Skip to main content

Is Twitter seen as misogynists' 'golden ticket?'

By Julia Bell, Special for CNN
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Mon August 5, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Trolls use the "chaotic" forum of Twitter to express forbidden thought, says Julia Bell.
  • Immature or disenfranchised men with a mysogynist agenda post abuse, she says
  • Bell says Twitter's response shows it has not grasped the seriousness of the situation
  • She says trolls should be shamed and men who don't hate women be galvanized

Editor's note: Julia Bell is a novelist and poet and senior lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London. She is co-editor of the "Creative Writing Coursebook" and founder and director of the Writers' Hub. Follow @juliabell on Twitter.

(CNN) -- WARNING: Contains strong language

In an episode of the cartoon television series South Park -- "Le Petit Tourette" -- one of its characters, Cartman, overhears a child with Tourette's syndrome swearing. Thinking that this is the best excuse ever for being able to swear and be racist without fear of punishment, Cartman proceeds to pretend to have Tourette's. But as the episode progresses what starts out as a funny joke for him soon turns into a Freudian reversal when he can't actually stop saying exactly what is on his mind, leading to him involuntarily reveal that he has touched another boy's penis and has fantasies about one of the girls at school.

Author Julia Bell
Author Julia Bell

Read more: What to do about scourge of Web

The recent spate of "trolling" on Twitter seem to me to have echoes of this scenario. The trolls are like Cartman -- men (usually, but not exclusively) using the currently chaotic and inefficiently moderated forum of Twitter in much in the same way as Cartman uses Tourette's, as permission to express the forbidden thought -- "I can say whatever I want!..." Cartman sings delightedly. "I've got the golden ticket!"

But there has been a real sense of unhinged mania in the frenetic activity of Twitter "trolling" in the past week, which has shown no sign of abating. Caitlin Moran claims that on a bad day she can get up to 50 tweets an hour that are violent or abusive. While no one wants to be on the receiving end of these messages, anyone who writes "Rape threats? Don't flatter yourself. Call the cops. We'll rape them too. YOU B*TCH! YO P**SY STANK!" or ridiculous and faintly surreal bomb threats, is certainly not winning at life.

Judging from her Twitter feed, for Caroline Criado-Perez it's turned into a full time job, lobbing all those comments back to where they came, reporting and blocking people who only pop up again somewhere else like a maddening whack-a-mole. But this is unsustainable in the long term and the people who are engaging in this kind of behavior are certainly getting off on the attention. As one might expect the general "troll" profile in this instance is immature or disenfranchised men with a misogynist agenda.

Criado-Perez deserves a medal for taking them on, and especially for exposing the "don't feed the trolls" line which has been a convenient way of allowing their hate speak to thrive. But there is more than just a "report abuse" function needed to stop this from happening. The sustained nature of these attacks is frightening as is the way in which Twitter has responded. Yes, it's a matter for the police, but there are simply too many of them to arrest everyone and the abusers know this.

Feminist campaign sparks Twitter attacks
Feminist campaign sparks Twitter attacks
Social media fights back against trolls
Internet troll jailed

Read more: Calls for action as female journalists get bomb threats on Twitter

Twitter has been caught on the back foot. First in tolerating it under the fig leaf of freedom of speech (since when has threatening someone with rape or violence been expressing an opinion?), and then by treating the matter with a diffidence only possible in the Rayndian environment of Silicon Valley. That it's taken them so long to respond is indicative of their inability to grasp the seriousness of the situation.

But the problem for Twitter is that these people are in danger of turning the platform into the equivalent of a manky, crime ridden shopping center -- full of sketchy types, obscene graffiti and broken street furniture -- and who wants to have a conversation there? The platform technologists have a responsibility to provide a solution, and to start acting like the publishers that they patently are. They have responded, as any company getting bad PR must, but whether this will actually change the atmosphere on Twitter -- as well as misogyny there are serious issues with anti-Semitism and racism too -- remains to be seen.

Read more: Twitter updates abuse rules after UK backlash

There is also the sense that this is a backlash against a series of high profile social media-driven campaigns -- not just Caroline Criado-Perez's banknote campaign, but the campaign to tone down lads' mags, to get rid of Page 3 (please, not soon enough), and to do something about the freely available violent pornography on the internet.

The so-called "trolls" themselves evidently think they are being in some way edgy or humorous -- the kids who never grew out of making fart jokes -- but much like Cartman, given license to say anything, they end up revealing much more about themselves than they ever meant to.

In their unhinged attempts at "humor" they also expose the discourse of a violent, knee-jerk misogyny abroad in our wider pornified culture, which brings to mind Germaine Greer's famous statement "women have very little idea how much men hate them." Well -- thanks to the access to the collective unconscious that is Twitter -- we do now. There is even a suggestion that some of these men are operating in a systematic group way much like online pedophiles, and how long before they act out on one of their hateful fantasies?

The more uncomfortable question to answer is why, and what can be done about it. While women wait for Twitter to sort itself out, troll-shaming seems like a good place to start as Mary Beard proved recently when she retweeted abuse saying: "Sorry about that nasty retweet. But I'm not going to be terrorized." The Mirror reported that another Twitter user then offered to send Beard the address of the troll's mother -- at which point the troll apologized. We also need to galvanize the men who don't hate women -- as I've always thought Greer's comment was missing the word "some" -- guys, we need your help here too. Maybe someone should start a Twitter campaign.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julia Bell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT