course the trolls would have won. What they want is to make the internet such a hostile environment for women that we all pack up and go home.

The official advice is not to feed the trolls. But that’s of limited use too. When you’re being targeted by a semi-organised campaign, there’s such a torrent of misinformation, the truth about you gets washed away in the flood. My Wikipedia page was vandalised, so details about my life bore little resemblance to reality. No one knows what to believe anymore, yourself included.


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No wonder the Law Commission review in November concluded that criminal law isn’t keeping pace with technology. The government has promised to act, with a white paper on combating “online harm” in the offing. The law should treat behaviour on and offline in the same way, culture minister Margot James has said. Shouting misogynistic four-letter words or threatening to behead someone would be an offence on the street in the real world, so the government proposes to make it illegal online too.

When the threat is being issued by an anonymous person overseas, however, it remains far trickier to act. That’s why we need social media companies to clean up their act. The tech wizards running these behemoths surely have the capacity and algorithms to root out the abusers.

We’ve seen what a force for good the internet can be. It has its detractors, but the MeToo hashtag, through which women spoke up about sexual harassment, has—in little time, and to an inspiring extent—ushered in important cultural changes.

The internet giants can still hope to make the world a fairer place. But they must first drag us back from the abyss.

Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News. Her new book is “Bloody Brilliant Women” (William Collins)

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