The trolling and abuse of women rooted in online cultures

The Crown Prosecution Service has decided to press charges against two individuals involved in tweets sent to campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez. Over the summer, Criado-Perez and others received repeated online threats of rape, murder and bomb attacks from following the successful campaign to have Jane Austin put on the new ten pound note.

Whatever the outcome of this case, it highlights a deeper malaise about the way women are treated on the internet. Anyone remotely surprised that the internet is full of misogynist trolls hasn’t been paying attention. Unfortunately, the internet has always been a hostile place for women.

Quite why is not entirely clear. Perhaps because the internet has always been dominated by men. The first internet wizards who dreamt up and built the ARPANET — the forerunner of the modern internet — in the late 1960s and early 1970s were all men. Most of the users were drawn from male dominated computer science departments. When networked computing became available to the general public in the 1980s through bulletin boards systems and Usenet groups, there were so few women online that a special emoticon denoted messages that would interest the very few women that frequented them: O>-<|= ‘Messages of interest to women!’. Researchers that have studied hacker and internet culture repeatedly find that women are in a significant minority in the top internet posts. In her new book, The Boy King, Katherine Losse, one of the first women to be employed at Facebook, claims the organisation was characterised by a sort of thoughtless misogyny, driven by the fact so few women filled the respected engineering and programming roles.

In recent years, there has been several ‘women in tech’ initiatives, and things are slowly changing. But it’s not just the celebrity females that get the abuse: recent research has found that women are more likely to be cyber bullied than men across the board. Perhaps the best example is the troll’s favourite watering hole, the infamous and wildly popular image board site, 4Chan. Once called the ‘asshole of the internet’, it’s a petri-dish of brilliant inventiveness, porn, memes, trolling and misogyny. The ‘Rules of the Internet’, a set of spoofy user generated rules generated by 4Channers include the following: Rule 30: There are no girls on the Internet; and Rule 31. Tits or Get The Fuck Out — the choice is yours. In chat rooms and forums across the net, ‘Tits or GTFO’ is an incredibly common expression for anyone claiming to be a woman, and there are hundreds of thousands of macro image spin offs.

It gets incredibly nasty whenever a feminist head appears above the parapet. When Anita Sarkeesian, a Californain blogger, started a campaign in 2012 to fund a new series of short videos to show gender stereotypes in video games, she became the target of sustained attack: sexual images were added to her Wikipedia page, and attempts made to hack her email account. One made a video game entitled ‘Beat up Sarkeesian’.

I’m sure it all feels like a just a bit of trolling fun for those who do this; but I’m sure it doesn’t for those on the receiving end. No wonder the academic Mary Beard recently claimed that this would stop women from wanting to get involved in public life.

Not, of course, that attacking high profile women is anything new. It all has echoes of when women first entered the other public space — politics — 200 years ago. In 1784, an infamous picture of the civically minded Duchess of Devonshire canvassing showed her pleasuring men in exchange for votes.

When she wrote a Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Woolstonecraft was called a ‘hyena in petticoats’ by Horace Walpole. John Stuart Mill, who saw women’s rights as part of his struggle for individual liberty, was lampooned by the cartoonists when he entered parliament as the ‘woman’s member’.

There is no simple answer to this problem, although one simple rule of thumb is handy: where things are illegal offline — rape or death threats, harassment, extortion and so on — they should be illegal online too, and enforced equally seriously. But dealing with nasty misogyny is far trickier. Some people, such as the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sports, Helen Goodman, think that anonymity online is to blame. She has called for sites to put an end to it. Indeed, studies repeatedly find that we tend to be nastier to each other from behind a screen. Academics call this ‘the online disinhibition affect’. Others have called it the ‘Greater Internet Dickwad Theory’.

But anonymity, too, is interwoven into the net’s fabric — it’s also what allows users to whistleblow without fear, to dissent, to be open and honest. Dispensing with that too quickly is to be avoided.

Whether you like it or not, trolling has always been with us, and I suspect always will. We might start by looking at society more generally. A 2010 survey found that half of boys (and on third of girls) think ‘it is ok sometimes to hit a woman or force her to have sex’; while 71 per cent of 16–18-year-olds say they have heard sexual name-calling such as ‘slut’ or ‘slag’ towards girls at school daily or a few times per week. When offline world is still marked by this type of misogyny, then don’t be surprised that the online world is too.

Writer, The People vs Tech, Radicals & The Dark Net. The Missing Cryptoqueen.