Targets of the internet trolls: How Northern Irish women are being abused on Twitter

Bullying, threats and vile sexual slurs ... Jane Graham on the greatest crisis facing social media

Citybeat presenter Emma Fitzpatrick
Citybeat presenter Emma Fitzpatrick
Jo-Anne Dobson, Ulster Unionist,
Some of the latest stories making headline news

It's been a glorious seven years for Twitter, in which it's gone from an obscure online experiment with a silly name to one of the most powerful weapons of communication in the world.

But as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will tell you, with global supremacy comes responsibility. And this week has seen Twitter plunged into one of the biggest crises of its short existence.

The site began to make headlines last week when it was reported that Caroline Criado- Perez, a freelance journalist who successfully campaigned to have a woman on new bank notes, was receiving around 50 abusive tweets an hour, often fantasising about raping or murdering her, from folk who didn't appreciate her efforts.

The tweets began almost immediately after the Bank of England announced it had plumped for the novelist Jane Austen for the 2017 £10 note.

At first, Twitter appeared to underestimate the seriousness of the abuse – or perhaps, more to the point, the amount of negative publicity the story was about to generate.

As shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper pointed out in a letter to Tony Wang, the general manager of Twitter UK: "The official response from Twitter continues to be extremely weak – simply directing Caroline away from Twitter towards the police, and, belatedly, directing users to abuse reporting forms on Twitter. Of course, it is right to report such abuse to the police, and it is very important that they investigate and pursue this case. But social media platforms also have a responsibility for the platform they give users."

The coverage ramped up when Labour MP Stella Creasy revealed that she too had been subject to a torrent of abuse after defending Criado-Perez, and that she regarded Twitter's response to her complaints – to fill in an online complaint form – as deeply inadequate. She retweeted some messages sent to her – 'You better watch your back. I'm gonna rape your a** and put the video all over the internet.' – was just one typical example of many, and stated that she would report all tweets to the police.

An online petition demanding a more robust anti-abuse system from Twitter gathered 12,500 signatures in two days (it now stands at around 70,000) while a suggestion from Times columnist and fervent Tweeter Caitlin Moran that "all self-proclaimed pleasant people leave Twitter to the trolls for 24 hours" on August 4 quickly picked up media interest.

Twitter looked increasingly flustered.

There were a series of interviews in which managers and security specialists referred to the new 'report abuse' button it had installed on the new iPhone app and were aiming to attach to every tweet, regardless of platform, in the fullness of time. One can only guess at the rate at which work in that department upped from relaxed nine to five to headless chicken. But there was more to come.

A few days later everyone's favourite TV classicist Mary Beard stepped in to the debate, explaining that facing down Twitter abuse had become a regular part of her day job. Her own method was to retweet the worst offenders and, in one memorable recent case, to announce online that she had a postal address for one of her abusers' mums. This, she revealed, was the most effective technique.

Within minutes 20-year-old student Oliver Rawlings, who had called Beard 'a filthy old slut' underwent an epiphany and tweeted: "I sincerely apologise for my trolling. I was wrong and very rude. Hope this can be forgotten and forgiven. I feel this has been a good lesson for me. Thanks 4 showing me the error of my ways."

(There are some of us, probably including academic Beard, who will wince at that unceremonial '4' but that, admittedly, is the least of social media's current concerns).

By re-announcing its intention to bring a Facebook-like 'report abuse' button option to every tweet, Twitter might have seen off some of the storm gathering around it. But the arrests and ongoing investigation of two men in their twenties on suspicion of harassment relating to Criado-Perez won't help settle the dust.

The honchos will be worried. The outrage Twitter has faced this last week mirrors last year's barrage of criticism about the efficiency and swiftness of Facebook's response to reports of online bullying and offensive posts.

Facebook's claims to react swiftly to block misbehaving and underage users met with some scepticism and a few months ago it was reported that a rising number of people are leaving the site.

However, while Twitter heads may roll, the bigger, and far more significant issue brought to a head by this story is the underbelly of casual – and not so casual – misogyny it has exposed in British society. Technology hasn't evolved enough to tell us the numbers of people who have indulged in the gruesome practice of 'trolling' women in public life, but the viciousness and volume of messages which go way beyond criticism into the realms of rape fantasy and death threats is extremely worrying. Of course, men receive nasty tweets and emails too, but most overseers of trends agree that threats from men to women far outnumber the reverse.

"This is not about Twitter," Ms Creasy told BBC Radio 4's The World at One earlier this week. "This is about hatred of women and hatred of women who speak up. Indeed some of those people sending the messages have been absolutely explicit about that.

"It is important that we do not think that somehow because this is happening online it is any less violent, any less dangerous than if people were shouting or abusing in the street." She added later: "I get comments about my sexuality, I get comments about my attractiveness, my intelligence. It's about power. It is somebody trying to make you frightened. It is about sex as a weapon."

Ironically, it was a high profile man – TV journalist and presenter Charlie Brooker – who brought this to attention recently in an article in which he announced that he was taking a break from his Guardian column.

He questioned the impact of opening every piece of journalism up for public comments from "the minuscule fraction of readers who bother to interact back" but noted "I get an incredibly easy ride from passing wellwishers compared with any woman who dares write anything on the internet anywhere about anything at all, the ugly b***h, boo, go home b***h go home.'

His observations will hit home with, well, any woman who dares write anything on the internet anywhere about anything at all.

As one troll 'Peter' confirmed to journalist Emma Barnett, when pressed on his views on the Criado-Perez situation: "If you put your head above the parapet, like she has, then you deserve this type of abuse.

"It's what you get when you are a woman shouting about something." Quite.

Have I ever been trolled? I've certainly been threatened and called a C-word by a number of people on Twitter, most ferociously for what I thought was a sympathetic piece suggesting that Madonna showed signs of struggling with the reality of ageing.

Like most people, I ignore, block, and try to forget. But knowledge of the venom-filled inner thoughts of a cowardly Mr Anonymous who could be sitting next to me on the bus any day does not enhance my hopes for humanity.

Twitter will work harder in future to fend off the kind of attacks they've been deluged with, but we are still left to wonder – just what is eating these women-hating trolls? Addressing that question with any success is likely to take a generation longer than any of Twitter's next moves.

Someone tweeted at me 'I hope your son gets cancer'

From going to the PSNI to blocking abusers, Ulster women reveal their Twitter experiences. By Kerry McKittrick and Roisin Delaney.

Tierna Cunningham, a Sinn Fein councillor for north Belfast, lives with her husband and son Sean (2).

She says:

"I think when Twitter is used appropriately it can be a fantastic medium for both personal and professional use. Recently, I used Twitter to follow news of Bruce Springsteen's trip around Ireland – it gave me access to photos and videos from people tweeting live at the concerts.

But my experience of Twitter has not always been this positive. I've not been a victim of anything terrible like what's been in the news but those events still struck a chord with my family.

My son Sean, who is just a toddler, was mentioned on Twitter in a nasty way. Someone once tweeted, 'I hope your son gets cancer and dies'. My initial reaction was to retweet it so that the person would be named and shamed, much like what Mary Beard has done, and so other people could actually see how horrible people can hide behind their computer and tweet these damaging things like there's no tomorrow.

The way I see it I am a representative and my job has put me out there so people can tweet what they like about me, it won't get to me. But when you bring my family or my friends into it that takes things to a whole new level.

We need a panic button. There needs to be a facility for Twitter users to complain and report abuse by trolls. Without this they'll just keep going on to the next person. I often wonder why Facebook has this feature and Twitter does not, but this is probably down to the vast majority of Twitter accounts being used for business rather than recreation. It needs to be acknowledged that it is used for both.

I've witnessed horrible conversations on Twitter involving females. When Kim Kardashian was pregnant some people insulted her over her weight gain. Katie Price and her children are often targeted by trolls too and it seems lots of users join in the attack."

Pamela Ballantine (54) is a TV personality and Belfast Telegraph columnist.

She says:

"I've been an active Twitter user for three years and I've found it great for business and hugely entertaining. I'm stunned by what has happened to Caroline Criado-Perez.

I once had a bad experience involving a troll. I was having a conversation on Twitter with some followers when someone I didn't know butted in all of a sudden. They started tweeting things I can never repeat because they were so rude. They made vile remarks about me and a colleague from years ago, and the people I had been in conversation with prior to this were deeply hurt by it. I didn't go to the police and I didn't retweet what the troll had posted but I did block them straight away.

I don't know whether a function to allow users to report abuse on Twitter would solve the problem. Anybody who is a bully by nature will do whatever they can to reach you and get a response. That's what they thrive on, getting a reaction."

Sera McDaid (28) is a fashion blogger from Ballymena. She is married to Lee and has a son Riley (2). She says:

"I've had a few trolling experiences on Twitter. The first one was when I hadn't been using it for that long and someone made threats against a celebrity's kids. He was very angry at the time and named a person in the press who hadn't, as it turned out, been the person who made the threats.

I mentioned in a tweet that the celebrity shouldn't have named anyone and he saw it. That's when all hell broke loose. He tweeted me and tweeted about me. He and his followers picked up that in my bio it said I was bipolar. They used that against me in a lot of tweets. Many of my followers were quite cross that someone's mental health status was used against them and for me it was a big learning curve.

I still get trolled about my mental illness and weight loss – I lost 11 stone – but most of the time I just block anyone who gives me nasty comments. Sometimes there's no point in engaging as the whole thing can blow up in your face.

I'd another bad experience a few weeks ago. A journalist mentioned the area that the rapper Professor Green and Millie Mackintosh were moving into. He tweeted about it, someone retweeted it and it appeared in my timeline. I didn't know who he was but I replied to the retweeter saying it's a shame he used the C-word in his tweet. I think using foul language undermines your point.

Again the whole thing blew up. For a full day I was fielding tweets from his followers calling me all sorts of nasty things. I did reply, but carefully. I didn't use insults, I just calmly explained my point. In the end I tweeted Professor Green explaining what I had meant. He actually apologised and put a tweet on his timeline saying that his fans shouldn't try to fight his battles for him.

I have called the police in the past – during the incident with the celebrity someone threatened to kick in my door – but all they did was tell me to keep a log. I've considered leaving Twitter but there are people I know I help through it and I do enjoy the friends I have on it. It's certainly given me a much thicker skin about mental health issues.

My advice is not to engage with trolls or, if you do, keep a level head. Trading insults doesn't work and it's what trolls do. They sit on the internet looking for fights to get into. As for an abuse button? I don't think Twitter is policed well enough for that to work.

Model and TV presenter Gemma Garrett (31) is married to Andy Cosgrove and lives in Belfast. She says:

"I've been on Twitter for a couple of years. I tweet about work stuff and keep most of the personal things to my private Facebook account.

I'm quite thick-skinned but Twitter trolling is horrendous. You can't help yourself because it tells you when people talk about you. It's different from Googling yourself because these insults go straight into your inbox.

I get trolled all the time. I'm a lifetime Linfield supporter but I've supported Cliftonville as my brother Stephen has played for them. I get tweets telling me not to come back to Windsor Park and that I'm a traitor to the team.

I also get tweets from people seeing me out socialising and talking about what I'm wearing. It's a little scary that people know who you are even if you don't know them. The whole thing has affected me – it's such a grey area as to whether they're breaking the law. I've been to the police but I didn't feel they took me seriously, particularly when they see you walk in as a confident person. It wasn't until I broke down in front of them that I think they realised how much it had upset me. I know they've tracked people down and warned them to stop and I also have a legal team on it now who have sent three letters to people threatening to take them to court.

They've advised me to come off Twitter but talking about what I do online is an important part of my job.

My account is locked now so people have to follow me but it's not a great solution. Twitter needs to be monitored more carefully. I'm 31 and quite thick-skinned but if Twitter can reduce me to tears imagine what it's doing to 16-year-olds."

Laura Lacole (23) is a glamour model and lives in Belfast. She says:

"I've been on Twitter for a couple of years. My Twitter account is mostly for work so I keep it vague and don't put any personal information up. I do put a few images up – most of the pictures people see of me are the highly professional photoshoot ones so I think it's nice for people to see me in casual 'selfies'. I also tweet about science because I'm so enthusiastic about it.

Given what I do I should be a Twitter target but haven't been that much. I've had a few one-off tweets, though. One person made a sectarian comment because I'm from east Belfast. Another person said my love of science was fake, which was more insulting to me than something personal.

I do, however, get sent explicit images quite a lot. I ran a competition where people could win a poster if they sent me a picture of themselves holding a sign saying, 'I Love Laura Lacole'. I got a few interesting pictures with that one! One guy was wearing a mankini while exposing himself!

Twitter trolls look for attention so if you're going to engage with them you need to be intelligent about it. I've argued rationally with the people who trolled me and got them to back down and actually apologise.

Social networking is another dimension to real life now. We spend half our time on it so a threat made on Twitter is a real threat, whether it is carried out or not. An abuse button is a good idea but that in itself can be abused. I get quite a few people pretending to be me on Twitter and that sort of thing can lead people to lose their Twitter accounts.

Jo-Anne Dobson (45) is the Ulster Unionist MLA for Upper Bann. She lives in Waringstown with husband John and sons Elliot (21) and Mark (19). She says:

"I've been on Twitter for about a year and I'm getting a little addicted. I use it mostly for work to let people know what events I'm going to.

I'm lucky not to have had a bad experience even though I have nearly 2,000 followers. A threat on Twitter is a proper threat and it must be upsetting. I do approve of an abuse button – some way of policing the site has to be a good thing."

Citybeat presenter Emma Fitzpatrick is in her 30s and lives in Belfast. She says:

"I've been a Twitter user for a few years now and fortunately I've never been the victim of any abuse. If I was on the receiving end of a really nasty tweet I'd immediately try to block the person, and I definitely think a report abuse function should be brought in for Twitter users."

Former TV presenter Lynda Bryans (50) lives in Belfast with husband Mike Nesbitt, leader of the UUP, and their sons PJ (18) and Christopher (16). She says:

"Fortunately I've never been the victim of abusive tweets or trolls but I think this is down to the way I use the social networking site.

Because of my career and my husband's career certain people might be following me hoping to see tweets about controversial issues or politics so I deliberately stay away from politics and controversy when I'm on Twitter. I only tweet about my own interests, things that catch my eye, and I think this is the reason why I've never been cyber-attacked.

There are people who follow me that I don't follow back, either because I don't share their interests or I don't want to associate myself with them, for example if they use swear words in tweets.

Trolls hide behind the anonymity that Twitter offers them. If I was sent an abusive tweet I'd alert the police and I never hesitate to block another Twitter user from my account if I don't like what they're saying."

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