What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. It’s the 21st-century proverb that also reflects our nonchalant attitude to social media. To those peculiar people to whom Twitter matters (in the UK an estimated 14 million) or who curate their pedicures on Instagram, or parade their holidays on Facebook, the relaxed riposte is: “None of this is real and everyone should calm down and do something meaningful.” Gardening? Reading novels? Talking to one’s own family? I have no idea.
While Carole Cadwalladr has exposed the enormous darkness within Facebook, the most toxic and overtly political of these platforms is Twitter. Everyone is talking about how our discussions are becoming increasingly polarised since Brexit. And it is on Twitter you see this most clearly, when antisemitism is expressed or Labour’s infighting is laid bare. But the biggest “polarisation” is that, to some, unadulterated woman-hating is still somehow permissible.
The latest profoundly depressing episode is that a Twitter user who was reported for what amounts to a rape threat against the Labour MP, Jess Phillips, was not immediately banned. (Although he has subsequently been banned). Instead, Twitter responded with its usual spiel: “Some tweets may seem to be abusive when seen in isolation, but maybe not when viewed in the context of a larger conversation.” Let’s have the larger conversation then. A failure to act means death and rape threats to women online have escalated.
Away from Twitter, in real life, meanwhile, we have a Ukip candidate, the odious Carl Benjamin, who released a video suggesting he “might cave” and rape Jess Phillips. After he had previously written on social media “he wouldn’t even rape her”, his party leader defended him. You cannot stand for elected office if you are subject to bankruptcy proceedings. But somehow you can publicly discuss the rape of a female MP and it’s fine?
I am under no illusion that rape and death threats are new, having been subject to them. But at least in the olden days someone used to have to go and buy a stamp before they could threaten to kill you. My experience with the police then was good, too, while my online experience is simply that the police have neither the time nor the resources to deal with the number of threats on social media. Black women’s lives, in particular, are made hell: just look at the experiences of Gina Miller and Diane Abbott. Panic buttons, elaborate locks, bodyguards: these are the awful facts of life for female public figures.
If such abuse is something you have never experienced, it is very hard to explain how it gets into your bones. The public persona – where you insist it’s water off a duck’s back, or “behold my rhinoceros skin” – is a performance that hides a hyper-vigilance that some days makes it hard to leave the house. Sure, we are all bolshy, big-mouthed women … but somehow the odd drive-by, as I call random threats from strangers, still makes me crumple.
One may mute, block and take solace from good guys male and female. One may flounce off, but that is about as interesting as talking about giving up carbs or moving out of London.
It’s time to stop talking about trolling as individual pathology and instead see what is really going on. Misogyny is too often understood as somehow personal rather than as, as Kate Manne reminds us in Down Girl: the Logic of Misogyny, a political phenomenon. It needs to be understood as a system. Misogyny in real life or online does not emanate from lone wolves or a few bad apples, it is part of a sustained effort to subordinate women. That is why it needs, so desperately, to take down any woman who is seen as powerful. This may happen in the “imaginary” world online, or it may use actual violence. It is done by creating spaces that are so hostile to women, few of us venture there. Public life, in other words.
Twitter could choose to make its platform a hostile environment for misogyny. The fact it doesn’t is because it is part of the system that promotes hatred of women. The violation of women so rarely breaks the rules, you see. Why? Because it is the rule.