The UK press has been filled in the past fortnight with stories of cruel abuse via anonymous web posts (Twitter, Ask.fm etc.) of women and girls and old fashioned, hurtful chauvanism. The saddest story is of the teenager who committed suicide following on-line attacks from people who would not own up to their cruelty. That her suicide is not the first because of internet bullying makes the story even sadder. As a mother, this is almost unbearable: a child so distressed by words on a screen decides, with the door of her room closed, to end her life before it has almost begun.
The attacks on feminist campaigners via Twitter were sickening for their instant, graphic and violent misogyny. Who could wish rape and abuse on anyone, and in particular people who campaigned to have the image Jane Austen, the politest of writers, on the £10 note? Do some men really want to hurt women so much that they would threaten such vile physical attacks, torture and murder after what seemed like such a positive summer story (at least to me)? Have they read Jane Austen and find the ridicule of some of her male characters so distressing that they should take it out on her supporters, two centuries later?
The police have not released the names and details of two of the men they have arrested so far but with reports of abusive tweets every 60 seconds the day after the announcement, it would seem they’ve got a lot more cells to fill. I have to say I am curious to see what a Twitter troll looks like and whether they resemble the barrister and judge who this week stigmatised a 13 year-old girl in open court as a sex predator, suggesting that the middle-aged man who was charged with her rape was defenceless in front of her female wiles? That many men don’t see how outrageous this is beggars belief.
These three attacks on women and girls have made me look somewhat fearfully at the men who cross my path in daily life. Where do all those normal looking people stand on the spectrum between friendly neighbour to raving misogynist?
I signed up for ask.fm, the website that had been used to persecute the teenager who committed suicide and posed one question: would people say the things they type if they saw someone face to face? No answers yet. Ask.fm announced its commitment to anonymity with pride, as if it were some kind of medal for freedom of speech.
Anonymity may provide the frisson that comes from getting away with something risky, like shoplifting from a pavement display or not getting caught when you’re travelling on an expired ticket, but it shouldn’t allow criminals to get away what are real crimes. In the case of the judge and barrister who slandered a 13 year-old, they have had to face the opprobrium they deserve — in measured criticism from almost everyone, including David Cameron. I am waiting, however, for the stories of the Twitter trolls attacking the many women who spoke out against what happened in court. If Jane Austen could provoke abuse, then the women who took the judge and the barrister to task are hardly likely to get off scott free.
What still perplexes me, and several of the women I have spoken to about this, is how little it took, particularly in the case of the Jane Austen supporters, for men to lash out so outrageously and with such venom. The punishment did not in anyway fit the crime. But, to reference another classic, the perpetrators will in the end be forced to reveal themselves. The law should help ensure that the frisson of anonymity will be fleeting.