Putting novelist Jane Austen on a British banknote might seem like a harmless gesture, but in recent days it's been the cause of rape threats and a possible Twitter boycott. At the center of it all is Caroline Criado-Perez, a journalist and feminist campaigner who has led the charge to get more female faces on England's currency (in addition to the Queen, who graces every bill). The campaign just scored its first victory with a new £10 note featuring the Pride and Prejudice author, announced this week for rollout in 2017. But not everyone's happy with the campaign, and Criado-Perez has faced a flood of abuse on Twitter from disgruntled trolls, many threatening rape or other violence. At the height of the abuse, Criado-Perez reported receiving 50 rape threats in a single hour.
"Trolls don't run the internet."
But while anti-feminist flamewars are a sadly common occurrence on the web, this case took things a step further, drawing Twitter itself into the crossfire. Criado-Perez's supporters responded to the threats with outrage towards Twitter for providing so little protection against the threats, with many calling for a boycott of the service until policies improve. "Trolls don't run the internet," Criado-Perez said in an editorial for The Independent. "Neither do abusive men."
Twitter's stated policy is to ban threats of violence, stating further, "user is not tolerated on Twitter.com, and will result in permanent suspension." It's a clear policy, but enforcing it has been more difficult. Twitter doesn't maintain a moderating staff large enough to sift through the millions of tweets a day, and the politics of automated abuse reporting can be hard to navigate.
Criado-Perez's supporters have seized on a different solution: a "Report Abuse" button next to every tweet. So far, nearly 15,000 supporters have signed on to a petition asking Twitter for the button, which they say would give targets like Criado-Perez an easy and immediate way to respond to verbally abusive tweets. Twitter already has a "report abuse" button on Twitter for iOS, and a representative said the service would be rolling out a similar button for Android and web soon. But while the button will report and block spammers, it may not work as fast as many want it to. Twitter commented that they would "suspend accounts that, once reported to us, are found to be in breach of our rules." In the case of Criado-Perez, that could be days later.
Still, the problem of abusive tweets is unlikely to go away, and the controversy has already caused at least one Twitter employee to run for cover. After Criado-Perez and her followers called on Twitter's UK head of news and journalism to take action, he apparently responded by switching his account to private, effectively blocking the flood of messages. Criado-Perez's account remains public.
Update: A 21-year-old Manchester man suspected of participating in the threats has been placed under arrest.